Thompson playing saxophone on the second floor of an airy home
Zekarias Thompson. Credit: Ástríður Jónsdóttir

Oakland- and Reykjavik-based artist Zekarias Thompson’s Possible Dialogues, Vol. 1 consists of three consecutive days of programming — Friday at The Lab in San Francisco and Saturday and Sunday at BAMPFA. Thompson describes the project as one that pushes forward the conversation on creating, supporting and maintaining equity for Black people within our communities and institutions.

A photo showing the top of Thompson's head and abstract patterns in the background
One of Thompson’s photos, taken in 2020 and titled, “Portrait of the Artist in a State of Proclaiming themself Queen Zekarias aka Siobhan aka Auncle.” Courtesy of the artist

Their performances at BAMPFA on Saturday and Sunday include performance-based duets that utilize sound and movement (featuring Binta Ayofemi, Joel St. Julien, Phillip Laurent and Salimatu Amabebe), visual works, discussions on how colonial era violence still manifests itself today, and a group improvisation that uses James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a departure point. By working across disciplines, Thompson said they aim to “create space to repair the rift.”

Berkeleyside asked Thompson a few questions via email about their project. This interview has been condensed and edited.

What inspires your work?

My work is inspired by the desire to make sense of the universal materiality of being, as well as the desire to see human cultures finding balanced ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

Possible Dialogues melds visual art with performance, discussions, and participatory music. How did you first get into interdisciplinary art?

I came to a fully conscious understanding of myself as an “’artist”’ in the summer of 2016. I was living in Washington, DC at the time and I had visited the Hirshhorn Museum to see an exhibition and survey of Robert Irwin’s work. I was immediately struck by his inquiry into established ideas about what an art object was, initially through deconstructing painting, and expanding into encouraging new ways of perceiving the spaces we occupy at any given moment. It was a revelatory experience for me as I recognized a deep kinship in the types of questions we were asking and the process of working out the answers through material. In that moment I came to understand that I could do the same from the lens and perspective of my embodied experience. This realization begat the knowledge that what we determine to be “art” hinges on what we determine to pay attention to and how we perceive and experience the sensations that it inspires. That is to say, we are always encompassed by “art,” and therefore, any conceptual form can turn into art, there are no limitations. 

Possible Dialogues Vol. 1 is a project by Working Name Studios. What is Working Name Studios, and could you tell us the story of how you came to found it?

Working Name Studios is a collectively owned and organized arts institution formed to engage, support, enhance, and evolve humanity’s ability to connect with ourselves and each other through material and conceptual artistic practice. We are determined to build institutional stability, and equity for underrepresented practices, ideas, and people through maintaining the rights to original artworks, publishing print, sound, and moving image materials, maintaining studio, project, and gallery space for creative practice, performance, and other events, as well as organizational development and creative practice consulting. 

Our current activities include producing programming based around exploratory sound, visual, and social practices, publishing a newsletter, as well as a few material releases.
Working Name Studios came to be in July of 2022 as I found myself traumatized by the experience violence inherent in institutions created by racialized hierarchies and the insistence on maintaining identity structures that made it impossible for people to recognize how they were maintaining said hierarchies in our communities and organizations. The idea of creating an arts organization that seeks to organize itself in this way specifically came about after my experience as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager. … Unfortunately, though people stated that they wanted to have these conversations, a number of influential “senior leaders” worked to undermine my work. … Working Name Studios was founded to continue these conversations through artistic practice.

Does the existence of a Possible Dialogues Vol. 1 imply a Possible Dialogues Vol. 2

Yes, this is just the first iteration of Possible Dialogues! While we have not yet determined then when, where, and what of Vol. 2, the series will focus on critical concerns towards sustaining human culture over time. I imagine that we will soon be getting into deeper dialogues around the nature of creativity and self-understanding, as well as geography in the physical, social, and environmental sense.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...