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A Beautiful Mind

In an age of conformity, Solange is the rare artist who relishes following her own creative intuition


Imagine an oil reservoir, deep beneath the streets of Sydney, Australia. Originally used during the Second World War, it is now a part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales where patrons can descend a grand, imposing spiral staircase to a performance space. Appearing tonight: a 10-piece ensemble on a red-lit, cross-shaped stage and one of the singular global pop stars of the past decade, Solange, née Solange Knowles. During the course of the evening, she’ll lift a hose to fill a clear tub (that she designed herself), step inside for a bath, and get dressed. But before it all begins, as the crowd files in, they hear only a mix of ambient sound, the voice of the artist Autumn Knight, and the voice of Solange herself.

“There were moments I just stood there in silence,” Solange tells me a few months later. “When people entered the space, they didn’t notice that I was there. [When they did] they had to adjust to the uncomfortableness of me just existing, not entertaining or delivering or slaying.” It’s hard to insist on the value of silence when our current culture demands, constantly, that one speak. 

“A lot of my projects are asking questions,” she continues. “With this last piece, I had so many questions about what performance could be, how it could be in service to me.”

Solange’s projects are legion. Taken together, if you don’t look for context, they can seem a little scattered. In the past few years alone, she has announced a glassware line, a book on the queer Black woman architect Amaza Lee Meredith, and partnerships with performance spaces around the world. In addition to the project in Sydney, she curated Eldorado Ballroom,a music performance series for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and also became the second Black woman to compose a score for New York City Ballet. Most of these endeavors are conducted under the banner of her multidisciplinary creative group and agency, Saint Heron, which also runs a library of texts by Black creatives and serves as a conduit for Solange to work with like-minded conspirators. Fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner, a friend of hers, says, “I feel like there’s not many people who are able to show up in different spaces with such integrity.”

This helps to explain Solange’s near-cultish appeal across genres; when she shows up, so do her people. Gina Duncan, the president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who gave the go-ahead for Eldorado Ballroom (named after the famed music venue in Houston’s Third Ward), says, “When I would go to the shows, I would encounter people who were like, ‘I don’t actually know what is going to happen, but I’m here for it.’ She found a community that was already there but was hungry for something more. That’s something that not many people can do well.”

“People had to adjust to the uncomfortableness of me just existing, not entertaining or delivering or slaying.”

The unexpected swerves seem integral to Solange’s way in the world. In our conversation, she tells me how her interests flow from a love of drums and her upcoming staging of the Black classical composer Julia Perry’s percussion-heavy chamber work “Homunculus C.F.” to bird-watching at an owl sanctuary outside of Boston. “The entire ecosystem can shift in a moment’s time based off of a sound,” she says. “It really enlightens the hope and the faith that I need to have to exist in this world.” It’s a ravenous artistic imagination, one that relishes its restlessness. 

All of Solange’s projects speak to her deep curiosity about the past—both big, era-spanning questions of Black history and the more intricate, obscure maze of family history. This takes on added resonance when you consider that Solange is a member of one of the reigning families of musical innovation and pop culture, who has the global phenomenon Beyoncé for a sister and the cultural juggernaut Jay-Z for a brother-in-law. What can a person take from the past as she seeks to understand herself? And what can she leave behind? 

It’s fitting, then, that we meet in a library. More surprising is that Solange has chosen to meet me in a public library in the small town on the East Coast that she moved to a few years ago, looking to get closer to nature. “The more that I immerse myself in the soil,” she says, “the more clarity in these answers that I’ve been looking for my whole life is revealed.” She is wearing a two-tone paneled pantsuit in tan and cream by Wandler, and the look reminds me of a minimalist rodeo star.

When I first arrived, Solange’s publicist and the head librarian told me she had suggested we talk in the library’s front reading room, where I could see two teenagers poring over manga, headphones firmly plugged in. But the librarian nixed that idea because the older guys who hang out in the library during the day would probably complain about the noise. They most likely wouldn’t notice one of the most influential pop musicians of the past decade. Later, though, when our time together is done and Solange is upstairs by the circulation desk, asking for a copy of a flyer about an upcoming exhibit on local Black history, I catch one older Black man register her presence and politely smile and nod his head, as if to welcome a neighbor.

We end up settling in the records room in the basement. She and I sit in wooden captain’s chairs, while all around us are piled blue cloth binders labeled “water regulations,” with dates going back decades. The room smells like aging paper and bookbinding glue—a joy for an archivist. Solange is, after all, as is widely documented on her own social-media channels and on the Saint Heron site, drawn to the archival, the deep cut.

“I did a lot of child acting in my teenage years. I used to dance for Destiny’s Child. I had my first album at 16. I’ve been a performer more than anything for a very long time.”

Her interest in archives seems like a twin to her interest in performance. It is part of the history of herself. “You know, I did a lot of child acting in my teenage years,” she tells me. “I used to dance for Destiny’s Child. I had my first album at 16 [2002’s Solo Star]. I’ve been a performer more than anything for a very long time.” 

Now, she continues, “I show up in performance as myself. Fifteen years ago, the idea was to show up in costumes.” This reminds me of a quote from the Black punk pioneer Felice Rosser. She spoke of the reason she, as a Black woman artist, was drawn to punk: It didn’t require, like so many Black arts traditions, that you had to have been the best singer in your church choir. It asked for the opposite: the willingness to make art outside of the punishing ethos of mastery. It’s that other way of thinking about creativity that drew Solange to the work of Autumn Knight, who cocreated the sound piece for her show in Australia.


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Weight 2 lbs
Dimensions 13 × 10 × 1 in


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