Akwi, a writer, performer, and textile artist, is the founder of The Hook, a visual artist, storyteller, and producer of multi-media artistic events in the Midwest. She is an Iowa Arts Council Fellow and collaborates with Emmy-winning composers, dancers, choreographers, and organizations. Akwi’s work explores complexities of gender, parenthood, race, political and social issues, “outsider” and “insider” tensions, and notions of home and social change. Her audiovisual exhibition, enuf, is currently on display at CSPS in Cedar Rapids. Akwi is an imaginative person who works as a writer, performer, and textile artist. Her work and remarks have been performed onstage from the California Wine Country Festivals to New York Fashion Week.
She is the founder of The Hook, a visual artist, storyteller, and producer of multi-media artistic events in the Midwest, as well as an Iowa Arts Council Fellow for 2016. Her collaborators include Emmy-winning composers, nationally renowned dancers and choreographers, as well as companies and organizations willing to reevaluate the effectiveness of art-based storytelling.
Akwi, who was born in Iowa City, Iowa, was raised in Cameroon, Africa. Her experiences as a Cameroonian and Cameroonian-American (in small-town Iowa and as a biracial adolescent in the city’s most ethnically diverse school) provided an eclectic foundation for her early writing and observations about human relationships, the tension between “outsider” and “insider,” and the power of the story.
Akwi’s work explores the complexities of gender, parenthood, race, political and social issues, “outsider” and “insider” tensions, and notions of home. Until March 18, 2023, her audiovisual exhibition enuf is currently on display in the Commons Gallery at CSPS in Cedar Rapids. You can listen to her enuf album here, and I earnestly advise you to do so right away.
AND BEFORE WE BEGIN OUR INTERVIEW, A BRIEF EXPLANATION OF THE HOOK…
From 2016 to 2020, The Hook explored the assets, challenges, history, and culture of a community through the use of inventive personal narratives in a variety of formats. Programming ranged from intimate generative writing sessions called Write Nights to elaborate performances of performance art that incorporate dance, music, visual art, and words to tell the stories of a community on stage in a creative manner.
HOW DO I DESCRIBE MYSELF IN TEN WORDS?
Mother, daughter, artist, perfectionist, and visionary who is of Cameroonian and American descent.
WHAT CREATIVE RITUALS DO YOU OBSERVE?
Excellent etiquette. After squeezing “creativity” into whatever arbitrary spaces in my schedule I could find for so many years, I feel like I’m just now beginning to develop these skills. Today, I commence my “rituals” for being my most creative self the night before. If my mother is visiting, this is her cue to leave LOL; I have a bedtime routine that includes hot tea, reading, and incense; I wake up early to the scent of coffee brewing, waddle out of bed and pour a cup of coffee, turn on an instrumental playlist, and write my “morning pages” (a writing exercise from The Artist’s Way), it is my creative zen. If I do these things, I am well-rested, in charge of my time and schedule, clear-headed, and able to approach the day with urgency and resolve. Sundays are also reserved for self-care (which typically involves spending the majority of the day in my pajamas) and setting goals and intentions for the week. I notice that if I perform these actions, my creativity flows more readily.
WHICH COMMUNITY RITE DO YOU VALUE?
Wow. This inquiry is intriguing. Regarding the value of many of them, I am uncertain. I see numerous ways in which we err by routinely excluding various stakeholder groups from critical dialogues, by disregarding the subtle ways in which we keep diverse groups from the proverbial “table,” and by isolating portions of our communities, which ultimately promotes homogeneity. I endeavor to deconstruct a portion of that, but I risk coming across as “controversial” or “difficult” or “abrasive,” as I was labeled in a recent job interview.
HOW DO YOU COMBINE YOUR CREATIVE WORK WITH YOUR COMMUNITY SERVICE?
By establishing The Hook, I was able to integrate my creative labor and community service in a direct manner. My vision for The Hook was that it would be an organization that regularly and consistently designed community experiences (not “events”) to erode homogeneity, foster inclusivity, promote empathy, and authentically amplify and celebrate diversity. And this would all be the result of creativity.
HOW HAS THIS CHANGED IN RECENT YEARS?
It changed for me when our current president was elected. I was truly devastated by this. If this is how divided we are, I pondered, how can a few minor experiences, which suddenly felt hollow and inconsequential, change this? What could I contribute if the work of individuals far more competent, resourceful, and talented than myself had not brought the ship closer to empathy? It was difficult for me to regain confidence that even modest initiatives can have a significant impact. In the past six months, if anything, my belief in that has grown, and I operate with a bit more optimism and determination.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST DIFFICULT COMMUNITY LESSON?
I had painstakingly curated an event to be held at a local coffee shop over the course of many months. Establishing trust between a disparate group of individuals, myself, and The Hook required a substantial quantity of relationship-building behind the scenes. I needed to acquire their trust in order for them to feel secure sharing their work in front of an unfamiliar audience. Through our relationship, they felt confident that they would be at ease in an unfamiliar setting and in a gentrified neighborhood from which they felt estranged. The effort required to compose a heterogeneous group of artists and audience members was considerable. The evening went very smoothly. In fact, it was an extraordinary experience, and I haven’t felt such intensity in a room since. Extremely euphoric. Utilization of electricity. As my companion described them, a motley crew of individuals gathered and created an enchanting evening together. I believe the owner had consumed too much alcohol, felt empowered by the energy, and became a bit inflated as he reminded us all that he owned the venue, thanked everyone for coming to his place, and stated that “all y’all niggas” are welcome. Isn’t that what people who “mean well” would say? They obtain permits regularly. I was however astonished. Many of us were in amazement. The vitality in the room dissipated instantly. We were intimidated, weakened, made to feel insignificant, and reminded of our status. The discharge process was somewhat disorganized. Numerous individuals who I had painstakingly persuaded that they would be “safe” in the space I had created were dissatisfied with me and The Hook. After that, we lost a significant number of participants and credibility, and I did extensive damage control that week via phone calls and texts. It served as a reminder to me that when you are not in a position of true ownership — when you don’t have the proverbial keys to the proverbial kingdom — even if you design a secure space, there is always the risk that it will be dismantled — and usually exponentially faster than it took to construct.
WHAT WAS THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR TIME IN THE COMMUNITY?
Every time a person took an extra step, they felt “braver” than previously. A high school student may have transitioned from sharing their writing during a low-stakes Write Night to a higher-stakes Open Mic period. Quite chatting! Or when one of our writers informed me that she had started her own writing group at the VA facility as a consequence of her positive experience with us. Or the Vietnamese-American mother who, after sharing her story on stage, told her daughter that her childhood dream of being on stage had been realized. And the time we filled a 200-person hall, and a friend remarked, “I don’t know how you manage to assemble such an amazing assortment of people, but it’s incredible.” I assume I must recall these trifling particulars.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ARTISTS INTERESTED IN COMMUNITY SERVICE?
Set boundaries for yourself. Due to the gratifying and addictive nature of community service, I have a propensity to neglect my own creativity. I would say that it is essential to honor your personal practice and continue to stoke its flames so that you are emotionally and professionally equipped to sustain community work and do so effectively.
HOW DO YOU RECOMMEND THAT COMMUNITIES SUPPORT AND WORK WITH ARTISTS MORE EFFECTIVELY?
Do not presume that there are no highly skilled artists of color or members of traditionally marginalized groups in your area. They are existing. Community leaders only need to be deliberate about committing to the labor of locating them, cultivating relationships with them, and being prepared to compensate them equitably for their talent.
TO WHAT PRINCIPLES DO YOU ADHERE?
Do good, and “doing well” will follow naturally.
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