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Episode 62
Artist Edgar Arceneaux

  • 32 min read

Episode Description

A discussion with artist Edgar Arceneuax. Edgar works in the fields of drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, and video; often exploring connections between historical events and present-day truths, as well as the roles of family, memory and race. His work is thoughtful, personal and powerful and can be found in the collections of institutions like MoMA, the Whitney, the Hammer and LACMA.


Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with artist Edgar Arceneaux. Edgar works in the fields of drawing, sculpture, installation, performance and video, often exploring connections between historical events and present day truths, as well as the roles of family, memory and race. His work is thoughtful, personal and powerful. It can be found in the collections of institutions like MoMA, the Whitney, the Hammer, and LACMA. And now a discussion about the permanence of history versus the ephemerality of memory with Edgar Arceneaux.

Craig: [00:01:05] Edgar Arceneaux, thank you so much for joining me this week on the Art Sense Podcast. Edgar you know, I usually like to start my conversations with artists with a hypothetical, which is you're at a dinner party and you're seated next to someone who has no idea who you are or what you do. And they ask you, you say you're an artist. What does it look like? What is it? How do you describe it to them?

Edgar: [00:01:41] Yeah. Well, you know, that's that's challenging for me. I guess it depends upon who I'm talking to. Okay. So honestly, whenever the person asked me a question, I give myself about 2 seconds to gauge how much they know about the about the art scene. And then from there, I may say, you know, I work in a variety of different mediums and be drawing could be painting, could be sculpture. You know, I've worked in theater and I've shot movies and, you know, I tend to work in the medium that, you know, that best matches whatever story I'm trying to explore or whatever history I'm trying to explore at that time. So, you know, I'm painting right now and making a play.

Craig: [00:02:31] That's the same question I ask every artist. But I feel like it was a little bit of a loaded question for you because it's hard to put you in a box, right? You do a lot of different things. Your media is kind of across a broad swath, but I feel like it all kind of is in orbit around a few key concepts, right? As an arts educator, you're probably talking to your students about their guiding question. Your guiding question is probably somewhere in the orbit of history and memory, right?

Edgar: [00:03:07] Typically, yeah. Yeah, I would say yeah, I think that's pretty consistent. But I would say that it's not just history. I mean, it's not just history, but also the place that history like the odd ways in which it expresses itself in the present. And then there's a, there's a bigger question, which is of, of all the things from the past of the the billions or trillions of events, both insignificant or grand. Like why is it why is this moment asserting itself in the present right now? Right. And I've come to the conclusion that I mean, this is this is a quote that I think I got from The New York Times. So but it basically goes something like, "folklore will reappear when the conditions that created it in the first place have not changed".

Craig: [00:03:56] Hmm. Interesting.

Edgar: [00:03:57] So, yeah, so, like, we don't really sing, we don't have children rhymes anymore about childhood diseases or polio, you know, because those things have been outside of some some sort of fringe cases have been eradicated. So those kinds of stories don't propagate themselves anymore, but other kinds of stories do. And I like investigating why they come into the present and how does it resonate both in this kind of transient present as well as the like the archetypal past? What's the window that shows like its arc from where it came from and how it's sitting here in this present moment? And then I try to place the viewer right in the middle between those two things.

Craig: [00:04:47] Right. 

Edgar: [00:04:48] And then they can then, then, then they can they fill in the gap there. The thing that completes the circuit. Sure. Their experience becomes central to the completion of the work. You know?

Craig: [00:05:04] Well, when I was going back through all of your work and reading and listening, I was reminded of this old adage that history is written by the victors. We kind of go through life assuming that the facts that we think we know about history are true and accurate. But history is written through someone's lens. And and I think your work challenges viewers to question that perspective and try to put them in the middle of that, right?

Edgar: [00:05:39] Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you you have to decide what I mean. You have to have some criteria by which by what you decide to pick up or what picks you up. You know, like I find myself being drawn to things because they somehow have asserted themselves into my life, into my gaze, and some way or the other. But I mean, for the audience, I mean, the people who are listening, I mean, I try to draw a distinction between history with a capital H and then a lowercase history. And I think the capital letter is the the written, the canonized, the commonly sort of understood by the masses. But then you have these smaller stories, which could be the story that your mother told you about how your uncle met your your auntie. Right? It could be that you're a kid and they're trying to obscure something that they think that you're too young to understand. Those kinds of things are also interesting to me because they're just they're not like written down histories. They're, they're they're lived experiences that. That. I think if you can map that kind of stuff on top of actual historical moments, which I can give you an example of if I'm not being too too long in my.

