“It seems like this country is waking up in new ways,” says Matana Roberts.
The artist and musician was on the phone recently to discuss a five-day residency she began on Wednesday at the new Whitney Museum in New York’s Meatpacking District. Her performances, taking place alongside the museum’s inaugural exhibit, “America is Hard to See,” are part of her own series “i call america,” which will culminate at the end of the year.
“I think it’s such a fascinating time to be American,” Roberts continues. “We’re still kind of at the beginning of a lot of things, and it’s fascinating to watch citizens try to take it all in, in a way that makes sense. As artists, it’s speeding up the way some of us think about the process.”
Roberts, 40, came up as one of Chicago’s best known avant-garde jazz musicians, especially for her skills as an alto saxophonist. In fact, she was on the phone shortly after she’d just performed over the weekend at the famed Newport Jazz Festival.
“I rarely play jazz festivals. It’s historic stuff and I love being a part of history that way,” she says. “I had to go and have tea with the founder, George Wein, on the Upper West Side, so he could ask me in person. It was so old school – it rarely happens like that anymore.”
Now that she’s based in New York, Roberts is becoming part of the local arts scene, much like she had back home.
“When I’m attending events in New York, I don’t just see one type of New Yorker, I see so many different types of people, and that is the hope. I think that’s why I remain in the city,” she says.
At the Whitney, Roberts will take over the museum’s third-floor theater and turn it into a studio-like space, where she will be creating an installation of her own that includes video and what she describes as “graphic scoring,” or, the creation of a musical score on a canvas.
“I like to build graphic scores. I like to create scores that are considered art objects, and they’re giving me the opportunity to build a pretty massive one,” she explains.
The program she’s devised deals with, appropriately, the politics of American identity.
“I feel that my life is so privileged, and a lot of those privileges have to do with my citizenship. Some of the things that I’m allowed to say and think about versus artists in other places, that to me is a representation of a lot of progress,” she says.
By the time of her last performance, on Sunday, Roberts hopes the audience is as optimistic about the country’s future as she is.
“It’s a very heady political time, as a global citizen,” she says. Still, “even in some of the horrible things that have been happening, there is still this underlying hope that is very American to me, which is something that I try and draw on when I make the work that I make – and I make the work that I make because I love American history.”