Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Oral historian and teacher Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz is used to collecting stories from people who have faced challenges or trauma, and are on their path to “wholeness and wellness.”
“This is the first time I’m focusing on the wellness,” she said, describing her new project at Axle Contemporary, which centers around stories and art representing the theme of pleasure.
The juried, 12-artist photography exhibit, “The Pleasure Show,” will be on display around town in the mobile gallery until July 22. And Tho-Biaz will be there collecting guests’ stories about pleasure and what that word evokes for them.
The idea for the show’s theme comes from Tho-Biaz’s work for the Santa Fe Youth Detention Center Voces de Libertad workshops in 2016 and 2017, where she helped teenage girls tell their own stories. She said that even though they were facing hardships and in a tough spot, they were still interested in stories about love.
Tho-Biaz has done oral history work with groups like Tewa Women United, been a visiting scholar at Columbia University and helped lead storytelling projects on reproductive rights at Smith College. Last year, she asked people for their personal stories about pleasure during an artist residency in Detroit.
“My intrinsic motivation is to deepen my understanding of what pleasure is, how pleasure works, what meaning we make about pleasure and what pleasure does to inspire us to do something else,” she said of this project. “I’m looking at all of those larger umbrella anchor questions through the lens of stories.”
The photography aspect – which Tho-Biaz said she hopes acts as a visual “prompt” for people coming to share their stories – is meant to provide artistic representations of what pleasure feels or looks like. The show is described as an exploration of the way people “reconcile pleasure within the current challenging times, while we are still very much in the throes of witnessing and beginning to reconcile centuries of historic abuse and trauma.”
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, she said she intentionally selected all-female jurors, including well-known local artists Rose Simpson and Meridel Rubenstein.
The word “challenging” in the “challenging times” designation can refer to political, social or even personal challenges, Tho-Biaz said.
For her, she said it’s also important to look at the project through a historical lens.
As a black woman in the U.S., Tho-Biaz said it has special meaning for her to be able to ask questions about pleasure.
“We were stolen people,” she said. “And we were not brought here for our own pleasure.”
The show’s call led Santa Fe photographer Mary Sloane to her 2015 photo of a couple walking together in the town square of Santa Maria del Tule, a city just outside Oaxaca, Mexico. She did not know the couple or speak to them, but she said in her mind they represented the peacefulness and continuity that comes with long-term relationships.
“I have a feeling that this is a couple that has lived there all their lives and been there together, and (there is) comfort in that,” said Sloane.
Local photographer Anne Staveley saw pleasure in her series of underwater photos. She submitted one that shows her feet and lower legs after diving into Conway Lake in New Hampshire. She wanted to convey the feeling of first diving in, when the water touches the entire body, a moment she described as exhilarating.
“Even when you think of pleasure, a lot of people think sexually, but there’s not a lot of things that touch your body all at the same time besides water,” she said.
When she was deciding to take on this theme, Tho-Biaz said, someone told her people would think she’d only be interested in discussing sex. Although a small number of photos submitted for the show were of a sexual nature, that’s not what she had in mind at all.
“I think of my children and my dearest closest friends, and that we sit down around tea or lemonade every weekend and catch up,” she said. “I think about aspects of my work that are pleasurable, I think about the book I pick up.”
The photo exhibit is intended to showcase a variety of the “daily pleasures” of life, said Tho-Biaz.
She expects the same variety from the stories she’ll collect. When visitors come to the mobile gallery, she will have story prompts on hand that ask for memories of pleasure through the lens of the five senses.
“I would be asking you to tell me about the very first time you tasted pleasure, what’s your earliest memory of that?” she said of one of her prompt examples. “Was it something a family member makes? What was it? Did you help make it? How old were you? Was it the recipe that went off track, but turned out so great?”
She is not sure what she will do with the stories yet, adding that she wants to let people’s tales inspire her.
As for what she hopes people gain from the experience, “I hope it plants and reinforces in them that they are also 100 percent deserving of pleasure and wellbeing, especially now,” she said.
Appointments for Tho-Biaz’s story collection can be made at axleart.com, though walk-ins will also be accepted outside of those designated times. The sessions will take place at different times and locations from July 1-22.