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Dreams from the Deep End

Follow Togo-born Nigerian artist Modupeola Fadugba as she paints NYC's only African American synchronized swim team of senior citizens, the Harlem Honeys and Bears, continuing her ongoing focus on powerful Black figures in water together.

AIRED: June 30, 2021 | 0:15:40
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TRANSCRIPT

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Modupeola: In that exhibition, I am looking at the swimming pool

as a space, really, for communities to gather...

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...and also looking at ideas around inclusion and exclusion

and who really has access

to a space like the swimming pool.

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I am creating a body of 12 works,

more than half of which were started in Nigeria

and the other half, I started here in New York

during my residency

at the International Studio & Curatorial Program in Brooklyn.

♪♪

And in my research, I came across a book

by Jeff Wiltse called "Contested Waters,"

and he's describing the swimming pool

as a contested space throughout United States history,

culturally and socially...

♪♪

...during the times when public pools were desegregated,

for example, when people who otherwise

had uninterrupted access to the swimming pool

then had to share the space with Black bodies

and how that was such a contentious subject

during that time.

♪♪

But I decided to use my three-month residency here

for the summer to look at the Harlem Honeys and Bears,

which is an all Black coed synchronized swimming team

for senior citizens.

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Ah!

Stop. Great, great. Great! Great!

Great.

You know it. Two over arms.

1, 2.

Go into your flip.

Let's go. 3, 2, 1.

Modupeola: Many of them talk about not having learned to swim

until they were after 60 or once they joined the team,

which also speaks to these ideas of lack of education

and access to the swimming pool.

♪♪

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Woman: I was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Modupeola: When? What year?

1922, I was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

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Woman: Swimming is the best thing could happen to me.

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When I'm in that water,

it's just like -- Actually, it's a therapy, really.

And what they'd normally give you in the hospital,

I get it in the pool.

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By the time we actually got the permit,

which was about seven weeks into my stay,

I had been with them enough times

that everyone knew who I was.

I had become something of an honorary member.

♪♪

Always just dropped by the pool.

So, they practice on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,

and some weeks, I was there on each day.

♪♪

Oliver: We need to be quiet and listen

and try to do the best we can do at what we're doing.

People are taking too much time doing other things

and they not practicing.

Well, let's just pray that we get our practice in

tonight at 10:00,

and let's just hope that everybody gets there at 10:00.

Modupeola: When they gathered together and had the barbecue,

there was also that level of community

outside of the swimming pool and enjoying that company,

the company of other team members,

in Mr. Luther's backyard

in a beautiful brownstone in Harlem.

Listen, I don't need you guys to get drunk, okay?

Thank the Lord, bless the cook.

Oliver: I've been with the Harlem Honeys and Bears --

This is my 24th year.

Modupeola: 24 years. Wow.

And I enjoy it, too.

Sometime, I watch movies, and, like,

that's why I get a lot of it from,

you know, different dance moves and things like that.

So, picture that in the water.

Mm-hmm, I try to visualize that in the water.

♪♪

I got some hard choices to make, though.

Uh, Barbados

and that stuff from around the corner.

I want the --

Do you have hot sauce from Nigeria?

Aah!

[ Laughs ]

Uh, there's a plane leaving this afternoon. I'll get some.

Woman #2: The team was all white back in the day.

Really? Yes.

This was before Coach got into it.

And then, you know, you saw the --

Slowly, you saw the colors mixing.

Mm-hmm. And then it was just us,

because everybody moved out of Harlem.

See, Harlem used to be mixed, and then Harlem came down.

Now Harlem's coming back up, so they're back.

So, right now, we just call ourselves

the only African-American synchronized swim team.

But, I mean, the dynamics of the area

have changed, and I'm almost "certain,"

like with everything else, this is going to change, too.

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Where we were in the water, we help each other.

And I think that's how I became captain,

because anything you ask me to do in the water, I can do it.

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I feel like I'm the queen, like I'm in charge under there.

Like, you know, the moves that you can do,

the things you can do under there, you can't do up here.

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♪♪

How are you all?

Now that we have you across the street?

[ Chuckles ]

So, these are the works that I've done so far,

and they're based very generally on synchronized swimmers.

What in this group -- We're not represented in any of these.

Modupeola: Not yet. Okay, I didn't think so.

Thank you. [ Laughs ]

You were like, "Where am I? Where are we?"

No, no, no, not yet.

You talked about the hair being in these big buns

and how you know you can't really get in the water

like that. And it's a thing, right,

for Black women, thinking about

what -- what to do with -- with one's hair

before getting into the water,

even if you are wearing a swim cap.

It's one of the reasons why our African female youths

when they get to a certain age,

their hair is more important than learning how to swim.

And then at that point is when they be swimming.

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Modupeola: The idea that young Black children are so prone

to drowning, at least five times the rate as other children.

