Pritha Mahanti in conversation with artist Nadia Daniels-Moehle
Pritha: Hi everyone, I am Pritha Mahanti and welcome to this special conversation for Ptenopus. Last month on Dec 15th the news of bell hooks’ demise was heartbreaking for a lot of us. For those of you who know her and her work, you’d probably know that it is not easy to introduce her or to define who bell hooks really was. But for those of you who are not familiar with her work, I will just attempt a brief introduction. So, bell hooks was a teacher, feminist scholar, author and social activist whose ground breaking work exploring the intersectionality of gender, race, class has left us with a rich legacy of ideas. As readers from different backgrounds and contexts we all have found something in her writings that really spoke to us in a way that nothing before had spoken to us. And therefore the impact of bell hooks. For us at Ptenopus, hooks’ idea on art as “essential to our collective well-being” has been one of the inspirations behind starting this publication. She has always been that bridge connecting ideas, people and communities. And it is actually through her that we got to meet our guest for today. Hi Nadia, welcome to this conversation!
Nadia: Hi, thank you so much for this! I’m looking forward to talking with you and being able to talk about bell hooks right now. I think losing her last month just made me refocus on her and her work, and I feel like I’m recommitting to her in a way. So, thank you for this opportunity.
Pritha: And I’ll introduce Nadia to our audience. So, Nadia Daniels-Moehle is an interdisciplinary artist. She is based in Michigan. She believes that through art, storytelling and education the world can transform, and she hopes to help this transformation along in any way she can. She both freelances and works with multiple organizations offering community organizing, arts and education programming and together with her sister Sonja she co-founded the non-profit Look Wonder Discover with the mission to cultivate curiosity. It was actually her sketch which was titled “Organic Interbeing, Inspired by bell hooks” which really got us interested and therefore we’ll just invite her to talk about bell hooks and that would be a fitting tribute to this extraordinary public figure. I’ll just share the screen to show her portrait. Ya, that’s her sketch that we absolutely loved, and this is how we have Nadia with us today. So, firstly to start this off, tell us about your introduction to bell hooks. When was the first time that she happened to you?
Nadia: Oh, I love your phrasing of that because she really did happen to me. I grew up in a house, and still live in a house completely full of books, and bell hooks was always there as a book on the shelf. She was a person who influenced an unconventional education. So, before I even really understood who she was, she affected me. Because of her work I grew up with the understanding that things like creativity and education and feminism and cultural justice are just part of learning and part of life. And so, she really has helped spark this little activist spark in me as well. But I began to interact with her as a teen. I really felt the accessibility of her work and her theories. It really helped me understand that all of this work really starts with us as individuals and so, as I’ve grown up I’m really interacting and, trying to come back to her in my own work. I just understand that she along with a lot of other intersectional creative thinkers and writers have really encouraged me to facilitate cultural and personal engagement to creative work and just understanding that, it’s a lot. Art’s a lot more than aesthetic choices, it’s how we interact with each other. I remember reading her for the first time when I was maybe 15, and I was like “I think I want to know who that name on that shelf is”, and since then she’s been somebody who has definitely helped me steer through life. But I have to ask how you were introduced to her and how she has affected you as well, that’s something I’ve been very curious about.
