A Conversation on Art, Death, and Life with Artist Deja Stowers

Interview by Lauren Ash.

Most conversations we have with people will fade. This one won’t. As I listened to our recorded conversation again and again, I was transported. Traveling to the moments spent sharing space with multidisciplinary activist-artist Deja Stowers and photographer Nancy Musinguzi cozied together in the upper level of Capri Theatre in North Minneapolis in February. I found myself feeling full in that moment; full of the perspective of a woman who has already lived multiple lives, of raw honesty that only an unapologetic artist can deliver, of gratitude for being the receiver of such enormously deep truths. While what Deja shared with us may be, by some accounts dark, morbid and heavy, I smile because of how compelling, deep, authentic and frank Deja is about her experiences as an activist-artist, Black woman, and as a human being trying to make sense of the darkness life sometimes throws our way. How many of us can say we would share such intimate and dark truths with an audience, not for the purpose of others, but in order to truly set ourselves free from bondages we place on ourselves? I am privileged to share this conversation with you and thank you again, Deja, for sharing.

LA: So can we talk a little bit about the creative projects that you are cultivating right now? And some on the horizon, as well?

DS: When I talked to you last, I was working on a piece called Embolus. I had another show called Read My Lips. It was me, my brother Rashad and Nimo, who is a Somali-poet artist. My brother is gay. One of the men in the audience, a heterosexual male, came up to me afterwards and said, “I couldn’t really get it,  I couldn’t look passed: he’s gay. I couldn’t see anything.” And I was like “okay, so this is a 15-20 minute piece and you’re saying you didn’t get not a damn thing because my brother is gay? I don’t understand.” So, something is blocking him from receiving these messages.

So I went to him and we’re in there [talking] for like an hour and a half. And I’m trying to get through to him. To break these walls down, but, it just wasn’t getting to him. And the only thing I could think of is an embolism. So, a thrombus is like this plaque. If you don’t eat right, if you don’t exercise, there’s this plaque that builds up on the wall of your blood vessels. And an embolus is a piece of that plaque that breaks off and it goes through your blood vessels until it meets a blood vessel that’s too narrow and it gets stuck. And it’s mostly likely in the brain. It causes a stroke and and you have an embolism. I’m trying to figure out what the thrombus is in him. But something has broken off and something has stopped him from receiving messages. Something is stuck in his brain to where he’s like “I can’t receive oxygen, I can’t receive what I need to survive.” The tools of openness, accepting people, basic human nature.

LA: Empathy. He has an inability to empathize.

DS: And it wasn’t even empathy for him [my brother]. It was empathy for the subject he was talking about [in the art on stage]. So, it wasn’t actually about his sexuality. He wasn’t looking for that. So, then I created a piece that I called Embolus. And I wanted to bring all those gender roles out and just fuck them up.

LA: So, he inspired this whole new piece!

DS: Yes, he inspired that. And it was about the death of three black men in my life and how it affected me. So that’s my father, my uncle and my best friends’ abusive boyfriend. But, I didn’t tell the story. I had two males tell the story. One gay and one heterosexual. And they played the characters interchangeably. So they were my uncle, my dad, the boyfriend and me. They would change from (hard) “nigga please” to (smoothly) “giiiiiirl”. So, you start to trip up on what do I think gay looks like or hetero looks like when you see two Black men touching each other, hugging each other, looking into each others’ eyes, smiling, crying together, dancing together. You don’t see that. I said, “ya’ll can just go on stage and stand next to each other” and it would be like thank you, standing ovation (laughs). Because we don’t really see that, especially in Minnesota. So, that was something that I did and it was...it had really good feedback. And it was very emotional.

I’m going to tell you that I no longer call my shows performances. I believe that makes it minstrelsy. And that makes it like it’s for the audience. And that’s not what I want to do. I don’t know what to call it yet...let’s say every time I do my art in a space that people call a theatre or people call a stage it should be a rites of passage for me.

LA: So, it’s a journey.

DS: Right, it’s a journey. My process is...I do create a skeleton for my art. But I don’t rehearse it that much. And I don’t get into those raw emotions that much because on that stage, that’s where that rite of passage happens. That’s where that real emotion happens. When I have that epiphany, you can’t have that epiphany over and over (laughs) so I’m not going to rehearse it over and over. I’m going to say, “Ok, this is what I want to explore. I’ve got my bullet points.” and then, when I go there I will explore that. But, audience, it’s not for you. I may talk to you because you’re there. But it’s not for you. So, if you say “I don’t get it.” Ok, I don’t know what you’re going to do about it (laughs). If you want me to explain something, I can explain something for you, but it’s not for you. It’s not packaged in that way.

So, working with the two men was something special for me. It’s about going up there and doing what you feel. So we had our script, they wanted to run it over and over. My process is that we say that rehearsal is two hours, but it’s usually not. We’re usually on CP time, somebody’s got snacks, you know. And then, we’re grubbing and we’re like “daaaamn, it’s been two hours!” And we’re like “but, wait, let’s listen to this song.” We’re here twerking. And then we go to rehearsal. After that we’re still twerking and doing extra stuff. For [my piece] Read My Lips we went to a hotel. This came out of my pocket, because I’m like “this is where this happens.” That retreat made us realize how connected we really are. So when we did get on that stage. We were able to just be. The audience should feel like they’re not actually supposed to be there. They should feel like a fly on the wall.

