Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: the Mother, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
Written by Maya Kotomori and L.A. Vandyke
Once upon a time on a sweaty Monday afternoon, Maya Kotomori and L.A. Vandyke headed to the LES to speak to their friend Emmanuel Desir about art, life and magic. Fondly known by peers as Lou Smizzy, Desir opened a solo show at 47 Canal (not on Canal St.) entitled Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, on view at the gallery until 7 August. Other topics include (but are not limited to) music, mamas and mornings.
Lauryn-Ashley Vandyke: When you were working toward the show, what was your schedule like?
Emmanuel Desir: I wake up at five, get ready really fast, and ride my bike to the studio. The flow of it, feels like chipping at a rock. I know everything I’m going to do before I do it. A lot of the actions that were made were influenced by previous actions and other pieces, different techniques I have learned along the way and stuff.
Maya Kotomori: What do you do for breakfast? How do you prep for the studio?
ED: I don't like breakfast, but maybe some fruit, or a smoothie. Little mango, some blueberries in there. Some beets occasionally.
LAV: If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
ED: That's a good one - I say teleportation.
LAV: You feel like you don't get places fast enough? (Lou was late for our interview.)
ED: For sure.
MK: You mentioned that you did most of these [sculptures] in two months, how did you do that? Because physically, that's crazy. Did the work just happen in two months, or did you have a plan to finish all this on a schedule?
ED: A lot of the stuff in the larger room was stuff I was working on at Cooper Union. But the smaller [room], I don't know. You want to see it [progress] happen every day. That's all you’re really thinking about.
LAV: You're just one of those people who imagines something and has to do it right away. How do you feel like it affects your social life to be on that kind of schedule?
ED: Sometimes I was in the studio every day. Sometimes I wanted to pop out, be with the homies.
LAV: Do you get lonely when you're working?
ED: Yeah, sometimes I get a little sad. It's a luxury almost to be able to [work], but it's still sad for some reason. You can never really be happy here. But I’m happiest getting to have a show, speak to people who have curiosity about the work. (During the reception), I saw my mom looking at the work, that was dope.
MK: Ok, I see you!
ED: Yeah, art is so weird. The second you make it, it’s done. You have to start climbing up the hill again. That's not enough when you get to the top.
LAV: Yeah, because there's the personal aspect of it. When you're making it, it's this intimate thing, but then it's finished, and anyone can come look at it.
ED: I guess the shit that I'd be thinking about [when I’m working] cements itself when it's done, so it takes a solid form, and when it’s complete, has its own orbit.
LAV: How do you know when you don't want to add anything else to a piece?
ED: It’s just when each part has its own purpose. It's like building something, writing an essay or taking a picture. Illustrating things only to fulfill the objective.
LAV: You said that you were stoked that your mom got to see the show. She obviously influences you; there's a lot in your work about black womanhood. How do you think your mom plays into that?
ED: I just think about where she's coming from. She's a Haitian immigrant in the states raising a family of five, you know. It’s nice for her to be able to see the way I think about the world because it's hard to communicate sometimes. I don't know what she really takes from it, but she's proud that I'm doing the shit I've always been doing, and growing - not just fucking around trying to be regular.
LAV: And when she sees your work, she understands something that you can't use language to explain.
ED: She might! She's kind of an absorbent person in that way. I think she doesn't like expressing things, but she can show you understanding in a way that transcends language, I feel.
LAV: Do you feel like you get your work ethic from your parents?
ED: In a way, because they do work hard. But they be also chilling sometimes, so. We’ll say yes, I do.
MK: I regard you as one of the only interdisciplinary artists that actually can do several things very well. You do sculpture, painting, music. I remember hearing a bit of the new album you’re working on at the Cooper Union show you had earlier this year. When’s the album coming out?
