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WILDS OF THE INTERIOR: A conversation with phlegm

person in interesting facial makeup

“While reading these books, there was an appreciation for the Black American experience — the Black gay American experience — so that was a lot of what was swirling around in my brain at the time.”

New Orleans-born and based artist, DJ and teacher, Ryan “phlegm” Gilbert, is referencing two books that found him during a particularly impactful period of his Saturn return. One of which introduced him to the work of Black queer writer Reginald Shepherd, whose piece “On Not Being White,” along with visual works by Solange Knowles and Kelela, directly inspired his solo exhibition on view at Ace New Orleans through April 8.

ritual drama 090 from wilds of the interior 2023, phlegm, courtesy of the artist

“I often read my childhood by the markings I have made on the map of the self I have become and am able to identify sunken mountain ranges I took for islands or random jutting rocks, but there are wilds of the interior I’ve not explored in years, vast wastes I can only affirm, “Here be dragons,” as on medieval maps of Africa. There is so much I have conveniently forgotten. I believe it’s called repression.”

On Not Being White – Reginald Shepherd

In his visual expression, phlegm works in face painting and self-portraiture. He is inspired by Black cultural tone from across the diaspora; pulling inspiration from the Black Masking Indians of New Orleans, the Dogon of Mali, the Fulani of Nigeria, and the Zouli dance of Ivory Coast.wilds of the interior is a collection of work that aims to answer his question, “what parts of myself are hidden to me?”.

Operating within the Black spiritual concept of time — where the past, present, and future all exist at once, together — this exhibition uses what he now describes as “ritual dramas,” self portraiture, a contemporary iteration of African masking, and nostalgic ephemera, to reveal the unearthed parts of himself while also asking the viewer to discover the mechanisms of their own universes.

ritual drama 107 from wilds of the interior 2023, phlegm, courtesy of the artist

At Ace New Orleans on February 25, phlegm will present an extension of his “wilds of the interior” show that features the screening of two short films titled “wilds of the interior” and “windows and mirrors” followed by a conversation with womanist writer and educator Stevona

Here, he shares three of the most meaningful places to him in New Orleans while touching on being an artist steeped in the most singular city, growing up on the internet, connecting to the Universal common thread of red beans and rice and how his primary medium is probably spirit.

You’re from New Orleans, such a dynamic and singular place – what was it like to grow up there as an artist?

Growing up here as an artist, I can say that sometimes — and this is beginning to change — we don’t always see the immense value in some of the work we are doing because it is so much a way of life. We are always around art. I grew up where hearing someone playing a trumpet or a saxophone, or seeing high school marching bands practice for Mardi Gras parades was like breathing air.

Of course we all have these visuals of eating beignets on a Saturday, and snowballs, and Mardi Gras where you are stacking so many beads you can’t move your neck, these are the things we grew up seeing. We grew up seeing Black Masking (Mardi Gras) Indians or knew people who were Black Masking Indians or Kings and Queens of Mardi Gras parades.

We saw people painting on the street but it was just so much part of normal life that it didn’t register that what we were experiencing was such a big deal.

Your mediums are multifaceted, painting, self-portraiture, music, DJing, film – curious how the different modes of creation allow for you to have various forms. Do you view each channel differently in terms of what you aim to express?

Ultimately I’m just trying to find ways to tie together these fibers of Blackness into one braid, one place.

My friend Juh mentioned recently that their medium is spirit and that spirit shows up in all different ways and I was like “oooh, I’m going to go ahead and take that and save it.” That feels the most right and shows up most clearly in my visual artwork. It is the medium that requires the most of my focus. Once I start, I have to finish it in one sitting (about three hours), it is the most intentional of all of my work. It’s a very intimate practice, and forces me to be very familiar with the planes of my face.

DJing  is moreso a place of release, of joy — it is a place of pleasure. Part of it has to do with the hedonism of queer parties, but most of it has to do with being Black and being queer in the United States of America, the dance floor is the place of Black queer release – of shaking off the dust – very non-mindful things we pick up during the week. A search for peace. Shoutout to Sonia Sanchez.

The films came about as just another way to activate everything that I was doing. The films — I can best describe them as little windows into my brain of all these little pieces of information that I am downloading throughout life like a digital quilt, a moodboard.

How did you discover the work of Reginald Shepherd and how did that specific piece of writing inform the work so deeply?

There was not a big swath of queer Black men that i knew of…I didn’t have those growing up — I have more now but I was born in ‘92 – I don’t want to call it the tail end of the height of the AIDS epidemic – we as a collective had just lost so many people – and, i didn’t see any of us growing up. My mama grew up with Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and all these Black women she was able to see, my daddy had Black scientists and inventors and musicians he could see himself reflected in. For me I looked around and it’s kind of like “where are we?!” Outside of a couple of people who made big names for themselves, like RuPaul, Billy Porter or Andre Leon Talley — each a pillar in their own right — I felt like I was in a desert.

There was not a big swath of queer men that i knew of…I didn’t have those growing up.

There is a music journalist named Craig Seymour who posted a link of someone selling In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology by Joseph Beam, a collection of work from gay writers in the ’80s and ’90s – one of the only collections of writings by openly Black gay men at the time. I had never heard of the book, didn’t know anybody in this book. I just bought it on a whim and peeled through it. While reading these books, there was a new appreciation for the Black American experience, the Black gay American experience so that was a lot of what was swirling around in my brain at the time. It felt like I had been given words for some stuff I had been thinking about for so long. That I’m part of a communal lineage.

A lot of this work came about in my last half of that 29th year, leading into my being 30 while traveling to Germany. It was my first time out of the country and so there was a lot of me asking myself, “what does it mean to be Black globally?” “What does it mean to be Black and American globally?” These men, men like Reginald Shepherd and Essex Hemphill, gave me somewhat of a map.

