Don’t Touch the Art — performance moves from pain to healing

Raw, and difficult, and reaching for joy — somewhere trauma is etched in paint as a community breaths towards wholeness, and art offers a space for holding and healing—an invitation to return, repeatedly, to the body.

This Friday, September 25, at 6:30 p.m. The Foundry is hosting Don’t Touch the Art — a solo, multi-media performance by emerging artist Merudjina Normil. This event, which includes visual art, audio pieces, and live performance, focuses on the body as a site of trauma, of beauty and of healing.

Normil’s paintings, incredibly raw and powerful, meditate on the cyclical process of healing from sexual trauma, and center around black and non-binary bodies.

“There’s this interesting aspect of finding joy and sadness at the same time” Normil reflects, “finding beauty in the self after something terrible happens or finding beauty in moments of healing or finding beauty in moments of sadness.”

Raised in the Berkshires, a Pittsfield resident, and recent graduate of Williams College, Normil has shown their artwork in the Berkshires, including in a group show at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in 2016, sharing their perspective as a Black Haitian-American, non-binary, multi-media artist. Don’t Touch the Art is Normil’s first solo show. Normil has been an artist-in-residence at The Foundry since mid-July and has been collaborating on the project with Foundry Owner Amy Brentano, Managing Director Noah Bailey and theater artist Sara Katzoff, as well as with fellow Williams alumn Leo Martinez.

‘What they feel hurts my body, my soul
What they feel is not mine to hold.’
— Merudjina Normil from their poem ‘Hurting’

Normil brought Martinez onto the project in order to collaborate on the script. Martinez offers their insight as a Black Dominican-American, trans non-binary writer who shares Normil’s interests in the body as a site of trauma and healing. Since Martinez currently lives in NYC, they haven’t been physically present for the process but have worked with Normil as a fellow script-writer. Normil says, “I even asked them to add some of their own emotions and their own feelings and moments of healing, and I think that was also helpful because there were things I didn’t think about, like relationship to food or relationship to others.”

Normil originally envisioned this project as a celebration of healing, but the work quickly evolved as they were pushed to reconsider the trauma that lies at the project’s heart. “At first, my intention was to talk about healing and to talk about joy and to talk about, you know, like flowers and butterflies” Normil recalls, “but then there was this girl who was sexually assaulted and then she was murdered for opening up about her sexual assault.”

The young woman was assaulted while she was leaving a Black Lives Matter protest, and she was murdered after she named her attackers on Twitter. This moment deeply impacted Normil, forcing them to think about their own experiences as a survivor of sexual assault and the ways in which there is often intense shame and guilt surrounding those events, making it difficult for survivors to speak up about their experiences.

“So originally my intention was to talk about black joy and black healing,but there’s a whole black trauma that we don’t focus on,” Normil says. “You can’t talk about healing without talking about the trauma. You can’t talk about it without naming what you had to heal from or how you had to heal or why you had to heal and so I think that moment pushed me—I don’t think inspired is the word—but pushed me to really interrogate what the point of a show about healing would be and how a show about healing could really hold space for people who often, their form of healing isn’t talked about.”

It is important to Normil that the show focuses on blackness, because there are certain groups that are less likely to speak up about their trauma.

“When you look up statistics on sexual assault or sexual violence,” they say, “it’s highly reported under white women, but it’s because white women feel protected by the society, whereas black women, black men, black queer people, do not, so oftentimes they don’t report it. They just go under the radar.”

However, Normil recognizes that the themes of the show will resonate with many people in different ways. “While I am talking about the black body and my own body, or even the queer body, I also acknowledge that this is a universal thing. I can only speak about it through blackness, because that’s my experience” Normil says.

They see their own background as an individual window into human experiences which are, at their core, universal and collective. The show’s title, which Normil also has tattooed on their body, powerfully speaks to themes of sexual assault and bodily beauty.

“I think the title is also talking about how the body is art,” Normil says. “We, as people, are art, and we are created, and we are formed.”