Craig: [00:07:14] No.

Edgar: [00:07:15] Okay. Well, you know, the. Well, it was in 2013, I think it was in 2014 when the the FBI released the like infamous suicide letter that that guy Hoover and his people sent to Martin Luther King to kind of to shame him from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. But he got so much mail, he didn't even receive it. And the letter was was later came with some audio clip of some audio recordings of Martin Luther King having extramarital affairs, which it turns out to be true that was one of his vices, that that letter ended with saying, like, we know you're a fraud and you should just kill yourself. So that that came out to the to the public. And it was it was heavily redacted. I just found the letter sort of ghastly and kind of sad and also sort of spoke something about the the way in which the US government uses disinformation to erode the trust amongst activist organizations or in this case civil rights organizations. So but then a few months later, maybe six months later, there was a second letter that was released, which was from Bernice King, Martin Luther King's daughter, saying that her two brothers are suing her because they want to sell they want to sell Dr. King's Nobel Peace Prize and his Bible, but she doesn't want to give it to them. So you take this drama amongst two siblings, in the case of the US could say is part of our royal family. Right? And there's a sibling squabble that has larger social and political implications, because the question becomes, why do the brothers feel that the book, this this Bible and this prize are no longer a useful tool for the civil rights movement, but they see it as a relic. Right? But the sister still sees it as something which is important for the cause.

Edgar: [00:09:30] What produced that difference? And in my investigation, I came to the conclusion that the difference was that an economic force had rendered these two objects over 50 years of time from tools and to into these into relics and to like something you put on the shelf and look at. Right? So in that way, then I could then I could zoom out even further and say, well, what is that economic force? And that economic force was the sort of like the seeds of free market capitalism, which was laid by Milton Friedman and his ideas around disentanglement equaling homogeneous abstractions, which was created during the same time period that the civil rights movement was coming into existence. So this economic theory, which is now sort of rampant within within the US economic system, you know, it was being born at the same time that the civil rights movement was coming and these two oppositional forces on one scale, you said something about the social body, but on another scale it says something about the infighting between two siblings. And sadly, I have to report that Bernice lost the case. Right? She lost that case. And I don't know what the fate of those two objects are, but it was it was serendipity that brought those two things into collision and that history asserted itself and the present in a way which was so forceful. I was I was obligated to explore it even deeper and make a body of work around that subject.

Craig: [00:11:14] So the objects didn't change, but their utility changed.

Edgar: [00:11:22] Exactly. And to me, that's that's fascinating. Materially they didn't change at all. But we don't really think about economics as a force. But I understood it so clearly through this through this family squabble.

Craig: [00:11:42] I saw this quote from your art history friend and colleague Julian Meyers-Szupinska. And I'm going to read it for you. And he describes you as, "a conceptual artist whose primary material is history and memory. What we remember, how we remember, and how what we remember is marred by logical gaps, clichés, inversions and erasures. By working within those gaps, by using a surreal dream logic of junctures and coincidences, he pries open the messy box of history and pulls what we already know into new shapes". I hope you paid him well for that. That's. That's so.

Edgar: [00:12:27] I don't know. I hope so, too, because it's actually.

Craig: [00:12:30] Because I mean, like, I hope that somebody could write something that's so concise for me someday, you know, because you your work, you know, it's on so many fronts. But I feel like that really sums it up because, you know, I think about like your your current work, "Skinning the Mirror", it doesn't look like your other work, but it fits within this description that predates that project, you know, four or five years, right?

Edgar: [00:12:57] Yeah. Yeah. I, Julie and I, we have a very long friendship and we've collaborated and I'm very fortunate to have him in my life. I mean, and, you know, as an artist, you want to have people that help you to understand your own work better. And he's that person for me. But, you know, I, I made a decision early in my journey as a as an artist when I was in school that I never wanted to be pigeonholed. I never wanted to lose my freedom to do the things that I wanted to do. But it was also a reaction to I didn't articulate it like this at the time when I was in my mid-twenties. But I did understand intuitively that my temperament was was that I enjoy the change. I enjoy the challenge of throwing myself into a domain that I am in some part, in some way a novice or to be a student of the form. And the reason why I increasingly feel comfortable over the years to continue to embrace this is because I want it to be known for a way of doing things, an approach, as opposed to a look or a style.