Do you feel like, at this stage,  you’re not ever making work for the sake of making work, you’re waiting until you have something to say?

I used to make work just to make work. One, I simply had more time. Two, what I had to say at that time just wasn’t the focus. I think it was me trying to answer that question of “who am I?” to myself. I started this practice around 24 or 25 , I’d been teaching for two years. I remember thinking I spent high school working to get to college, then spent college working toward a job, I got the job and – now what was I working toward? Retirement? After that… death? Quarter-life crisis stuff. I had to figure out something.

You throw everything at the wall. I had a podcast way back then, going to and hosting parties came out of that, my art practice started out as practicing face painting to build a skill to have for Mardi Gras and Halloween costumes.

But because I grew up on the internet, everything we do “doesn’t exist” if there are no pictures and they aren’t posted online, so that is where the work “had” to live – then it all grew legs and ran.

It got to a point where I started to make work with things to say and it felt like everything was focusing and coalescing – all of the noise was starting to calm down and I was starting to see the forest for the trees. And once I hit that stride things didn’t feel quite as fulfilling when I was making work just for the sake of making work so now I’ve got into the groove of working when I have something to say.

We’ve talked alot about New Orleans, and the aspects of your work that connect to deep ancestral elements- can you speak to how your work is informed by the idea of place?

I think it’s hard for me to separate New Orleans from my work because I’ve never lived anywhere else. So I don’t know what my work would look like if I lived somewhere else long term. I would never be able to separate those original roots and threads from everything that I do. 

It’s easy for us [New Orleanians] to fall into the king cake, Mardi Gras, French Quarter and jazz tropes of New Orleans. I’m guilty of it too! Those are easy things for us to gravitate to and access, I’m trying to reach back to those aspects of the city where there is bit more texture – those intangibles. 

When people talk about New Orleans, yes my brain goes to Cypress trees and Spanish moss and the French Quarter and beignets, and snowballs of course, how could they not?

But for me, a lot of what I think of when I think of New Orleans is linked to those intangibles. It’s in the moments of walking down the street and saying “good morning” to anyone, and them saying it back, and it’s also in those moments where I am teaching children whose siblings know my brother or a co-worker, who knew my mom when she was pregnant with me. These are things that are happening all the time here.

We joke that we are all three degrees separated from each other in some way here – to me those are some of the intangibles that I want to get at. But I also think these are markers of southern Blackness which also ends up being like national Blackness, which when you zoom out even more, it’s global Blackness as well and so I’m trying to kind of like find some of the thread that links us.

And I know I’m not the first one to have done it, but I’m trying to find the pieces that connect all of us together. In Black community and spaces and that typically is my default because I was raised by two Black parents and I teach Black kids  I am mostly in conversation with those people – there is a common thing that moves between all of us. I don’t know what it is. Some people call it joy, I don’t quite know if that’s what it is, because I don’t think that it is joy but that is —  there is something there.

So yes, location is important to me, just the specific where is what I’m looking for, because what does location actually mean for us when there are so many similarities that are spoken and unspoken around the world. There is the Black head nod that means the same thing to all of us, across generations. All of us has a little tomato sauce and some rice something, whether you call it jambalaya or whether you call it jollof. We all have a sort of rice and beans: red beans and rice, rice and peas, rice and beans, there is a thread here that I’m trying to tap into. So where is that thread located whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual – I’m tryna get there.

PHLEHM’S NEW ORLEANS

Photo credit: Melvin Gilbert

PARENTS’ HOUSE — ALGIERS, NEW ORLEANS

I chose my parents house because it’s the house I grew up in. Whenever things get really busy in the world, I can go back there as a place to reset. I can easily just go there without it needing to be a production – sometimes being out in the world as “phlegm” can be a thing. And then when I’m at school I go by “Mr.Gilbert” and I am also sort of in costume – in a performance – and when I’m at my parents house, it’s – the nickname they have for me. I can always come back here and it brings me back to place. Center. And even though the space sometimes changes, the energy is the same.

The gigantic slave ship diagram [created by his father, Melvin Gilbert] has been on the wall since I was six. It’s been in that same place the entire time, so it’s always like an anchor – a lighthouse – back to safety. It lays the groundwork of the foundation of who I am and where I am.

Photo credit: Melvin Gilbert

JOE BROWN PARK SWIMMING POOL

I chose the pool because this is where I learned to swim at seven or eight years old. Afraid of doing it, did not want to do it, my mama made me — shoutout to her for always having the sight. And truly has been a life saving skill. I don’t think anyone else in my family knows how to swim, I think I was the only one. My mama wants to learn, my daddy — and he’ll probably hate that i’m saying this — is not a fan of the water. I may be the only one who can swim from point A to point B. I don’t worry about jumping into a body of water and not being able to save myself.

I was taught to swim by Black lifeguards at Joe Brown Park in a Black part of the city where I also grew up. It is just a big deal for me to have locked that place and space in time.

This life-saving skill was taught to me in a Black city, in a Black neighborhood at a Black pool by a Black lifeguard – to Black children and sort of connecting this Universe of community helping –  literally saving community.

Photo credit: Melvin Gilbert

EUCLID RECORDS

I’m always in Euclid. Sometimes I will go there and Lefty, the guy behind the counter, will tell me, “Oh we have this, this, this and this that I think you might be into,” because I’ve gone and spent hundreds of hours over the years there and he has an idea about what I like. It feels a bit like home in a way too. I’ve found some of my favorite records there and discovered new ones. Music also carries a throughline between my work because each piece travels with a song. I can’t separate music from my work. Like Patti LaBelle said, music is my way of life.

*Featured image from the top of the article: ritual drama 110 from wilds of the interior 2023, phlegm, courtesy of the artist

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