PhaeMonae finds art in motherhood

PhaeMonae holds her daughter Echo, raising her up and gazing into her eyes. Mother and daughter both wear white. PhaeMonae wears a white head wrap, and her full pregnant belly is bared. In the background is lush green foliage and a stream or river near Roswell Mill.
Credit: Alan Kimara

October 31, 2020
Volume 2 Issue 1
By: Robin Wharton

PhaeMonae’s solo work “she who shall not be named,” which she performed during the 2018 veraCity dance festival at 7 Stages Theatre, features a spiraling, recursive movement sequence. The costume she created for the piece includes a long train that seems to reference both her ancestors and her artistic predecessors. The circle and the spiral simultaneously support and constrain motion throughout the piece, while the costume similarly functions as both a restraint and an adornment. As an exploration of the relationship between past, present and future, “she who shall not be named” reveals the ambivalent potential of the artist’s familial and artistic inheritance as a source of trauma/oppression or blessing/liberation and sometimes both at once. “she who shall not be named” also captures how, in her work, PhaeMonae has merged the story of her life and the story of her art, so that her identity as an artist is inextricably intertwined with her identity as a mother. Speaking with PhaeMonae, one gets the sense that her life is her art, and her art is her life.

Since moving to Atlanta from Washington, D.C., PhaeMonae has collaborated and performed with many of Atlanta’s leading dance and movement art innovators, including T Lang Dance, Greg Catellier, glo, SCRAP Performance Group and Core Performance Company. In a 2017 ArtsATL year-in-review article (“Year in Review: Atlanta’s dance scene is transforming into a destination for creatives”), Kathleen Wessel described her as “One to Watch,” a “multifaceted movement artist who seems to pop up everywhere and never disappoints.” Discussing the evolution of her art over the last several years, PhaeMonae considered how the move to Atlanta prompted her to reflect on what she could do to heal the traumas that she felt were holding her back: “I was irritated by the emphasis on male relationships in female identity. It’s all about ‘daddy issues’ . . . . I wanted to focus on womanhood, and, as a woman of color, the female relationships that shaped me.”

PhaeMonae began to experiment with using choreography, music, costume/set design and visual art as the means to discover her female ancestors and ground herself in part by connecting to her past. The legacy of slavery, white supremacy and the systemic erasure of Black American lives from the historical record, however, can make such an artistic project difficult and sometimes traumatic in its own right. Confronting that challenge in her 2017 work “Rooted,” PhaeMonae says her desire with that piece was to recover and communicate what of her ancestors is with her, in her body and genetics, even if it is not part of her conscious recollection or intellectual knowledge. PhaeMonae took on her more recent and personal history in “she who shall not be named,” which began as an examination of “the issues around parenting a parent.” While PhaeMonae and her mother are now very close and talk every day, that was not always the case. Throughout the process of creating “she who shall not be named,” PhaeMonae sought to answer questions about why the mothers and daughters in her family so often found themselves in opposition to one another, having to struggle through conflict in order to build positive and nurturing relationships in which they could work in tandem.

These questions acquired new urgency when PhaeMonae realized that she herself would soon become a mother. In our interview, she recalled how her daughter, Echo Mahogany Agotime Ritfield, first appeared to her in a dream so vivid that PhaeMonae took it as a premonition, a sign that she should begin preparing herself for motherhood. “The only stories I had around childbirth were traumatic ones,” says PhaeMonae. Once she found out she was pregnant, PhaeMonae then embarked on a deep-dive research project to find information about childbirth that might help her ensure that Echo’s entry into the world — and her own initiation into Black motherhood — would be a joyful event, unscarred by the automatic attachment or embodiment of intergenerational trauma and pain. Watching footage of animal births, PhaeMonae realized that the process of childbearing was not inherently a traumatic one. Rather, especially for Black women in a racist society, the pain and trauma were the result of context. So she sought out midwife Marsha Ford at OB/GYN and Midwife Associates and doula Korrie Renee, who would empower her to make decisions about how she would bring Echo into the world. In the process and in talking about her decisions with her own mother and the other women in her family, she noticed how they began to retell or reframe their stories of childbirth and child rearing as narratives of Black female empowerment, strength and resilience.

