Storytelling and Making Kin as Survival Mechanisms: Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo Interviewed

The bolded words “I need extra time because your schedule does not account for the time it takes for Black folks to rest” are stamped in the body of a large red mass, in the center of the page.
Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Resting Time, 2020. Screenprint on newsprint. Courtesy of the artist.

Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo is an artist, activist, educator, storyteller, and curator who lives between Ohlone Land (Oakland, CA) and Powhatan Land (Richmond, VA). They use performance and interdisciplinary processes to re-create and re-tell the narratives of the places and people that surround them. Branfman-Verissimo centers their work in asking questions such as: what does it feel like to be in your body when reading a story that tells your story? What is the role of the contemporary story collector? How does preserving and priotizing Black and Brown, queer, trans, and gender non-conforming stories re-imagine our role in the future?

Since 2015, they have been the lead curator of Nook Gallery, which originated in their kitchen nook in Oakland. They are currently collaborating on the formation of an artist residency, bookstore, and resource library, Moments Co-op; recently published a book, Slow Looking; and have a solo show from Feb-March 2021 at SEPTEMBER Gallery in Hudson, NY. —Claire Mullen

Claire Mullen: Where are you in the world right now, and what have you been focusing on in 2021?

Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo: I am currently on Powhatan land, in Richmond, Virginia, for graduate school. I’ve been adjusting to being a resident of the South, and what it means to be living in the South as a Black queer body. These are not unlike questions that I was asking myself in Oakland, but that was also home, a space that I was comfortable in and could navigate easily. Here, I’m relearning how to live and find safety; that is at the root of my work right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about resistance within a city, about histories that aren’t written down or prioritized, and centering Black and Brown, queer and trans history within the city. In the Bay Area, the experiences, stories, and histories feel so vibrant and centered. I thought I would have trouble finding those dialogues outside of the Bay, but I’ve also found them here, just in a different, maybe less forward, less visible way. They are dialogues that I choose to have with anyone I meet, especially in a new city. It’s the lens through which I get to know where I live, and that lens travels with me.

Without any spaces in between, with many of the lines cut off at the edge, the bolded words “How are we reclaiming this land? Who keeps the history in” are painted onto a plywood sign against a background of blues and burnt orange.
Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Let’s re-name our city, one block at a time, 2020.
Acrylic, colored pencil, black gesso, plywood, hardware. Courtesy of the artist.

CM: Your focus on place and community is part of why, when I read Donna Haraway’s quote about “staying with the trouble” in Variable West’s call for pitches, I immediately thought of you. Does what she says about kinship, and building quiet places, resonate with you?

LBV: Yes, I saw that and thought, “Oh my gosh. This is speaking my language!” In her language, which I love.

Especially at this moment, I’m reminded of how important it is to surround ourselves with our folks and family, whether blood or not, and the importance of crafting your life around the people that sustain you.

That’s at the core of a new project that I’m a part of, Moments Co-op, a collective space in Oakland. It’s a residency program, a bookstore, a resource library, and it houses a town fridge. It was inspired by the question: What if there was a space that was created by us, for us? A space that really centered the ways that folks of color, and queer and trans folks are often pushed to the side, even in spaces that we feel are our community spaces? Thinking about community care on all of the levels: how do we feed each other? How do we house each other? How do we provide space for us to safely make our work?

I also love the way that Haraway talks about calling on kin in moments of disruption and also in moments of rest and quiet. Those are the things that keep me alive these days—noticing those moments of good disruption, and noticing those moments of tenderness.

CM: In what other ways are you currently finding kinship, or creating it?

LBV: I recently made a piece in conversation with a Black queer scholar here in Virginia, who teaches at the school where I’m working and studying. It is a collage that was blown up and then painted on top of. The piece holds space for her lived experience as a Black, queer lesbian woman in the South, on top of my experience living in those same, or similar, spaces as someone who’s just come to this location.

It’s layers of a similar language that live literally on top of each other through print and paint. It represents the importance of her words, passing down stories and histories through her hands, and is about relating to and learning from each other’s history, knowing that history is not linear.

CM: This sense of history and community is also central to your curatorial work, such as the Nook Gallery, and performance pieces, such as Listen to Bright Sweet Anger (2018). Can you speak to the intentions behind each of these projects?

Photograph of four women wearing all black hold bright yellow banners reading “ANGER” and “LISTEN” stand in a grassy, wilderness area. A woman wearing yellow kneels between them, before her a vase of yellow flowers.
Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Listen to Anger, Listen to Bright Sweet Anger, 2018.
Performance view, banners, printed matter, two flags. Courtesy of the artist.

LBV: Nook is a non-institutional gallery space that began in 2015 in my apartment kitchen. It originated with the idea of being able to view art at a dining room table—a built-in kitchen nook, hence the name. In all of the ways, Nook is about coming together. It’s about those beautiful nourishing moments over a homemade meal, and how to, again, get to those tender, intimate moments.

It’s very much in line with what we’re thinking about with Moments Co-op. How do we put our community—in Nook’s case, local artists—first, when designing and making a space? It is the opposite of museums, most institutions, and universities. There we know what comes first, and it’s usually not the people that are going to benefit, learn, or be within that space.