Pritha: So, bell hooks happened to me when I was in my undergrads in Presidency University, or in Masters maybe. We had some of her essays. I think we had Teaching to Transgress also as part of our curriculum. One of the amazing things that I recall about having felt while reading her work was that she was just talking about the basics, and that was so revolutionary. You know, I’ll have to admit (seems rather stupid now when I think about it!) that I really had a difficult time engaging with feminism as a theory. In the sense that when I got introduced to it, I couldn’t relate it to the practical aspect of life. I mean the impact of theory I had not felt till then. Everything so far was on paper. I can’t even articulate it…
Nadia: I understand that! I feel like we all understand that to a level because you know how she brings feminism into the classroom, and racism and anti-racism into the classroom and says that it only works if you practice it. That’s one of the premises of her work, and yeah…you were saying…
Pritha: Yeah, so especially in Teaching to Transgress she has this line where she says that classroom is that space where you really get that freedom. Like, to be in a classroom was an act of resistance. That was extraordinary to come across. Even before this interview I was talking to a lot of friends who were with me in the university and I was asking them “tell me what you recollect about bell hooks”. I mean not recollect really because once who have read bell hooks she just stays with you. So we were discussing how she was talking about things that were just there in front of us. We just need to think about them. Her work concerned everyone, it concerned men, it concerned her own community. So this wasn’t just one thing against another. It was a continuous conversation. And as you rightly said—accessibility. She was not talking in jargons or giving us big words. Even something as simple as creating an alternative character. Of course we all know that she was born Gloria Jean Watkins and bell hooks is a name that she took from her maternal grandmother as a homage to her and to all the women that have come before us. When she creates that alter ego and has a conversation with her, you understand what a prolific writer she was definitely, but a thinker as well. So yeah, about the sketch…one of the things that I loved about it is that, you know, in most of her portraits she has this iconic pose where she is looking straight into the camera. And of course it is her eyes that attract you. And in your sketch you have particularly focused on that eye of hers. So could you just explain what was your idea behind the sketch? I guess it was part of the eye project…
Nadia: Yeah, so it was day 346 of my 365 day art project and challenge. I called it CognEYEzant. I replaced the ‘I’ in the word cognizant with ‘eye’ because I wanted to be clever. I was almost 18 at the time, and I realised that in order to commit to a creative practice that was so in-depth, and for that kind of commitment I needed a reason. And so, I thought okay, I love drawing eyes, so there’s the creative reason. But for me on a cultural level it was really simplistic. I think that in a world that we focus so much on, we have this technologies and these divisions that keep our perceptions and our gazes very fixed, if we could just look at each other, and look in eyes, everyday just spend a little bit of time, connecting with humanity and something else, we could have huge culture shifts of the likes that bell hooks talks about. So, for me that project started out very simplistically, but as I went I started to draw portraits of people I met on the streets and people who, I really admired. Of course bell hooks is a part of that. So, this piece started with just reflecting on her. It was the fourth drawing in the series that I did of authors ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Jesmyn Ward, who have affected how I really view the world. For bell hooks’ portrait I found this photograph of her where she was almost smiling at the camera. It was like she knew more than she was telling. And I feel that is so much a part of her writing that she understood things at a deep level and was able to invite you in. And I felt that the photograph was doing just that. As I started with the lines, these organic shapes sort of happened. I reflected on this quote from the Will to Change that “interbeing and interdependency as the organic relationship of all living beings”. For me that kind of encapsulated her work and back in 2019 when I did this piece she was still alive and there was this idea of her work still continuing. Returning to it after her passing away reminds me that making this space to draw her eye really captured how her work invites all of us to approach our everyday in order to enhance the everyday. She wrote something that really struck me that “our capacity to live more fully in the world”. That piece for me, however long it took me to draw, brought me close to her and her work. And seeing how it affects now, I realise that there really is this interbeing and this interdependency that we have with her work and with her legacy. We see how it continues through us and our conversations with it.
Pritha: So how long did it actually take?
Nadia: Since I had been drawing a lot, my practice was definitely more improved than it had been in the beginning. So, it probably only took me an hour and a half for that one.
Pritha: Oh that’s fast! Given the details that you captured.
Nadia: When you do something everyday it is surprising how fast your ability is! I have the finger memory of drawing eyes. I can do it so easily now, more so when you make that commitment, give your mind body and soul to something at such a young age. I was very dedicated.
Pritha: Yeah! That was actually something that struck me. You were so young when you did that. To have that idea too. And it is also a huge task. 365 days is not a joke. I think that discipline is what really matters. And one of the things that I really loved when you were describing the sketch, is that this idea that we spend some time looking at each other and really connecting…it echoes bell hooks’ ideas on love where she says “love begins with the needs of the body”. I wrote it down when I was listening to one of her interviews. It is probably in All About Love where she says that “US is driven by the quest to love” but “quite tragically lovelessness pervades”. It seems especially true when if we go back to 2019 and all the things that have happened. How revolutionary was her idea of love to you? How did you rethink love, lets say.
