Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Ato Essandoh’s parents were born in Accra, Ghana. On a visit to my family’s home I was introduced to him. He participated in a reading for my theatrical play Cushion Pill where he read for the part of a former inmate. At the Actor’s Studio Ato performed Fredrick Douglass’ slave narrative. It was an overwhelming example in courage, strength and talent. This was soon followed by a foray into theater and small parts in Hollywood films. As a writer his play Black Thang was included in Plays and Playwrights 2003. He started a writing group The Defiant Ones. Currently he is among the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The list of Hollywood elite actors he has worked with include Will Smith and a second film with Leonardo di Caprio. Ato has made a living guest starring in numerous television shows, Law and Order and recently Elementary. But his most lucrative role is the character Matthew Freeman on BBC America’s Copper, where he plays a freed slave with a medical practice. Ato is en route to Toronto for the shooting of the second season.
KOFI FORSON: Congratulations on the Best Picture Oscar Nomination for Django Unchained.
ATO ESSANDOH: Yea. Yea. Thanks.
FORSON: I’m just imagining Quentin Tarantino flipping out.
FORSON: I don’t think most people realize how brilliant an artist he is I mean all politics aside.
ESSANDOH: Yea. Of course!
FORSON: You look at Reservoir Dogs okay sure we’ve seen gangster types before in film history. But look at the film. It’s effortless. And what gets me with Quentin each and every time is the writing. It’s damn good.
Were you at the Centerfold Theater for the premiere of my play 5th of Floyd?
ESSANDOH: Not sure.
FORSON: I remember seeing you there that night. Well anyway I wrote that play after I saw Pulp Fiction.
ESSANDOH: Funny you should say that. I got into acting because of Pulp Fiction. I was majoring in Engineering at Cornell University. I saw the film and I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
FORSON: Interesting. I had that feeling when I saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. You know what I mean…
FORSON: Like Blue Velvet was the film that defined my generation. David Lynch was to us what Tarantino has become to this generation.
ESSANDOH: Well Pulp Fiction totally blew me away. And Samuel L. Jackson’s character was something special. Quentin hit the ball out of the park with that character. Hard enough for working black actors to get parts in Hollywood films. But for Quentin Tarantino to put all that meat on the bone for Sam Jackson to work with was quite amazing.
FORSON: I remember when you invited me to the Actors Studio to see you perform.
ESSANDOH: Haha… That was so long ago.
FORSON: Damn you were good. I was like there’s so much energy so much talent coming out of this guy.
ESSANDOH: Haha… Stop man you embarrassing me.
FORSON: So then I remember you did Rodger Dodger with Campbell Scott, George C. Scott’s son. That’s when I started to take notice.
ESSANDOH: That was all part of the growing process.
FORSON: Then I would hear about your bit parts on television. I remember when you got on that Law and Order episode. That was legend in a way.
ESSANDOH: Haha you crazy.
FORSON: No really. That character and your performance got such good feedback.
ESSANDOH: Thank you.
FORSON: Funny story I was at my parent’s apartment watching television I think it was a show called Commander in Chief.
Remember that one?
FORSON: That is the one where Gena Davis plays the President of the United States.
ESSANDOH: Of course.
FORSON: Well I believe she was conducting a press conference or something. Then it cuts away from that scene. Out of nowhere your face appears…
FORSON: I’m like Mama… Ato’s on television. Of course by the time she came over from the kitchen to look the scene had ended.
ESSANDOH: Well that’s the luck of the draw with acting. The whole point is to treat it as if it were a job. You have to live. You have to eat. You have to pay rent. So you go on these auditions and get as many parts as possible.
FORSON: How did Tarantino find you?
ESSANDOH: Usually my agent sets me up with different auditions. This was different though. I was put on tape which was sent to Tarantino. I met with him three months later and went over the scene.
FORSON: What was the first meeting like with Tarantino?
ESSANDOH: The first and only meeting was the call back. I showed up in L.A. at an office with a bunch of actors who looked like me.
FORSON: Sounds like a science fiction film.
FORSON: Django Unchained as a science fiction film. Talk about controversy.
ESSANDOH: Actually I didn’t expect it to be a cattle call. So I was sitting there with the script looked up and it was Quentin. He was like “Hey man, how you doing”. I said “Hey, Mr. Tarantino”. He says, “I gotta go to the bathroom. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
And I’m thinking… Yeah. Yeah. But where is everybody else.