The performance piece Listen to Anger, Listen to Bright Sweet Anger was created after the murder of Nia Wilson, who was a Black high school student who was murdered in 2018 by a white supremacist at my local BART stop. This murder felt so close, because that could have been me coming home from the bar late at night. It felt personal, but it also felt like just one more murder in a sea of murders that so many thousands of Black women are grieving. This piece was about asking how we as a community—locally, nationally and internationally—mourn, honor, and celebrate this person. It was about location and history, and locations that hold a history that we may or may not see.

It started as a performance that was centered around two phrases; “Knowing our stories by heart,” and “The fact that we are dying every day.” It was first performed in the summer of 2018 at Acre residency in rural Wisconsin. There was a fellow artist there who made a flag pole, so I made two flags with those phrases on them. This first iteration was similar to a flag raising ceremony.

Then, a year later, in the summer of 2019, it was performed as part of a performance series in the Oakland Hills with all POC artists. There were banners, flyers, and chanting. For that piece, I performed with a crew of other women of color. It was the audience’s duty to take part in it, to call these demands out and to walk with us; their bodies formed the procession, their bodies formed the protest.

CM: As you mentioned with these flags, your work often features words or phrases, as well as bright, varied colors. How are you thinking about text and color?

LBV: I went to undergrad for printmaking and a lot of the work I did there was in black and white. I’ve always been a lover of color, but I haven’t always liked to use it in my work.

Many of the stories I work with are urgent, and I want them to be centered and remembered. I think about: What is the flavor of those stories? How do I want them to taste and resonate with people? I want them to yell what they have to say, and the bright colors echo this urgency.

I call myself a storyteller as well as an artist, and I feel a calling to use text as a way to communicate. When using text I consider how it’s going to be read, and I try asking people to spend time reading it; sometimes words or letters continue on the next line, are scattered, or are hidden in patterns, colors, or textures. Some of them are easier to read, but others can feel like struggling or stumbling through, really having to chew on it, or even having to ask the person next to you if they can help you. You have to work for it.

On two massive panels, their inside edges angled further from the camera than the outside edges, the words “our voices are important” are painted in large, bold lettering, across and through which shapes of orange and pink and green and blue flow. Four canvases with similar art float atop the panels.
Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Our Voices Are Important, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

CM: It’s interesting that your background is in printmaking, which explains your connection to Sister Corita Kent. You’ve been involved recently in organizing to save her Los Angeles studio, no?

LBV: Yes! Also, I just recently released a book that is dedicated to, and inspired by, her.

I first saw her work when I was getting interested in printmaking in high school, and the medium’s roots as protest art. A lot of people knew her as an artist who drew flowers, and her flower prints are gorgeous, but she also retrained the art world to recognize the wars that were going on, and that we can’t ignore them and just be printing flowers. We are going to be talking about this too.

The book is based on a practice that she would do with her students, what she called “viewfinder walks.” She would take empty slides, punch out the plastic image, and be left with an empty rectangle. She would walk with her students around the neighborhood where the school was and ask them to look through the viewfinder. The idea is to reframe the world by composing small windows. Two different viewfinders are included in the book, which is called Slow Looking. They are tools to invite people to slow down, to really examine where they live.

Kent’s studio was located across the street from the Immaculate Heart high school, which was where she made all of her most famous posters and prints. Towards the end of her life, she moved east and passed away, so that studio wasn’t being used, and developers were looking at the site to tear the building down and make it a parking lot.

People at the art center and a group of historical preservationist folks in LA started organizing and asked people, including myself, to write two minute speeches to read in front of a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission. There were about two hours of comments from the public, including her former students, her niece, and others impacted by her work.

Speaking about the importance of preserving this space reminded me of her viewfinder tool. Couldn’t the viewfinder, like these words, lead you towards understanding and seeing history that you wouldn’t know if you just drove past it everyday?

It was incredibly moving. They voted on the spot, and all the council members made comments like, “I wasn’t going to vote for this, but after hearing the comments, I think we should.” It was amazing seeing in action what a movement like this can do for physical spaces that carry such history, and carry people.

On a colorful poster installed on a bus stop kiosk in a downtown urban area reads “my mom was homeless for 30 years & I was able to take her off the street & get her housing. I sacrificed my 20s to take care of her” in bolded lettering, against a blocky mosaic of green, navy, pink, red, and various other warm colors.
Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, On Whose Shoulders, 2018–2019. A series of 9 posters installed in bus stop kiosks in downtown San Francisco, CA. Courtesy of the artist.

CM: That also ties back into the Haraway quote, this idea of finding those people who help to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

LBV: Yes! Quiet also in relation to spaces of care, of consciously reshifting how we live.

In the fall and winter of 2020 I made a series of posters that said, “I NEED EXTRA TIME BECAUSE YOUR SCHEDULE DOES NOT ACCOUNT FOR THE TIME IT TAKES FOR BLACK FOLKS TO REST.” I posted it on social media and asked that non-Black folks pitch in money for me to be able to send these posters out for free to Black folks.

I just think again and again, “what is it going to take for us to survive?” And it feels like it’s our task to make trouble. That is a part of it, but making trouble also comes with us needing to be taken care of.

I feel that this Haraway quote is exactly what we’re trying to do in all of the liberation movements we are involved in now—it speaks the words of today.