Edgar: [00:14:50] And I guess to me that if I did decide to do this back when I was in my mid-twenties, that it would probably take me a decade to build an audience that would appreciate and follow and support this way of working. And and I was pretty, pretty close to on target about that. I would say that reputation wise that I think that people started following the work and supporting the work and and finding themselves in the work in 2008, 2009, 2010. And I continue to move into new forms, not just because I'm running away from something, but I just kind of feel like I need to constantly be a beginner so I can continue to expand my my understanding of how ideas and materials work. There's a certain expressions that come from using certain materials that you can only understand if you if you take them in your hands and and shaped them. The certain knowledge which you gain directly from that.

Craig: [00:16:27] When I was going through your work, you know, I think one of the things I was struck by was how families, communities, countries will all have histories that profoundly affect the present, but they're unseen and unspoken. You know, there's something in the air. Even though you don't you don't see it. It isn't explicit. I guess my question is, as an artist, how do you try to create some visual language to represent that?

Edgar: [00:17:02] Yeah. Sort of the zeitgeist of that moment. Well, I mean, there's some strategies that I that I implore to help me to try to bring stuff in the room that might be either impossible to represent or if you were to try to make an image of it, in my mind, flatten it out. So in the case of like the "Skinning the Mirror" work, my history of art making it typically is to explore like a material process or historical process and then try to bring those two things together. And commonly, that would be some sort of pictorial element a landscape, a text, a figure. And I told myself I wasn't going to do that this time. And I would I would not use any of the...rely on any of the techniques that I've used in the past. So the material exploration of skinning a mirror, desilvering a mirror, painting and use of canvas in breaking the mirror was my way of sort of avoiding the figure. But the thing that happened was that by decentering the figure from the production, it allowed me to bring the figure of the viewer into the picture. Because when people get within a few inches of the painting, the mirror starts to reflect them back. And so the way of me bringing the figure into the picture was to say, I'm not going to put a figure in there. And then in some sort of strange way, then the figure winds up being there anyway, but not through a sense of there's a face, there's shoulders or the hand as a bust. But it shows you in fragments. And in a way, I feel like there's kind of a truer kind of presence as opposed to representing, but a truer presence because the cracks, the scars, the scrapes in the reflection, I kind of feel like it's a it's a it's a it actually expresses the you or a sense of the self better than a painting of a figure itself could do. It has all the qualities and characteristics of a life without relying upon the conventions of representation.

Craig: [00:19:55] You know, I feel like there's a beautiful allegory or metaphor I never can't remember which works in our artistic circles. But the fact that, you know, if we think of these paintings, the fractures and the cracks as being representation of someone and maybe they're they're psyche or their memory or their mental function, especially when they they see that or even a step further as as your work begins to oxidize and tarnish and become cloudier and cloudier over time. You know, I feel like that's a really a significant imagery, especially considering some of the, you know, the personal connections with with that sort of thing in your life and all of our lives as as our parents get older or what have you. Right?

Edgar: [00:20:49] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it wasn't my intention when I was making the work to express the anxiety and the fear of of my mother's sort of imminent passing from dementia. I mean, it came quickly and it was swift and profound. And I did not know or I could not foresee that becoming my mother's nurse, you know, helping her to walk, feeding her, brushing her teeth and inevitably bathing her, putting her to bed and getting her out of bed. All of the things that I did with my with my daughter, I didn't I couldn't foresee that the that the work that I was making in some ways was kind of preparing me for her transition, you know? It was like and this is this is kind of..this is not meant to be a kind of kind of highly conceptual idea. But it's that the material processes that I was using in the pictures that we're relying upon, like the pressure relying upon like methods of scraping and and adhesion and ripping and tearing. These things that I was doing were in some way a kind of it had like a fractal relationship to the aging of our bodies. My mother is a...I'm one of six kids. My mother's...her stomach and her breasts, and you know, the other parts of her body were impacted by that expansion and compression of having had six kids. And then also the mental anguish and the joy of raising those kids and, you know, also having a life of a creative person ourselves. You know, when you when you put these two things side by side, I mean, you recognize that what metaphors are is an expression of the similarities between material and physical properties and the ways in which they express themselves in us as living beings, as both individuals and as families and as social bodies. You know, I discovered those connections, and I want to...I just kind of want to make that clear for the for the people who are listening that that sometimes, you know, sometimes the most profound things can come from the most banal things, you know? Like this.

