The Artful Life Questionnaire: Ebony Noelle Golden
What we know for sure: We all have a story, and engaging with the arts helps all of us to tell our own stories on our own terms. We also know that there are ways to engage with the arts other than in formal cultural venues, and that sometimes it's more about the process of art making than it is about the end product. We also know that living an artful life, which is to say, living a life in which the arts and arts engagement are a priority means different things to different people based on their own interests, their communities, and many other factors, including equitable access. The Artful Life Questionnaire celebrates the diversity of ways we can make the arts a part of our lives, and, hopefully, inspires and encourages us to live our own unique versions of an artful life. In today’s edition of the question, we’re speaking with Harlem-based Ebony Noelle Golden, poet, performance artist, culture strategist, and founder of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative.
NEA: To start with, why don’t you introduce yourself?
EBONY GOLDEN: I'm Ebony Noelle Golden from Houston, Texas. I live in Harlem, New York City. I am the daughter of Dr. Betty Ann Sims, who is the daughter of Bertha Lee Adam Sims, who is the daughter of Pearl Glover, who is the daughter of Mary Brown. I'm an artist. I work in ritual performance, poetry, choreography, and creating theatrical ceremonies in public spaces, on land, in rivers, and on stages. That's what I do, but who I am—I think I'm in a constant space of molting and becoming. I'm feeling really called in this moment to talk about what it means to be soft, and what it means to be in a practice of surrender and allowing, how that is guiding my life and my decisions to move from a space of abundance and care for myself and care for my communities. Recently, I have graduated, if you will, into another layer of being able to answer this question about how I want to be in the world and what I want my legacy to be, and that legacy is one that is rooted in how I treat people now. And how these relationships that I have with myself, with community, with family, with lovers are about joy and wellness and being present
NEA: What are five words that come to mind when you think about living an artful life?
GOLDEN: Freedom, spirituality, ritual, play, surrender.
NEA: Choose just one of those words and talk more about how that connects for you to that idea of artful living.
GOLDEN: I'll choose the word freedom. I want to live a life, I do live a life that allows me to move in my own practice of freedom, practice of liberation. And I often think about what it means to have autonomy over how I welcome the day, and how I move through the day. The artist Sharon Bridgforth says that her art practices are spiritual practices, and I definitely align with that way of being in the world. It is my goal to expand my experience of being a liberated person on a daily basis. My decisions are rooted in that, my relationships are rooted in that, my creative practice, which is my everyday practice, is rooted in that. I am only here to experience freedom; that's the only reason why I'm on this planet. Everything else is a mythology that I don't want to align with. I want to be figuring out every day creative ways to experience more breath in my body, more release in my muscles, more allowing, more surrendering. And that, to me, frees up my nervous system, it harmonizes my blood pressure, it really is a social and a personal choreography that governs the way I move. If I can emit an energy that says to the people that I surround, we can be free, then I've done what I'm here to do.
NEA: Can you talk about where you live and describe some of the ways that your community tells its own story?
GOLDEN: So I live in Harlem, and Harlem is a thriving ecosystem. I have a ritual on Fridays of walking 125th Street. You get the news of the day, you get the pulse of the moment. You can buy things, you can encounter people, you can hear music. There's always something delicious to eat. It's a whole world on a stretch of street. I think [the community tells its story through] the food, the rhythms, the music, the fashion. This is also a story about liberation. It's a story about perseverance and resilience. Artists come to Harlem with a dream. Entrepreneurs come to Harlem with a dream. Creatives come to Harlem with a dream. Harlem, because of its historical significance, its political significance, its cultural significance, I find that it really is a portal space. It's a portal to new ways of thinking, new ways of being, new ways of living. Harlem is changing. It's rapidly gentrifying, and it's very much a transitory neighborhood. I am often concerned about what it means for historical buildings and historical spaces to become the new condo, the new high rise. But there's something I think that's even more spectacular about what it means to live in a place that moves like Harlem, and that's about what our bodies remember, and how culture is encoded and embedded into our daily lives by what we do, what we say, what we remember. You can walk down a stretch of street in Harlem, and it sounds and smells like someone's kitchen in the South because migration happens. And so that's the story that Harlem tells about itself—one of reimagining, renewal, and remembering.
NEA: Is there a particular place in your neighborhood that is a creative touchstone for you?
GOLDEN: There are a few, and I'm really grateful for it. It feels really important to lift up National Black Theatre, which was founded in the late 1960s by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, and it has been, for the last 50 years or so, a place of liberation for Black artists. Many folks have moved through National Black Theatre and called it their home away from home. It’s the place where I've been able to grow my own devised performance work, my own theater practice in a way that has been so, again, liberating. I have a very close relationship with executive artistic director Jonathan McCrory, who is a creative doula genius, a friend, a sibling. My most ambitious work that I've been able to make has happened because of the relationships that I have at NBT. When I think of a cultural touchpoint, I think of a place that allows for this process of astral projecting, where you are really propelling yourself to a new world, a new way of living, a new way of being. It's a very safe, sacred space.
