Homage: What Was, Is, To Come

"Our hopes for our Black Future cannot exist without ALL knowing where we’ve come from."

By Cincinnati Art Museum

Countess V. Winfrey, Choreographer

Art has long existed as a sharing space for history, culture, love, and experiences. Artists create to EXPRESS. Undoubtedly, all art forms have had a monumental impact on our living experience. The way we exist in the world, how we see ourselves, and even our societal norms are the driving forces for artistic expression, and in turn, the person experiencing the art is influenced by the artist’s expression. 

Black creativity has been (and will continue to be) essential for cultural preservation, historical survival, and the pursuit of mental, emotional, and spiritual freedom. It fuels our ingenuity and evolution. 

Countess Gives Direction (2022-04-24) by Asa Featherstone, IVCincinnati Art Museum

What was (Front Plaza)

Black creative life now and into the future is centered around being “free to be yourself, unapologetically.” Ibram X. Kendi responds to this time of now and future as “the Black Renaissance'' and how it “is stirring Black people to be themselves. Totally. Unapologetically. Freely.” It is of the utmost importance for Black people to be creatively liberated for the sake of historic preservation and mental/physical/spiritual healing. We need to continue the work of our creative ancestors who time stamped our history in their music, their photographs, their paintings, their choreography, their novels, and their plays.

The crux of this importance lies in the reality that American culture is moving into a space of literally erasing Black history from the history books. In 2021, nine states passed legislation that bans the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. So, amid the need to REMIND America that Black Lives Matter, there’s also an enormous effort being exercised to ERASE our history!  As an African American woman, I believe there is space for everyone to come to the table to promote change in our culture from a deeply rooted approach, making the task of Black creators ESSENTIAL. It is our duty as descendants of the African Diaspora to pay homage to the history and the lineage that connects us to our homeland, and to ensure that it is never forgotten.

The Adinkra Symbol entitled “Sankofa” means “go back and fetch it.” This phrase is referencing the principle of looking at your history to inform your future. Without careful deconstruction, research, observation, dialogue, teaching, sharing, and mentorship, there can be no progression. Black voices in that arts are necessary to share the history the next generation will be denied. Knowledge of what our ancestors endured fuels our ability to endure, progress, and preserve our culture, our gems, our rights, and our Black life. Traditionally, African cultures have a “Griot”, which is an individual who is the keeper of traditions and stories of a particular tribe, and they pass this information down from generation to generation. Black creatives are our African American Griots. We are the storytellers who keep our legacy alive and push us forward into the space of being free.

Homage Cast (2022) by Lungs ProjectCincinnati Art Museum

Inspired by Art

David Driskell and the photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop are exemplary artists who share a common approach to creative expression as Black artists: they captured and artistically expressed the Black experience they witnessed through the lens of being Black in America. 

Bahian Lace (1988) by David DriskellCincinnati Art Museum

David Driskell, an expressionist of nature and culture, spent his life centering his work around things he saw. Much of it represents a long-standing connection between African American history, the lands where those histories intersect and rest, spirituality, and acknowledgement of the land where he felt most free.

He, like most artists, allowed his work to reflect his experience in those current moments, stamping his innermost thoughts and feelings at the time of creation.

He refers to his desire to create artwork as a “spiritual urge within to fulfill (his) earthly task of making and creating (his) own beautiful world”.

Kamoinge Photographers Group (1973) by Anthony BarbozaCincinnati Art Museum

The Kamoinge Workshop is one of the most extraordinary groups of Black photographers in existence to date, with their central focus being the art of capturing Black people and the Black experience in Black communities. Their work is influenced by jazz music and the natural rhythm of Black culture, while also showcasing a sense of honesty and authenticity of the Black experience.

In many ways, viewing their photographs feels archival, research oriented, and observational. The audience gets a glimpse of the urban Black American experience of Harlem (during the 50s and 60s) through the eyes of the people who witnessed it and documented it first-hand.

Balance & Breath (2022-04-29) by Asa Featherstone, IVCincinnati Art Museum

What is Homage?

The beauty of site-specific work is that both the performers and the audience can approach the work without the “fourth wall.” The audience becomes a participant in the performance by experiencing the “stage” in the same way as the performers. Site-specific work is about connecting the sites/sounds/imagery of a particular space into the conception and execution of the performance. The dancers are tasked to interact with the site in a way that allows them to be in partnership with that space to convey the story of the performance art (without the fancy lighting and backdrops that theaters can provide).

Dancers in Courtyard (2022) by Cincinnati Art MuseumCincinnati Art Museum

Countess V. Winfrey, choreographer of Homage: What was, Is, To Come

“Homage: What was, Is, To Come” is a site-specific performance that was showcased at the Cincinnati Art Museum in May of 2022. The work encompasses aspects of the African-American experience from the past (“What Was”), to the present (“Is”), and then to the future (“To Come”). The performance utilizes 3 different areas of the museum: the Front Plaza (Past), the Alice Bimel Courtyard (Present) and the Great Hall (Future). The audience travels through the museum on a “journey through time” from one performance exhibit to the next with the guidance of a spoken word artist who served as the Griot. The Griot serves in the work as a “tour guide” giving informational preludes and interludes in poetic form in each of the three dance exhibits.

Front (2022) by Countess V. WinfreyCincinnati Art Museum

Exhibit #1: “What was” on the Front Plaza

The grayish color of the concrete ground, steps, and columns were significant in igniting the sensation of something that is “no longer living/in the past.”

