UW–Madison students, guest artists and Interdisciplinary Artists-in-Residence, Ben Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez, present an event on June 30


Ben Barson playing saxophone and Gizelxanath RodriguezBen Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez, the spring 2020 University of Wisconsin–Madison Division of the ArtsInterdisciplinary Artists-in-Residence, guest artists and students will premiere the culminating work of the residency during a virtual event on Tuesday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m. on Facebook on the UW-Madison Arts on Campus page: go.wisc.edu/artivism. After the event there will be a Q&A.

Both Barson and Rodriguez are musicians, artivists (artists and activists), environmentalists and co-founders of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective (longer biographies below).

Final Event Overview

Contested Homes: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite” is a free jazz opera that combines jazz, hip-hop, spoken word, dance and visual art animated and illustrated by students and guest artists. Barson and Rodriguez created the piece together with students from their “Artivism: Intercultural Solidarity & Decolonizing Performance” course. The new piece reflects themes of police violence, migrant justice, systematic racism, climate change and visions of a new world (longer description below).

This new work is student-driven with mentorship provided by Barson, Rodriguez and Peggy Choy (lead faculty), as well as guest artists Nejma Nefertiti, Charlotte Hill O’Neal aka Mama C, Rodrigo Carapia, Lacouir Yancey and Adam Cooper-Terán. The music of the piece was performed and recorded by UW’s Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, directed by Johannes Wallmann. The choreography was organized by Peggy Choy. Visual art was created by Kim Inthavong and Carapia and animated by Cooper-Terán.

Per Barson and Rodriguez, “This work is rooted in a profound sense of purpose, place and passion for justice and revolutionary change. We are so proud of the students who have created something magnificent, a suite of music, dance, poetry and visual arts that captures the age and brings our attention to what is to be done. It speaks dimensions of the current struggle for Black lives, the dismantling of both ecosystems and social safety nets and of solidarities between Latin American, Asian American and African American communities. The quality of the art is mind-blowing and we simply cannot say more about it. It is hard to argue that we were the “teachers” here, it is, rather, that we were all students of the struggle and that study is what is heard and felt in these evocative pieces.”

Residency Overview

Barson and Rodriguez taught the spring 2020 course “Artivism: Intercultural Solidarity & Decolonizing Performance.” Students investigated the theory, practice, multidisciplinary and intercultural concepts connected with their recent jazz opera, “Mirror Butterfly: The Migrant Liberation Movement Suite.”  Barson and Rodriguez guided and inspired students to participate in the construction of a new multi-media jazz opera.

Barson and Rodriguez felt that “This semester-long residency was a soul-changing and practice-expanding experience, especially in the context of a global pandemic. History is not something we study to learn about the past or the outcome of the future; it is to understand who we are, with its traumas, its visions of other possibilities, its moments of soul-crushing brutality and its infinitely small but momentous acts of solidarity. Especially in the U.S., questions of settler-colonialism, slavery and ecocide all take on especially personal and lived dimensions among our students and ourselves. As James Baldwin said of white America, “they are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” We thus had two aspects to our class: tracing the historical conditions that have shaped our society and understanding how contemporary and past traditions of artistic practice contested, responded to and transformed these histories and conditions.”

Students in the Artivism course were: Nick Berkhout (music and electrical engineering), Maggie Cousin (music), Erik Franze (political science and environmental studies), Lily Finnegan (music and sociology), Mauricio Garcia (First Wave Scholar, communication arts: radio, TV, and film, certificates in business and also Chican@ and Latin@ studies), Kim Inthavong (computer science), Jackson Neal (First Wave Scholar, creative writing, certificate in dance), Henry Ptacek (music), Jack Schaefer (chemical engineering) and Qiandai Wang (exchange student from France, political science, sociology and economics) along Zach Pulse (project assistant, DMA in Oboe, third year).

