Sunday, June 21, 2009

Black Cherokee

Watch Black Cherokee's video here.
Black Cherokee

Otis Houston is an artist and poet. He calls himself Black Cherokee and can be seen on the side of the FDR Drive South at the 125th St entrance, underneath the Triborough Bridge. His work consists of performance art and installations made of poetic signs and found objects which he carefully arranges. I have been watching his work for about 10 years which he started in 1997. Black Cherokee is the most prolific artist and performer I know. Since traffic is slow and constant in this section of the FDR Drive South I am sure millions of people have seen his work. In an almost alchemical transformation, Black Cherokee has turned a forgotten urban dead zone into a magical performance space.
black Cherokee's Performance Locations

In a recent installation Black Cherokee put up a big sign that read "Got Debt? Live Well, Eat Better, Spend Less". Weeks before that he had a small sign up simply reading "Try". These gestures brighten peoples lives. They are free and, unlike most roadside messages, invite viewers into a space of creativity rather than consumerism. These are gifts and am happy each time I receive one. I enjoy sharing these gifts with others and am glad to be giving some of his work to you.

I saw my favorite piece of his in the summer of 2003. Otis had hundreds and hundreds of books piled up in a sort of fortress. He was standing in the middle of this structure with books strapped to his body, on his head, his arms, his legs, all over. It looked like a suit of armor. He was shaking his arms and pointing violently at the traffic as it passed. His gesticulations had the same wild and authoritarian physicality as one sees in speeches made a Benito Mussolini or other such period dictator. Though I will not attempt a full exegesis of this performance clearly Otis was saying something about power and knowledge, performance and pedagogy, maybe even fascism. This image has stuck in my head ever since I have seen it.

See another account of his work here.

Otis is not crazy. He is simply disseminating his work by any means necessary. Any artist should be willing to do the same, even at risk of seeming crazy. In fact, an artist who is not pushing at the surface of sanity from time to time might not be trying hard enough. I am happy to help propagate his work, philosophy and ideas. Black Cherokee inhabits a space of political and artistic discourse far outside the academy. Thats what makes his work so wonderful. He is not trying to get rich or famous, he is simply doing the work because he knows it is important.

I used to think he did it to save his own life. Now I believe he does it to save our lives.

Thank you Otis.

Read some of Otis Houston's poetry by visiting and searching for poems by Otis Houston.

Why can't we Love each other
With all our might

Red Yellow Black and White
Why can't we live in PEACE
And never never never Fight

Red Yellow Black and White
We need each other
Like the day need the night

Red Yellow Black and White
Is it to hard
For us to do what is right

Red yellow Black and White
We all know that it's evil
We must fight with all our might
Red Yellow Black and White

A Message From Black Cherokee

Earlier this month I wrote a post about an incredible New York City performance artist named Black Cherokee.

He transmits messages from the side of the FDR and Harlem River Drive at 125th St, underneath the entrance of the Triborough Bridge. This week there was another transmission posted roadside.

Clearly Black Cherokee reads The Winger, saw my post, and is telling me "Yes". But yes to what? Perhaps my interpretation of his work. Black Cherokee is giving us a critique of America, and its flirtation with fascism, by raising issues of race, gender, class, consumerism and politics in the contemporary landscape of a "war on terror" and accelerated consolidations of wealth and power. Black Cherokee is a self proclaimed patriot and fighter for freedom. His video shows his concern with the national security apparatus attack on figures such as civil rights attorney Lynn Stewart.

His poem "America I Love You" expresses these sentiments.

America America I love you yes I do.
America America red white and blue.
America America all it's people fron sea to sea.
America America God blessed us all and want us all to be free.
America America yes God shined his lite on thee.
America America can't you see it shinning shinning shinning through me.
America America wake up and let's get on the ball or
America America will soon soon fall.
America America yes God shined his everlasting light on thee.
America America it's time it's time for everyone to be free.

Listen to a sample of the song here.

Thanks you for your work, your art, and your message Otis. They are important to me and everyone else. I feel lucky to be able to correspond across this space.

Smoke Signals

Sunday March 29th was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and Lisa and I took a drive north out of the city. On our way back to Manhattan we passed by my favorite spot on the FDR underneath the Triborough Bridge. Black Cherokee was out in full force and his message to me was still up.