I also really love Marcus Garvey Park. It's a beautiful park. I love that it's walking distance from my home, and that it's a place where you can see a little bit of everything happening, but also there are the lawns and spaces, to just sit and reflect. The thing about living in Harlem is that you walk literally two minutes and you're in some other historically important space. I live down the street from the Apollo. I live down the street from the Studio Museum in Harlem. These places, as cultural institutions, are powerful spaces of possibility. They are also places where I can see myself reflected as an artist, as a Black woman, as a thinker.
NEA: Do you have a favorite informal way to engage with arts and culture? And by informal, I mean outside of spaces where you expect arts engagement to happen.
GOLDEN: I find that I'm increasingly wanting to walk with people. It might not necessarily be outside of traditional arts spaces because I always am staging a processional with an institution. But the idea of what happens when we walk together, when we move together, that moving together is a choreography that's accessible to folks, and I do mean moving together [whether] some folks walk, some folks roll, and some folks have to ride. It has been the most impactful type of creative practice that I have been able to share. I started doing this while working on a piece where I would just walk for hours and hours in different neighborhoods in New York City, and then it became really clear to me that [walking] was the cornerstone of a work that I wanted to make. Through the practice of walking, it becomes clear that meditation can happen, breathing can happen, and really finding the deeper layers of a story. I believe in the power and the beauty of the processional. It’s a way of moving collectively that has existed since the beginning of time—moving because of seasons, moving to get to the water, and so on and so forth.
NEA: If you hadn’t become an artist, do you think the arts would still be a part of your life in what ways?
GOLDEN: I was raised in a very artful home. My mother raised me around a lot of music and poetry, and to enjoy art. That wasn't something that she wanted me to do because she wanted me to be an artist. She just wanted me to be a whole person. There was a moment in time where I retired from being an artist and thought that, perhaps, I needed to just do something else altogether. I did, and I was not good. I felt very stifled. Because I'd stopped being an artist it was hard for me to be creative in any other aspect of my life. These two things really are part of the same whole for me. I'm so glad that I came back to art, and I'm continuing to find my voice as an artist. But I came back knowing that I didn't want to be a solitary solo artist, that I really wanted to work in the space of ensemble. That helped me tremendously in coming back to the practice of being creative and being an artist. It also helped to remind me what it meant to have a creative life that wasn't about just getting to the destination, getting to a product or project. I definitely can't see being in this world with so much art and not experiencing it and wanting it to be a part of my everyday life.
NEA: You’re known as a poet and as a performance artist. Is there a form of creative expression that's really important to you that we don't know about?
GOLDEN: I find a lot of joy in film and video editing. When I need to do something that is totally away from poetry and performance, I like to take photos and videos and make these digital collages that I put in my Instagram stories. I am fascinated by that world of editing. I do think it's relevant to building a vision for something that I want to see performed, but I have zero training in it. I've only done it for myself and I enjoy it. It's a different frequency to sit with these moving images and to layer them and to build a visual poem, which is a different type of rigor and rhythm.
NEA: Can you remember a moment of arts engagement that has had an identifiable impact on your life?
GOLDEN: I went to Welch Middle School in Houston, Texas, and I was in a performing arts kind of magnet program. There was a visiting artist that came to work with us as seventh- or eighth-graders, and she was staging a ballet on the dancers at Welch. I'm not a ballet dancer, and I wasn't expecting to be in this ballet. I had a very quirky performance, aesthetic, even in middle school, and I was doing this kind of mixture of contemporary dance and rhythmic gymnastics. She came to our class, saw me doing whatever it is that I was doing at the time, and found a space for me to be inside of this ballet. But not doing the same dance as a ballerina. Something shifted for me around recognizing and understanding that I don't have to perform like everyone else. I don't have to move like everyone else. I don't have to be the same body shape as everyone else. And I can still be in an ensemble. For a little round chocolate girl in Texas, I needed that affirmation, because it's really guided how I think about whose body belongs on stage and what it means to really be a person that is working with other people to make performance, which is not that everybody has to be the body type that I am. But that the storytelling is in our muscles, in the way our bodies are built. That requires a diverse landscape of body types. I built a strong creative, political aesthetic as a middle schooler around that because I had the experience of working with a choreographer. I wish I could remember her name. I think there was a moment, probably when I first started middle school, where I was looking at my body and looking at the bodies of other folks in the dance program and I was like, oh, what am I supposed to be doing with this developing body? I couldn't control what was popping out and developing, but after that moment [with that choreographer] something significant shifted. I can do what I want with my body, I can make the dance that I want. And my poetry also can be out of bounds, and my performance practice can be out of bounds. My life practice can be out of bounds, because I learned at a very early age that I am free to move in a way that affirms the wholeness of me. And that movement is not just choreography movement, but it's life movement.