Nadia: I know that the English language is limited in that we only have one word for love. I have always loved philosophy, it is one of my great loves. But I was always frustrated with the idea of the mind and the body being separate. Because physiologically our mind, body and being are essentially the same thing. And as a woman who is interested in philosophy, there was a disconnect between my human self and ideas. Just like, as you were talking about earlier, with theory and how we don’t know how to put it into practice, until we can contextualize it with our own self. So her approach to love as just being part of our lives and part of theory, and all of it really affected me in the sense that when we get too far away from where we are, from each other, and from our own perception and our own emotions in a situation with too much analysis, we need the balance between both. We need to be able to seek that love in the sense of both the common humanity we share with everyone and also the physical need. We all crave closeness with each other. I think everyone in the last couple of years understands that at such a raw level because we have been forced in isolation or forced to be around people when we are not comfortable. Where I live in the US, there is almost this sense of excitement when you go to the library but now there is this sense of weariness that helps me realize that love forces us in the most positive way to connect with each other. I think I said recommit to bell hooks earlier but also recommit to that sense of love and not let it inform fear but let it inform curiosity instead.
Pritha: Yeah! And there is also this love ethics that she talks about. That was also something that when I heard for the first time I was like “wow!” It was really something to think about when she talks about love, community and empathy. We can invest with one another when we are a part of the community and only by investing in one another that we really build empathy around us. We are in such times when there is a pandemic, where everyday something new is happening but we are also stuck in a way. Has it impacted your art practice? Was there a time when all of this was taking a toll on you? Did you feel that interacting with the world was not happening at the pace in which you wanted your creativity to flourish?
Nadia: Yes for sure! In 2020 when I had finished the CognEYEzant project, after 365 days I said “okay, that project was very much about connecting and looking and with that is perception and we can only scratch the surface with that”. I wanted to go as deep as I could, and so, I started the second year of the project where I would paint within the golden spiral and blew it up to life size and made these giant paintings and explored perceptions and everything from monsters to mathematics and science. I was very excited to use the creation of that art to connect with people in person and my ultimate goal was that I had a show lined up at the end of the project. So at the end of 52 weeks, the last week I would spend in a gallery, painting with people and discussing about perceptions. It was almost as if the project coincided with the beginning of the pandemic and I realized that I had to really rethink that and it was very much like Gloria Watkins talking with bell hooks. I was talking to myself about perception, community, connection because it was genuine isolation since I live in a forest. So, I was lucky to have fresh air and space. It was very shocking to see other people so there was this moment of disconnect. With that project I thought why don’t I just go back through archives and be reflective, and in Oct 2020 the week before the elections (it was a really fraught time and we were all incredibly nervous) I was like I need to still have a connection with people at the end. We needed it more than ever, so, instead of painting for a gallery I painted on the gallery’s window. I was separated by a piece of glass on the street, painting and thinking about perception and, as I painted, I sort of felt that me being in public but still isolated captured the feeling of the pandemic, something that is so strange for us connected human beings to experience. Because I was there on a physical level but also separate. Our perceptions do shape how we interact with the world. The pandemic has shown us that. The divisions that we are experiencing come from so many of us not understanding that we all have different perceptions. And we need to respect each other’s perceptions and be curious about them. In order to just understand that we actually are looking through the veils of our own perceptions we need the combination of reflection and action. And this was something that was happening at that window. As I was working and seeing people walk by, I was reminded of something bell hooks wrote in Teaching to Transgress that “we need action and reflection upon the world in order to change it”. Whether we are reeling under isolation or forced to engage with very broken systems, we are forced to reflect on the things that are broken and the cracks in our foundation globally. I am very hopeful that we are ushering a time where the younger generation is learning to patch the cracks and build new foundation. It is the culmination of action and reactions. The pandemic gave me the solitude to create art but for me it gave the meaning that there needs to be a connection. Because, I do think art has the potential to change culture, but we have to be able to communicate. It is this tedious balance. So I think the pandemic put everything into a stark relief. I have been able to see things much differently.