As we passed Lisa screamed out the window, "We love you Black Cherokee!" He waived back.
Lisa and I think in very different ways about art and culture. Sometimes I don't think she understands my fascination with Otis's work. In that moment she did. "I am so proud of you baby!" Lisa teared up.

"Its beautiful right?"

"Yes" she answered.

After dropping off Lisa at home i made my way back uptown to see if Otis was still out. I parked my car and made my way over to his performance space. Black Cherokee was standing still with a broom in his right hand hand, a fold of cash in his left hand and an open book on his head. His mouth was taped shut with red duct tape. His nipples were covered and his pelvis was marked with a big X, using the same red tape. Behind him was a beautiful bouquet of daffodils arranged in the shell of a watermellon. As I approached I took a few pictures.

"Hey Otis. Thats me!" I said pointing to the sign.
"Are you Mr. Tony?" he said smiling. We shook hands.
"I like the way you write about me. Wanted to get in touch with you so I put up the sign."
"What you are doing here is really important." I told him. "We need this."
"You get it man! I don't know what you know and you don't know what I know but together we have a whole lot of know."

I recognized this as one of his poems he posted online. As the conversation continued I realized much of what Otis was saying was from his poetry. Black Cherokee is living art and this fact invades his speech. We talked to find what purpose we had together. We both agreed that we had to do something together. I want to help get Otis's work out into the world.

Black Cherokee needs a website. I will need help doing this.

Before I left Otis gave me his CD. Its called America and it is pretty amazing. Hear some samples here on Listening to this music will make you happy and feel good. It will also give you insight into the performance work such as the use of books and the broom. He states his mission in The Children. He calls for a multimedia campaign to help empower and protect our youth, by any means necessary. "We must use video, rap music, pop sounds, every and anything all around." My other two favorite songs are My Books I Read and I Like Where I Stay. Both have good music tracks and beautiful lyrics. I Like Where I Stay is definitely my favorite and give a window into Black Cherokee's world.

Clearly Otis needs a few more beats to lay his tracks on and perhaps a better studio to record in, but the artistry and message are all there. I would like to ask anyone who is interested in promoting Black Cherokee through helping put together a website or with his music, doing video documentation, or through any other means, to contact me at tony [at]

This is important work and is an absolute joy participating in. So spread the word and help manifest this living art as a gift to the world.

Hey Otis!

Hey Otis!

I have been seeing your "Google ME" signs since the beginning of the summer and am real happy I can help make the winger a place where the people can find out more about you share their own stories about you. The chickens make this sign next to the gas station on 125th my favorite. Hello to all the people in the cars who followed the sign. I looked at your myspace page. The pictures are great. This one really shows what you are about: living in peace and being healthy.

Artists depend on others to chronicle their work. The 2003 times article by Alan Feuer is a good start but nowhere near a complete story. My posts arent bad either but there needs to be more. I think people need to know more about how rich your life is before they can really understand what you got to say. Lots of folks think you are crazy or homeless. People should see your paintings and hear your music and read your poetry. If you could share the view from your terrace or inside your art studio the people would really know and want to help support your work.

I think we should create something together with images, music, video, books, wisdom, technology and people. We should continue to use the internet and signs to communicate to each other and with the people. It was great to meet with you on tuesday thanks for giving me a call on my birthday. Let me know next time you are putting up an installation so we can artifact it. I am in the neighborhood.

I dont know what you know and you don't know what I do but together we got a whole lot of know.
Otis Houston Jr.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Black Cherokee Project

Its been a while since I have written. Have been working on projects underground and coming to appreciate the value of a secret. Here is one I am ready to reveal.


Many of you may already know about my interaction with famed unknown nyc performance artist Otis Houston Jr aka Black Cherokee. A record of our correspondence through the winger is archived here. Last I wrote Otis was posting advertising for the winger uptown and I was trying to figure out a way to archive his work. Soon I realized that the Black Cherokee project was not something Otis or I could not do alone. We need help from the people. So this weekend Otis and I setup a social network for this purpose. Everything is there: poetry, short writings, papers, music, photographs, video, documentation from magazines and newspapers, Otis and also you!


All the responses I got from these little blog posts indicated that Otis' work is meaningful to many people and fills their hearts with joy. Also because of the space-time vortex Otis inhabits viewers can only see the work for a few seconds as they pass on their commute, maybe enough time to wave and snap a picture. In order to fill out the whole story, in order to see the entire performance, the people (as Otis calls us), have to communicate with each other.