And that possibility that there's a risk of them drowning

because they are Black children,

and they don't have the access or exposure or education

or interest in swimming, and, therefore,

that could potentially cost them their lives.

♪♪

Historically, it's because we were not allowed in pools.

Right. Okay?

And then the other thing is that when we came over,

you can't swim in an ocean.

♪♪

Modupeola: So, it actually started with --

with just individual swimmers.

And the idea was that I was trying to portray

what my experience was in the art world,

so, having jumped in about four years ago

and not really knowing what to expect in the art world,

not knowing how to be a professional artist

as opposed to an artist

or one that just makes things or creates things.

♪♪

David Hockney talks about the formal problems

of depicting water.

And he uses a very stylized approach

to represent the light and refraction

and splashes of water. And I think in a similar way,

I've employed sometimes really thin gold lines or gold leaf

to represent splashes.

♪♪

So, the burning of the paper and the corrugated cardboard,

it adds not just texture, but color to the work.

♪♪

I used to live in Rwanda

just a few months after the Rwanda genocide.

Yes, I was 11 at the time,

and we would drive around and see some of the buildings

that were these actually really sort of bright pinks

and pale blue, interesting colors.

But then there were bullet holes

and huge craters where bombs had exploded.

And there was no visible violence at the time.

And so I didn't witness anything traumatic.

But it was interesting to be so glued to that image

and to find it so alluring and almost beautiful, actually,

but with such a disturbing history behind it.

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I mean, when I first started working with the concept

of the Harlem Honeys and Bears,

I didn't realize that I would depict them

with so much sort of realism.

They were really quite thrown off

by the fact that the figures and the faces

and the bodies were so abstract, which really made me reconsider

how I would bring them to life in the painting.

♪♪

This person has a name. This person has a character.

This is someone that I met,

I had conversations with and connected with in some way.

So maybe, yeah, that's another reason why I'm also choosing to

depict them in a more representational manner.

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And, so, I think the first or second week that I arrived,

we went to Upstate New York, in Cortland.

♪♪

And while they were practicing for it, for their performance,

this particular woman caught my eye,

because she she wasn't in that particular routine.

And I saw that her foot was positioned

where the words "deep" came out in -- on the tiling.

And for me, there was something really captivating

about the level of comfort, I would say, or freedom or ease

with which she was perched on the tiles at the deep end.

And so there was no fear that if, for whatever reason,

she fell in by accident or somebody pushed her in

or something, that she would drown.

And so even though she's not in the water,

she's outside of the water,

she -- she almost owns the space.

♪♪

We're at the Astoria Pool today in Queens,

which was built by Robert Moses

as one of the 11 public swimming pools

in the New York boroughs

during the Great Depression

to essentially allow for a place for people to cool off.

And it was interesting being in the space today,

because if I pictured what it would have looked like

in that time,

I would have experienced was a homogenous bodies in the water,

none of which would have looked like these swimmers

or the Harlem Honeys and Bears.

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That's you.

It came out nice.

[ Chuckles ]

You painted that?

I did.

You put it off like it -- like fire.

Yeah, the burnt paper?

Yeah. That is what?

This is, like, a cut and paste

of a number of different references to arrive at this.

I'm, like, super proud. Why me, I mean, of all people?

I don't know. That's me. That's me.

And I'm happy when I'm near the water.

That's all I can tell you.

That's my favorite place in the whole world.

Modupeola: It's an interesting thing

when you sort of strip yourself down

and you're half-naked,

and people can trust you within that space.

When you are talking about waters being contested,

it really is an issue of trust,

whether you trust not only the water,

but the people within that space with you.

♪♪

And which is --

Oh.

Oh, so I see you got Joyce here.

Ooh, there I am!

Ugh. Okay, aah.

Aah, aah.

That's a good picture. That's a good picture.

It looks like burnt pieces. What is that?

Yeah, I can show you. We can go up close.

You got me there. I got you there?

Yeah, you got me. You got me. I got you?

Okay, good. You got me.

[ Both laugh ]

You calling it -- "The Medallion Man."

"The Medallion Man."

♪♪

Before I started working with you,

this is how I used to depict synchronized swimmers.

Yes. Very different.

When I was ready to do your paintings,

I would need to incorporate more realism

in the way I represented you.

Okay. You know, 'cause if I --

if I -- if I drew you like this,

you'd be like that, "That's not me."

No, but that -- [ Laughs ]

That's the artist, you know? I respect the artist.

You see something that I don't see,

and you put it on the canvas. Mm-hmm.

♪♪

I spend a lot of time taking footage,

pictures and video of them,

from outside of the water, from an overhead view.

But once I got into the water with them,

I become part of them.

♪♪

Woman: To me, age is just a number.

And I'm going to keep moving no matter what,

and I just -- I just decided

I'm gonna be young forever.

Yeah. Yeah.

It keeps me young. [ Laughs ]

It keeps me young.

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