In Conversation: Bakpak Durden speaks to Cyrah Dardas on Their Upcoming Exhibition, “I Feel Like I’ve Been Here Before”

In Conversation: Bakpak Durden speaks to Cyrah Dardas on Their Upcoming Exhibition, “I Feel Like I’ve Been Here Before”

I Feel Like I’ve Been Here Before, is Bakpak Durden’s solo exhibition exploring perspective, neurodivergence and intersectional identity, opening to the public on November 13, 2021 from 6-9PM at 2845 Gratiot Avenue.

Their series of paintings examine specific experiences that we -as humans- come up against and have to power through in order to maintain the “normalcy” of life. Each painting is Durden’s way of creating a meticulously archival recording of those moments. In doing so, the work validates each occurrence, giving each instance equal value in the cycle; whether it be emotions such as love, joy, or pain and despair.

Read on for an intimate conversation between Bakpak Durden and their partner, fellow Detroit artist, Cyrah Dardas exploring their practice, inspiration, and so much more. Dardas is a Queer, intuitive artist and care worker and uses her art practice as a tool in remembering the forgotten networks between humans and the earth for the purpose of regulation and healing across species to restore a collective ecological body and heal.

To further establish safe spaces for artists, Bakpak and co-founder, Dardas started Paper Street Press, a press and distribution network producing collaborative 2D zines that highlight the artistic practices of QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and Disabled BIPOC artists, and the lead teaching artist at People in Education. Below is a conversation between themselves at Durdan’s home studio.

Bakpak’s oil paintings capture and amplify precise moments in time ingrained with a tension that reflects that of their own emotional experiences: the moment of reckoning upon acknowledging the return of a depressive phase; the moment in which one loses control and sees no opportunity to redirect. Additionally, their photography practice deeply informs their paintings by documenting subjects transitioning from one emotional state of being to another, suspending moments in time with clarity.

Bakpak Durden, in-studio. Photo credit, @samanthaslist

Cyrah Dardas: When did you know you were/wanted to be an artist? Why is art a part of your life? 

Bakpak Durden : I didn’t. I just am an artist. Since conception. Since I was young.

CD: Why is art a part of your life then?

BD: It is a means to communicate better than I do in other aspects. 

CD: Got you. So art is a part of your life because you use it as communication, a more effective tool for communication than talking? 

BD: Yeah, I use it as a way of communicating more effectively than like straightforward talking. I can be creative with words, but, as a means to getting a point across it’s often meandering and does it land.

CD: Got it. So, making art is a way for you to get a point across.

BD: Yeah. And, how do I say this? It is a way to do things in a more comfortable manner. I don’t know how to explain that with better words, but I can give you an example; So like when it comes to doing hair and and being in a salon or a barbershop, if it weren’t- for the artistry of being a barber and cutting hair and all of that stuff- I would be deeply uncomfortable with being that close to anybody or even touching them. Does that make sense? 

“Self Portrait: Yield to Change,” Oil on Wood panel, 24 x 24 inches, 2019.

CD: So art is a tool for you to become comfortable with communicating?

BD: Yeah. Art is a way to connect.

CD: There’s a way for you to connect to other people in a way that otherwise would be uncomfortable for you.

BD: It’s like a conduit to connection.

CD: Love that. Okay, so what concept or theme and medium are you most interested in currently? Why?

BD: I am interested in film. Always and everything lends itself to that interest. So, any day now I’ll be making that film. Film is a multi-sensory medium and you can play around with the form and there’s precedent for the play. It’s Boundless. I feel like there’s less of a barrier for entry, like with painting. With painting, there’s the hierarchical structure. There is the institution, the mediums that you use, if your work lends itself to any types of art / artists that came before you in order for it to be relevant… Film is emotions, and pictures. It exists on so many levels. The whole idea is to innovate. Innovation is championed, and then it adds in multiple layers like music, sound, storytelling… So I love that.

CD:  YES. We were talking about why you were interested in film, the first thing that you were bringing up is that it’s multi-sensory. So, in a way, what you’re speaking on is how it’s like, sort of generous to the viewer?  And, in this [upcoming exhibit] that you’ve created, you’re also attempting to stimulate your audience through multiple senses, even though you are primarily working through painting. You’re also adding this interactive piece where people are encouraged to interpret your work and create their own narrative. It’s cool to know that film is something that you’re interested in and influenced by and like moving towards… I think it makes what you’re doing with the show make more sense. It helps me understand it. 

Photography credit, @samanthalist

CD: What is it about murals that is most interesting to you?

BD: Sort of like, the challenge. Also, I’ll say that I like having artistic privilege in creating what’s going to be in the mural… Artistic privilege meaning, I mean like I get to choose what I’m making.