FORSON: Oh shit. Wait a minute. This could have turned into the scene in Reservoir Dogs where Mr. Blonde cuts off the ear.
Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel kicks in. Tarantino walks out. I can just imagine you shitting your pants.
ESSANDOH: We talked about the character and the movie. He expected me to channel that strong emotion in the character. So we went over the scene a couple of times. He said when you come down… That particular scene was shot in New Orleans. When you come down I want you to really bring it. And I’m like what do you mean when I come down to New Orleans. I’ve been through many rejections so I didn’t want to play it like I got the part.
FORSON: I remember directing my first Showcase I had to tell one of the actors he didn’t fit the part. I didn’t know how to go about it. Some actors can’t take rejection really well. I’m not sure most people can.
ESSANDOH: That’s the whole point. I said to him Mr. Tarantino I’ll bring it like I brought it for you. And he responds “You gonna be prepared when you come down”.
At this time I’m sorta confused. I still didn’t wanna play like I got the part. So then he’s like “See you in New Orleans”.
I was like okay. He was like okay. I shook his hand. I was kinda dumbfounded and I walked out. My casting director walked out with me. I asked her “Did I get the part”? And she said “You idiot. Of course you got the part. I was like “Oh my God”.
FORSON: I remember when I ran into Patti Smith crossing the street. She stopped and had a chat with me. But before she walked away she hugged and kissed me on the cheek. I ran away like a little boy. I swear almost everybody I saw that day I told them Patti Smith kissed me.
ESSANDOH: I got into my car and drove. My heart was beating so loud I had to pull over and calm down, call everybody and share the news.
It was quite a humbling experience.
FORSON: You’ve made your living in guest appearances on television dramas. You’ve now landed a lead role in Copper on BBC America.
How was the transition from bit parts to a lead role?
ESSANDOH: To be a guest star on a TV show is like being invited to someone else’s family reunion. You are welcomed but you don’t belong.
Honestly it’s the hardest job amongst actors on the set having to adapt and execute. Not only that, they have to wait for hours before shooting. That’s because the main actors and hence the storyline need to be worked on first.
It really is a great experience. To perform at a moment’s notice requires so much skill like you won’t believe.
The transition from guest star to series regular is similar to a Triple A baseball player getting a call to play in the Major Leagues.
FORSON: You play a doctor on Copper, a freed slave. How much research went into this?
ESSANDOH: I researched black doctors in the Civil War Era in New York City. My main inspiration was Doctor James McCune Smith, the first African American doctor in the United States.
FORSON: What more can you tell me about him? Who was he? How did he manage a professional career growing up at this time?
ESSANDOH: He was a gifted student but was denied acceptance into the major American Universities. A benefactor helped him get to the University of Glasgow Scotland where he earned his M.D.
FORSON: On Copper you treat patients. I would imagine you took from Doctor McCune Smith’s practice as well.
ESSANDOH: When he returned to New York he opened a medical practice. He treated both black and white patients.
This was a great source of focus for me.
FORSON: Was he a political figure? In what way did he affect the causes of black people at this time?
ESSANDOH: He was active in the Abolitionist movement and wrote papers against racism. He authored the introduction of Fredrick Douglas’ 2nd autobiography.
He truly served as the basis for my character.
FORSON: You’ve done two films with Leonardo di Caprio, Blood Diamond now Django Unchained.
What is your impression of Leo the person?
ESSANDOH: He’s a great guy, down to earth, humble and extremely committed to the work. He was a pleasure to work with.
FORSON: Are the Hollywood openings as fun as we see them on television?
ESSANDOH: For the most part… When the press is gone and the flashbulbs stop flashing, it’s usually a big reunion. Time to catch up with every one, drink a little booze and goof off!
FORSON: What plans do you have for the near future?
ESSANDOH: I’m headed to Toronto to shoot season 2 of Copper on BBC America. I’ve read the first two episodes. I can’t tell you how excited I am.
It’s going to be fantastic.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
By Kofi Forson
Originally published @ www.whitehotmagazine.com
Kofi Forson: Fortunate enough to have been at the opening of your documentary Pirate in Venice. I was somewhat awestruck by those gathered. They all seemed otherworldly. Present among them was Anthony Haden Guest. It's quite clear you have had the fortune of meeting some extraordinary people over the course of your career.
Colette: Thank You Kofi, I am glad you got to see it. I was moved by the responsive audience, and yes I feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with extraordinary human beings in my life and art, and hope to continue to. Anthony is surely one of them! Always lights up a crowd!