Craig: [00:23:45] Well, when when I was in high school, I was helping care for a grandmother that was going through that initial transition into Alzheimer's. And then later in my life, my mother dealt with dementia related to a stroke that she had in both of those cases. There's the sadness of seeing their mental faculties slip away. But the part that it's always so interesting to me was how their concept of time shifts in that loved one would have a straight face conversation with you about what they did that day and how they spent three or 4 hours doing this and that with people that have been dead for 20 years, right?

Edgar: [00:24:32] Oh, yeah, man. Oh, yeah, yeah. You know, those parts are jarring. And they's profound because in some ways, it's giving you insight into your own mind, like, "oh, shit, that's how the brain really works, right?" There's something really beautiful about it, too. And not beauty in the sense of like something that you want to stare at, but there was something beautiful in the sense of just the directness of his truth. Was that in some ways, the dementia allowed for a degree of freedom for my mother to have with me or to have with us as a family, because she was raised Catholic and my mother was a very old fashioned Catholic woman. And, you know, she was very proper. And the idea of me seeing her without clothes on would probably just kill her right on the spot, you know? But all of that dogma was gone, you know? She she needed help and I was fortunate enough to be in the position to give it. And it was a gift that ballet between she and I and my siblings and her and my dad to to see her releasing a lot of those rules after she passed away in January of 20, 2021. You know, a friend sent me a quote which which I really believe she's paraphrasing because I don't I don't I don't remember exactly how it went, but it was something like in some native cultures, they see dementia as a as a transition, as the person is in the transitional state between this plane and the next that they are they are transitioning into a spiritual into a spiritual world.

Edgar: [00:26:54] And, you know, I'm not Christian. I was raised Catholic, but I don't hold any of those beliefs anymore. And but what I see when I was there with her, when she passed, I was like, oh, this is where poetry comes from. Like, I can't. Even say directly what happened. I can only do it through a kind of approximation, sort of watching that transition. And then and then it also reinforced me in this idea that heaven is a place on earth, not something up in the sky, but that I could sense her presence with me. I can see her presence and my daughter and then literally her DNA is in there and it's in me. And in some strange way, I mean, just working on these paintings somehow gave me the confidence or gave me the mental tools to comprehend just the sheer magnitude of the loss. My mom is one of my best friends, one of the best people that I ever met on Earth. You know, she's still she's still here. You know she's still here.

Craig: [00:28:16] Yeah. I remember you going to nursing home and talking with my mom. And for years and years, her favorite thing was, was Christmas. And having this huge Christmas party for 30, 40 people at her house. And it was just it was just celebration. Right? When when she was suffering from dementia, every day was Christmas Eve  and she she would be we would walk in like, "hey, listen, I need you to go pick up sandwich trays. I need you to talk to so-and-so about getting there early". And like, yeah, it's like, "Hey, I need you to go next door, you know? I know Mom and Dad are over there. I need you to get them to come in". And, like, you know, mom and Dad are long gone. And it was like, you know, as these layers of the onion just kind of disintegrated, what was in their? Her favorite place and her favorite people, right?

Edgar: [00:29:15] Yeah. Isn't that isn't that fascinating? I was I was I also feel like it was also another kind of blessing in a way, you know, another lesson of my life, because my mom, you know, when you get dementia, you know, sometimes you can become very mean and, you know, because the ID is free, you know what I mean? It's just like your monkey brain just wants to take grab smash, you know what I mean? Like, you don't have to be constrained. But she never did that to us. I mean, she was a little mean to my dad, but, you know, she never did that. It was like the core of herself was revealed and it was still that sweet, grateful, gracious being, even though at times she she didn't know, she didn't have a full grasp of what was going on around her. But somehow she's still the core of herself, is there. And I just think that that's remarkable.

Craig: [00:30:14] Absolutely. You know, there are so many projects that I feel like we could talk about. Can we talk for a minute? About "Until, Until, Until".

Edgar: [00:30:25] Sure.

Craig: [00:30:26] Until. Until. Until was was a stage production that you created a play based on something that happened to Ben Vereen. An opportunity for performance that he had at Reagan's inauguration that was fully realized on stage, but broadcast in only half of its context. That's right. Which had a huge impact on how people in the community viewed who Ben Vereen was, which was totally opposite of what he was intending.

