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A bittersweet exploration of place with Dzidzor Azaglo and Crystal Bi

Grace Ramsdell

| 8 min read

9/29 UPDATE: “Wilderness Project” will now run from October 1-6, 2022, with an opening reception at the Overlook Ruins on October 1 from 12-2PM, live music on October 2 from 3-6PM, and a closing event at Marsh Chapel on October 7 from 6:30-9PM. The original content of this story, including original dates and times for these events, is below.

“Wilderness Project” at the Overlook Ruins in Franklin Park is an interactive art installation by Dzidzor Azaglo and Crystal Bi inviting participants to write ancient and new prayers, proverbs and poems on ribbons tied to woven structures of Asiatic bittersweet vines. The installation will be up from September 30 to October 7, with programming 7-9:30pm on the opening and closing nights. Olmsted Now talked more with Dzidzor Azaglo and Crystal Bi about their project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you introduce yourselves? 

Crystal Bi: I’m Crystal Bi. I’m an educator and a public artist. I work a lot in sound, and I started weaving with bittersweet vines as kind of a poetic metaphor for immigration. I started that this year. I’m very excited to be working with Dzidzor on this project. And I’ll hand it over to Dzidzor. 

Dzidzor Azaglo: As much as Crystal works with sound, I think she has a way of interweaving soundscapes with sculptures, so I’m gonna add that. And she’s a curator! So, curator, sound installation artist, and also a sculptor. 

CB: Thanks, Dzidzor. 

DA: My name is Dzidzor, I’m a folklore performing artist—particularly a West African folklore performing artist. I recently have been called to question how art can archive and preserve stories, and proverbs, and prayers and, particularly, languages—in my culture, and also in my community. Though that has been my latest discovery of exploring what that would look like, I’m also a curator and educator. 

Left to right appear a woven bittersweet sculpture, Dzidzor Azaglo and Crystal Bi. Photo credit: Stefanie Belnavis

How would you describe your program? 

DA: We imagine this event as a call to archive our stories, our poems, our languages, our culture and traditions in a way that is pleasing. It’s a call to present the things that kept us going, that kept us sane, that kept us present, dreaming and recalling our past. And recalling memory—I think that’s so important, particularly during this time of clickbait—a lot of things that we don’t remember much. People want their news really quickly and we have a small attention span. I just think it’s so important, the call to pause and remember and honor our past in that way. 

On August 6, Dzidzor Azaglo and Crystal Bi presented an early version of “Wilderness Project” at Carson Beach as a part of the Asian American Resource Workshop Summer Celebration. Photo credit: Rene Dongo

CB: Yeah, and it’s also an interactive art installation. So, all of those things of calling to memory, calling to archiving, that Dzidzor’s talking about, they’re going to be documented and published in public space on ribbons on an interactive art installation. It’s going to be a week-long activation. A week-long installation of the interactive art exhibit, as well as two nights of activation with art and music, and maybe Dzidzor could talk a little bit more about those two nights of programming. 

DA: The opening will be featuring Black Cotton Club, which is a jam session that encourages people to get on the mic and to speak. Whether it’s a song or whether it’s a poem or a prayer or an affirmation that they want to share, everyone in the space contributes something. Then the [closing night], we have an invitation from Marlene [Boyette] for folks to come and rest while she plays a sample [of therapeutic sound], and it’s created with the intention on folks being in their body and present and also relaxing in this nature. I think that’s what nature kind of teaches us how to do. The closing night is also in celebration of my project called “Wilderness,” [an EP] that is a result of questions and exploration about: What does it mean for humanity and the divine to meet? It’s inspired by biblical references to the wilderness and how this wilderness was a space of questions, a space of a reflection and a space where humanity met divine in various ways. I’m really excited about this project. It’s a seven-track project which will be performed live. We will also offer a Capoeira storyteller, Mestre, who’s going to lead us in movement, lead us in storytelling. It’s so important how movement is a part of storytelling. Throughout the week, the hope is that folks will be able to interact with the work even if there isn’t any live programming. 

How did you choose the Overlook Ruins in Franklin Park as the location for this project? 

CB: We were connected with someone named Herb Nolan. We first connected with him because he was interested in removing another invasive species called Japanese knotweed from that space as a way of making the space more visible and reclaiming the space for programming. And then Dzidzor and I were starting to just learn more about the space, and we completely fell in love with the location. It’s the first location of the Elma Lewis Playhouse. We were sent photos by [Olmsted Now] of how Elma Lewis had set up the stage, and also how Elma Lewis had cleared out the space with her students so that it was a reclaiming of that space for art and culture in the neighborhood. How we picked Franklin Park in general is it borders so many communities that have large immigrant populations, which is a main focus of this project—really exploring: What does it mean to belong to this land? What does it mean to belong to public space if we don’t see our stories in those spaces? We’re thinking about that as an aspect of how we lay claim to land and how we feel like we belong to land. 

DA: Beautifully said. Thank you, Crystal. 

Why do parks need more equity and spatial justice programming? How does your program speak to that need in Boston parks? 

DA: I just feel the call to connect back to land and public spaces in ways that invite us to be. I’m reminded of a quote by bell hooks when she says, “When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully.” I think this call for folks to take up space in the parks and public spaces is a call to create what love looks like for ourselves and to love fully. I think that’s why it’s important, particularly in areas like parks, where it is public, it’s supposed to be public. We’re supposed to be invited to the space. Truly, I wish for a world where no space is excluding of anyone, but I understand that in this current climate, you know, [public space] isn’t necessarily always the safest place. For something like a park, particularly in parks around the corner from our homes, I think I would want more and more spaces to be able to explore what love looks like and love fully. 

CB: Bittersweet is an immigrant to this country. It came here 200 years ago, and really, we’ve been looking at it like a metaphor for: What does it mean to belong to this land, to stolen land? Especially as immigrants ourselves or children of immigrants or adoptees. What does it mean to belong to place? And how do we write ourselves into existence with our stories? What stories are at the margins of public space? What stories are at the center or the focal point of public space? We’re seeing projects like this as bringing the stories that have historically been at the margins into a focal point, or bringing them into public space. That does something to consciousness and is an element of spatial justice. 

On August 6, Dzidzor Azaglo and Crystal Bi presented an early version of “Wilderness Project” at Carson Beach as a part of the Asian American Resource Workshop Summer Celebration. Photo credit: Rene Dongo

What 3-5 words capture the essence of your program? 

DA: Free, reflecting, preservation. 

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