Jessica Valoris is a DC-based artist, activist and outdoor enthusiast currently building an artistic body of work she calls Black Fugitive Folklore. We caught up with Jessica to learn the ways in which Judaism influences her art and how she is revisioning Sukkot as a fugitive holiday and the sukkah as a fugitive sanctuary.
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GatherDC: Tell me about where you grew up and what brought you to the DC area.
Jessica: I was born in DC and raised in the suburbs. I moved to Brooklyn for college and stayed there for 10 years. I came back to DC when I was figuring out how to step more fully into my artistry. The longer I was here, and the more I reconnected to the spaces, places, and communities that had been home for me, the more compelled and committed I felt to nurture the home that I have here.
GatherDC: You’re an artist and you’re currently working on a project that explores your own relationship with sukkahs. Can you speak more about that?
Jessica: I am currently building a body of work called Black Fugitive Folklore. It explores and lifts up the experiences and legacies of fugitivity and marronage that were practiced by enslaved Black ancestors. For me, it is a way to honor the medicines that our ancestors have for us as we continue to navigate the liminal spaces between enslavement and liberation. It is also a way to imagine a world beyond policing and racialized capitalism.
Through this exploration, I have been engaging Jewish traditions by re-imagining Sukkot as a fugitive holiday and the sukkah as a fugitive sanctuary. The sukkah is a spiritual technology that we see reflected in the hush harbors that enslaved people built in the woods to practice their spiritualities. Furthermore, the story of Exodus is deeply centered in Black Liberation Theology and in the cosmologies of liberation through which our Black ancestors imagined their own liberation.
On a separate note, though my fellowship with the DC Public Interest Design Lab, hosted by DC Public Library and the Goethe Institute, I was connected with the Capital Jewish Museum and their Sukkah City x DC project. As part of their Community Day last weekend at the National Building Museum, I engaged visitors with a public art project – creating a woven painting inspired by the Jewish tradition of mezuzah.
Jessica with the public art project she lead at Sukkah City x DC’s Community Day
GatherDC: How do you find yourself connecting with your Jewish identity? It sounds like your art definitely engages with it.
Jessica: I am a part of a collective called Black Jewish Liberation Collective, which has been a huge source of community for me and a way to reconnect to my Jewish identity in a way that feels authentic and fully accepting of all that I am. Beyond that, I also engage in prayer, meditation, study and ritual to honor my ancestors and invite Jewish spiritual traditions into my daily creative practice.
I definitely connect to my Jewish identity through art. My practice is deeply collaborative, and is a combination of study, ritual, and creative play. I use questions, dialogue, and community gatherings as a way to activate the themes that I am exploring. My practice is a reflection of my Blackness and my Jewishness and all the ways that my ancestral lineages resource me.
GatherDC: Switching gears, what would be your dream day in DC from start to finish?
Jessica: Waking up to an old school Go-Go mix playing outside of my apartment, going for a bike ride to the water, then grubbing on a veggie platter at Habesha Market. After that, I’d visit the drum circle at Malcolm X Park before spending time at one of our creeks or waterways. If I’m truly treating myself, I’m making a stop at Rita’s too.
GatherDC: What do you love about DC… and what would you change if you could?
Jessica: I love learning about the rich history of grassroots organizing, social justice and mutual aid that exists in DC!
If there is one thing I would change, it would be to re-write the narrative of DC from the perspective of Black and Indigenous folks and center BIPOC voices and perspectives in the political decisions that often undermine our livelihood and well-being in the city- i.e. gentrification, policing, education…. don’t get me started!
GatherDC: How do you relax at the end of a long week?
Jessica: I try to find ways to incorporate relaxation and joy throughout my week. I dance on a daily basis and go for walks in my neighborhood. I go for mini hikes to the waterways near me, and, if it’s not too hot, I’ll hop on my bike for a ride.
GatherDC: What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
Jessica: Music! I live for a good playlist. Music carries me throughout my day.
GatherDC: Have you found any new hobbies during the pandemic?
Jessica: I’ve started weaving small baskets with raffia and embroidery thread. It’s a meditative way for me to slow down, quiet my mind, and get present.
GatherDC: What’s your favorite thing you’ve done this year?
Jessica: I curated a short film called Ode to Zipporah, that engaged a beautiful intergenerational group of Black women creatives in exploring Black Women’s fugitive practices through the archetype of Zipporah. You can check it out here.
GatherDC: Do you have any Jewish role models?
Jessica: For now, I’d say my dear friend Koach Fraizier, who is a constant inspiration to me in the ways that he holds space for spirit, song, and social justice.
GatherDC: Before we go, do you have anything else you want to plug?
Jessica: Stay tuned for more about Black Fugitive Folklore, check out my website at www.jessicavaloris.com, and if you feel inspired by any of my work, please consider supporting my practice through patreon at patreon.com/JessicaValoris.
Gather DC: And finally, when Jews of DC Gather…
Jessica: …we eat!
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