All summer 2017, one collective of artists and organizers in New York has been keeping the city abuzz with arts events centered on queer and trans people of color. Focusing on community-building, skill-sharing, and art, BUFU (short for By Us for Us) has a mission to build solidarity between black and Asian diasporas and preserve the stories of their lived experiences. Founded in 2015 by Jazmin Jones, Tsige Tafesse, Katherine Tom, Suhyun Choi, and Jiun Kwon, who died in 2015, BUFU began as a documentary archive project, for which the group has been filming and interviewing black and Asian people all over the world.
But what started with a film screening and group discussion about the relationships between members of the black and Asian diasporas has since grown into a web series and community organizing collective that regularly puts on events all over New York. In the month of July alone, BUFU is hosting daily panel conversations, workshops, film screenings, and other community gatherings centered on the theme of examining and celebrating collective organizing. The events — which have included the Hood Feminism workshop series “Regular Degular Feminism”, QTPOC speed dating, a workshop focused on healing intergenerational trauma, amongst others — provide community space for queer and trans people of color in the city, and opportunities for black and Asian people to engage in community with one another.
BUFU is New York-centric, but it is one of many art collectives across the country — a group that includes Discwoman in New York City, FTP Artists Collective in Chicago, and MINT Collective in Columbus, Ohio — that are engaging people with the political resistance potential of art. Jones, Tafesse, and Choi spoke to The Outline by phone about BUFU’s work and art as a tool of resistance for people of color.
Why was it so important to make black-Asian solidarity central to BUFU?
Tsige Tafesse: That screening [that was the first BUFU event bringing black and Asian people together] is where a lot of the energy behind this work came from. It was a really challenging conversation; it was not one that went particularly well. It was one of those moments where I came to a real realization that though we have a shared history and there have been lots of different points of intersection between black and Asian folks, of both solidarity and discord. [But] oftentimes individually because of our racialization [black and Asian folks] don't share a language. And so a lot of this project, behind it there is a hope for solidarity, a hope to bring folks together. But the only way that's possible is to highlight our histories and also to help us create shared languages. So it's a deeply political work and it's one that's grounded in a lot of tension.
Would you all consider the work that BUFU does activism?
Jazmin Jones: I think you could describe it as radical. I don't think that we set out explicitly with that in mind. I think it's more so community with a focus on getting resources to our community and building with our community and creating solidarity across groups of people of color, which I think is inherently radical.
Tsige Tafesse: Also something that we've learned [is] a lot of, like, people attribute a lot of different terms to us. There's a [documentary] special I think that may have already come out about us being curators, and we've been called that before. Other things will call us organizers, feminist collective. And if calling us activists helps someone to frame what we're doing or helps us leverage resources or whatever it happens to be, then that's fine. But I think we kind of do whatever we have to do and are whatever we have to be and can be read whatever way we have to be read so that we can get the work done and support our community.
You center art specifically in, it seems like, all of your events and projects. I was hoping you could speak to the potential you see in art to bring about solidarity.
Tsige Tafesse: I think something that we've been talking about a lot in the last week has been the power of art and where we move in the dark. Me and Jaz were shooting in Ethiopia in January for the doc part of our project. And while we were there, there's a state of emergency happening. What that means is there's a lot of suppression of people's voices and newspapers getting shut down and the internet being really limited access for folks. It's just a lot of suppression of different viewpoints and voices. We have a lot of artist friends out there. And something that a very good friend of mine talked to me about was that there's such spaciousness for radical action within art because the government, I think similarly to the U.S. government, doesn't value it.
So I think the reason why we center art so often is that there's, to me, a lot of radical potential there because it's not valued by larger systems of oppression. There's a tool-making there that's useful. We can't fight fire with fire. Right? Like, I will never be able to pick up enough arms to go against white supremacy. But maybe there's other types of technology black and brown people and POC people have been using for thousands of years, like art, like narrative-making, that's a more powerful use of my time and energy and also feels good while we're doing it. So there's a healing element and there's also a radical action portion to art.
Sonia Choi: Yeah, it's like who else is going to archive these stories in a way that I think needs to be archived, you know? I feel like just trying to preserve that is political in itself. Even though we don't intend it to be, it becomes political because we are trying to preserve all these stories that will not be preserved by white supremacy or capitalism, because they seriously do not value our bodies and do not care. So how do we preserve these stories and archive in a way that feels good to us and in a way that feels good to the people that we are archiving and really share it with the communities that we intend to share it [with]?
I'm interested to know what a “living archive” means.
Tsige Tafesse: From from the start, we knew we wanted to be a collaborative documentary project but — I think we all have different feelings about this — we've definitely talked about cameras and how violent inherently cameras can be and the technology of documentary coming oftentimes from anthropology, and anthropology being developed to further colonization and to oppress black and brown people. So we are aware that we're working with some fraught fucking tools that are not built for us to thrive and to tell our stories well.
With that acknowledgement, we're always trying to learn the right way to bend and to move to transform these things into something that feels good and is actually taking good care of our bodies and our stories. I think that's kind of where this idea of living archive came from too, which, if I’ma be real, I think it started off as a phrase that was just, like, funny artspeak because artspeak is fun. It gets big and broad and then you figure it out later. But part of it was our programming being embodied versions of the documentary. The experience of people who come to our programs, that energy is something we really similarly want to seamlessly have as you're viewing or participating in the doc project. So kind of like, how do we blur the lines of our embodied selves in this work, really owning these stories and not coming to any of this work as as a place of consumption?
It's really hard to come to a BUFU event and just consume, whatever the fuck it happens to be. You'll probably be asked to share your name, your preferred gender pronouns, say a little bit about why the fuck you're there. You will be invited to participate in the community. It's not that you come and you eat the event and you consume it and you take it home and like just chill. It's a sticky type of work. And I think we similarly want that to be the experience of this doc that we're working on.
Now feels like a particularly potent time for collectives centering art in political work. Is art as a form of resistance particularly suited to the political climate now?
Jazmin Jones: I don't think collectives [centering art in political work] are necessarily a new thing. There's a lot of movements that we've seen in the past. I feel like we are harnessing really new tools and technology and the way that we're able to function is deeply influenced by things like the internet, that we were raised [on].
Tsige Tafesse: I also agree. We're definitely a part of a longer legacy of folks. I think spirituality and healing, that's another type of collective that is really on the rise in a lot of spaces. Or at least people are becoming more aware of them. I think art and healing and spirituality are are kind of our last tools of resistance left. They are 100 percent where we need to be investing in energetically. I believe in and I've engaged in different types of direct action work and different other things.
I think, like I said earlier, we're never going to win an arms race against white supremacy. But there are ways that I think we can strengthen ourselves spiritually, heal intergenerational trauma from all of the fuckery that is this terrible political project that is America. And also wage love through art. There is some really powerful narratives that we can shift and change and we can bring people together and build intimacy. I think that's the final frontier to me.