ED: Thank you so much for that. Yeah, I was going to play music at this opening, too. But this time, I just wanted to have sculpture, and not always have to join music with the work. With the music, we’re working on promotion. Right now is not the best time [to release] because we want this album to be more of a community event, and get people to come out to shows so they’re not just listening by themselves. There might be some organization for a [socially distanced] show coming up. It’s a very young idea, but that’s what we’re trying to do.
LAV: This is the perfect time to be making and releasing things, because everyone's so eager. It’s also history in the making to do a show right now.
ED: I feel like to do a show right now has a relevance to what’s happening in a way where it's not just an art show, there’s something more. I don’t really know what that is, but I feel it’s there.
LAV: True. Where do you source your material?
ED: A lot of it came from construction sites and different places like that. The radiators actually come from buildings.
MK: Did you cop that stuff yourself? *wink* Don’t incriminate yourself!
ED: Nah, I stopped copping pieces for free, I just ask. It's different for different places. I also use my chainsaw to cut up actual logs I find.There was a guy in my neighborhood with nice large logs, so I would give him five bucks for a couple and take them to the studio. It [the process] changes for each piece. I want to have higher production value for future work and do some cooler shit.
LAV: Haitian culture feels really obvious in the artwork and it's nice to see an actual Black person working with African symbols.
ED: Everyone always says “African symbols.”
LAV: You don’t think so?
ED: I never really think of it like that. I just think about the easy way to get to the idea, the easiest way to illustrate something containing the idea. It really is something intrinsic.
LAV: I say African symbols because it reminds me of the artwork my parents had from Ghana. I don't know! It’s familiar to me.
ED: My mom also collects things. Growing up, I never really associated [those things with] different types of [African] forms, I guess. There's similar ideas there; the human as a vessel, or the utilitarian aspect of human chant. I think it carries on, and it’s shared, but I’m not actively seeking inspiration from, say, Ashanti or Adobe on an aesthetic level.
MK: Yeah, that's what you grew up seeing. Those memories, that's the stuff that's going to come out of your work. I grew up with a very ready-made, Americana existence. To me, it's like, “oh, the Kraft logo is very significant to me,” because that’s an image I have baked into my head. The symbols that people see in your work are parts of you!
ED: Very lightly though.
MK: Yeah, it’s not an active thing, I think it just happens.
LAV: You relate to it. You're externalizing yourself, so it's not about you taking this thing and making it your thing, it's you creating something new. From my background and from what I've seen, it's going to completely form a new object in my head.
ED: It’s so hard to look at my work and understand what you might be seeing. Art isn’t like a language that is always trying to make a point, the way words or music can. It’s almost a different language, like a formula to communicate. That’s something I’m still developing.
LAV: What do you think the main difference is between how you express yourself in sculpture versus when you're making music?
ED: With the music, I'm trying to tap into the young me, just a freer version of myself. With the artwork, it's more serious to me because it's not really about me. The music is more about me.
LAV: The music is more like keeping a diary or something.
ED: Yeah, exactly.
MK: I see that, because you're directly speaking words in the music a lot of times, whereas the art is a symbol of something that was felt, that can’t even be put into words.
ED: But they both function in that way! They both can interchange because some of the work is about me in a way that some of the songs are not, you know?
MK: If you could make everyone on Earth experience something, what would it be? It could be something you've never felt, like getting shot for example, or it can be to listen to this one song, or to punch Abraham Lincoln in the face.
ED: I would make everyone experience what it’s like to figure out who they are in the world; understand their lineage and their beliefs. I feel like I'm a spiritual person, I believe in God. I don't know, especially these past couple years a series of events have shown me what I'm supposed to be on, and I think that's what a lot of people are missing. Guidance, light, self reflection.
LAV: Are you superstitious about anything? Do you have superstitions or rituals surrounding your work?
ED: There's no real routine. You feel like you’re chipping at a rock and you lose track of time. You start to think about the life of the object. Each moment that's created with material becomes a component of the narrative of that object, inside of that is a ritual. Piecing together something with the many different ways of constructing a thought. I think that's like a ritual for artists.