Edgar: [00:31:04] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you know, like I say, that serendipity is a powerful force. So, you know, I was I was fortunate enough in '97 after finishing my undergraduate studies at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, you know, I was still able to rent videos from the library, and I had rented a VHS tape of a documentary on African-American artists. And I was I stepped away from the video, and I came back and Ben Vereen's performance was on. And I didn't realize at the time how fortunate I was to have seen this edit because it showed both the beginning and the ending of the performance. And I was so moved by it, I mean, emotionally, the song and the performance is incredibly powerful, but then also is amplified by this surreal frame, because then the text at the bottom said, you know, Ronald Reagan's inaugural gala. And I was just like, "What? Like there's a blackface performance that happened in front of, like, all these Republicans. Why have I never heard about this?" You know? But this is before YouTube or the Internet, actually, which makes me sound or a little old. But, you know, I remembered it, but I just I was never able to locate it. And even once YouTube became a thing, I would occasionally think about it and try to find it. But it was just bare bones, little pieces here and there.

Edgar: [00:32:43] So the the history of it was was really obscured. And I was fortunate enough to be asked to be a participant in the Performa Biennial in 2015. And they commissioned me to do a performance that was in the spirit of my installation and film work, and I had never done anything live for the stage and I thought I knew what I was going to do. And then I was hanging out with some friends and we all like crashed this kid's birthday party, this five year old's party, and who was who was sitting there? But Ben Vereen. And I was like, "oh, my God", you know, that performance? And I was like, wait, you've been commissioned to do a performance, go and talk to him. And maybe he would tell you about what he did. And when I introduced myself to him, know, Mr. Vereen, it's very nice to meet you, he was like, Oh, hey, you know, I'm a big fan of your work. And he shook my hand and he had a big smile. And I said, But listen, you know, this performance that you did at Ronald Reagan and he just kind of like shrunk in his seat a little bit, I noticed that there was something there, but I didn't know about what had happened to him because of that performance. I didn't know about the backlash. I didn't know that he had gotten death threats.

Edgar: [00:34:05] I didn't know that only half of the performance was shown, that the the half of the performance that audiences saw at home that black folks saw at home was just him doing a minstrel show for Ronald and Nancy and the Bushes and the, you know, the rest of these right wingers. And they practically gave him a standing ovation. But the second part that contained the critique was edited out. And I didn't know any of that story, but I convinced his daughter, Karon Vereen, who you guys may know now, is Karon Davis. She's the wife, the widow of Noah Davis, the painter. And I was at the then sort of emerging underground museum, which had later become one of the hottest, most important exhibition spaces in Los Angeles. And that was their son's birthday. And I didn't realize that Karon was Ben's daughter, but it was a crazy sort of kind of alignment. So she convinced him to trust me and let me come to his home. And I sat with him and said, "you know, I would really love to tell the story. And then he sat on the floor in front of the TV and said, Do you want to see the video?" And something kind of remarkable happened in that moment because when I went to his home. And I could see that that time had weighed on him, that he was now in the seventies, and he had been he had been injured pretty severely in a car accident, and he still had scars on his body.

Edgar: [00:35:47] And, you know, he walked in a certain kind of way that an old person does, but he sits down on the floor and he puts on this video and I'm sitting behind him. And then this like magical alignment happens where, you know, he is in front of me at like 71, 72. He's watching himself perform in his thirties, a man from the from the early 1910s. And I was just like, oh, my God, look at these windows are aligning from 100 years to the eighties. Wow. And then here we are watching it together. And before I left there, I was like, I have to convince him to let me tell this story. And he said at the end, he said, "okay, I'll allow you to tell it, but you just have to promise me that you won't let what happened to me then happen to me again. It's like, you know, it was like they they like they put a hole in my heart, you know?" And I mean, it was clear that he was still carrying the wound, even though it was more than 30 years ago. Abi was still really injured by it. So I thought to myself, well, yes, I'm concerned about you, but what if the same thing happens to me? Here I am bringing a black face show into the 21st century.

Edgar: [00:37:08] Like, what is wrong with me? You know? But it's using those same sort of strategies that I've used in the past. I asked myself like, "Why is this history here now?" And I took to heart the solution, which was to try to tell the story, not from a historical perspective with a capital H, but to tell the story from the way Ben remembers it, which has which is as a series of traumas. So when you're when you're in the show, what you come to learn by the end of it is that the show is actually really about you, the audience member. And at a certain point, we take everybody and we bring them on stage and they're sitting within a breath distance from Ben as he's putting on his black face makeup. And then he does the full ten minute performance and the audience can see the empty seats where they just came from. You know? They can they can see that they went from the television audience to now the audience in the during that inauguration. And it's a very uncomfortable juxtaposition because we're actually pointing cameras at the audience and we're projecting them as a crowd onto a scrim and merging it with the footage from the original event. And it's a very effective and very moving performance.