Pritha: Since you mentioned the elections, I am very tempted to ask this. It is something that we are also facing here in India. And what I am referring to is the polarization of the society. Especially with the pandemic and the presidential election in the US, what was something about that time that bothered you most? Both as a citizen and as an artist because those things are not really separate.
Nadia: Just to prefix what I am going to say—there is this idea of the aesthetics of art being separate from politics. But, because of people like bell hooks I know that just existing in my body is political. Making art that says something beyond what it looks like, is political. I grew up very much an activist. My parents would bring me to protests on their shoulders when I was very small. For my sister and myself it was a part of our lives. So, I was aware of democracy and politics even as a child. In 2016, the Trump administration (hate to bring that up in this conversation but it is the reality) really showed me how there are these times of politics when communication and being able to be open to each other is so important. And I saw all of these foundations of democracy, civil rights and social justice, that we all hold dear, that I hold dear, as an American be questioned and mocked. So, with the pandemic and the election all at that time I was definitely discouraged, in the sense that, in an ordinary time that election could have been an opportunity for people to feel bolstered and build networks and I know that while I definitely worked and tried, because of the pandemic I see that the far right is even more far right because of it. A lot of people are talking about reaching across the aisle but I think it is more about saying what are we trying to do. What is our goal? For me I know the goal is to uphold democracy and just to try and be a good person and I want politicians to reflect that as well. And to respect what we all kind of want deep down. But watching people leading the country, who are mocking it at the same time, was incredibly frustrating to me. Knowing that things that people like bell hooks have worked very hard for, someone who knows the processes of democracy can get as riled up as I did.
Pritha: Yes, it is something similar that we feel here in India. In bell hooks’ writings there is this one very important idea that “conversation is the best way of learning” and conversation can only happen when you are not building walls, not allowing walls between yourselves. As much as I hated to bring this up in the conversation, I deliberately asked that because it is sort of like the elephant in the room. I am from India, you are from the US.
Nadia: Yes! The world’s oldest and largest democracies…
Pritha: So there is another question connected to this. bell hooks wrote about gender, class and race. If I were to talk about myself…I mean both of us are women and we both face a certain kind of marginalization, let’s say. Not a similar experience, but different. But both of us are also privileged in certain senses. As a privileged person, as part of a majority, or a privileged majority, how does bell hooks speak to you?
Nadia: That is a really good question! And thank you for asking it because when you first reached out about this feature I went “oh I love bell hooks, but am I the right person to have this conversation?”
Pritha: Yeah, even I was thinking about this question a lot. I went over it in my mind and I was like “is this the right question?” Should I be asking her this question? And then I realized that it is something very natural to ask…people watching this interview could also think “is she the right person for a tribute and a conversation done in memory of her”. But it is about bell hooks and she is just so much more than any label that you can associate with her. But ya go on…
Nadia: Yeah, her work is interdisciplinary and intersectional. When you read her work, it is not just one thing. I think of myself as an incredibly privileged person and I also understand the limitations of my body and my situation. But, I also realize that it is also my duty in a way to learn as much as I possibly can and be like a sponge to other people’s experiences and to understand empathy. bell hooks wrote The Will to Change, it was feminism for masculine people. She knew how to talk to people, to say that this is a concept we need to understand as humans. We have to be able to check ourselves and be like “wait a minute, I am seeing the world from my perspective and it can only see so much”. And so hooks’ work taught me to be who I am where I am when I am. I am having this conversation with with you through technology, so to be able to contextualize things and to be open is something that I found to be a sort of facilitator. For me to have these conversations and to be able to say that “okay, if I am going to be able to make art, it is going to say something?” How can we be more aware and curious? bell hooks’ work makes me see that we have to commit to hard work. We have to commit to challenging ourselves. And thank you again for asking this question because for me it is very much about saying that in order to see myself as ‘who I am where I am and when I am,’ I have to be open to challenge and curiosity and pursue all that at the same time.