Berkshire artist, actor and playwright Merudjina Normil will include their artwork in a performance at the Foundry in West Stockbridge. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Art by Merudjina Normil

Berkshire artist, actor and playwright Merudjina Normil will include their artwork in a performance at the Foundry in West Stockbridge. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Normil feels struck by the way that museums treat the artwork they display, and recounts a time they visited an art museum in DC. While looking at a painting, they accidentally crossed a line on the ground in order to step closer to the work. An alarm immediately went off.

“I’m thinking about how we hold art to such a high regard; we don’t hold each other to a high regard,” Normil reflects. “So a lot of the times, when sexual violence happens it’s because someone’s boundary is crossed. A lot of the times when violence happens in general, you’re crossing a boundary, and it’s because you don’t value this person in this highest regard. You don’t hear the alarms coming from them because you choose to not acknowledge it.”

The experience of creating this project, just like the art itself, holds both healing and trauma for Normil. “It’s not easy to sit through something like this, it’s not easy to work through something like this,” they explain. “The amount of times that I’ve cried or experienced joy in this process… and also had to take moments. There was a week when I literally took time away from it, where I just didn’t touch it in order to care for myself.”

Normil strives to create this same space for revisited trauma and self-care in the work.

“There are moments in the show where some things are disconnected intentionally, so people can have a moment to pause and reflect before something else happens,” Normil says.

‘Who told you that you lived
Outside of yourself, who told you
Who you were …’ — Merudjina Normil

Normil feels that Katzoff, Brentano and Bailey have provided critical feedback and support throughout the process. “It’s interesting to now be in a place as a young, emerging artist to also have a residency that can support the work,” Normil says. Normil has worked as a performance artist and freelance painter, but feels that all of their interest in multi-media art has been building towards this project.

Normil sees different mediums as a way of creating multiple expressions of the same story. “My interest in bringing these things together is an interest in repetition. A piece of art, a piece of audio, and a piece of video can all be saying the same things but they say them very differently,” they say. “All of them hold the same attention of talking about trauma and talking about healing and talking about returning to the self.”

This event has multiple components, with the audience moving between an outdoor performance space and a display gallery which holds Normil’s paintings, floral arrangements and mirrors. After the performance Normil and Sara Katzoff will lead a talkback. The performance includes pre-recorded audio designed to map onto Normil’s movements.

Normil first began exploring multi-media projects in their work as a performance artist with Lift Every Voice and WordxWord, doing poetry walkthroughs at The Mount.

“When I did my performances through that, the last one I did was pre-recorded audio and simply me moving, and so that’s kind of where the idea for Don’t Touch the Art came from,” Normil says.

Don’t Touch the Art focuses on repetition through audio, movement, video, and paintings because Normil sees the process of recovering from trauma as repetitive. They emphasize the “idea that healing is cyclical. It’s not a linear thing, you don’t just cry, and then you’re okay. Sometimes you remember, and you have to cry again and then you’re like ‘oh I’m okay’ or even sometimes you’re like ‘I cried again and I’m still not okay,’” Normil reflects gently, “and that’s okay.”

Of course, Covid has impacted the format of the event in certain ways—the performance takes place outside and the paintings will be viewed from outside the building through large windows, as if in a display case. It inevitably plays into the themes of holding one another and of respecting one another’s boundaries—the audience literally can’t touch the art. They can’t touch the paintings through the glass, and they can’t touch Normil.

However, Normil feels that the work speaks to a sense of community that, if anything, is even more relevant in these times. “I think we’re in a time where people have to really start thinking about community … how are we all responsible for someone else’s harm and how do we hold this person,” Normil says.

Although this is a solo performance, and one that requires Normil to be extremely vulnerable, they feel that the event is ultimately an experience of collectivity and community.

“This existence of being an artist is, in a way, being on display. You have to put yourself into the work,” Normil emphasizes. “We’re entering a time where we’re all responsible for each other, so by putting myself on display I know that I’m in a community with other people and having an audience there creates this space where I am not alone.”

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