Craig: [00:38:47] That's very immersive, right? I mean, what was the feedback from the audience? I mean, did they did they get the emotion that you were intending? I mean, was it really connecting with them in the way that you hoped?

Edgar: [00:39:00] Yeah, I think there's sort of there's two parts of that. One is that I was I was curious about how how black audiences would engage with this subject. And I have to say that the caveat is that generationally, that response is different, that people in their twenties are more open and wheeling in the thirties and more open and willing to engage with with the history of blackface. And there's a there's a generation that's my age and older that questions the the choice to bring this into the into the contemporary discourse in the first place. But I would I would say that in general, from audiences, no matter the race, that the people are moved by it. They're touched by the performance that the actor Frank Lawson does and bring. And it's a genuinely it's a genuinely moving work. I feel really fortunate to have been given the opportunity to tell the story, and I feel fortunate that I was able to make something that continues to be seen and continues to be shown since 2015.

Craig: [00:40:25] So what about Boney Manilli?

Edgar: [00:40:29] (Laughter) Yes. Yeah.

Craig: [00:40:30] Can I tell you something? Before I learned about Bonnie Minelli...I come from a generation where I knew Milli Vanilli.

Edgar: [00:40:40] Yeah

Craig: [00:40:40] That was right in my wheelhouse. I was 19, right. But, man, Boney M, how did they sell so many records? How were they as big as Abba and I never heard of them?

Edgar: [00:40:53] I don't know. Yeah. I mean, I was fortunate enough to travel to, to Lagos, Nigeria, with my production team and company and do a version of Boney Manilli in Lagos. And, you know, all you had to do is hum the first few bars of the song and everybody knew it was like, how do people still know this terrible disco? But you know, Frank Farian, the music producer for Boney M...and for the audience who's not familiar with Boney M, and you can spell it the way it sounds, Boney M is a disco pop group that came into existence in Germany in I want to say the mid '70s. And it was the brainchild of a music producer by the name of Frank Farian, who had some success as a as a Schlager music singer, which is like really poppy, syrupy German love songs that are like lounge music...anyways, not awesome music, but you know, he had a hit and he did the thing that producers do and he bought a bunch of equipment and started making his own music because he just wasn't sort of like his career wasn't taking off. But he loved black music. He was listening to a lot of it in the clubs that were there in Germany. There was a lot of black guys there, fell in love with the music and was like, I can sing that stuff, too, then started singing it in this black voice. You know what I mean? It like the shit took off, you know what I mean? It was like he did the the thing that exploiters do.

Craig: [00:42:41] You know, again, isn't that another form of blackface, right?

Edgar: [00:42:45] It is another form of blackface, except that it is more acceptable kind of mimicry. But I'll say that where things are different in the in the US context as opposed to in Germany, was that when these people were singing, it was understood that they were entertainers and that people just don't care in the same way about authenticity or at least the illusion of authenticity that Americans do. There's a lot of hypocrisy sort of within the American mindset around this. But, you know, when I was in Lagos, they didn't give a shit. I mean, can I cuss? They did not care that the music was...that Boney M was all...was a white guy singing it like they were like, "That Bobby is, is not singing that music". I'm like, "No, do you care?" They're like, "Not really. The music is still good, man. We're still going to listen to it". I was like, "That's really interesting". Where in the US people would be outraged, or morally exploitative, blah, blah, blah. So after they Boney M disbanded...he disbanded the group in the mid eighties. And then a few years later, I think ten years later, he eventually was able to penetrate the American market with Milli Vanilli. Right. For those who don't know that story, you can look it up. But when they were outed for lip syncing, you know who outed them, right?

Craig: [00:44:21] No, I don't remember that. Why would he out himself. 

Edgar: [00:44:25] They were recording their own album and he found out. They were trying to get released from the contract. And when he found out they were trying to leave, he was like, "I brought you into this world. I can take you out". He outed them to the press and I shit you not, this guy is like, you know, just like the biggest ego. He then did a press conference and then said, like, "I just wish we can get back to real music".

Craig: [00:44:54] Oh, my gosh.

Edgar: [00:44:55] Authentic music. They just basically just left Milli Vanilli there to be grilled - Rob and Fab to be grilled by the press.

Craig: [00:45:04] I was looking at his Wikipedia page earlier today and it on Wikipedia, it says that his albums that he's produced have sold more than 850 million copies, which I'm just like, that can't be right.