I like creating conceptual art and narrative driven pieces in the public realm… I also like challenges and puzzles. So the challenge with bringing paintings outside of the studio is that you have to capture someone’s attention and hold on to it without losing them. If it’s a gallery show, they’ve already come to see your work. With murals you are creating something that captures the attention of anyone, then relating that to the surroundings. 

CD:  So again, you’re thinking about the audience a lot. And about the surroundings that maybe the audience lives in, and how the piece will coexist within that.

BD: Yes, Well, the audience is sort of multi-layered. There is the audience that is going to see it, but then the audience that’s not going to see it, also has an impact. 

Let’s say a lot of times, I put murals or I should say, I get walls that aren’t easy to access. So it relies on foot traffic or having seen it in the rear view mirror. People that are local are more likely to see it, because they walk around in that area. I like that the way you see it impacts how you perceive it. If you’re on a bus coming through, you might see the work one way and if you experience it as someone walking, maybe even seeing it in relation to a bus going by, you see it a totally different way. Whatever I come up with, it’s going to be reinterpreted in someone else’s view and lens of things. And I think that’s the whole point.

CD:  I’m hearing one of the things that you like about murals is that there’s going to be more of a multiplicity of viewership versus your work that will be seen in a gallery. Murals open up the possibility to engage with people incidentally, because those viewers have different lived experiences and the way they’re approaching the pieces, they will derive different meanings from them.

BD: Yes. 

“Welcome Home” (For Lysol) Public Mural, located at 3800 Woodward Ave. Highland Park, MI. Image courtesy of artist.

CD: Got it. Is there something that’s really challenging about mural painting that you want to bring up?

BD: Uh, where do I begin? 

There’s a balance between representation and commodification. And then we’ll throw in the word art washing, I suppose that is tough. Like coordinating principles and whatever whoever’s asking for the thing, why are they asking for it? That takes time… it could ultimately be a waste of time if the ideas don’t align with my own. And then having to say no, and then explaining why. And I like saying no a lot, so good luck. But a lot of people do like doing murals and the price tag looks cute until we can’t afford to live in our homes. So the development of Detroit through murals for… not Detroit is probably a big concern.

CD: Yeah, what I’m hearing is that something that’s challenging about murals for you is that there is a reality about them that is very impactful on the community. They can bring about, or be a part of gentrification.

BD: Yeah. 

CD: And a lot of times the folks like asking you to do these murals, have these like hopes of development or whatever and you have to determine if it feels healthy. And that maybe their version of development does not align with who you are or what you are trying to do with your practice. 

BD: Right.

CD:  And then you have to go through that difficult time of figuring out how to navigate that, whether or not it’s worth it, and that’s challenging for you.

BD: Yeah. And I know that there’s not really ever a perfect situation and there’s times when you have to compromise. Also, there are times where the price tag isn’t there, but you are working with a small business and ultimately you’re helping small businesses in the area that are largely owned by people of color do well. Hopefully a mural helps their foot traffic. 

“We Will Bloom, We Will Thrive,” Detroit at Feedom Freedom  

CD: So you, you have a hard time wrapping your mind around sort of the socio-political aspects of mural making and what has been historically considered street art?

BD: Yeah.

CD: How does the process begin and how long do your large canvases take to create from concept to execution?

BD:  I can talk about how I came up with the concept for this show… So I was sitting at my job (RIP job I don’t work there anymore) and I thought I needed to come up with the concept. What’s my heart saying? And then all of a sudden- I had a storyline and I had to write it down immediately. I think I sent stick figures to you and then when I got home, I tried to explain to you.

CD: Yeah I was really moved by your pieces.

BD:  Remember? Yeah. And I remember there were two of them that got changed, but that you were like, “these really got me,” and I’m like, “dang,” if I break that one down, the visuals happen, then words, snippets of thoughts, and then, triangle movements. 

I also have to set it down for a while, and come back to it to see if it still resonates. The way my photography is archived, it’s basically by mood. And so I can pull up things based on the mood that I need to reference… I can assign a visual or I can even recall visually a moment that depicts a mood I’m trying to evoke. 

CD: And you sort of archive your whole life through photos to kind of aid in that practice, so you have this archive of moments of time that sort of encapsulate a mood, a feeling, a hue. And you can like go back into that archive and be like, this is a feeling that helps describe what’s going on internally.

Bakpak in studio, the beginning of a painting, photography credit, Bakpak Durden.
35mm, courtesy of artist.

BD: Yeah. 

CD: Got it. Okay. So once you start doing that work, and you’re like moving back in time through your memory, and you’re looking back in the archives, then what…?

BD: I’m so sorry. What I got lost in your eyes. Can you repeat that? 

CD: Oh, jeez.

[And we’re back. Okay. Um, so you really don’t remember anything I was saying?

BD: I hope you didn’t delete it]

CD: Once you have gone back, and you’re starting to do that work, where you’re looking through the archives of your memory, like via photo or in your actual memory, how do you move into, towards a painting?

