The Berkshires’ ‘Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision’ Exhibit Explores Black Life From Birth to Death

Sokhna Heather Mabin working on The Living Room: Image: courtesy of 'Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision'

Those who usually frequent the cultural corridor of the Berkshires, the well-loved Massachusetts county that is just 3-hours equidistant from Manhattan and Boston, are usually ignorant of the deep cultural importance of the area to the Black community. That’s because most travel stories about the vacation spot fail to mention that the famous 1780 trial of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, who became the first African American woman to successfully sue for her freedom in the state of Massachusetts took place here, or the fact that W.E.B. Du Bois began his life’s work here, or that James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the Black National Anthem summered at this hotspot. 

Our history runs deep through the winding country roads. For a limited time at the Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield, MA is a “living museum” pop-up show, Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision, that explores our culture.  Part multimedia art installation and part live performance, audiences walk through the mansion’s 21 rooms, experiencing each room as a “rite of passage” in the lives of women of color from birth to death. The show features nightly talk-backs facilitated by Rites of Passage artists and partner organizations, creating an interactive space for visitors to reflect and ask questions.

Below, Pooja Prema, the founder and artistic director of the Rites of Passage: 20/20 Vision founder and artistic director, talks to EBONY about how her latest art curation brings together, among others, a doula, a farmer, a linguist and a grandmother.

EBONY: How does the exhibit celebrate the nuanced and complicated lives of women of color?

Pooja Prema; We don’t live in a culture that really honors our life experiences and transitions. Whether they are traumatic or beautiful. I felt it was really important to create a physical space where women could speak our stories along the whole spectrum between birth and death. When you think of rites of passage, marriage gets a lot of play, and motherhood with a baby shower. But there’s a lot of life lived in between. What about celebrating puberty? Becoming who you are? Miscarriage & stillbirth?

For example, menopause is such a huge one that so many women experience that we’re just taught to kind of get over it. The menstrual cycle itself is a cyclical kind of initiation process. The Dissolution Room is about all the cycles of not only the beginning and end of our lives, but the many ways in which we lose the life we thought we had. Whether because we move, we lose a job, we lose a loved one, there’s a hurricane, there’s a pandemic. And so who we thought we were, and what we thought our life was is completely different because of something that happens out of our control, right? Those are all rites of passage. 

And the way that the project embraces them is there are rooms designed to walk through a rite of passage. It’s so not only intersectional but it’s so multicultural. There’s just such an eclectic group of powerful women here. They’re doulas, farmers, mamas and grandmas. To have us all together in one house to speak of these things, to live these things, is just something that’s never been done before in this way. 

What can we expect to see?

One of my favorites rooms is Legacy, which is about healing intergenerational trauma while also remembering the wisdom that we’re carrying in our DNA—each of us through different lineage stories and histories. How even despite colonization, enslavement, displacement, Black and brown lineages continue to figure out ways to thrive and to remember our origins. In that room, the whole floor is covered in soil. Where do we come from? The soil. We are the soil. And this is part of how we heal. We have been displaced for so long, we have to come back home to ourselves in a sense that it’s safe to belong here. I love that room. 

In many ways the 21 Rooms ask what it means to find your identity, then helps piece together ways to find it. So have you found yours?

Almost ten years ago, I came upon the work of Dr. Malidoma Some, who is a West African Dagara Shaman and teacher. I read his book, Of Water in the Spirit. It talks about his life journey as a bridge walker. [The book talks about his abduction to a Jesuit school, where he spent fifteen years being harshly indoctrinated into European ways of thought and worship, and his return to his people.]  He was a stranger from his heritage and ultimately his inheritance. He went back and got reacquainted and literally brought back into his tribe in West Africa and trained and then was sent out into the world again, to be a bridge with the West. 

That book really impacted me a lot. I related to it in my own personal life and how so much of the problem with Western or modern culture and whitewashed culture is that we don’t have community. We don’t have a connection to a place and we don’t get to be seen. And pretty much you have a whole society of people that have never grown up. He has a beautiful quote that is something to the extent of without containers to support and witness our trauma, our experiences remain dimmed as traumas to cope with. And that’s really what we’ve had.  

I like the way the exhibit explores the metaphysical place of home. Blacks left the South during the great migration in search it; yet, have never truly found it. Will we never not feel displaced?

It’s not just that we’ve been displaced and we’re homeless, it’s that the whole of the society is displaced and homeless. And Rites of Passage is the ground where we’re saying, we can come home; we can come home to this soil right where we are; we can plant these seeds. We can remember how to be human, right here. In my larger work, I say that white people are so deeply oppressed because they had been displaced and colonized for 1000s of years. They came down to the global south and east and started to do that to us. These are people that are so numbed out to their own pain and lack of belonging walking around like homeless hungry ghosts, trying to get something from other people. It’s all connected and interconnected.

You use the word DNA often but not in the traditional biological structure but more about how our body remembers our ancestral past whether we know it or not.

That’s what W. E. B Dubois was saying by the end of his life. 

Some Noteworthy Rooms to Experience in the Exhibit

THE SUSTENANCE PANTRY:  “The room is a seed and food pantry, co-curated by a black farmer based in DC. We’ve become estranged not only from place but from nourishment. Women of color are always taking care of and nourishing other people but we forget to nourish ourselves.”

THE LIVING WOMB: “The artist working in this space is a doula based in Michigan. She envisions a ginormous placenta.The room is meant to actually recreate the womb and reimagines birth, particularly for black women and black women’s bodies. The whole room is a beautiful deep pinkish red color.”  

SOUL KITCHEN: “The vision for the kitchen is can we—not return to—but can we remember and create a new village way of life? A community way of life where women are back in the center, and women are in the center as mothers whether or not they have children? The room is curated by a 68 year old Black artist from New Jersey, Cheryl Riley. Cheryl has been for the past several years creating a hieroglyphic language that she calls Glyphs, which is essentially a very colorful, beautiful language for a culture and a society without war and without white supremacy. So that will be lining the walls of this kitchen and there’s also going to be a couple of mothers there. They’ll be cooking and one of them has a three-year old in the room. And how that came to be: I was talking to Cheryl over a year ago and her saying, ‘I grew up in the South in Louisiana, and I always remember my grandmother’s kitchen and how my family grew, hunted, fished, or wildcrafted all their food. My grandma was in that kitchen everyday doing what she does and the kids were running around, and the other people were doing this and that, and it was this thriving matriarchal vision.’ I was like that’s the kitchen. 

V IS FOR VICTORY: “It is about the history of humanity and the future of humanity and our relationship with this planet. Over time we pass on our genes; we carry the next generation in our wombs; we birthed them into the world. Women have really been the ones that have continued legacy. That theme is not just in one room but is continued throughout the house.

THE GRIEF ROOM: “I’m curating it but there are seven other artists and four photographers involved. There are four different illuminated walls of women’s portraits across time. There’s an African diaspora wall. There’s an American Indigenous and Latin diaspora wall, an Asian diaspora wall and a Middle Eastern diaspora wall. Each is curated by different photographers. The intention of that room is really that until we grieve our losses of displacement and oppression, we can’t really create a new possibility of wholeness for ourselves and for our children in our communities. Most of us—all of us, really— is walking around with a lot of ungrieved grief. This room is meant to be a place to honor that grief. For most of us, I think our grandparents and our parents were too busy just trying to survive to even feel all those feelings—so they’ve been passed on to each subsequent generation. 

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