LA: Very secondary.

DS: Right, the audience should feel very secondary. 

So back to Emobolus. It talks about the death of my uncle. I’ll start with my uncle Tony, my Dad’s brother. He died of unknown causes. All I remember about him is that he was really nice and that he talked really fast. So he was like “yeah, yeah, yeah” (speaks really fast) and I was like “yeah, Uncle Tony” (speaks fast). He was real nice, real smooth, you know? And, when he died, by that time, I was numb. I had just come back from Howard. I was 23. It was last year or the year before that when he passed away. I was so numb. My family was calling me like “are you coming to the funeral?” I was like “yeah…,” but I wasn’t gonna go. I just needed that time to myself. It was like I had a dose of novocaine in my breakfast cereal.

LA: Because you couldn’t really grapple with it, or because of other things?

DS: Kind of because of other things, too.

So, I’ll go to the next character, which is my best friends’ abusive boyfriend. (sigh) It’s actually not hard for me to talk about. It’s hard for people to hear. It’s hard for me to say to people because they start to look at me in a certain way. But, I don’t really care about that. We were friends for like 13 years. Just my everything. I love her. She met this abusive guy. He would manipulate her by saying he would kill himself if she ever left him. And she did. In my mind it was either him or here. I chose her ...Two o'clock the next morning he hung himself on a tree outside of his house. 

Now that he’s passed, she has an elevated thinking about him now. So, she’s like “he actually was a good boyfriend, you have no right to say that.” And I’m like “alright, call me when you’re ready.” I don’t know what to do with that. It’s always like you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. So, we have never been the same since then. I’m happy she’s alive though. I’m very happy she’s alive.

The third death is my Father. He died of sickle cell anemia when I was 8 years old. He was my ace boon coon. I believe that my Dad carried me for nine months. He was the shit! (laughs) He was just so amazing. My Dad, in high school, he had a jerry curl with lil’ buck teeth. He was just the shit! (laughs) He was just so amazing. When I tell you he was my everything. Every time he changed his number, I knew it by heart. Even when he was in the hospital, I knew when he was in the hospital. I was just so enamored with him. That was my role model. I wanted to be exactly like him. He and my Mom got married in the hospital. He was sick and he called my Mom and he said “I’m just ready to do this. Come to the hospital.”

So, the video is him in the hospital bed. My Mom was wearing red lipstick, my Mom never wears red lipstick. And I’m looking at this video. I’m, like, 2 or something, and I’m all over the place. Just being. And, I’m watching this video and I’m looking at how my Mom’s hand is in my Father’s hand and he just looks very sick and just...you know...um...kind of lifeless. And my Mom is just looking there with this red lipstick and looking so vibrant. And what I saw from that is: I will be your life in your death. And she’s holding his hand and she’s like “I do” even though... Right? And my Dad died at 32. That wasn’t a long marriage. And even then he got a divorce and he left her for a white woman. So, in that, I was struggling with “but Dad I look like my Mom. So...what does that mean? Am I not beautiful? I don’t look like this woman. So, what are you saying?” And my Mom wore lipstick for you! Bump you! Why would you do that to her? To this day I don’t see her wearing lipstick, especially not red lipstick...that means you bout it, bout it with some red lipstick. So, that angered me and I blamed everything on this white woman like “You did this to him. Basically, you killed him. If he would have been with us, this wouldn’t have happened.” One day [years later] he came over, and um, my Mom said “we’re about to have an adult conversation, get out of the room.” Now you really want to know.

LA: Yes, this is an adult conversation, I’m about to hear every word!

DS: Right. They think I don’t know! So this ….and my sister and I were listening and my Dad is saying “I’m tired of this, I want to move back, I want my family back. I need to be with you guys.” And My Mom is like “okay, how are we going to work this out? When do you plan on leaving?” And my Mom was all the way down, 100% for my Dad. And me and my sister are in the room secretly partying and shit. Like “ooooh, he’s coming back?” And then, she called us out. I’m trying to hide back my smile. I’m like “okay, are you leaving now? Why are you leaving now?” I gave him a hug, it was a very long hug. And then, I just felt something from him when I hugged him. That’s him returning home. That’s him. I know he’s coming home. And I was just so happy. And the next morning we got the phone call that he died. And, for me, I guess that was his way of saying you are actually beautiful. I do love you. I want to come back to you.

LA: I just got chills.

DS: I took that as, at first I interpreted that as a loss. Like, dang he was gonna come home, just let him come home, you know?! But, then I realized he needed to say goodbye to me first. He needed to let me know that I’m here for you, regardless. I only interpreted that now. Before I didn’t interpret it that way. And since I didn’t, I started looking for love in other places. In other men. And doing really risky shit. I wish somebody would have punched me in my face (laughs). Though, that made me who I am. So, when I did find Penumbra Theatre...Before I found Penumbra Theatre, I found no value. I felt like I was absolutely everything to everybody, the center of the mother fucking’ world. And then when he passed away, I was absolutely nothing.