Homage: What Was 3 (2022) by Countess V. WinfreyCincinnati Art Museum

Is and Vanae (2022) by Countess V. WinfreyCincinnati Art Museum

Exhibit #2: “Is” in the Alice Bimel Courtyard

The greenery in the courtyard shares the sensation of “aliveness/present-day.”

This section highlights the Black Lives Matter movement from a Black person’s perspective. The outrage, the protests, the anxiety of being “outside while being Black”; the hate crimes that were committed on those who were simply “outside while being Black.” We paid homage to those who lost their lives simply because they were “outside while being Black.” 

Introducing Is (2022) by Countess V. WinfreyCincinnati Art Museum

Homage: Is (2022) by Countess V. WinfreyCincinnati Art Museum

Homage: To Come (2022) by Countess V. WinfreyCincinnati Art Museum

Exhibit #3: “To Come” in the Great Hall

The audience stepped into the “Black Future:” an imagining of what free/unapologetic Black people look like, sound like, dress like, act like when unshackled by mental, physical, hierarchical, financial, and systemic enslavement.

The regality of this space reflects the regality of our infinite beauty, reflective of our hope to elevate ourselves in alignment to our greatness within. To find liberation “on the mountaintop” as indicated in the hope and prayer of Dr. Martin Luther King. 

Great Hall, Countess V. Winfrey, 2022, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
Gold & Red, Asa Featherstone, IV, 2022-04-29, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
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My intention with this performance art experience is that it would mirror the experience we have when we visit art museums. Each exhibit has its own narrative, texture, sound, and feeling.

Solo (2022-04-18) by Asa Featherstone, IVCincinnati Art Museum



The dancers and I began our rehearsals for this project in a much more explorative way. I gave them writing prompts based on the premise of each performative exhibit, then tasked them to create their own narratives based on those prompts. My central goal was for us to generate movement material together so that their involvement in the work felt like a personal experience to them as well. I purposefully chose a cast of younger dancers because I believe their youthful voices were integral in creating this “Black Future” we are imagining. Once we transitioned to rehearsing in the museum spaces, we took the material we began working on in the studio and transformed it to fit the three areas of the museum in accordance to the subject matter, the space, and the narrative being told. It was both creatively challenging and exciting to discover how to utilize all the nooks and crannies of each space, to see how we could fit our bodies and energy into each space and to allow each space to assist in telling our story. 

Spoken Word Artist

The spoken word artist, Vanae Iesha, is a wonderful singer, actor, writer, and dancer. As we began to develop her dialogue as the Griot/Tour Guide, we also began to bring life to her character. Our conversations began with “Where in our Black history do we start? How far back into our history do we go? How do we want to engage the audience? What do we want them to think and feel as we go from one exhibit to the next?” We investigated several online and textile resources to help fuel the perspective, the language, and the character of the “tour guide,” who would later become known as the “Griot from 3022.”

Homage: What Was 1 (2022) by Countess V. WinfreyCincinnati Art Museum

Is Dialogue 2 (Courtyard)


As a choreographer, it is such a wonderful opportunity to have music originally composed specifically for your work and vision. I am fortunate to have an insanely talented saxophonist and composer as my brother, Wesley Winfrey III, and he composed and arranged every section of music for the work. As I developed the ideas for each exhibit, I found music by artists I was inspired by (ranging from Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin to Donnie Hathaway and Andra Day). Based on these inspirations and the narrative of each exhibit, we built our ideas around what the music should sound like and feel like for each section. The music was integral to changing the pace, the energy, and the story for each exhibit. This project was our fourth collaborative work together. 


The costumes for the work were deeply influenced by my research for the work. In addition to David Driskell’s Dances with Masks, I was also very moved by what I learned and discovered during my visit to the Apex Museum (the oldest Black history museum located in the city of Atlanta, GA). The “What Was” section and costumes were inspired by the research I did on the Slave Castles on the coasts of West Africa. I was honored to have every costume handmade by international designer, L’Amour Ameer.

Homage: What Was 2 (2022) by Countess V. WinfreyCincinnati Art Museum

Video Compilation

For the final exhibit “To Come,” Lungs Project, an artist-run curatorial non-profit, composed a video accompaniment that was showcased as the prelude to the final dance section. I wanted the feeling of the “Black Future” to look like joy and feel like peace.

“Homage: What Was, Is, To Come” evolved in such a magnificent way. The final production was even better than I imagined. In addition to having such a great team of artists and collaborators to work with, I am filled with gratitude to have gotten an opportunity to work with the wonderful team at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Since its inception, they were on board with my vision, they asked all the right questions, and made all the necessary efforts to be extremely accommodating of all my requests. Their willingness to “grant my wishes” allowed me to dream big with this project, which I recognize as one of the biggest gifts I’ve been given during this artistic venture. I couldn’t imagine a better group of people to work with or a more beautiful facility to create this work in. I am extremely grateful to have gotten the opportunity to have my art showcased at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Hear Countess' artist talk, where Winfrey pulls back the curtain to her artistic process, sharing insight into the paths that led her to this project and into the ideas that continue to animate her work as a choreographer.

Read Countess' blog posts, Creating a New Work from scratch... and Approaching the finish line...

Watch a recording of the performance Homage: What was, Is, To Come.

Embrace (2022) by Lungs ProjectCincinnati Art Museum

Credits: Story

Homage: What was, Is, To Come was produced by Countess V. Winfrey. Photographs by Asa Featherstone, IV and Lungs Project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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The past, present, and future of the Black experience in the United States
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