BD: Once I have the visual in my head, I recreate it in a way and also decide how I want the light to be. One painting that’s in the show, Loud Swirl, that image was [photographed]. A lot of times, because a lot of things moved, and that was the intent. I have to take a lot of reference photos, just in case I need to focus or emphasize certain things. I don’t always go back and look at them and they don’t always translate or relate, but think of it as like taking notes on a scene. Where I am in my head, I know the light, I know the light mood of light in my heart, you know, and I know how I want it to feel in paintings; so taking photos is like noting how it feels at that moment.  

“Loud Swirl,” Oil on Wood panel, 24 x 36 inches, 2021, Bakpak Durden.

CD: How long do your large canvases take to create from concept to execution?

BP: I build the panels and that takes about a week, then a week of letting them sit around to acclimate and then shooting. It takes a day to shoot everything for one painting. And then it takes, let’s say a week to transfer the image to the panel sketching. Then about a month or two per painting, but I’m usually working on two paintings at a time.

CD: The next question is, what is the main difference between your mural and your mural and painting?

BD: There’s a lot of differences. I think the things that are consistent are keeping it dark and light, and being a conversation starter, or engaging with the viewer in a way. But otherwise a lot is different. 

CD: What inspires you?

BD:  Progress. Pushing forward. Never going backwards… As much as I am reflecting on the past, it informs the future. Everything I’ve done thus far is a new thing. And when reflecting on a concept, it exists in the past, but it is to better the future self.

CD: What does accessibility mean to you?

BD:  What does accessibility mean to me? Um, to put it frankly, accessibility in the past has been something I have felt I was inconveniencing people by asking for, or not feeling like there was space to ask for it.

In these new times where we are the adults making change, we are creating the space for people to feel welcome. And if something needs to be changed, we change it.

It feels like someone cares for once.

CD: Oh, okay. So accessibility means for you, care. Beautiful. And why is it an important part of your work?

BD: I feel like the work is in essence, vulnerable.

Detail/side view of “Loud Swirl.” Photography credit, @samanthalist

CD: What I’m hearing is that you, and the work that you make, is vulnerable. And so for it to exist in the world, you need there to be care surrounding it, holding it, both for you and for others engaging with it.  

BD: Yeah.

CD:  So accessibility is an important part of your work because the work that you’re making is vulnerable. And, as the subject of most of your [self-portraits] for you to feel like that’s, it’s okay to, to share these pieces in, uh, in public, you need it to be a safe place for people in public. [Yes]. And you hope to extend that safety, that invitation of safety to as many people as you possibly can. [Yes]. So you’re working towards the goal of accessible shows because, because that is a form of care. [Yes]. 

CD: What is new and happening with Paper Street Press?  

BD: We would like funding first and foremost. We’ve been paying for it out of pocket. So if anyone would like to give us any money- it better not be blood money though, honey. Clap, clap– We are marching to the beat of our own drum, and moving at the speed of trust, wink wink. We will be rolling out some surprises to the people soon- fairly soon. We’re working with three artists at the moment and should be coming out with some new stuff before the end of the year. 

CD: When was the last time you loved something that you made?

BD: Well, the painting I finished more recently… I mean I’m satisfied. Every time I finish a thing. Like I was saying before, it’s new… I’m trying something new every time. Does that make sense? 

So it’s like, oh yeah, that landed. That was successful. You did it. So I’m pumped about that and then thinking of, well, the fact that all of these [paintings] were already in a show was freeing. And so what’s going to happen next, is that I get to feel successful when another concept happens in my head and I get to do it and then it feels like I feel satisfied with it.

Photo credit, @samanthaslist

CD: Nice. What else are you working on or looking forward to in the near future?

BD: As mentioned previously, Paper Street Press will be rolling out some hot gems in the very near future. So we’re working on that. I’m also working on my house. One of the books that’s going to be coming out in paper street is a, let me say it’s a compilation collaboration between myself and my therapist and everyone I’ve ever come in contact with, haha. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a journal. I’m going to put out a journal of my innermost thoughts and feelings and it’s going to be difficult, but I feel like it’s important and it’s going to happen and I hope there’s care in the reception of it.

Also, I’m going to take my tongue piercing out. It’s been… it’s been a wild ride.

CD: How long have you lived in Detroit?

BD: I’ve lived in Detroit since the day I was born and I moved away for 10 months to LA one time. I’m not going into that. And I’ve lived in, I feel like every part of Detroit in every part of Metro Detroit, literally, literally, literally, literally, and every part and every parking lot. I wouldn’t be me without Detroit. Absolutely.

CD: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

BD: My dear friends and family, how do I sum this up? 

I would like to be the future me I wish I saw in the past. A role model sorts. Not perfect. Never perfect. But, representation and visibility matters. So I’ll be out here, living my truest, gay, trans black life. That’s all I got.

– Bakpak Durden

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