Forson: The documentary captures you in your excellence at home, on the streets and boutiques. Somehow it renders you as free spirited bohemian, the opening scene for example where you wake up from sleep to answer the phone. There's that sense of joie de vivre. Share with me that openness and charisma you experienced at a time when art was very public. That life was one big party from the bed to the studio to the club.
Colette: Oh that scene you describe, was taken from Charlie Ahearn's film on me "In Preparation for the Salon," 1994. It was the only one in the series of portraits of artists that did not include an interview. I guess the visuals said it all. One of of Olympia's rules (my persona at that time) was to promote art that celebrate life and elevates the spirit." Could not get more politically incorrect for that time!
I was always interested in reaching multi-audiences. This is probably one of the reasons why I choose to work with so many mediums and why I present my art in different kinds of locations, besides museums and galleries; for ex. the street , shop windows, clubs, etc. I hold dear the memories of those days and as you describe it, my poet friend, it was "one big party! From the bed to the studio, to the clubs!” Night life played an important part in our lives in the seventies and 80's. Although it may not have appeared so, I also spent much time alone in the studio.
Lumiere (of Laboratoire Lumiere), my current manifestation, is also as you describe it, interested in la joie de vivre! I believe in the power of Beauty and Joy. Simple as that! It is definitely under-rated!
Forson: Your legendary status is undeniable. The documentary is able to chronicle much of your life in art and status as some one who made a great mark on history. We live in a world now of self-professed pop stars. Not many would know the influence you left on icons like Madonna and currently Lady Gaga judging by the film. Do you think the film should have done a better job detailing how your installations and fashion boutiques shaped what was the trend on the streets?
Colette: Fredriecke documented my "apparition" performances, in Venice as well as my chance encounters with old and new friends. In between, she intersected my history with earlier footage and images and intentionally did not add a date nor identify the personages. It was her way of capturing my spirit and the essence of my work. I found it effective, being that my work addresses themes of timelessness and parallel universes.
I was pleased at the film's poetic style, and its 'collage' approach. If you look at the footage more than once , you realize that there is a lot information. One absorbs it subliminally. To create a classic documentary was not the intent.
About the film not detailing my inluence on Pop culture, and I guess you must referring to the latest publicized “rip off”: the plagiarism of my vision in Barney's Christmas windows created by the Pop star's creative team “Gaga's Boudoir?" Not the first time for me as you know. It is common for popular culture to steal from well-known artists. Mainly because art is not as acessible to the masses, so some take liberty to steal it. It happens within the artworld as well. I chose to protect my vision and, as many know, took action in front of Barneys. I am very moved by the support by most in the art community. “The real victory is to be able to turn what is not controllable into a dream reality: making art," words from the House of Olympia...I still have not heard back from Gaga, yet this unfortunate incident has turned into a source of inspiration. It may not have reached the mainstream but “those who matter are aware” and sympathetic as an art critic said.
The Arrival of Mademoiselle Lumiere, Pavel Zoubok booth, Amory Show, 2010
Forson: How important is the city of Venice to the making of this film?
Colette: Venice was crucial in making this film. I love the city. I just had met Fredericke through the author and curator (of my show at Paolo Barozzi 's gallery) Alan Jones. She was so enthusiastic and curious about all, that what began as a "family album"" developed into a film. Not to mention there was no budget.
Forson: Your ability to bring art to the public is evident in the film. The most striking example is when you proceed to nonchalantly paint the streets with designs. This is very much a modernist means of art, I suppose predating graffiti.
Colette: I began to paint the streets anonymously, but my identity was soon discovered. The video clip was filmed by Al Hansen (the late fluxus artist) in 1973. It does bring to mind Banksy and his recent film Exit Through the Gift Shop. Arnold Newman, the famous photographer, who arrived on location got arrested! I had already fled by the time the police arrived. Painting the streets was similar in spirit to graffiti art and preceded it. My aesthetics, however, was unique and did not fit the style of the movement. This might explain why I am not included as part of the movement. I am currently included in more shows of that nature, even though I have never been part of “a group." Regardless, the growing interest in the art of the 70's and 80's has contributed to my art and influence surfacing. For example, I am in the New Museum's current show “Come Closer,” which includes ephemera and street art downtown in the 70's and 80's, featured in “React-Feminism II," the travelling show which begun in Berlin in 2008 with my street works, and the short films are still being shown in various venues. Next a museum retrospective “a propos!"
Forson: Throughout history women have been admired for their beauty. One would be lead to think the Mona Lisa is what women always aspired to be. A face that doesn't age remains unaffected through time.
