MassQ Ball coming to Arnold Arboretum with goal of connecting people and communities through art

The MassQ Ball, described on the event website as “a large-scale celebration of ritual, performance, and cross-cultural arts, featuring the diverse artistry of Boston’s communities of color,” is coming to the Arnold Arboretum on July 9. 

The event is the culmination of a series of lectures, workshops, and panels led by scholars, artists, and cultural leaders, and is made possible by Castle of our Skins, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, as well as the Arnold Arboretum, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, and visual artist Daniel Callahan of Create & Record. 

The Gazette spoke with Ashleigh Gordon, Artistic and Executive Director of Castle of our Skins, as well as performing artist and poet Dzidzor, to learn more about the event and what it will entail.

Gordon said that Castle of our Skins is a “concert and educational series” that “celebrates Black artistry through music, often combining with the arts.”

She said that this event is “rooted in Daniel Callahan’s art practice,” called MassQ, and features three pillars: identity, communion, and change. She said that the identity as the MassQ is “based in indigenous body practices,” and is “very much rooted in individual revelation of what that person is.”

According to the MassQ Ball website, “A MassQ is a ritual application of paint to the face in order to reveal one’s inner state of being.” It continues, “The purpose of a MassQ is not to hide or conceal or protect but to reveal the truth that is within.

The communion is the “wearer and the masker,” as there is a “very intimate” and “very personal connection” because it “literally requires you to look at someone” and “be in community,” she said.  

Lastly, change is “the idea of transformation of all attendees into walking works of art and learning about each other; learning about themselves.” 

Gordon said that the “underpinning of this project” is “really rooted in communities of color,” and includes words, art, movement, and music from people of Korean, Mexican, African, and Brazilian descent, among many others. 

The Arnold Arboretum was chosen as the site for the MassQ Ball, Gordon said, because Callahan is a “longtime goer to the Arboretum” and he “knows it quite intimately” and has had a “visualization of people being MassQed for quite some time.”

The Arboretum boasts 281 acres “and a huge biodiversity,” Gordon said. “This project is a human diversity project.” The event will also feature representatives of the Massachusett Tribe to conduct land blessings and smudging. She said that “acknowledging the sanctity of the space” is “very important for us.” 

The event will take place in the conifer section of the arboretum, and Gordon said that “conifers have medicinal uses for indigenous communities,” and it also includes a dawn redwood tree that is “among the first of its kind to grow in North America in over two million years,” according to the Arboretum website. The event will also honor the tree.

Attendees will have the opportunity to be MassQed, and “transform into a walking work of art in a way that is comfortable for all attendees.” There will also be a sound bath “to encourage physical and mental healing,” as well as myth-making, Gordon said. 

The event has engaged more than 120 artists, most of whom are people of color, who will perform spoken word, dance, and other movement, as well as visual art.

Dzidzor is a performance artist who performs spoken word poetry. She asked, “How can I contribute to the preservation of African folktales and proverbs and poetry that have been spoken over time?” when speaking about her work, and “honor them in ways that I’m re-telling.” She said she hopes to honor “ancestors and stories that have lived on.”

At the MassQ Ball, Dzidzor will be performing a spoken word piece that “invites bodies to be acquainted or connected to their own flesh as they are walking through all these stations” and interacting with the different dance, music, and visual art that will be permeating the arboretum.

“I would be the one to center them and welcome them into the space with a poem,” she said. 

Dzidzor said that aside from seeing fellow performers, she is most excited about “being MassQed,” and praised Callahan for his ability to “teach” using the MassQ. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing and engaging with so many people,” Gordon said. “We intentionally wanted this to be a space that’s open, invitational, warm and welcoming,” and “as diverse as the biodiversity with humans.” 

The event is free to attend, as the organizers did not want cost to be a barrier to attending. They have also been “mindful around accessibility and transport as well,” Gordon said. 

The event aims to have people create and learn from one another, Gordon said, and she’s excited to see that goal come to life. 

Though the event is free, registration is required and can be completed at https://arboretum.harvard.edu/events/event-signup/?id=44771. More information about the event can be found at massqball.com.

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