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‘Our Space Is Spoken For’: Film captures power of storytelling through public art

“We were telling stories from folks within the community and trying to figure out that balance of how do you honor someone’s story and interpret it in a way that is both public art and performance,” said poet Sagirah Shahid. 

A panel discussion followed last fall's screening of "Our Space Is Spoken For."
Photo by Justin Sengly

The Twin Cities Media Alliance has worked to amplify and connect marginalized communities by publishing online stories on Twin Cities Daily Planet. But the organization wanted to expand its storytelling. The result: a project that pairs artists of color with community members of color, leading to public art performances and a documentary to air this weekend.

“It started out really with this idea (of) how do we tell stories in a way that is more alive and vibrant and doesn’t just happen online … what are other ways you can disrupt people’s day-to-day to understand the stories of the people that are navigating the spaces,” said Adaobi Okolue, the executive director of TCMA and publisher of Twin Cities Daily Planet. “In this day and age, space is such a very important conversation for communities who often continue to be pushed on the margin.”

Last summer, TCMA began Our Space Is Spoken For, a project that brings artists of color and community members of color together to reclaim space through public art performances.

“As a space starts to change and the communities are changing, it’s important to capture the story of the folks who have been in that space, who have cultivated that space, who have shepherded that space, and who continued to live in that space, or fight to live in that space,” Okolue said.

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Artists and community members paired

The inaugural project focused on the North Side, East Side, Rondo, West Side and Frogtown neighborhoods in the city of St. Paul. They selected 12 local artists of color and paired them up to work on a community member’s story. Each pair had an artist with a spoken element to their work.

“We saw this idea of public art as this really beautiful way to reclaim space,” said Okolue. “We wanted to get a lot more more expansive of definition of public art and what artists can participate in that. So we really left it open on what kind of artists can apply for the opportunity.”

The artists had weekly cohort meetings to plan and discuss the visioning for their projects. The process of creating the performances and actual live performances were filmed.

‘It was really exciting. It was really scary’

“When we started the fellowship, it became more than I anticipated, in a very good way,” said poet Sagirah Shahid. “It was a really eye-opening learning opportunity. It was really exciting. It was really scary. I’m an introvert so I did a lot of things that I felt uncomfortable doing, but I have no regrets doing.”

Shahid performed a poem and interpretive dance of Rondo community member Jonathan Stampley’s young journey of moving from Chicago to Saint Paul, while multidisciplinary artist Dameun Strange played original music on his saxophone. The public art performance took place at the Frogtown farmers market, a place where the community storyteller told the artists he had a fun childhood memory of sledding down the hill.

“We were telling stories from folks within the community and trying to figure out that balance of how do you honor someone’s story and interpret it in a way that is both public art and performance,” Shahid said.

Puppeteer Andrew Young and multidisciplinary artist Daliya Jokondo performed a poem and shadow puppet show in response to East Side Saint Paul community storyteller Narate Keys’ refugee experience.

“It is important to me as a person of color, just both to be hearing more of these stories but also to feel like I’m helping to contribute to having these stories have a wider audience,” Young said.

Visual artist Tori Hong and multidisciplinary artist Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay walked through the crowd of the Frogtown farmers market dressed in yellow and orange flowing dresses while bowing and handing out lucky red envelopes that contained $2 dollar bills and an illustration of Frogtown storyteller Winston Tuan Nguyen’s stories.

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“The collaboration process seemed really seamless. We both really respected each other and also respected the story, and in a way that honored our agency as artists and also supported each other,” said Hong. “[In this project overall] we wanted to take public space in order to both share these stories and our art, and also make that a part of the history of the space and the history of the city.”

‘It was definitely transformative’

TCMA created a reciprocal process. Not only did they pay all of the artists, but all of the individual community storytellers were paid as well.

“It was definitely transformative in regards to how we think about engaging community in storytelling. Oftentimes, community is engaged in a way where we harvest or storage without giving anything back,” Okolue said.

After three months of collaborative work, the artists gathered with more than 200 people for the documentary’s first screening in late October.

“We gave the artists freewill to kind of take the story wherever they wanted and so to watch the artist not only meet our expectations, but really go beyond that was really … amazing,” Okolue said.

TCMA hopes to continue the project annually and plans to open the call for community storytellers and artists for next summer’s project in May.

“The response was overwhelming and it let us know that there is a … demand for people to use their voice and to be heard,” said Okolue. “This is definitely a pivotal moment in our continued growth as an arts organization and how we continued to push the boundaries of storytelling.”

The one-hour-and-20-minute-long “Our Space Is Spoken For” documentary of the project will air on St. Paul Neighborhood Network Channel 19 and Minneapolis Television Network Channel 16 Thursday, April 4, at 9 p.m., Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.