Neal states, “Ben and Gizel have reminded me how important it is to create a revolution with joy. As a class we are constantly celebrating each other and the works that we’ve collectively harvested. This is not only a place to mourn the grief our planet accumulates, but a realm to imagine what light we see for the future. I’ve moved through these past few months in awe, working with this class of revelers and revolutionaries. Meeting activists such as Nejma Nefertiti and Mario Luna Romero, I’m reminded that the revolution is now. We must hold each other and continue to make in the face of fear. Ben and Gizel remind us how radical it is to create, how alive and dangerous our love can be.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Barson and Rodriguez, their students and guest artists participated in many public events including at Bayview Community Center for “Art Equals Politics: From the streets to social justice,” Tandem Press Friday Jazz Series, UW–Madison Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies’ Lunchtime Lecture Series, a fundraiser for Radio Namakasía at Café Coda, Just Bust! First Wave Open Mic at August and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies conference “Environmental Justice in Multispecies Worlds: Land, Water, Food.” More events were scheduled in April but needed to be cancelled. Photos of the events are located here: https://artsdivision.smugmug.com/2020/Interdisciplinary-Arts-Residency-Program/Spring.

The spring 2020 Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program is presented by the UW–Madison Division of the Arts and hosted by the Asian American Studies Program with Associate Professor Peggy Choy as lead faculty. Co-sponsors include the Dance Department, the Mead Witter School of Music and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Some of the residency events were also part of the Nelson Institute’s Earth Day@50 – Arts Initiative.

The UW–Madison Division of the Arts’ Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program (IARP) brings innovative artists to campus to teach semester-long, interdepartmental courses and to publicly present their work for campus and community audiences and is funded through the university’s Office of the Provost.

Detailed Event Description

The piece opens with an interrogation of our current fossil fuel dependence and extractive relationship to nature using the point of a view of a dinosaur whose remains are used as fuel to power a “death economy.” This is connected to other oppressive dimensions of American society, including racism, militarized borders and ecological destruction. From this starting point, resistance is communicated in pan-Indigenous and pan-African themes, informed by guest collaborators from the Yaqui nation Mario Luna and Anahi Ochoa.

The music is entirely composed by the Artivism students and is creative, high-energy, and ambitious with jazz, funk, hip-hop, experimental rhythms and poetry. Lily Finnegan, Henry Ptaeck, Maggie Cousin and Nick Berkhout composed the dynamic score. Jackson Neal’s poetry gives voice to the silenced and Mauricio Garcia performs bilingual Spanish-English Hip-Hop verses that expresses the traumatic experiences of Latin American migrants as well as their freedom dreams.

Former Black Panther Mama C expresses a pan-African perspective on blues and soul with her vocal contributions on “Police Chase,” – a tribute to the Black Panther Party and a remembrance of those lives lost to police brutality. Qiandia Wang composes lyrics and vocal melodies that connect land dispossession and forced migration, with Gizelxanath Rodriguez contributing vocals. Jack Schaefer and Erik Franze depict resistance and oppression with a variety of experimental and staged movement techniques, with the assistance of Peggy Choy and important contributions from Madison-based artist Lacouir “Spirit” Yancey.


Ben Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Ben Barson is an award-winning composer, educator, baritone saxophonist, historian and political activist. Barson cares deeply about the environment along with racial and social justice and inequities. Like his mentor Fred Ho (IARP fall 2008), he composes music to impact change inspired by the jazz tradition.

Gizelxanath Rodriguez is a Mexican Indigenous (Yaqui) renowned vocalist, cellist, educator and artivist (art and activism) at the intersection of Indigenous rights, ecosocialism and migrant justice. She is fluent in five languages (Spanish, Portuguese, English, French and Italian) and her vocal work spans a range of styles and cultures.

Together, Barson and Rodriguez co-founded the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, an ensemble that combines Afro-Asian musical and political affinities with inspiration from the struggles of the Yaqui of northern Mexico. Barson and Rodriguez strive to incorporate voices of regional and Indigenous communities in the creation of their boundary-pushing interdisciplinary works.

Nejma Nefertiti headshot

Nejma Nefertiti

Nejma Nefertiti is a powerful Hip Hop/theater artist, sound designer, songwriter and creator of natural perfumes. Her revolutionary matriarchal legacy is to create awareness, inspiration and social change throughout the entire world, for all oppressed peoples, through Hip Hop culture and art.

Charlotte Hill O’Neal aka Mama C

Charlotte Hill O’Neal aka Mama C, is a writer/poet, visual artist, musician, healer, inspirational speaker, longtime community activist and Director of United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC) based in Arusha, Tanzania in East Africa.