Roni Nicole Henderson is a Columbia, South Carolina based filmmaker who makes fiction, experimental, fine art, and documentary films and video installations. As a photographer, she shoots fashion and fine art and documents artists and everyday folk. Her work has been exhibited and presented across the U.S. and in the Netherlands, and her films have been featured in the Blackstar, Crown Heights, and Pan African film festivals. In 2012-2013, she was a Walthall Fellow at Wonderroot in Atlanta.
Jonathan Thomas: You’re an artist who participated in Indie Grits Labs a couple years ago, and this year you’re a Creative Leader on the Two Cities project. I wonder, how do you describe Two Cities? What is this project about?
Roni Nicole: Two Cities, in my opinion, is a conversation, and hopefully a conversation to begin other conversations to follow. Our city, like so many other cities, has deep treads in it that keep our daily lives separate. We move about in tandem, but not necessarily in concert.
JT: I like the word tread, which calls to mind a groove. What would be an example of this division, or separation?
RN: For example, when I first moved here I remember working to get folks to come downtown for an art event, and there was a moment when I realized that a lot of people don’t go downtown.
JT: I just moved here in June, and the more I talk to people, the more it sounds like there’s a force field between downtown and North Main.
RN: Yes. I remember a friend showing me pictures from an event where there were 2000 Black people gathered, professional Black folks who had paid $50 a ticket. 2000 people! I remember thinking, I’ve been living here for three years and going to art events, but I’ve never seen anything like this. It was like there was another city. I mean I’m sure there are more than two cities.
JT: What was the event that gathered so many people?
RN: It’s called Pink Ice, and it’s put on by one of the sororities. It made it clear that there are two separate social scenes. Obviously I knew there were separate economic situations, but even on a social level, people are moving in tandem and not in concert.
JT: So Two Cities is bringing a group of fellows together to think through different aspects of this condition?
RN: Two Cities is a conversation starting in one particular neighborhood with the hope that we will be able to continue talking like this. It’s not trying to take on the whole animal, but at least it’s starting a conversation to say, Hi. Who are you? Where do you live? What do you believe? What do you think? What’s important to you in your neighborhood? Hopefully it’s going to discover and unearth more of our similarities, and to help us understand how we might be hurting, or helping, or indifferent, or apathetic to one another. If you don’t know something you’re doing is hurting someone, then how do you know to fix it? If you don’t know, people may think you’re being indifferent or apathetic — but maybe it’s just that you live in a bubble and have no idea. Two Cities is meant to start the conversation and to take a deep long look. If we look at the history of it, there was a time when Black folks coming down to the Nickelodeon Theatre had to take the back stairs and sit up in the balcony.
JT: Do you feel like that history of segregation and state oppression still impacts social relationships as they are experienced here today?
RN: Obviously yes, but I think it’s just different in other places. The South is interesting. I was raised in the Midwest, but I had grandparents in the South. I came to understand what racism looks like in the Midwest, in the North, on the West Coast, and all of them are equally hurtful. It plays out in a different way. It may seem more polite in other places and read like entitlement, but in general, racism is a problem. Our city is a microcosm of the larger picture. If your family watches Fox News, then that’s the version of the story you have in mind.
JT: What does it mean to be a Creative Leader in the context of the Two Cities project?
RN: Essentially it’s just helping. You have an idea and we’ve provided space for you to talk with people from the community, or you are yourself a part of the community and are talking to folks who live in this neighborhood, finding out what’s important, what they celebrate. Then you decide, I’m going to use something that I know how to do well to affect, impact, or be in conversation with this community. So my job, Michaela’s job, Seth’s job, is to create opportunities for you to question critically, to help you foresee hiccups, or write a budget. Practical things, really. How do we word a narrative to get grants in the future? We really do treat fellows like potential grantees in a lot of ways. We help guide them through their proposals so that when they sit down in the future and try to be sustainable in their practice, they might be able to approach granting organizations, or fellowships, or residencies, you see? So in essence, it’s a fellowship, and we’re just helping to provide a nurturing hand along the way, so that hopefully when you’re finished with this you know how to write a proposal, you know what works or didn’t work in your particular project, you know how to write a budget, how to deliver on those things, and how to be measurable in your outcome, but also, how to experiment.
JT: I know you’re working on a film, and that you participated as an artist in Indie Grits Labs previously as part of Waterlines, but I sense that not all participants in the Two Cities project have similar backgrounds in artmaking, or aren’t really aiming to develop a career as an artist. Can you talk a little bit about the diverse constitution of the group?
RN: I think it’s a new way to look at the question: Who is an artist? A lot of the people in our group have never referred to themselves as artists, but we do. We help them to see how what you do for your community, the way you approach whatever it is you do — that there is a level of art to that. We were really excited to broaden our scope and to invite people who were activists and community organizers into the group. It was important to have flexibility in terms of who makes up the group because it really does have direct impact in terms of what the group is actually doing.
JT: In the framework of Two Cities, what are some of the specific questions that you are asking or researching as a Creative Leader and as one of the participants?
RN: We’re looking at this idea of gentrification and asking: What are the pitfalls? What are the wins? What are the dangers? How is it playing out? As artists, we always have to ask ourselves: Do we play a role in this process? How does it affect real people? If we don’t test our ideas, push them through the sieve, get them clear, clarified, we can exert a lot of effort into an idea we don’t totally believe. So I push to help folks stand firmly with what they’re saying they believe.
JT: You mentioned gentrification, which is one political, social, and economic issue, but I wonder if there are other critical urban or social issues that are being explored in this context?
RN: It’s multifaceted. By the time you realize an urban process like this is happening, it’s already been implanted for 25 years, so it’s a bigger machine than we can confront at this stage. But the conversation is critical. How does this impact your neighborhood? In community planning meetings I’ve heard people say, “When white people move into our neighborhood, the police actually answer our calls.” I hear community members expressing this strange no-win situation. We don’t want to lose our neighbors, but we also want services. We also want our roads fixed. For some reason, it’s not done with just us here. But I also want to say that a lot of the Two Cities projects are aimed at celebrating.
JT: I noticed that.
RN: A lot of the projects in this group are aimed at celebrating the richness that is already there. It’s a counter-narrative to the notion that this community needs to be saved by moving people out and bring other folks in. The emphasis is on empowering folks as opposed to responding to those who don’t believe in you, or who think you’re a monster. There’s a multifaceted way to fight bigotry. We’ve had a really tough couple of years, where everyday we seemed to be bashed in the head with death, so I think people are happy to be alive and are using their voice to echo — We are alive.