C.R.E.A.M. – curated by artist Sable Elyse Smith, is an extension of Smith’s sculpture of the same name, exhibited on the High Line at 20th St. through to March 2019; as part of the group exhibition Agora. The sculpture takes the shape of an altered replica of the Hollywood Sign. In her version, the sign reads “IRONWOODLAND”—a reference to the Ironwood State Prison and to “Hollywoodland,” the segregated real estate development advertised in the original sign. The piece draws attention to the fraught connections between institutions that develop real estate and those that fund and support prisons.
By titling her work after Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.”, a song on what is widely recognized as one of the most important albums in hip-hop (Enter The Wu-Tang [36 Chambers]), Smith offers a pop culture entry point to considering the financial links between real estate and prisons. The song explicates the struggle of navigating New York City as a young Black male. The lyrics describe the ways in which racist economic systems in the US act upon and through Black bodies:
A man with a dream with plans to make cream
Which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen
A young buck sellin’ drugs and such, who never had much
Tryin’ to get a clutch at what I could not
The court played me short, now I face incarceration
Pacin’, goin’ upstate’s my destination
Handcuffed in the back of a bus, forty of us
Life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough
But as the world turned I learned life is hell
Livin’ in the world no different from a cell.
Mirroring her embrace of the varying creative and structural capacities of language, music, and sculpture, Smith invited a group of artists, poets, and musicians to present new or existing work that dismantles and reimagines “C.R.E.A.M.” as a song and as a larger cultural moment. The contributors thus interrogate mass incarceration but resist the simplistic narratives of statistics, criminality, and race. Instead, they attend to the complexities of the carceral state and the specificities of its effects on our individual lives and our culture at large.
Devin Kenny opens the event with a musical performance that looks at the history of influences that led to “C.R.E.A.M.” and those that came after; Jibade-Khalil Huffman and Simone White present a new, multimedia collaborative performance; Bonita Oliver realizes a new vocal performance; A. H. Jerriod Avant reads new and existing poems that connect to the larger themes at hand; and Smith reads some of her own writing.
As with all of Smith’s work, in her interpretation and investigation of “C.R.E.A.M.” she implicates language as much as the built environment as a system of power we inhabit every day. Each contributor in C.R.E.A.M. shares Smith’s interest in destabilizing the strict authorities of language that mirror and prop up the systems of power that only exist through maintaining racialized violence. Through their work, the artists explore an embodied knowledge that goes deeper than a superficial accumulation of information. Instead, they work to shed light on the interrelationship between violence, intimacy, and trauma, and to pursue what exists through, beyond, and in spite of the broken narratives of incarceration.