Devon McKnight

A Table is Set

A review of Ashley Johnson’s Reach by Devon McKnight

Photographs by Daniel White

“I want everyone to be drunk”, and so we were. An hour past 7 and Ashley has still not
entered the room. The mood is high, buzzing. We cannot wait. The set table is long and
full of southern paraphernalia, a language linking us. Three women, the Sisters, masked
in braids living out a scene from a former time, performing a series of Southern actions.
Pulled from the photographs that are setting our scene. Dark but illuminated.
Storytellers. Hung weavings bring us home, tuck us in. And in the back, through the
glass, something is stirring. Four dancers in white slips are moving, reaching, gathering,
gazing. A prelude.

Ashley Johnson as Diana Ross arrives. Tall, full-bodied, cloaked in white.
She is kindness, excitement, gratitude, confidence and a huge loud laugh.

The audience vies for her attention. These are her friends, acquaintances, peers,
strangers wanting to know her. They can’t wait to tell her their feelings. ”Blown away.”
“Can’t believe it.” “Floored.” They wouldn’t expect anything less. They want them all.

We mingle. We continue to drink in the mood. The mixed crowd is loving itself. We all
seem so happy to see each other. To be here. We know it’s good. It’s about to get

A circle gathers and Ashley is introduced.

“I brought you here to be uncomfortable,”

She is here to tell us a story. Her story, which was to become ours, almost without us
knowing, as her words, her described experiences unraveled our deepest insides and
pulled them out through our gaping mouths as we breathed out. We’ve been emotional
since entering the space and it is here that we understand why. There is so much
history. The history of women, more specifically black women, most specifically this
southern black woman.

Ashley, after cutting off her braids, “when my expectations crashed into my reality, I told
myself, out loud, staring into a mirror that I was ugly, and cut off the light.”

Who has done this to us?

Ashley asks herself, “how far did this self-hatred have to travel before getting to me?”
We relate, we can all relate. Every woman(and some men I suspect) in that room filling
up, flooding with emotion.

This is art. This art is visceral.


This setup was fully intended and then went far beyond its intention. I think an artist
hopes and dreams that the work she creates will touch someone, will build at least one
connection. When art takes on the artist, when all the pieces are in place and the artist
presses play, the work seeps out and into the body of the viewer and takes on a life of
its own. This this this, this is magic. The magic of the spirit. This is heart and soul and
life and love and mind and body. And the artist who allows for that, pushes for that,
seeks that...that artist gives us life. Gives us new life. A life of our own. A life to be
shared. A way in, a way forward. A question for us to ponder and move forward from.
To grow on. We have been lifted, uplifted. And Ashley does not give an answer, but she
gave us the honor and privilege of being included .in her esoteric process of searching.

I imagine this is what birth is like. A woman, risking everything, giving life, pushing a
whole soul out of her, a soul that is both her and something completely new, giving this
soul to the world. Those who experience this birth are touched by a new, clean truth
wrought and tempered by pain. And they are brought to their knees.

“I brought you here to be uncomfortable.”

At the completion of Ashley’s narrative. She tells us to grab a spot. Plant ourselves.
We do.

The four barefoot women dressed in white cotton slips who had been moving and
reaching enter the room. They weave themselves into the audience(into us), pulling us
down, lifting us up, staring into us. Outlining our bodies with their own. Reminding us of
our curves, our positions. They pull their movements from the photographs surrounding
us. They pull them into us, bring them into present moving life. And as motion pictures,
they build an intimacy in a room of strangers, exposing us all.

To punctuate this overflowing river, and end the scene, the Sisters seated at the table,
slowly, finally, unwrap themselves. Braid by braid. Lay their hair on the table, get up and
walk out.

There were no words, but we heard it all. Breathed in. I was alone and I was with every
single body in that space. I am still with them.

On the evening of July 7, 2018, on the north side of town, in a renovated cotton mill, we
were brought to our knees, where we have remained and may remain for some time.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It's the next day, Sunday. I am hungover and groggy, thirsty. Last night we feasted. We imbibed. A true Dionysian experience. We drank in the night, the people, the music, and the word of Ashley Johnson. But now, the breakfast table is silent as we try and pull ourselves into the day.

“So what’d you think?” and we are speechless again.

We haven't yet found the words, and we don't dare use the wrong, less deserving ones, so we open our eyes wide and shake our heads and look at each other in silent agreement.

Last night was a moment. A life experience. Something we know we will not get over for a long while. Something we must come to terms with. Something we will slowly begin to define for ourselves. Something we will try our hardest, but most likely fail, to define for those who were not there.

I am living through others. Desperate to hear their thoughts. To live it again.

My mother is in tears, sharing memories from her childhood. “It dredged up things in my childhood, about my hair experiences. My mother wasn't satisfied with me because my hair was straight. Putting my hair in pin curls with clips. She would do it Saturday night before Sunday church and I’d have to sleep with them in. She’d get mean when she was doing it, SIT STILL! Sometimes I just silently cried. You're not going anywhere with me with that stringy hair. You look like a tramp! When she gave me that perm the night before my 3rd grade picture, that was the end.”

My mother telling a friend about the experience, led her friend to tell a story:

As a child, her mother let her cut off her long hair and her father wouldn't speak to her or look at her for over a week. She was shamed by her own father because of her hair. Trying to swallow her shame, she says it went back to his people being Pentecostal. Women aren't supposed to cut their hair. What else are women not supposed to do?

The town is pulsating, we are connected. The emotion is palpable. I knew it would happen, I was living in anticipation. I have been since I saw Ashley’s first photographs two years ago. It’s a gut feeling. You know when you are in the presence of something special, when you see the presentation of good thought inside good aesthetic, oozing out of genuine.

My sister-n-law struggles to voice the pain it underlined for her, pain maybe she didn’t understand until now.

Person after person breaks down upon first entering the gallery where Ashley’s pieces still hang. And we don’t quite know why. Not yet. We have a feeling.

“It’s about not loving yourself. Having been trained that we are less than. And that we always need to be.”

“There were quite a few of us that were holding back tears.”

“Why is this a female issue that connects to self-worth and beauty?”

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with the black women in the room about hair issues.”

“Why am I crying; I don't even understand this yet, it’s gonna take me longer.”

“Why am I emotional ...this isn’t about me, I don't have black hair?”

“We both talked about cutting our hair off. It was an act of defiance. She said the same herself. I’m not gonna play this game anymore.”

But I’d like to bring us back to what brought us here and what always brings us here. Isn’t it always black women who show us who we are, who are there for us, who speak with us, guide us, mother us, become our sisters, love us back into ourselves and light the way forward for us all?

Right now, inside an old cotton mill hangs a series of photographs. And a table is set. A table is set for a scene that was, and a scene that is still unfolding. A table is set, asking you to gather. A southern setting, always ready to receive you.