Utopian Views is Ndgo Blk (Antwon Funches)’s newest work, premiering for the first time as part of the Virtual Video Premieres event on May 27 at 7pm. Ndgo Blk shared a bit about the inspiration for his work and process with Gina Wrolstad, 2021 spring season Marketing Manager. 

GW: Starting with something obvious! Can you talk a bit about your performance name, Ndgo Blk, and how you came to establish it?

In the Nichiren Buddhism community, the phrase “From the indigo, an even deeper blue” (T’ien-t’ai) is often used to describe a student deepening the teaching of their mentor, or to describe the student deepening their own skill set lifetime after lifetime through practice and rehearsal. From that quote I took “Indigo.” 

“Blk” was used by Harlem Renaissance writers to describe a new method of Black-American thought, behavior, and ideals. The majority of my songs, plays, and art pieces revolve around my Black-Chicagoan experiences, so I felt “Blk” was appropriate.” I then cut most of the vowels out of “Indigo”, leaving me with “Ndgo Blk.” 

In short, I tell Black stories that are enhanced by my humanistic, Nichiren Buddhist perspective. 

Your multidisciplinary approach blending spoken word, rap, stage plays, and even photography lends itself so well to your work. What is exciting to you about a multifaceted approach?

Art is simply communicating your feelings and emotions externally–maybe into an instrument, through your voice, or on a page. Like most artists, I’ve always felt intensely about the world: its chaos, its joy, and the numerous friends it holds. This intensity made me want to document my feelings, but the medium never stayed consistent. Sometimes I would be dealing with a break up and write a song or poem. Sometimes I need to uplift a friend or myself, so a photoshoot might be in order. Other times I need to make a student laugh, which might be by way of a silly drawing. 

I use so many different artistic mediums–photography, digital art, music, poetry, theatre–because my connections with others are always growing and evolving. A multifaceted approach excites me because it lets me sing colors, write about sights and sensations, photograph energies, and then swap those mediums freely. It lets me talk to people in different languages. 

You state that your work is largely informed by a Nichiren Buddhist perspective as well as your experiences living in Chicago. Do these two elements go hand in hand? How did Buddhism become a part of your life and your artistic practice? 

Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes that the goal of life is happiness, but that happiness is not a lack of struggle–instead, it’s the capacity to overcome and grow from the unavoidable obstacles ahead. The practice emphasizes self reflection and empathy through prayer, community building, and self accountability. Nichiren Buddhism teaches me to view the world through “cause and effect,” meaning, what we are dealing with in the present is a direct result of the past. In turn, the future, both good and bad, can be predicted, and more importantly influenced by our actions in the present.

For example: in the United States, we are dealing with rampant poverty and discrimnation as a direct result of our country being built on chatel slavery, colonization, and European greed. This explains capitalism’s present fatal effects on human economies and on the planet as a whole. I can then predict that, if we don’t expand our capacities for wisdom, empathy, and compassion now, that an era of even more intense greed and violence awaits us. 

On a more interpersonal level, I can understand that my present Black expressionist, anti-capitalist ideals are a direct result of my present family, environment, and familial history with discrimination and financial struggles back in Mississipi. That can be traced back to sharecroppers working for their oppressive white overseers after the Civil War. This then roots back to the chatel slave trade, which roots back to West Africans. With all of this information on my history’s “causes,” I can predict the “effects” of how my world will change in the future, as well as choose what actions I take to best advocate for and articulate my Black experience.

Knowledge of mine and my bloodline’s history helps me create artwork that considers the past, present, and future. Through self reflection and meditation, my practice also intensifies my humanism and empathy by better understanding my past actions, harmful or beneficial, in turn allowing me to better empathize with others behaving harmfully. Nichiren Buddhism teaches me about human history and about the human heart.

Are there any artistic mediums that you have not broken into and are curious to explore?

I want to explore dance more! It fascinates me that fear, body-shaming, and bullying can cause us to shrink, to move less, to appreciate our bodies less. I’m interested in channeling rhythms through my body by way of dance.

What are you listening to right now? (music, podcasts, audiobooks, etc.) 

I’m listening to plenty of music artists: Yung Baby Tate, Flo Milli, Bree Runway, Masego, Amine, Tobi Lou, and Jaden Smith.

Thank you so much, Antwon, for these enlightening responses about your artistic practice! The Pivot Arts team is so excited to premiere Utopian Views TONIGHT, Thursday May 27th paired with a real-time artist dialogue. Don’t miss out!

After the May 27th event, Antwon’s short video will remain accessible on the Pivot Arts website alongside Sami Ismat and Nora Sharp’s works.