LA: ….because you defined a lot of yourself in relationship to him.

DS: Right, exactly. I was like that’s my partner, I don’t even have a partner no more. What am I gonna do? So, I engaged in a lot of things that weren’t for me. I don’t look like the people that I’m around. I don’t talk like them. I wanna be a performer. My Dad was the only one who sat there and watched me perform for him. Singing Brandy songs and shit. He was the one that was like “yeah, girl!” And now I don’t have that. So I was muted in a way. But then when I found Penumbra Theatre, I was like I do have something that is worth living for or worth giving to or worth conditioning and taking care of. So, that’s kind of how my art came about. So, that’s Embolus.

So, what’s on the horizon is a show called Gifts through Q Stages, it’s going to be at Intermedia Arts in May. And it’s written directed, everything by me and performed by Kenna Cottman. And it’s about the valuing and devaluing of bodies. Using the body as a commodity. And it’s all under the basis of “do you remember that time when….” because we all are like ”do you remember when?” But what I realized later, when I’m talking to my best friend now is “do you remember when….” is so horrible. Remember that time when the guy socked you in your jaw because you wouldn’t give him no na-na?! (laughs obnoxiously) But that’s not what you should be laughing about. You don’t realize the seriousness of it until you’re able to pan out and say “whoa, that’s crazy.” How much value did you have on yourself because you allowed it to happen over and over again? So, I’m excited about it. And I’m interested to see the process with Kenna. Because Kenna was, at first, my mentor. And now we’re like kinesthetic wives. So, now it’s like I don’t know how to deal with you because you used to be my mentor and now you’re like my bestie and you’re just so cool. So, yeah, I’m excited for this. That’s what’s on the horizon.  

LA: One more question. How is your process a tool for healing? What about it is healing for you?

DS: It’s simple: the fact that I just get to be myself. And I don’t have to put on any jeans for any god damn body that don’t fit. I’m there in my yoga pants. (laughs) You know? And, I’m able to just...there’s not many places -- now it is because I’ve made it my goal to be myself all the damn time. Even if I meet a professional person I’ll be like ”peace, how are you?” Co-existing doesn’t mean that I code switch for you. Coexisting means that you see that and you’re still able to see that, and you’re still able to be you!

LA: Whoop!

DS: So my process is where I get to be my true, true self. I get to cuss people out under my breath, I get to scream. I get to do all these things that I don’t get to do in many different places. It took a long time to get to be where I am, to do that piece. Like, [to say] actually I don’t want to engage with you. Thank you, but I don’t.  

One thing I have to master is so crazy...is exercise that muscle [and say to people] this place is not actually for you. Can you bounce?

his just happened after I did Reddish, which is a show about rage. I’m just saying “fuck you” basically. We had a POC dinner afterwards. And one of my friends decided to bring a white girl and I’m like “okay, let me talk to YOU first. I need you to be more cognizant when this is a safe space for people. She does not have access to this space. The same way we don’t have access to some spaces.” It’s not a tit for tat. It’s just a safety issue that we need to talk about. And he was like ”well, I can just ask her to leave” and I was like “please do.” So, that happened. But also, what I’m having a problem with is after a show. Specifically after Reddish. Because I was like [in my show]: “You fucking white people, talking about bringing our K-9’s and pepper spray to the protestors!” And a lot of white people came up to me afterwards looking for justification. And saying ”thank you for your work. It was so...it really resonated.” I don’t need you to affirm me. And, then I have a problem with “can I hug you?” But that you already touched me. And this is the hardest part for me, I have to learn how to say “actually, I don’t feel safe. Just: thank you. I appreciate you being here.”

LA: Because that can also -- not that you should have to be anybody’s teacher --- But that can teach them the parameters.  

DS: But they want to be that white person, like “she cannot be talking about me in that performance!” [It’s like] we’re cool. Let’s hug. Let’s show everybody that I know you from that one place. Because I’m a progressive, liberal person. And that I don’t know why it’s like that. Or the people that come up to you like “that was so entertaining.”  

LA: And that goes back to what you were saying about not making it a performance.

DS: Right. Once I say I’m trying to do something to you, then that’s something else. When you say “it’s entertaining” then I get angry. But if I feed myself through my art and I’m full. And I feel like my heart is welling up with tears and I feel like I’m someone new after that, it don’t matter what you say after that.

Be sure to get your tickets to attend Gifts, created by Deja and performed by Kenna Cottman, in Minneapolis on May 3, May 7, and May 9 at Intermedia Arts.

PHOTO: NANCY MUSINGUZI

PHOTO: NANCY MUSINGUZI

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Nancy Musinguzi is a documentary photographer, activist, and writer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Recently a graduate from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she uses her skills in photography to engage young people in conversations about social justice, community engagement and the power of visual art in media. Nancy previously worked as a freelance photographer and writer in New York City to tell stories about subculture and art communities she lived in and traveled to. Currently, she works as an artist-in-residence at the non-profit organization, Youthprise, where she has had the opportunity to install her work in two solo exhibits.