I've seen photographs of you as a younger woman. That sense of innocence is still present. But what is remarkable is that you transcend what is traditionally model or pinup. Your beauty represents what is muse. A persona that passes through time but endures pleasure and pain still able to maintain its originality. What is the origin of the Colette persona?
Colette: Oh you're making me blush! I was born with the name Colette (named after the wonderful French Writer). Why is the sky blue?
Forson: Facets of your performances include "COLETTE IS DEAD" and "the Sleep," both of which are imitated in pop culture: first by John and Yoko's give peace a chance sleep in and proclamation of a living person's death is common in music and literature.
What is the metaphorical interpretation of your death in this circumstance? I would suppose you could have transformed like David Bowie's many manifestations. Do have to say though, this piece alone is a highly sensational juxtaposition of beauty and death. Reminds me of how the corpse is prepared before burial.
Colette: So many questions in one! Sleep, Death , Love, transformation are all common themes for art!
John and Yoko's Bed was a great happening! And when it comes to the music scene, no one greater than Bowie!
My beds and my use of sleep was expressing something of a different nature.
Real Dream Sleep Performance installation with audios, Clock Tower, 1975
In portraying the sleeping reclining female in my room installation/performances, "I was creating a landscape and becoming one with it." I portrayed myself as the subject and object of my work . To quote the art historian Peter Selz “something that till Colette came along was a man's prerogative. The nude laying female before that, was historically portrayed through the male gaze...” Blurring the line between dreams and reality also played a big part in my work as well exploring and commenting on the line between art and life, and that of art and commerce.
What makes answering your question more complex is that, in 1978, I staged my death in an installation performance at the Whitney.
In 1978, I made my death a performance and resurrected as Justine of the Colette is Dead Co. (Reverse Pop series). This added another meaning to laying still. The series was a “parody and the solution to the dilemma of a young, well known innovative artist” (myself) whose vision the commercial world had already shamelessly imitated. It was my first living persona. As Justine, I posed as a recording star, "Justine & the Victorian Punks," an interior and fashion designer, and conceptualizer of products inspired by Colette's image (ex; the colette doll-perfume-clothes-beds-records). I also became the head of the estate . Needless to say, Women at that time had a better chance at being heard as an entertainer than as an artist. Oh and I am afraid it is still so! Ah!
Ironic that many at that time interpreted my work superficial and my exploration of the self in my light boxes and self transformations as narcissistic. And the "Colette is Dead" series were so convincing that many in the art world thought I went “commercial!?"
My extravagant and unique style of dress not common to the world of art did not help, and to add further injury I often used nudity. An art work for me is self-explanatory. Art is a language of symbols and loses power in translation. The art world seems to still rely on explanation? Time, also, seems to play a role in the acceptance of new ideas.
Forson: What I find the most impressionable in the film is what would be considered your boudoir. How long does it take for you to create such a majestic installation?
Colette: You must be referring to the “living environment“ - a complete work of art of the early 70's - it took weeks to create that one - all in white silk parachutes that I bought in army and navy stores. I did not let anyone in at first....as it often happens when I am in working on something. It is like being pregnant, one has to be protective during the incubation period as well as at the beginning of the birth.
It is always a challenge to create a room for a public space. For my current show “Lumiere travels to Springfield,” I created an “on-site installation” in a historical Victorian home, of the Benedictine Catholic College in Illinois. I transformed (Colettesized) each room, by incorporating fabrics, recent lumiere paintings & earlier art works, costumed dressed forms, projections, and audios. Each room represented a different persona from my history. For the opening, C.I.A. models represented The Colette institute of Art were integrated in the rooms. During the procession, A Colettesized Gaga “from a parallel universe ” walked towards An Altar, and got on her knees in prayer. “Forgive me Mother".....Another dream of mine is to create a permanent Colette Chapel!
Colettesized Gaga from another galaxy. Lumiere travels through Springfield, IL. September 17, 2012
Forson: How has the press responded to you over the years? There are scenes in the film with articles written about you. Were the articles about you more favorable in Europe than they were here in The States? How has the media portrayed you over all?
Colette: The press, as to be expected, has responded to the more superficial aspects and sensational elements of my work and life. Although I have had mythological art writers, historians, poets write more deeply as well.
I have been covered from the National Enquirer to Vogue to ArtForum...just to give you an idea.
