Megan Wray Schertler spoke to Jova Lynne and Mario Moore during Detroit Art Week.
Last month the inaugural Detroit Art Week — a celebration of the institutions, art spaces, galleries, and artists who call Michigan’s largest city home — drew international attention to the Motor City’s blossoming contemporary arts scene. Among the nearly 100 artists who participated were Jova Lynne and Mario Moore, whose work exemplifies the throughline of intersectionality, critique, and sociopolitical awareness that characterized the event.
This summer, both Jova Lynne and Mario Moore address of complexities and consequences of leisure in their exhibitions. A Brooklyn native by way of Oakland, Lynne is an educator, transdisciplinary artist, and the current Ford Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. In Paradise Travel Company, presently featured at Popps Emporium, Lynne examines the voyeurism inherent in vacationing — tourism as modern colonization through the commodification of the “exotic” other’s cherry-picked culture. Moore, born and raised in Detroit, questions whether, given the stereotypes, injustice, and economic and social pressures they face, black men can ever completely relax in his show Recovery at David Klein Gallery. Document’s Megan Wray Schertler sat down with Lynne and Moore during Detroit Art Week to discuss their relationship to Detroit’s arts scene and how the vestiges of the past and the overstimulation and interconnectedness of the present shape what it means to let go.
Megan Wray Schertler—I saw your work for the first time this weekend, and thinking about it afterwards I’m really interested in your definitions and manipulations of leisure in your work.
Jova Lynne—I think leisure means anything that you can imagine. I relate that a lot to desire. So, what are the things that you desire that you define as your own but also do impact other people. If I’m leisurely coming to this tea shop, for example, I know that tea is relaxing and that somebodies labor is giving me this version of it. It’s this thing that exists in this liminal space of something that is both based on desire but also on labor. You wouldn’t need leisure if you weren’t laboring so much or if somebody else wasn’t laboring.
Mario Moore—I think that’s something that black people and specifically black men don’t think about as a human necessity—to be able to take some time for yourself, be able to relax and not be constantly barraged with this idea of “I have to.” I think about being from Detroit and my family and my grandfather being in this very labor intensive city. The only thing my dad has ever done is work, work, work. He would get laid off or fired from a job and I guarantee you, a week or two later, he would be working somewhere new. It’s automatic. And then I think about my grandfather. He worked for Ford Motor Company just doing some repetitive job over and over again. The idea of this leisurely place is a non-reality. It’s only for this tourist landscape.
“To what degree do you think that conditioning, that programming of needing to work, and needing that validation has also led to us needing to manage our leisure time? Can leisure time ever actually be leisurely anymore?”
Jova—There is not a point in my life where I can remember vacation or leisure. It feels like my generation in the family is the first generation that’s actually said we need to chill because we are talking about mental issues which we had refused to talk about. That is dealing with self-care, our livelihood and longevity.
Mario—And I think that’s another generational thing where we’re not at the same place for a very long time. That has to do with a lot of things other than leisure but when we would take vacations as a kid, the whole family would get in the car and we’d drive. Maybe we’d go to Florida, maybe down south because most of the people that live in Detroit like my family are from the south. But my dad would rarely ever come with us. He was like, “No I can’t.” Even though he had time off. It was this mental thing. “No I can’t do that. I gotta do this. I gotta work overtime.” It’s just a constant thing that I don’t even think we’re in the mindset to consider that and I think for me, our generation, is something I’m adamantly thinking about consciously. I’ve talked to my father about it like “you need to take time for yourself.” And he’s like, “Yeah I know son I know” but he doesn’t do it!
Megan—Can he even articulate what that would be for him?
Mario—No, like maybe going to sleep, taking a nap. But no not really. On top of that, talking to him about when he got his first job and constantly working, getting time off but never really taking time for himself. And even during the performance piece at the show, I was asking basically all the black men in the gallery about this idea of leisure and what that looks like for us. And some of the guys even the younger ones, were like “I meditate.” And I asked what does that mean. “I think about what I gotta do the next day.” (Laughs)
Jova—(Laughs) That’s not meditating.
Megan—I think that speaks to a really poignant matter for a younger generation or our generation as we’re starting to approach mental health in a certain way, but also having things be so accessible by the internet, whether that’s communication or booking things or financial transactions. To what degree do you think that conditioning, that programming of needing to work, and needing that validation has also led to us needing to manage our leisure time? Can leisure time ever actually be leisurely anymore?
Mario—No matter what you do you have to be readily available because emails come at like one in the morning from people all over the place. I think that’s also a mental space of trying to consciously consider that. The state that we’re in now and not just more so for our generation because older generations run into the same problem—although they might not have it on their cell phone. Which means they’re operating in a very different functional space where they go to work and then they do their emails and they make things happen. I think access is really easy now where it does not benefit us in the best way while at the same time it has helped us do so many things that other generations have not been able to.
