Back to list

Freya Powell: Recovering Lives Lost and Giving Voice to the Silenced

May 2, 2021

An interview with Freya Powell.

“Ambiguous loss has been a huge part of the pandemic. So many people have lost loved ones — they just disappeared from our lives, we haven’t been able to gather to properly mourn these losses.”

How do you memorialize someone you’ve never met and whose name you may never know? So the Museum of Modern Art frames artist Freya Powell’s recent work, Only Remains Remain, an immersive performance addressing the contemporary tragedy at the US-Mexico border through the characters of Sophocles’ Antigone. As Powell discusses below, the performance was set to debut in March of 2020, part of her VW Dome Artist Residency at MoMA PS1, but was put on pause by the citywide shutdown in response to COVID-19. In early April of 2020, when MoMA published a sound-and-text-based excerpt of the performance as part of their online magazine 15 Minutes, New York City was in the throes of what would be its most deadly portion of the pandemic, but the dramatic, almost chronic role loss and grief would come to play in our everyday lives, affecting very personal outlooks, redefining collective experience, was yet to be fully realized.

Throughout her practice, Powell uses time-based, drawn, and linguistic platforms to explore language and its relationship to memory, myth, and history. Navigating between the individual and the collective, she seeks to present narratives that strike a balance between the personal and the political — memorializing someone you’ve never met and whose name you may never know, whose death speaks to the failure of governments and the importance of connection and close ties in a world of social and economic precarity, seems like such an act. Powell gathers memories and builds archives that offer a glimpse of a collective experience; a moment when the individual becomes part of the universal and the distance between the two is diminished.

This year, Powell is one of More Art’s eight Engaging Artists (EA) Fellows, a two-tiered fellowship and residency program for artists seeking to both develop and sustain their public art and socially engaged practice; program curriculum encompasses a professional development series, public art commission opportunities, mentorship, and peer networking. Earlier this spring, Powell spoke with Jules Rochielle, Engaging Artists Artistic Coordinator, about the confluence of so many lines of thinking and the effect the last year has had on her work. Powell’s responses are excerpted below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Freya Powell: I have a research-based practice, mostly working in time-based media. Through my practice, I explore language and its relationships to memory and history, utilizing the examination of etymology to mine connections and disconnections between sites and subjects. I think I’ve been utilizing language in my practice since the really early days in high school — even if I was doing figure drawings in class, I would also be writing, using words alongside observational work. Then at a certain point, I became very interested in memory and the intersection between a personal memory and what could be the possibility of a collective memory, so I started working in projects along those lines. That led me to explore particular sites and histories that are embedded within a site and how someone could have a personal memory with that history, how there could be a myth associated with that history, and then the historical record and how those things come together or move apart from each other.

I’m working on a 15-person performance that uses the Sophoclean chorus, so it’s 15 women performing, and we’re addressing a contemporary tragedy through the characters of Antigone. Through the performance, we’re communicating an elegy for hundreds of unidentified migrants that were buried in mass graves in Sacred Heart Cemetery, in Brooks County in Texas. There’s a way move across the border by circumnavigating checkpoints right at the border, but then about 70 miles up in Texas, there’s another checkpoint. And so, what happens is people then go into the desert and move through farmlands to get around this checkpoint. And then they quite often succumb to the harsh landscape. Essentially, a lot of people don’t make it. Their remains are sometimes found, and what has happened in Brooks County in particular, is that hundreds of migrants’ remains were found, but due to lack of funding there was no process for identifying the remains and they were buried in mass graves in a local cemetery. A lot of work by forensic anthropologists has been done exhume and examine the remains, and there’s a big project to identify as much as possible and return the remains home back to their families. To offer some closure.

We were just about to do an in-process performance of Only Remains Remain, the performance I was just talking about. It would have been March 21st, 2020, but the city shut down right before. As things are getting safer now, I’m in conversation with PS1 to start that process again and figure out how to make that possible. I have a second try at making it work and I feel like this is going to give me an opportunity to, once the in-process performance is done, refine the work with the cast that I’m working with. Ultimately, I want to find an institution or organization that would want to partner with the project to be doing a conversation series or workshops around grievability and ambiguous loss, as well as the funding and legislative actions that can be taken to help identify the remains at the border.

I don’t know that I can totally pinpoint [how I chose this subject matter]. I read an article about this and I had previously done a project about Hart Island, which is another mass grave in the Bronx. I could say that I’m perhaps inclined to these somewhat Dickensian stories, because to me I’m in awe and shock that these things are happening in the 21st century. It feels like something from some kind of historical record, but they’re still happening. I was very much interested in the ambiguous loss that is experienced by the family members, they know that their family member has gone on this journey, but they haven’t heard from them, then the expectation is that something has happened, but without a body, it’s hard to know for sure, right? So a lot of my work addresses ambiguous loss, grievability, and then our complicity in these histories.

Ambiguous loss has been a huge part of the pandemic. So many people have lost loved ones and it’s like they just disappeared from our lives, we haven’t been able to gather to properly mourn these losses. It’s been ever-present throughout this whole time for me. There’s some percolation happening for the next performance that I am beginning to research, which would be in a similar style as the Sophoclean chorus again, but this time using the character of Elektra, who’s an individual described as being in a perpetual loop of mourning, she cannot not grieve. She is perpetually grieving, and I feel, in this current moment, we are all in a similar state — whether we have lost a loved one or a friend or even an acquaintance that we know, we also have a sense of a loss of identity because our lives have just all of a sudden halted. It really shifted who we are as individuals.