Curate 757


Nastassja Swift

Nastassja Swift is a multi-disciplinary artist and Virginia native. Her solo exhibit, Canaan: when I read your letter, I feel your voice, opened this past summer in Hampton. The exhibit featured installations and collaborative performance that intimately displayed the exchange between her and her brother, who is currently incarcerated.

AIRED: November 26, 2021 | 0:06:48

(hip-hop music)

- I wanna start big picture

and ask you what it means to have this show on view

in a moment where there have been many conversations

about racial reconciliation, healing, abolition,

and mass incarceration?

- To think about having this particular show

about my brother in a courthouse,

attached to a functioning correctional facility,

it's like, damn, that's a lot.

- There's a through line there.

- Yeah, yeah.

Although Canaan will tell us that we know nothing

of what it's like to be in prison emotionally and mentally

I'm tethered to him.

- We are in front of a work that features letters

from your brother.

- One of the pieces is a 24 by 30-inch silk quilt

and on top of it sits the property box

that was mailed from Virginia Beach city jail.

This quilt it's personified as me,

I'm holding his belongings and maintaining the value.

And thinking about all that is stripped from those

who were incarcerated

and how important these belongings might've been.

So for me, creating something of value

to hold his valuables.

- Yeah, yeah.

- And then just thinking of another way

to introduce my brother into this space,

but also our relationship in the vein of

frozen moments in time

that captured the best parts of our childhood.

(jazzy music)

My brother Canaan with us being 13 months apart,

we spent so much time together

thinking about how close we are and why we were so close,

having a military dad, moving around.

You might not like me today, but when we move next month,

you're gonna need me.

- I'm gonna need that friend.

That's one thing you can walk into a new place with.

- Exactly.

So that's an important part of the purpose

of having these photos here.

The time capsule piece,

it's like this old nightstand with a quilt

that's replicating a blanket from a photo

and an old corded-phone, a boombox, some CDs.

And on the corded-phone,

there is a QR code where people can scan and hear

all these recorded conversations between Canaan and I.

- Those bonds don't go away in spite of interruption

by the state.

That is one of the registers that's most profound

about what you've offered here.

- Yeah.

- And maybe we can think a little bit more about sound,

because I know you have a video work

that's also a part of the installation.

- [Nastassja] The table structure holds a smaller quilt

and a TV that plays a video of my mom,

reading letters that Canaan sent her.

- "To start off, Mommy,

I deeply appreciate everything you do for me

and have done..."

- I just really liked this idea of

thinking about the earliest time of Canaan's incarceration

of not only how hard it was for me.

Also, feeling that responsibility towards my mother.

So being able to see her reading his letters

speaks to what I was supporting.

- Your mom here just reminds me of how many other people

we don't necessarily see

when we see a number or a stat, right?

I wanna talk specifically about quilts

and the quilt in the show.

- The quilt.

- [Jessica] Maybe we can make our way back there.

- Yeah, I'm matriarch now.

(Nastassja laughs)

- So here we are.

Tell us the name of this quilt.

- This is security blanket.

(hip-hop music)

Reading the letters from Canaan,

I started to understand what his communication means to me,

just as much as what it means to him,

and feeling like I have to respond to a letter.

I can't miss Canaan's calls.

That's what this blanket serves as.

I'm in it and it's comfortable,

but it could swallow me if I let it.

The detail of the project that is the fix to detail

are the dimensions of the space,

because they are the dimensions of his cell.

Seeing that portrait of Canaan

that's mentally and emotionally,

the way that I feel when I read his handwritten letters.

You can see scratched out words

and you can see the process of someone's thoughts.

And then it feels like he's here.

In the portraits of us,

our body language speaks to our relationship.

Seeing those two little kids

describes without having to say how close we are in age,

we're like this and we look like that in the photo.

Canaan drew a picture of his prayer rug.

It feels appropriate to sit on a similar surface

that he sits on multiple times a day.

The space creates this energetic connection in my mind.

- Making this exhibition and these works

have they changed the way you understand Abolition?

- It's easy to have an opinion on

what the criminal justice system should look like

until it's in your house.

- Right.

Your invitation is a really beautiful path

to think about power and healing and even the word justice.

So I hope that you feel ecstatic

about what you've offered to us,

because it's very, very potent.

- "5/15/17.

Can you believe it's been five months.

Just yesterday I was feeling down,

so I slept the majority of the day.

Sometimes it's hard to accept and believe

I'm really in this place.

But later that night I started feeling better.

I keep telling myself this will all will be over soon.

I really want to believe it as much as I say it.

Canaan G Swift."

(upbeat music)


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