Virtually all artists flirt with the divine when they work, delving deep into themselves and their beliefs in the name of creation.  But for artist and curator Cicely Sweed art is a chance to dialog with ancestors, a direct link to our individual lineages.  

Her newest show, “Mi Tierra, Mi Corazón: A Diasporic Offering to the Ancestors” places this connection front and center by asking some of Oakland’s most well know creative souls to offer their interpretations of the traditional memorial alter and the space ancestry occupies in their own personal beliefs.  The result is a group show of sculptures, multimedia work and paintings that recall everything from lost relatives to Michael Jackson.

A veteran of the Bay’s museum and gallery scene, Sweed has worn several hats since she moved to the area in 1991.  Initially a theater performer, she moved into journalism and art criticism after college and spent years covering the emerging spoken word scene, lending a critical eye to publications including Essence and 7×7.  After receiving an MFA from the California College of Arts she spent 4 years as a curator for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts before going out on her own earlier this year.  
While known primarily as an artistic gatekeeper, championing lesser known artists and exposing them to the often elusive fine arts world, Sweed is an artist at heart. Now that there is time to think about her own projects the former San Francisco Bay Guardian editor is putting the finishing touches on an extensive writing project, toying with the idea of returning to the stage and prepping a long list of local and international exhibits, both through her company AseStudio and the Communitree urban green collective.  I talked to Cicely as she was putting the final touches on the show.
What’s your relationship to the creative process? Do you define yourself as an artist, a curator, a philosopher a critic? 
Pretty much all of the above.  I started out as an artist-photography, dance and music have been part of my life my whole life. I grew up as a performer more than anything.  Working on the stage. And then when I came to the bay I was a creative writing major at (San Francisco) State, so I was doing more fiction and poetry.  I didn’t perform vocally so much here.  
And then I became a journalist in the late 90’s during the rise of the dotcoms. So I really started to make a name for myself as a writer writing about arts and culture in the Bay Area, so I started to put on that philosopher/critic hat and went to graduate school at CCAC (California College of the Arts) in a new field called visual studies and visual criticism. 
So then I technically I became an “official critic” and started writing for art magazines and doing straight up art reviews. I haven’t been publishing reviews for like two years now but technically between 2004-2007 I was mostly writing for magazines and some websites mostly focusing on art criticism. 
I got downsized out of journalism.  I was the last managing editor of Urban View Newspaper here in downtown Oakland, and then I met an independent curator looking for an assistant and Voila! I became a curator, and started a curatorial practice upon graduating form CCAC. I worked independently for about a year doing events then got the YBCA gig which really gave me the opportunity to solidify that work. And now I’m independent again.  
So now are you hoping to do more writing or more curating? 
I’m looking at bringing my writing back online.  I don’t want to be known as an art critic. I have some creative work that I’m going to be publishing in a new book that is nonfiction so that’s the next phase. The plan is to reemerge as a writer on my own terms after a two year hiatus and I also have some international exhibition proposals that I’m sending out.  So I plan on curating a lot of shows like this, in locations that aren’t being used, and then also working with the museum world. I’m building with Communitree on an eco arts show, and there’s like 3 other shows that I’ve currently sent proposals out for, so those will be materializing in 2010.
No one does just one thing anymore.  It seems like people’s ideas of what’s possible in art have opened up and it allows them to move through all these different artistic spaces. How would you describe your development from one creative phase into another?  
So my writing, my poetry started off as being written on paper, then when the rise of performance and spoken word happened I became a journalist and I chronicled the rise of that movement so I put on the philosopher/critic hat but it was really about paying homage to the performing elements of poetry.  So now I feel like I’m coming back full circle with the writing.  Being a singer, I’ve done one off operas, contemporary pieces,  here and there but there’s a re-emergence that needs to happen for me as the performing artist that most people in the bay don’t know me as.  So that’s kind of how I see the progression of my work.  
I went through a philosophical period, where I really looked at the arts, cultural production and really the nucleus of creative energy and the very thing you’re talking about, that opportunity to express in multiple ways. So I’ve been a writer since I was 10 so for me it was just different voices, and they all can operate in different fields so the writing just comes out the way it comes out. 
The photography has been there more from documentarian photojournalism perspective, its been there kind of to support the writing as well.  So I think that’s where the visual studies element came into being.  I was able to write off of my own pictures and create narratives based on something I shot and then a book is emerging out of that. 
Can you talk about the meaning behind the show title and the correlations between some of the images and Dia de Los Muertos.
It’s a Day of the Dead show. I’ve been wanting to curate one for a few years and this is really the first year that it opened the way for it to happen.  The title “Mi Tierra, Mi Corazón” came from my recent meditations on the diasporic movements of people from all nations and cultures and it speaks to the concept of being rooted to land itself.  But also the burning heart, you know where your roots lie, when you are a diasporic people and the way a lot of folks have to build their homes within their hearts. Home is where the heart is, so to speak. 
So I grew up in LA and I’ve been in California most of my life.  I grew up with Latino culture in my family and knew a lot about the day of the dead and wanted to offer a contemporary, conceptual exploration using that as the root but really opening it up to whatever expression the artist wanted to bring in honor of their ancestors or living icons, so to speak.  So “Mi Tierra Mi Corazon” is really rooted in the earth and there’s one piece in particular that will be about climate change. And the heart, you know, the burning heart. The passion of a people, a place and those diasporic roots.  
We have artists from what I call the Four Directions but I asked multiple artists from multiple cultures to represent in this show in order to pay homage to the Day of the Dead and also to open up a cross cultural dialog around our ancestors and the recognition of ancestral tradition globally. Every culture has a tradition to honor their ancestors, and they all seem to appear around this time of the year. So this is the season of the transformation of the earth herself, and regeneration.  
Some of the themes in the show, dealing with death and ancestors made me think about Oakland’s turmoils and the conversations around violence. There’s a layer of tension and aggression in the city. Did you think about that when you were putting the show together at all?
I think it did in the astral realm but not concretely.  I did feel that if the artist wanted to bring that into what they represented than I held a space for that. Bu that reminds me of the what made me attempt to call together a day of the dead show. I was at the SOMArts show they do every year. This was about 5 years ago, It was the year that Oakland top it’s previous record of deaths, and someone had done a really powerful alter that had a blacked out portrait that represented each number of the people that died that year and that was what showed me the power. I don’t build alters myself but it showed be the power calling together a space for people to speak on that.  I don’t think anything in the show is going to speak directly to the deaths in Oakland but I think all the artists here have held space for that. 
The list of artists in the show is pretty impressive. How did you select and curate the work?
I invited each artist to present a piece that would honor an ancestor, however they wanted to interpret that. So I told artists that we’re using the Day of the Dead as a root and the show is the trees and each piece is like the leaves, they have all different colors and they shift based on the seasons.  I gave people the flexibility to have a flat piece of work serve as an alter and a way to pay homage to the ancestors, knowing that a lot of people do that work already-create pieces based on those who’ve inspired them in their lives or those concepts thoughts or historical movements that they want to make visible to the world.  So it will be interesting to see, as people come and view the show, what they receive from it. The messages and the narratives are representative of the artist’s energy.  Some pieces are esoteric and then some are super specific.  
I have a quote on the wall of my Facebook page that says “Magic is easy if you put your heart into it” and it’s Michael Jackson and I think that’s kind of the nucleus of this show. These are all spells on the wall.   
“Mi Tierra, Mi Corazón: A Diasporic Offering to the Ancestors” is on display through November 28th at Gallery 550, at 550 2nd St. near Jack London Square.