Edgar: [00:45:21] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, who owns who? That's bigger than. Oh, God. What's. What's his name? We're producing Michael Jackson's albums and.

Craig: [00:45:30] Oh, Quincy Jones.

Edgar: [00:45:32] Quincy Jones. Like, he sold as many albums, if not more than Quincy Jones. But Quincy, he's got ethics. And, you know, you can sell a lot of albums if you don't have any ethics.

Craig: [00:45:40] Well Quincy is smooth. 

Edgar: [00:45:43] Yeah, Quincy is smooth. And you know, the reason why Boney M didn't penetrate the American market is because we were listening to Donna Summer. And then you look at that and you're like,"no", right? But the Europeans loved it. The Russians gobbled it up. South Americans, they loved it across the continent of Africa. They loved it. You know, Japan, like you can travel anywhere in the world you can be in like Brazil, people were singing "Rah, Rah, Rasputin" and "Daddy Cool" somewhere.

Craig: [00:46:13] You know, there becomes a germ of an idea for a play. And can you kind of give us the synopsis of what that play is?

Edgar: [00:46:24] Well, what it is now, it's gone through about 13, 14, 15 different versions.

Craig: [00:46:30] It's been workshopped.

Edgar: [00:46:32] It's been's a killer, and it keeps evolving. It's really like a living entity at this point. But the story now in this iteration, we describe it as like a family sitcom dramedy with a magical ceiling. So the story now takes place inside of a home, inside of a residence. And you may hear some familiar elements of the story, but the story is now centered around a character named Sonny, who was forced to move back home with his parents. And now he's continuing to try to direct the play about Milli Vanilli. But now he's forced to do it out of his his parent's garage. And at the same time of I'm trying to direct the story, his mother is is sick from dementia and he's trying to take care of her as well. So there's this running back and forth between the mother's bedroom and the garage in him trying to tell the story. And then there's the father and the two brothers who are called the "mens". And they're searching for another story. They're searching for another script. And that one is the is based on the family myth that the that the grandfather wrote the original script of "Song of the South", that Walt Disney, the movie that Walt Disney did in the 1950s, but they stole it from him.

Edgar: [00:48:14] And if they can just find the original script, then they can get that and they can sue Walt Disney for millions and they're going to get their reparations. But the mother hid it somewhere and because of her dementia nobody can find it. So Sunny, the lead, is trying to tell the story about Rob and Fab with hope of getting some redemption. The "mens" are searching for this missing script around the house because they're hoping to get some form of reparations. But they're all searching for something because they know they're about to lose the most important thing that they have, which is their mother. But the mother's dementia is letting her go on a different journey. And that journey is to teach all the members of her family of how to let go, to let go of the past, and also to learn to let go of her. So the state that the script is in currently is that (laughter) Okay, so should I pause? Do you want to say anything?

Craig: [00:49:25] Oh, no, no.

Edgar: [00:49:26] Another part? Okay, so I can say one more thing.

Craig: [00:49:29] You know, it's so interesting because there are so many levels and I love art and creativity that has lots of layers. And I love how many layers this story has.

Edgar: [00:49:39] Yeah, yeah, I do, too. It's just a real son of a gun to write, because I have to try to say it all in an hour and a half. And there's music and there's dancing. So there's some biographical elements in it if you can't tell. And the the part about the script, the "Song of the South" is from my own family folklore. I grew up my entire life being told that my namesake, my grandfather, Edgar Young, wrote that script and sent it to Disney, and he never got credit for it. But if only we can find the original script. So once my mother was sick, and then once she passed, my dad and I, we just, like, tore the house apart, just searching for that thing and searching and searching and searching. And it was never able to find it. So in March of this year, we did a like an hour long version of "Boney Manilli" for a live audience as a workshop. And my dad was there, my siblings were there. And it re-inspired my dad to start looking again. And guess what happened? He found it.

Craig: [00:50:57] Are you serious?

Edgar: [00:50:59] I'm serious. He found it. He did. And it was in the place where it was. It was there all along. It was right in front of us. It was in the cabinet where the good dishes were. So I guess we hadn't thrown a party in a long time, I guess, using the good china. And my mother hid it behind some of it and just forgot it was there. And, you know, we don't touch the good china, so we just never saw it. And I read it. And it wasn't the story, "The Song of the South".

Craig: [00:51:37] Right.

