Part of the
exhibition

Freedom of Movement Municipal Art Acquisitions 2018

25 Nov 2018 until 17 Mar 2019

Mini story — 23 Nov 2018

Through installation, dance, and other media, interdisciplinary artist Joy Mariama Smith creates spaces in which visitors are invited to investigate questions of projected identity and access. In the Stedelijk’s Freedom of Movement exhibition, Smith presents the newly commissioned performance Fou Fou and installation work Free Fou Fou. These works use the American children’s song “Little Bunny Foo Foo” to examine the thin line between personal freedom and oppression. The song describes a rabbit hopping through a forest, harassing field mice by hitting them on the head. A fairy reprimands Little Bunny Foo Foo three times, threatening to turn the rabbit into a goon unless it stops tormenting the mice. The rabbit persists, and is transformed at the end of the story. The oblivious manner in which the rabbit inflicts violence on the field mice—and its refusal to acknowledge or rectify any wrongdoing—effectively safeguards its sense of entitlement in acting this way. By abstracting the song’s narrative, Smith uses it as an allegory to investigate how all of us are implicated in such violent constructions of freedom.

Joy Mariama Smith, "Free Fou Fou", 2018, mixed media, courtesy the artist. Illustration by Sarah Maloney.
Joy Mariama Smith, "Free Fou Fou", 2018, mixed media, courtesy the artist. Illustration by Sarah Maloney.

The work is accompanied by Smith’s multimedia installation Free Fou Fou. Modeled on an altar, it offers visitors a quiet space to reflect. Drawing on cultural theorist Sianne Ngai’s notion that things we recognize as cute simultaneously inspire feelings of tenderness and aggression, the altar features items characterized by soft materials, muted tones and pastel colors. By using the aesthetics of cuteness in their* work, Smith comments on how Westernization has historically rendered black, brown, and queer bodies “cute” in order to commodify and consume them—and how it continues to do so.

The titles of these works use an alternate spelling of the rabbit’s name. In French, fou is both an adjective meaning “crazy” and a noun meaning “fool.” In the performance Fou Fou, Smith invites the audience to engage with performers and to contemplate their own relationship to freedom, agency, and identity as it relates to politicized, performing bodies. As the rabbit, field mice, and fairy constantly interact, viewers are asked to move, turn, stand back to back, accept, reject or transcend certain ideas of freedom in order to raise awareness around their own tendencies, habits, and biases. Within this work, Smith also considers how agency and access are negotiated in the museum, a highly charged public space where certain groups are less represented than others.

Joy Mariama Smith, "Free Fou Fou", 2018, mixed media, courtesy the artist. Illustration by Sarah Maloney.
Joy Mariama Smith, "Free Fou Fou", 2018, mixed media, courtesy the artist. Illustration by Sarah Maloney.
Joy Mariama Smith, "Free Fou Fou", 2018, mixed media, courtesy the artist. Illustration by Sarah Maloney.
Joy Mariama Smith, "Free Fou Fou", 2018, mixed media, courtesy the artist. Illustration by Sarah Maloney.

Through projects that invite participation and exchange, Smith draws attention to the implicit biases and behaviors that have contributed to shaping the museum into a space where certain bodies are given more access than others. By seriously engaging with the issues raised by a seemingly insignificant children’s song, the artist exposes how deeply ingrained oppression and privilege are in the fabric of Western cultures.

About the artist

Joy Mariama Smith (1976, United States) is an installation and movement artist, activist, educator, and architectural designer. They* studied at the Dutch Art Institute in Arnhem; the NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego; L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris; and Oberlin College in Ohio. Their work has been performed internationally, including at If I Can’t Dance Edition VI – Event and Duration, Amsterdam; SoLow Festival, Philadelphia; and Ponderosa Movement & Discovery in Stolzenhagen, Germany. Currently, they teach at the School for New Dance Development (SNDO) in Amsterdam.

*They/them/their: third person singular gender-neutral pronoun.