Constellations (Stranger Fruit)

by Sarah Burack

There's already been quite a bit written on Visiting Artist Sanford Biggers' installation "Constellation (Stranger Fruit)." I know this, stepping in to Memorial Hall's transept for yesterday's special vocal performance. I've been thoroughly prepped and vetted; I know the levels of allusion and symbolism working within the piece; I know something of the artists' thought process going in; I know what other students and viewers think of the work. And I know all this -- look how confident I am -- without ever having seen the work itself.

Which is why, yesterday afternoon, sitting on the cool floor of the transept and listening to Sumie Kaneko's haunting koto performance and Imani Uzuri's otherworldly vocals, I decided not to think about any of it. I wasn't going to "know" anything about this piece, but rather, just tell you what I saw and heard.

There's a forlorn, graceful tree, its limbs gray-green and smooth, standing in a room of gleaming dark mahogany. There's an LED floor, elevated a few humble inches off the marble, illuminated the same soft blue as the late afternoon light coming through the stained glass. And there's a quilt -- a soft, homely looking thing -- brightly patterned and carefully folded.

Patterns too -- there are lots of them. The green and white speckled back of the music book, the quilt, the fractal lights coming from the floor, the breaks and bifurcations of the tree's limbs. They intermingle with the patterns of the room, the vaulting, the stained glass, the pavements. The music is a pattern too: the frets on the koto, the plucks, plunks, and twangs of the melody.

And sound, of course, for this is a vocal performance. Imani is dressed in a fluorescent quilt. Her eyes are wide, her smile broad and beaming, and when she yawns and sings, her voice is exalting. Her body moves beneath the quilt, a swaying column of fabric. The words she sings -- Rumi's, her own, a traditional spiritual -- seem at first to come from very far away, like they're traveling through thick air or over a radio. And then, like someone imperceptibly turning a dial louder, the sound builds, until we're all clapping and singing how, like the tree, we refuse to be moved.

[Caption: Imani Uzuri with members of Harvard’s KeyChange]