Pritha: Now, I wanted to ask about this community project that you have with your mom and your sister. It was really interesting to go through the website. So for our audience, we have a little similarity. Ptenopus is run by three people and Nadia also has a three member team. They have this collective called Look Wonder Discover and they do a lot of community, creative and learning work and again bell hooks’ ideas fit perfectly in this. She was always talking about “communities of practice where learning is contextual and meaningful”. That the classroom can be anywhere and you could be learning anything. So yeah, talk to us a little bit about that.
Nadia: So, our history is very interesting. The project officially began when my sister was six and I was ten. It began because we were very weary of tech and the internet and we preferred books, but our mom understood the potential for interconnection and community building and interacting through technology. So we started a website, a blog called ‘The Books for Walls Project’ with the idea of spreading literacy, library and book love, with the understanding that there was this sense of interbeing. It was like you could ask someone what they were reading, about their first memory of a book and you got to know them on a more personal level. We realized that there was this sense of shared community and community building. And so now that we have grown up so has the project. Now it is called Look Wonder Discover. It has expanded to encompass things like futures in digital literacy, community building and art, and our goal is to cultivate curiosity. Being involved in this work since I was a child, helping my parents to facilitate community art and workshops, has shown me how the attempt to facilitate this kind of interbeing comes from a place of creativity and persistence and the need to invite people and build both local and global networks. We have to keep trying and that persistence is part of the work. And it is something that bell hooks has touched on a lot, that we have to keep working, we have to keep adapting. We have to share, whether it is ideas, spaces or possibilities. A kind of creative community building is very much a concept practice. It is constantly evolving and coincidentally also it has got to do with the curiosity I was talking about. So it’s like they are constantly reinforcing each other. The work that we have done and what we plan to do revolve around the idea that if you have knowledge, share it. And if you can build community along the way and encourage people to feel that as well, then there is that transformative power of it and it really inspires me.
Pritha: It is also amazing how your project, in certain ways, is about going back to basics, as bell hooks would say. Simple acts like walking into a library, taking a book off the shelf, reading and connecting, despite everything that we are doing virtually these days. There is something very interesting that I found on the website, that your sister had discovered the antlers.
Nadia: Yeah! She discovered an extinct elk skeleton in the forest at the bottom of the lake near our house. It is like the dream of every 10 year old that if you like nature you want to discover something and she had this amazing experience.
Pritha: Yeah! And I think you took it to the university and interacted with the professors…
Nadia: Yeah, we took it to the University of Michigan and funded a Kickstarter for her to carbon date and DNA test. We were able to find that this is the only specimen of this extinct species of elk. We went to interview the director of the Smithsonian museum when she was 11. I illustrated some shirts for her and for her campaign, the tagline for which was, “Look Wonder Discover”. Then we thought, wait we need to rethink our project. Science is part of creativity. When we connect everything there is this amazing curiosity, so yeah, I am a big fan of her work I have to say.
Pritha: This just goes on to show the interdisciplinary nature of your work. This element of nature in your work again reflects bell hooks’ idea that ”we should be able to embrace the conditions of the world”. The questions about environment and nature are not very far off from ideas of social justice, politics or democracy. Tell us something about how nature comes through in your work. Here I would like to tell the audience to go watch In Which a Story Unfolds on YouTube where Nadia animates the eye sketches. It is specially amazing how immersive it is. It takes you into a different world where you are just left with your thoughts the whole time that you are watching that video. I am sure climate is a question that concerns you.
Nadia: Yeah! That is also a theme that brings into focus my privilege. The fact that I am able to interact with nature. Understanding climate change and how it is also a racist and classist issue. And it is all interconnected. I have grown up near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. And so for me, you know, the great lakes and these ideas of this really special kinds of spaces in nature have really made me very aware of the world around me, both natural and cultural. On a visual level the natural forms have affected me. The idea of nature and how it has affected my work can best be summed up in a bell hooks quote “the engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with the world beyond itself”. For me there is nothing better than nature to remind us of the world beyond ourselves. Whether it is something vast and terrifying or small and fragile, something to always remember that we are part of this ecosystem. Nature is never still. It is constantly evolving. It is creativity in its most fundamental, cellular sense. Literally consecration, destruction, repurposing, collecting and creating again. The idea of nature as awareness. It helps us see that we are not alone and that we have a responsibility to the world around us.