European press and art world in general, is more favorable to artists, but most public press look for "scandal" and I have had plenty of that as well. I even made art out of scandal during my Bavarian adventure series as Countess Reichenbach when I lived Munich (86-9) in series called "Dial C for Scandal."
Forson: In your post film address to the audience you remarked on how you felt regret that the filmmakers were never alwaysaround to capture you at work. Even sometimes although present when you would ask them to film they refused. This brings me to the greater question about your career and role in history. Is there a sense of regret? More so regret in how perhaps you managed your career.
Colette: Oh none "Je ne regrette rien" as Edith Piaf sings in one of my favorite songs besides "La vie en rose" (both I have used in my presentations). What I was trying to communicate is that sometimes when something magical happens, there is no one there to record it. And that Fredericke was not always accompanying me, through no fault of her own. These moments can later be expressed in a work of art, so they need not be wasted.
I would also like to see a full-length documentary of my life and work . Wim Wenders, are you listening?
And as far as I have managed my career? Well, that is another long story...but as Malcolm Morley once said “I did not become an artist so I could have a career." I do feel this is a good moment for the world to be receptive to my work. Ironically, this is largely due to all the imitation! When I was younger, I think a big part of me resisted commercial sucess. After all, great artists are rarelly understood! I am ready now!
Back to the making of the film A Pirate in Venice. It is often a shock, even the best of actors would agree, to see oneself not “camera-ready” on film. Fredericke had the insight to record private conversations I had with friends, without my being aware, or self-conscious, and in that way portrayed me in the most real way possible. More viewings of this film are in the works! Next stop Berlin!
Forson: Generally the 60's fashion sense intrigues me the most. I say this because the glamour and allure of Hollywood gave way to rock and roll. The 70's followed, maintaining that same sensibility, how rock and roll permeated the conscience of the general public with all the variables, style, attitude and models. What were your early impressions of fashion? Who made a mark on you the most?
Colette: Old movies! Art History! Dance, music, theater, style, mythology, ruins! Oh, forgot to mention that most of the rooms incorporated sound. “The Beautiful Dreamer LP,” one of Justine & the Victorian Punks' theme songs (released as art multiple 1979), was re-realeased by DFA record label in 2011!
Forson: As far as texture and fabric of your fashions and designs what do you prefer? There's a lush quality and brilliance and attention to color.
Colette: My palette has varied, but I always seem to return to pale muted colors as in the recent lumiere paintings and “metaphysical portraits." Dreams are often made of light colors. I also love black and whites...I am not for high definition, I prefer the blurry look. Ah.
Forson: Does the allure of style mask your identity or is this the true Colette? If I could mention Madonna again. She seemed to have relished in the adventurism of her style but that was who she was. The artist known as Boy George or even Prince were circumventing their true self. Are you accentuating your true self or is this an art persona?
Colette: Both of course. After all, it is I who has created the persona and their look, attitude, and philosophy. Yet it may sound contradictory, but I also create the personas to permit a certain distance and allow objectivity.
Forson: Your installation pieces seem to benefit more from your originality, the aura and dimension and scope. How do you balance your sense of creativity between the installations, video and painting?
Colette: “The media that I use is not as important as the fact that I turn it into art” (Justine 1978). Johnathan Crary wrote in an article in 1982: "At the core of Colette's work is a nomadic principle...not one medium is valued more than the other...also a wish to reach high and low audiences...”
Forson: Performance art has always been a place where art met theater. I see the value of French artists who stemmed from theater, whether Cocteau or Artaud. Your performances celebrated and courted art created in the moment left to be judged in time if not endured and forgotten. But as the documentary proved your performances are relevant in modern history.
Colette: Well said! Fortunately, lots of “objects d'art” and artifacts remain that captured these ethereal and magical moments of my art adventure: from photo works to light boxes, from paintings to sculpture , from audios to videos.
Forson: I see variety of women who walk the streets of New York, if not the world. You come to mind each time. It's never "oh she is trying to be Anais Nin or Dorthy Parker." I think of you. Why is that do you think?
Colette: Why is that?
Forson: You are a living treasure, Colette.
Colette: You are my cherub messenger! Ah, thank you – I hope this has shed some light on the subject...!
Remember Lumiere is my current muse. .. Head of the "Laboratoire Lumiere" 2001, the C.I.A. Colette Institute of Art (2004) (please join her on Facebook) The C.I.A. motto: "Fight Terror with Glamor!” It was created to help preserve, protect and share Colette's vision. ...stay tuned! Lumiere. www. colettetheartist.com