- Helanius J. Wilkins
Innovation: It Truly Takes a Village
Themes including intellectual property, appropriation, origination, inspiration, authorship, access, white privilege, the decentralizing of the female voice, and plagiarism are manifold and complex. Within the past decade alone, events involving high profile artists have reignited these themes that have long plagued the performing arts, particularly in dance. How can we forget the controversy where Beyoncé claimed she borrowed renowned Belgian choreographer Anne Teesa De Keersmaeker’s movement for her 2008 video for Countdown. Then, in 2018, country music artist Kelsea Ballerini’s performance at the Country Music Awards – noted as a show stealer – featured choreography that looked remarkably like the iconic "Echad Mi Yodea" sequence of Ohad Naharin's Minus 16 (a choreographic work that I have a deep appreciation for). These examples, and so many like them, have caused me to pause, contemplate more thoroughly where my art-making process originates.
In this moment, I am particularly reflecting on questions centering on notions of inspiration and how invisibilizing them, in return, deems someone an innovator. I refer to this as the superman syndrome - the Batman/Superman American archetype where an innovator is represented as a singular individual (generally a white male) bestowed with saving the world all on his own despite the visibility of helping hands throughout the process of achieving the task at hand. In the case of artmaking, the singular individual is bestowed with being the sole creator/author of work.
As I dive deeper into the research and making of my most ambitious project to date, The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging, I am thinking a great deal about how I adopt innovator as a label and innovation as a practice. In a speech made to Stanford’s graduating class in June 2005 by Steve Jobs, he said
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever…
While this quote inspires believing and trusting in oneself, it also calls forward that to innovate is to draw upon our histories, observations, relations – our past. I adopt the label of innovator as someone who is led by curiosity to make new discoveries, and with an understanding that both the past and the present signals the future. I aim for innovation through actively engaging in collective labor toward developing original artistic work.
In considering this I am reminded of the blockbuster movie Black Panther because it offered an alternate representation to the superman syndrome. It offered a representation that I could feel at home in. At the end of the movie, I walked away with a sense that an entire community had made a difference and won. In the case of dance-making/belonging-making, my innovation is a translation of collective work and shared authority. Therefore, giving credit where credit is due becomes essential.
This simple yet complex issue of giving credit where credit is due seems to be in a tug-of-war with the capitalist mentality that fuels and drives the romantic notion of an innovator as individual. And everyone is pushing to be the ONE! Isn’t there room for more than one? And, if not, why not? Ultimately the capitalist mentality, pending the circumstances, leads to the disregard and erasure of voices that, without them, the innovation might not have been possible. This points to larger societal challenges centered on the gaslighting and marginalization of voices.
American Basketball Player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said,
What separates the good players from a great player is that a great player is willing to give up their own personal achievement for the achievement of the group.
When considering what I do – what I am striving to do – through my creative and often social justice-based projects, as evident in The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging, I often cut through the noise by remembering and holding close that “it truly takes a village.” As an innovator, I can do what I do because of my lineages and experiences. My innovations are influenced by the individuals I was taught by, studied with, and observed. My innovations are the result of all the individuals who join with me in collective creation. Innovations, in general, are rarely the result of a singular person’s ideas and efforts alone.
*Top collage of images: Moments captured with some of my collaborators past and present.