PhaeMonae lounges on a broad, flat rock in the middle of a fast-moving river. She is wearing a white skirt, blouse and head wrap. One hand rests, casually protective, across her pregnant belly. The trees and plants along the river’s edge are a deep, cool green. PhaeMonae is in the shade, and sunlight sparkles on the water in the distance.
Credit: Alan Kimara

As PhaeMonae took control over her journey into motherhood, she had to confront the negative effect that misperceptions and a lack of information about mothers in general and her situation in particular were having on her work as an artist. “It was like everybody went ghost,” says PhaeMonae. Instead of asking if she wanted to work and giving her the choice to say yes or no, people assumed that she needed rest, space, etc. To reassert her agency as an artist, PhaeMonae invited collaborations with colleagues who were specifically interested in working with or even just learning more about a pregnant woman, and after Echo was born, a new mother. Among other projects, PhaeMonae became a living canvas for body paint artist Magdalena O’Connor, and she and Echo participated in the glo activation Supple Means of Connection at the High Museum of Art. In this way, PhaeMonae’s own deeply personal experience created artistic opportunities to demystify the maternal body and to make art from the life she created and was creating with and for Echo.

While still pregnant, PhaeMonae teamed up with her friend, Lev Omelchenko, to create A Song for Echo, which is simultaneously an intimate portrait of Echo’s first year and what Omelchenko describes as “a blooming multi-year reflection on the multi-generational dynamics of Black motherhood and the significance of dance practice as a form of storytelling and healing.” The project began with Omelchenko filming a pregnant PhaeMonae engaged in everyday acts of domesticity — like cooking, for example — along with instances of her creative process as an artist. Using songs that combined lyrics from her poetry layered over music created by long-time collaborators Trebel Village, PhaeMonae choreographed “Solo for Two.” Bringing the moments of her experience together in her work with Omelchenko allowed PhaeMonae to see that rather than (or perhaps in addition to) being clearly delineated into a before and after motherhood, her life could be seen as a journey on the way to and into motherhood and that motherhood was something that she had been preparing for her whole life without knowing it. Currently, PhaeMonae is pregnant with her son, Free Noir Papillion Ritfield, and is creating “Noir,” a short piece built around the contrast between the curated and the domestic life, that will bring him into the process.

PhaeMonae increasingly sees her work as making a strong connection between ordinary and extraordinary gestures, between choreography and the unplanned emergence of everyday movement, between scripted and unscripted moments in time. As PhaeMonae observed, including Echo in her process and in her life requires giving up a certain amount of control. “Echo can’t be manipulated into doing what you want, she’s a baby. She’s going to do what she’s going to do.” PhaeMonae also finds herself pushing back against and critiquing the boundaries that circumscribe what can and cannot be considered art: “In grant applications I know what I’m supposed to say, what I should leave out or put in, but I don’t want to describe it that way.” In particular, her artistic project highlights how women’s work, and especially the work of Black women, is under- or uncompensated in a society that depends on that work for survival. Her experience navigating the complexities and frustrations of grant applications also demonstrates how arts funding can often hinge upon packaging the stories and experience of marginalized groups for a dominant gaze, thus putting pressure on artists to describe their work in inauthentic ways.

Echo, dressed all in white, gazes down at her mother who is outside the frame of the image. PhaeMonae’s hands are visible in the bottom center of the image, reaching up toward Echo.
Credit: Alan Kimara

In transforming motherhood into an ongoing work of artistic creation, PhaeMonae says she is trying to get back to an understanding of art as something urgent and essential, “something you do because you have to, because that’s how you survive . . . . I want to start a generation of privilege rather than trauma. I want to show how women have to fight to be in charge of these choices [about motherhood, childbearing and child rearing] and change the situation so that women are more empowered.”

Promenade readers can follow PhaeMonae and her work on Instagram. PhaeMonae also has a GoFundMe to help support her work and family.

Robin Wharton is a writer working in Atlanta, Georgia. She studied dance at the School of American Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and she was a member of Tulane University’s Newcomb Dance Company. She holds a law degree and a PhD in English, both from the University of Georgia.

More by Robin:

Sammy Spriggs creates a dance class where all bodies have value
Graduating class of 2020 dances into uncertain future with creativity, poise