Artist Interview: Karen Seneferu

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The title, When There’s Blood In the Streets Buy Especially If It’s Your Own, is emotionally charged. What made you decide on this title?
Well, one of the concerns I have about growing up in an urban community where there are brown and black people are concerns of gentrification. New individuals move into a community that is segregated, a community that has created a neighborhood and a certain way of being. And when the economy changes, and those who can afford to live outside of that community enter into it as a place of possible occupation, what correlates to that are murders on the streets. I have no real way of documenting this but my sense is that when that process is happening and a new community moves in, the old community that’s been there and that’s been deprived economically seek other alternatives to exist and start to see themselves as their own enemy. As my husband says, you can’t say enemy without saying “in me.” These youth who don’t believe that they have opportunities or how they can acquire them start seeking out ways of killing each other. The elders that have been there, for 30 or 40 years, who have seen that transition from building communities, building neighborhoods to the loss of that, move out and when they move out they’re willing to sell their homes for very low rates just so that what little money they do receive is more than they’ve had before. And so, I’m making the connection between gentrification and the loss of…

Human life?

Yes. And so that’s the title. That’s where the title comes from.

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Violence often seems to result from issues like gentrification and communities pushing out other communities. Do you think that this violence comes from a place of disempowerment and a feeling of helplessness?
Well, I mean if you look at the educational system in urban communities, it’s one that’s teaching the youth that the only level of education they’re going to have is one where they’ll be serving. And more than likely they’ll be serving people who don’t look like them. They learn that really early on. The material that they’re learning is not inspiring, it’s not engaging, so by the time they’re in 7th and 8th grade, they’re not interested and so they go to the streets. And when they go to the streets, they want to make a living for themselves and in doing so they’ll seek violent means. And the victims tend to be people that look like them. And so certainly if power is about being able to establish your own reality, these young people are not doing that. They’ve had their circumference prescribed by the kind of education they have, and that’s going to limit the kind of activities they’re going to be able to participate in. They’re not going to be able to move beyond the limitations of the boundaries that they’re in. It’s definitely disempowering and with disempowerment comes dehumanization. These are individuals who have no sense of culture, no sense of art, no sense of spiritual recognition and those are the elements that are necessary to be whole and complete, and thus humanized in the world. And that’s taken away from them and they’re not going to get that in an educational environment. It’s really rare for people to get it even at the university level. So yeah, they’re disempowered, the community is disempowered. Then on top of that, you get another group who has levels of privilege and lack of historical recognition who come in and feel like they are entitled to take those spots, take those spaces. So, in that disempowerment and in that process of dehumanization you also get a level of shifting powers that continues to maintain binary realities. So it’s a struggle, it’s a real challenge.

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How does your piece speak to this problem materially, with the structure of the house? Why did you choose to collaborate on this structure?
Initially Melorra [Green, Curator] wanted Joanne [Ludwig, artist] and I to work on a table. To bring people to the table to talk about any concerns that they have in various communities. She introduced the house later on. And so, I am the kind of artist that works from a very improvisational and intuitive level. Space, for me, dictates meaning. I’ve been doing this assemblage work for about a month now, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years, and I had all this wood. As soon as I saw [the house structure by architect Nick Gomez] I knew that the wood that I had, that I was using to compartmentalize and bring fragmentation into a form, would be perfect for this house. It’s about gaps and being able to see through things but not with a clear vision because everything is not sealed or not whole and I think that’s the struggle with most of us. We’re all struggling to find our whole selves, our complete selves. And so even though there may be some element of uniformity or some element of beauty, there are still elements of chaos and of lack of form.

About the Interviewer:
Elena Gross is a CCA Extern for SOMArts Cultural Center and a graduate student in the Visual & Critical Studies program at California College of the Arts.

 Images 1 & 2 by Timothy Andrew Photography, Image 3 by Elena Gross