The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

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NOV 2019 Issue
Editor's Message Guest Critic

Experiments in Freedom

Portrait of Nico Wheadon, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Nico Wheadon, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.


freedom to...freedom from...
freedom of

opinion and...

artistic freedom
let freedom ring


Big Freedia
Let’s Get Free!

Freedom is a word enmeshed in paradox—it is at once claimed and disclaimed, concrete and ephemeral. It bears the weight of historical accumulation, yet remains fluid enough to flow through the prismatic multiverse of contemporary art and culture. If only free could escape the power structures that moor and disfigure it. If only freedom could decolonize our lustful gaze upon it. If only liberation regarded individual acts of resistance as highly as it does the collective movement towards liberty and justice for all. If only.


And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous. 1

My quest for freedom is not and has never been a fight for survival—I wake up most days free to move as I please, free from bondage, and free of burden. Despite this privilege, as a Black, queer woman in America, my pursuit of freedom remains bound within a reckoning that others—who look, live, and love like me—continue to be persecuted, daily and in droves. Under these conditions, freedom is a gift I carry with a heavy heart.

The load is compounded by the weight of shame. How dare I exercise my artistic freedom, whilst continuing to operate within the dominant cultures and economies that undergird systemic oppression? Who am I to feel so damn free when, for so many, freedom is a utopian concept found only in dreams, or in death? I’m coming to terms with the fact that my self-image has filtered through the gilded sieves of institutions fracturing me into, at the very least, two distinct selves—the fluid-self, in a constant state of slipping and becoming, and the object-self, bound to the systems that have nurtured and, in turn, claimed me.

I’ve been an [insert title here] for so long, that I don’t even recognize myself when free from these labels. For me, freedom is an experiment in intellectual redaction and spiritual transcendence—a practice of unlearning what I’ve been taught, and flooding the blackness left in the wake of reason with the instinct and intuition. Perhaps, in my case, freedom is the procedural demonstration that my deepest knowledge stems not from learned literacies, but rather from the riotous chorus of ancestors swelling in me, held back only by my trained, fucking tongue.


I was hungry for images that represented the experiments in freedom that unfolded within slavery’s shadow, the practice of everyday life and escape subsistence stoked by the liberties of the city… I searched for photographs exemplary of the beauty and possibility cultivated in the lives of ordinary black girls and young women and that stoked dreams of what might be possible if you could escape the house of bondage. 2

There is this picture that my mother took of me when I was five. I’m standing outside on our porch completely naked, save for the sun on my shoulders and a pair of white, dad-sized Nikes and sports socks to match. My belly arcs like a crescent moon, thrust skyward by a strong hand on my hip. My hair drapes down from a center part in six dookie braids, fastened at the ends with alternating red and white barrettes. My teeth are impossibly bucked, my limbs unstoppably reaching, and I’ve never looked more free!

As I consider the weight of this image in my own life—and its place within the family photo albums of others descended from Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson—I imagine all the other experiments in freedom and scenes of rebellion out there that, together, might evidence our inventiveness and inherent abilities to get free.

I read a book this summer that changed everything. When I say, “I couldn't put it down,” what I mean is, “the book became such a part of me, and me a part of it, that there no longer exists a boundary between us.” Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval is art unlike any I’ve ever known. Her words deliver bold stroke and heartbreaking color to the complex social history of Blackness, rendering legible my own tawdry sketch of freedom that I’ve toiled over for years.

The book somehow illustrates my entire life, including a future yet told, whilst jointly offering countless portraits of the generations of Cralle and Wheadon women from whom I’ve inherited my own, proud waywardness. It grants us permission to live out loud and by any means necessary, a pass that—despite our convictions—we never even knew we sought. Hartman’s reverent materialization of Black life, love, and resilience—as artforms in and of themselves—democratizes access to the tools of freedom-making and claims necessary space in which to unpack liberation as both an independent and a collective act.


Most days, the assault of the city eclipses its promise…3

When Phong approached me to serve as the Brooklyn Rail’s Guest Critic, I was turning the page on the book, packing it in a moving box, and relocating to New Haven from Harlem with my husband Malik and our dog, Phife. The aftershocks of this book still resonating in my bones, I was compelled by how he described the conceptual framework of the project—an opportunity to expand upon the conversations I was already having within my community during this moment of transition. Fearing that community might be the one thing we were leaving behind, I screamed YES!

In retrospect, even the move and this new label of critic now seem to reverse engineer their ways into Hartman’s masterpiece—some unpublished chapter, in which I was that lone, madwoman swimming against the tide of dreamers docking on the City’s shores in pursuit of something. Or perhaps I was the deserter, so formed and figured, broken and disfigured, by the City that I had—in the metamorphosis—lost my own ability to dream.

In Phong’s invitation, I saw the opportunity to add to Hartman’s chorus by dreaming aloud alongside nine thinkers and doers whose beautiful lives foreground a series of existential questions, both of and for our times. This collection of poems, essays, musings, and allegories is an experiment too. It’s as much about the individual voices and their riffs on freedom, as it is about the harmonies and procedure of collective imagination—the unpredictable sites of convergence where ideas and tools intersect to build something new.

Together, we proffer that naming fear, living with uncertainty, making art, resisting propaganda, confronting privilege, archiving memory, and caring for trauma is the work that lay ahead. And that the work itself is freedom.


Beauty is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given. It is a will to adorn, a proclivity for the baroque, and the love of too much. 4

Our experiments consider how to live in search of beauty and liberation in this oppressive, ugly world. They look inwards for truth, yet seek to cast what is discovered outwards for bountiful consumption. They are at once artful and grotesque, too much and just enough. They, like freedom itself, are enmeshed in paradox yet resist the premise that contradiction is comprised of competing ideas.

What if learning to occupy the space of contradiction’s enclosure is ultimately what will set us free? What if living amidst all our terribleness is what encourages us to dream of other worlds? And what if art is the one tool we’ve all been gifted to materialize these dreams here on earth? What if?


  1. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019) p. 60.
  2. Hartman, 17.
  3. Hartman, 10.
  4. Hartman, 33.


Nico Wheadon

NICO WHEADON is an independent art advisor, curator, educator & writer. She is founder & principal of bldg fund LLC, and is an adjunct assistant professor at Brown University, Barnard College & Hartford Art School. Her first manuscript, On Museum Citizenship: A Toolkit for Radical Art Pedagogy, Practice, and Participation, is slated for publication in Spring 2021.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2019

All Issues