Pritha: Even in this whole idea of critical thinking, there is so much to derive from nature. And I think we are probably coming to the end of the interview. So when I was talking to my friend she had an interesting idea about the CognEYEzant project. I was circulating it among my friends and was telling them to let me know if there was any question they wanted me to ask you. So one of the questions that I received was that when you sit down with a work that has such detailing, there is the idea of creating an alternative reality with time. Because this is a very real-time project that you do, the reality is at the same time fragmented and connected in a certain kind of fluidity. So if you could philosophize that a bit.
Nadia: Thanks! That is an amazing concept! Really flattered that she asked the question. That fragmented idea…part of it for me was that when you are drawing on a technical scale you do have to fragment what you see, you have to break it down into lines and shapes. But then those lines and shapes together create something very tangible and something very clear. On a larger scale it was the idea about the fragments coming together to make a whole. And that they needed to change. I mean on days when I was burnt out or uninspired, I just drew something small, or I did something very experimental and on days that I felt like a challenge, I pushed myself, on a technical scale and on a story and perception scale. While those fragments made a piece, our perceptions are very much fragments of our lives and our experiences. We have to make the practice of putting them together and be aware of them. Together we are ourselves but also a bit on our own. When we are able to come together with those perceptions they create a kind of a cohesive whole.
Pritha: So I think we have covered all the questions that I wanted to ask. If there is anything you want to add you can go ahead.
Nadia: So with bell hooks, her work and remembering her I realized that we are living in such a time of cultural change that we really need to learn to be adaptive and to relearn. We need to have these conversations to ask difficult questions. I feel that bell hooks’ work has given us these tools to do just that. It is very much up to us to do that work. So I feel her work can live on through people who are affected by it. And we need to look through her work and find ways for her work to impact ours and which can live on through our embodied practices. And I am very grateful to have this conversation with you and to spend this time coming back to bell hooks and cementing her work in our experiences.
Pritha: Yeah, it was a pleasure to have you for this special interview! It is quite amazing to think that such is her legacy that even in her absence she is also connecting people. In so many ways you and I having this conversation is because of her. As we close this I want to read out this note that my friend Debomita [Mukherjee] wrote the day that bell hooks passed away.
“The death of bell hooks shattered our hearts. For those of us who read, re-read and keep going back to her writings to find peace, find calm and heal, it was a dark day. We lost a teacher, a friend, a comrade. I cried over the death of a person I had never met but only hoped to. I cried over the death of a person, whose face I only knew through book covers. Yet, I felt I knew her, her death felt like a personal loss. Her words, like sharp objects cutting through layers of domination and authority paved way for an emancipatory feminist politics. One that questioned dogma, one that challenged homogeneity, one that recognised difference and one that challenged all forms of oppression. She told us that it was okay to love and be hurt, that healing was an important lesson in growing. She told us that classrooms could be spaces of revolution and that learning is the first act of defiance. She asked questions that scared the powers, she asked questions that destabilised our truths. In her own words, she believed that “love is profoundly political” and that collective acts of love can be a revolutionary force. She believed that “Love empowers us to live fully and die well. Death becomes, then, not an end to life but a part of living.” Remembering her with love, for teaching to transgress, for telling us all about love, and bringing out the will to change. Rest in Love, bell hooks.”
Nadia: Ah! That is so perfect and fitting! Thank you for sharing that!
Pritha: So we’ll end today’s conversation. We again thank Nadia for giving us the time and would love to catch up again sometime!
Nadia: Thank you so much for making the space!
Born at the turn of the century, Nadia Daniels-Moehle hails from a forest in Michigan. A life-long interdisciplinary artist, Nadia believes that through art, story, and education, the world can transform–and she hopes to help that transformation along in any way she can. Nadia both freelances and works with multiple organizations offering community organizing and arts and education programming. Together with her sister Sonja, she co-founded the non-profit Look Wonder Discover with the mission to cultivate curiosity. When Nadia is not reading, she is either writing, drawing, studying the humanities and sciences, or plotting how to make the world a better place. To learn more about Nadia’s work, visit www.nadiacdm.com.