Maya Stovall employs a mix of anthropological observation and urban
intervention to create what she considers performance and ethnography.
Stovall’s current research focuses on Detroit, where she grew up. The
subjects in her video for the 2017 Biennial are her neighbors in the
McDougall-Hunt area on the city’s east side. In Liquor Store Theatre,
she dances on the sidewalks and streets outside neighborhood liquor
stores, combining elements of ballet and contemporary movement. After
each performance, she invites her audience—largely these establishments’
patrons and other passersby—to share their recollections of and
predictions for Detroit, which she records on video. The artist focused
on liquor stores in particular because they serve as hubs of both
commerce and community, with individuals selling clothing, electronic
goods, and other everyday items in their immediate vicinity. They are,
in Stovall’s words, “a backstage view of ongoing life in a neighborhood,
in spite of narratives of abandonment.”
[Maya Stovall (b. 1982), still from Liquor Store Theatre vol. 1, no. 1, 2014. Digital video, color, sound; 4 min. Courtesy the artist, Eric Johnston, and Todd Stovall. Photograph by Eric Johnston]
I still remember the moment I read that you had passed with such clarity. I spent so much time checking hundreds of sources just to confirm that it was real and that you weren’t just another victim of a celebrity death hoax. When I realized that it was true, I cried. And then I cried some more. And then I cried myself to sleep. From the moment I knew what an actor was and that I could have a favorite one, you were it. RV was the first movie I owned that was actually mine, that I could keep in my room and people had to ask my permission to borrow it and watch it. Hook was one of my favorite movies ever growing up as a child, and Jumanji used to scare the hell out of me before I realized how cool it was. Now I watch it every time it’s on TV.
For the longest time, I wondered how someone so funny and so seemingly happy could really be in such a dark place, but over the past year, I have finally begun to understand it. We make people laugh because it is easier to save someone else than it is to save yourself. It wasn’t hard for you to get an audience laughing because you did an impression or made a joke and the crowd was on their feet, but that wouldn’t work with you, would it? You were just Robin Williams and that didn’t help you like it helped the world. And often, people see that mask you wear and assume it’s who you really are, and they don’t care to take the time to see that you might be hurting on the inside too. You want to scream out for help but feel the need to keep this happy image everyone knows of you. That’s not easy. John Green talks a lot about imagining people complexly and the dangers of assuming that “a person is more than a person” and I think you are a perfect example of the consequences the world faces when we fall into that. We imagined you as a comedic genius and forgot that you were just a person.
When I was little, I made two lists of famous people I wanted to meet- one list of all the living, and one list of the dead. You were high on the list, I remember that, and it broke me up to think that I would have to move your name to the other list and that I had missed any real chance of ever meeting you. You taught me so much about making people laugh and how you can always be crazy because what’s the fun in being sane? From you, I learned that there is joy in being funny without being mean.
I’m sorry that we weren’t enough to brighten your world and bring you out of your dark place, but I know that ultimately, you are happier now than you were here, and I think that’s all any of us want anyway. I’ve been collecting all of your DVD’s now, picking some up at $5 flea markets and ignoring my brother when he tells me I’ll have to buy some pretty shitty movies in order to complete my collection. No matter how shitty a movie of yours could be, I will smile because you will be in it.
Detail of a 4th century CE gilded plate from the Sasanian period depicting a hunting scene. The capital of the Sassanid Persian Empire: Seleucia-Ctesiphon (near modern-day Baghdad) was one of the largest cities in the world. Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Detail of a cat grasping a bird from a wall painting of the Pharaoh Nebamun on the hunt. The pharaoh is shown in a small boat with his wife (Hatshepsut), on the River Nile. (From Thebes, c. 1350 BC; in the British Museum.)