Jova—I often just deactivate my Facebook because I feel like social media is this place where I can chill and relax but my feed is always just filled with sad stuff. It does feel like I need to be on there either because of work or because that is how people find me which creates so much tension because again, the idea of pleasure when it comes to leisure and what are the things that are actually pleasurable?
Megan—You mentioned earlier that moving to Detroit has given you more space, mentally and physically. Was there ever a moment where you were like “Where do I even start now that I have this space?”
Jova—Part of why I could not stand California was that I had to get out of there because everybody out there is hustling but nobody is acknowledging it and it’s driving me fucking insane.
Megan—And things are still really expensive.
Jova—Yeah things are still really expensive. I was there right when things got really expensive and I kept coming back to Detroit. I thought to myself, “Why am I in Detroit more than I’m going to New York?” And I had to look at that for a second and be like what’s going on here. I think the grind is here it just manifests differently. It’s less like I’m grinding against you and more like I’m grinding with you. In New York it feels like I’m grinding against you.
Mario—I think that’s what I really miss about Detroit. I think that’s a big difference because in New York I do feel like I am grinding. My mother is an artist and I grew up around all these older artists in Detroit who were doing these really amazing things and I never saw that until I moved to New York. Or when I went to grad school and all my colleagues were talking about each other’s work in this very different way. I think that one of the things that is different about to Detroit is that when I was living here all the artists, even the older artists, people had to grind in Detroit because there was a very do-it-yourself attitude. Because there was nothing here except people with limited resources. You put up gallery shows in crazy spaces. You would do stuff because you were able to and you wanted to and because it was the only way you were going to make it happen. Detroit is in Michigan which is a very segregated state. Some of the top galleries would only show white people and white artists. So you had all these black artists that were making incredible work. But you weren’t going to get your work in top galleries in Art in America, or advertising or other places in Michigan. I think I would compare my understanding of Detroit to my understanding of how New York was in the art world in the ‘60s or the ‘70s. I feel like that type of vibe is similar to before I left Detroit.
Jova—New York to me is still super segregated. I went to grad school at Cranbrook, but I lived in Highland Park in Detroit, and I remember I was talking to someone and they were like, “Are you sure you want to live there?” I was like “I’m from New York and I live in Oakland right now. So you don’t need to tell me. I’m gonna be fine.” This driving up Woodward out of Detroit in the suburbs is like me going from my house in Brooklyn to the Upper East Side. Well now I’m going to a place where I’m going to see humans who are like me, who I have to code switch for, who will not code switch for me. And I have to be mentally prepared for it because it happens so fast. There is still that challenge in New York that’s represented in the art world where it’s like these are who your patrons are, who can afford to be part of this. Having a piece in Art in America or whatever becomes a luxury instead of a give. I’m not saying every artist needs to have that but rather that it’s interesting being in such a segregated city and seeing the way that happens. I think that’s a challenge of artists of color, specifically black artists, universally.
Megan—In what way has being in Detroit and having that mental space, physical space as well, helped you be more vulnerable and also vice versa. For example, in going though your physical recovery and returning or going to New York, what are the limitations of your space played in terms of how you’ve been forced to think about your vulnerability and how it’s still in constant question?
“Generations are still living here from the ’67 riots so when you have a sea of white people walking towards a neighborhood, you have questions.”
Jova—I think for me when I first moved here being in the car all the time was so uncomfortable. Oh my god, like I’m just alone with my thoughts. Literally.
Mario—(Laughs) That’s all you got.
Jova—Cause it’s not that meditative state, like when I take the subway, putting on my headphones and just zone in until I get off at my stop. I had a lot of time with myself and my thoughts. One thing I appreciate about Detroiters, and also about New Yorkers, is there’s a lot of pride here. So I’m super aware that I’m not from here and nobody has to remind me of that. I’m just aware of it. So when I engage with this city I’m here for Detroit. I plan on staying. It’s where I feel at home and also I have to tell you where I’m at because I’m not from here and because maybe you don’t wanna trust me. So much has happened to this city and the way it has been formed has been super colonialist that way. The gentrification in New York and the gentrification in Detroit are two very different things. But I’m trying to build trust here because I wanna stay here. So when it comes to vulnerability it’s having the time to myself to really interrogate who the hell are you Jova beyond the work.
Megan—Given both of your really personal ties and investment in Detroit from different angles and in different ways, how much does that impact your decisions as an arts practitioner?
Mario—That’s something I think about all the time. I think it has to do with being from Detroit. I think it has to do with my family. My grandmother’s name is Helen Moore and she’s an education activist for Detroit public schools so she’s being doing that since the seventies. Growing up with her, I was always trying to keep up. She’s always the one being thrown in jail at Detroit school board meetings. Generations are still living here from the ’67 riots so when you have a sea of white people walking towards a neighborhood, you have questions. What are they doing, what are they about to do, why are they around here, are they about to buy this land and turn it into something that I’m not gonna be able to use?
Jova—I think being an artist of color you’re constantly asking yourself those questions, like does this place represent my values?