5 questions with Kantara Souffrant

Kantara Souffrant is the Manager of School and Teacher Programs at the Milwaukee Art Museum, a performance artist, and an embodied storyteller. Kantara uses dance, movement, personal narrative and folds stories from Haiti and the larger African diaspora to create performances about immigration, family, and what it means to be part of a local and global community. She has a Ph.D. in performance studies from Northwestern University, an MA from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, and an undergraduate degree from Oberlin College.


JW: You describe yourself as an embodied storyteller. Tell us what this means and more about the stories bodies tell.

Kantara Souffrant

KS: “Embodied storytelling” is the concept that I have used most recently to describe my approach to storytelling. It encompasses both my formal approach to making art and is a way for me to acknowledge my artistic “autobiography” — all the training that makes me who I am as an art creator. I began my formal study of art creating installation art from a Yoruba/KiKongo and Haitian Vodou-inspired ritual aesthetic. Within these traditions art is not created for art sake but to heal a community; to draw people together with the intention of addressing social concerns. Moreover, “art” is not limited to visual practices of painting, drawing, sculpture or photography. These installations necessarily involved all aspects of the body and senses — -sight, sound, taste, touch, movement. In tandem to this ritual art training, I also studied West African and Black vernacular dance and, as a “late” dancer (I began dancing at 18), I was constantly surprised by what my body could do; how I could tell stories and give shape through gestures. My work as an embodied storyteller captures this simultaneous approach to ritual art creation and dance, and it also acknowledges that as a Haitian-American who grew up listening to the stories of my father and other elders, their bodies were their primary tools for transporting people to other times and places. It was magical to see how the body at any given moment can be a magical vessel for creating new experiences; and that’s what I try to capture in my work. “Embodied storytelling” isn’t a new concept in the African diaspora; it’s just the best way I know how to distill all of my history and experiences into one phrase.

JW: Your work seems to highlight the power of ritual in shaping communities, narratives, and even childhood experiences like play yet ritual is not valued in the predominant strands of contemporary American culture. Tell us more about the role you see ritual playing, especially in shaping childhoods, and what sorts of rituals help children flourish in their earliest years?

KS: This is a good and complicated question! I know that when I use the terms “ritual” especially in relationship to African and Haitian traditions, people may automatically imagine the all-too familiar, overly-dramatized and racist depictions of spiritual practices across the globe. However, if we were to step back and truly return to the definition of “ritual” we could better understand it as an action or process that is done repeatedly over time, often but not only with the hopes of transforming the individuals and/or communities that complete these actions. Ritual, is vital to human life on a large and small scale. We have rituals for getting up in the morning, preparing ourselves for the day, for gathering with friends and family, for celebrating life and mourning loss. Ritual is life! I am eager to see how ritual affects children’s play: how it can be structured and unstructured; how children can play the same game over and over again and yet it is always new and fresh; and how play-as-ritual can helps us to understand “play” as vital a component to human development and socialization. All of these are reflected in theories of performance studies and anthropology and I’m eager to witness this in a new audience and to document these ideas within my performance work.

JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand childhood and the experiences of children today?

KS: I’m so NOT good at narrowing things down. Instead, I’d like to offer a few resources:

  1. Firstly, I think the library and bibliography of texts for children and young adults available on Teaching for Change (teachingforchange.org), a social justice-based education website, provides invaluable resources for parents and educators alike on the experiences of young people today. Moreover, the books become ways of using stories to discuss complicated but necessary issues with young people from race to gun violence.
  2. As a museum educator watching children interact with art objects, seeing what they are drawn to, the questions they ask, and how they are affected by the space of the art museum teaches me about how to wonder, how to stay open, and how to see the beauty in things that I initially found mundane.

For more structure on talking to children at various developmental stages and ages about art, I believe Françoise Barbe-Bell’s How to Talk To Children about Art is an accessible beginner’s guide for guardians and parents.

JW: Looking ahead, what signals or trends do you perceive that make you most hopeful about the future our children will inhabit?

KS: The recent March for Our Lives organizing efforts by teens in America makes me believe that there are people like me and younger who believe in a racially and economically just world that is safe for all people. Moreover, as a person who has been able to work closely with educators from Milwaukee and beyond, I’m inspired everyday by teachers, particularly those invested in pairing social justice with their work in and beyond the classroom. The time, commitment and humility that teachers bring to their teaching and to their professional development to ensure that they are able to create safe and supportive learning environments for their students, reminds me that in addition to the youth activists who are a beacon of hope, teachers are also stewards of education and the future that our children will inhabit.

JW: Is there one project you dream of undertaking, but haven’t yet started?

KS: Quite honestly, the dream would be to create art, scholarship, and travel between the U.S., Africa, and Haiti.