Edgar: [00:51:41] Which I have to be really honest. I'm absolutely relieved. If you grow up your entire life being told that you were exploited by a company that we all I grew up with Walt Disney books in my bedroom. You know, I'll take my kid to Disneyland. I go and see Marvel movies, you know, like they're a massive monopoly, which I've gained some pleasure from over the years. And just the thought of being in a law and a in a court battle with them would take could take a decade and we could just be completely drained of everything. So I was relieved that it wasn't that story, but when I read it, it turns out that it was better, that it was more authentic. And it was the first time that I actually heard my grandfather's voice, because he died two months before I was born and I never got to meet him. And this is the first time that I could hear him. In this text.

Craig: [00:52:47] So so is this the same grandfather that you're named after who is also a painter?

Edgar: [00:52:52] Yes.

Craig: [00:52:53] So you must feel like there's a real kismet connection across those generations, right?

Edgar: [00:53:01] Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I keep saying this, you know I'll say it for the third time, but serendipity is a powerful force. And I think that, you know, the reason why things feel serendipitous is because the the like the echo remains, but the big bang is gone. Like you feel the ripple effects of something well into the future. But like where it came from has been obscured. And in the case of this, this family myth, the story that my grandfather wrote? I feel like it was for me. You know, it's now in my hands, in my backpack. I carried. Been carrying it around for the last three and a half months, just waiting to figure out how to incorporate this discovery into the story. And I haven't figured out how to do that yet.

Craig: [00:54:04] So you feel like you need to...does...oh, my gosh. So do we need to incorporate this discovery into "Boney Manilli" or not?

Edgar: [00:54:15] I feel like it. It is a resolution which no one would see coming. You know, when we when it's a I feel like we were talking earlier about how the culture is being influenced. And we're we're at this moment in American history where we're saying is now the time for reparations is now the time to compensate the the descendants of the exploited of the African American of the Native American. Is is the United States now willing to engage with this conversation and the pendulum swing of the right wing towards a more radicalized nationalist rhetoric around the United States being a Christian nation and for that sake, sort of a white Christian nation, which is a fallacy. But that's the zeitgeist that we're in. And when I have discovered this script, in some ways it offers an opportunity to say something about reparations, the desire for reparations, but also how it's an opportunity to build something new, which is not on the rickety boat of trauma. Right? That what my grandfather wrote was honest. It was was passed down generationally. There's no Uncle Remus. There's no Chandler Harris, you know, taking the black voice and then taking the stories from the the descendants of slaves from his plantation and then turning them into a stereotype black voice of Uncle Remus. You know, none of that is in my grandfather's story. It's free of all of that burden. So I feel I feel obligated to bring it in because in some ways, it is that thing of letting go that I that I feel like the last few months of my mother's dementia was about, you know, in some ways, her generosity and spirit was, you know, sort of training us to slowly let go before she crossed over.

Craig: [00:57:01] Well, is is the script I mean, if it's not Song of the South and it does have merit on its own, I mean, is there enough there that Edgar Young and Edgar Arseneaux together can turn it into something of its own outside of this play? I mean, is it "12 Years a Slave" or...

Edgar: [00:57:21] Oh, I, I, I don't know. I have to put that to the test. I mean, the story that I've written so far is, is it's good, you know, but I just I feel like I need to put it to the test and it may collapse under the pressure of this new discovery. But I don't know. I've learned and I'll say this for all the young artists out there that you want to be in conversation with your work, I mean, it is a living, breathing thing. And if you allow it, it'll tell you what it wants to be. So at this point, I'm trying to figure out how much this discovery will play a part. And I just have to just keep working on it until I know for sure if it radically changes the ending or if it lays on top of the ending that I've already scripted.

Craig: [00:58:21] Well, Edgar, I think I've taken more time than I ask for today. Edgar, if folks wanted to keep track of of you and your work, where's the best place to follow? What's going on?

Edgar: [00:58:34] Yeah. So you can you can find me on Instagram and @edgar_three on Instagram and then my website studio, and then if you want to see the work in person at Veilmetter Los Angeles. Those are those are the three best ways to track.

Craig: [00:59:01] Well, again, man, I. I really appreciate your time and I really appreciate you allowing me to take up such a huge chunk of your afternoon. I have such a great amount of respect for your vision and in your work. And I really appreciate you being willing to come on and talk about it all.

Edgar: [00:59:21] No, thank you. I'm I'm a fan of the show, and it's great to be on.

Craig: [00:59:33] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art Sense. You can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to And click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Thanks for listening.

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