Fighting for Joy with Elvira Castillo & Sly Watts


Though they’re both members of the art collective at The Front Gallery in the Bywater, Elvira Castillo and Sly Watts may seem like a surprising collaborative pair. Castillo’s work as a photographer and filmmaker uses stylized portraiture to unpack questions around desire, repression, and cultural identity. Her last showing, The Unravelling, featured two life-size self-portraits of her face tightly wrapped in a black rope that appeared to slither out of the photos, scattering into vine-like shapes and making ornate frames on the gallery wall.

Watts, on the other hand, is more locally known as an irreverent multi-instrumentalist, producer, and rapper who performs in a number of projects, most notably under his own name. With his three-piece punk band Twin Sugar, he exudes a playfulness while cheekily hinting at his disdain for machismo—“Y’all are making my pussy hard, man!” he shouts to his audience. His visual art, featured most recently in his own exhibit, Dimension Traveller + Nugrafunk, is characterized by abstract shapes that give way to futuristic landscapes occasionally inhabited by tiny cartoon characters.

But upon closer inspection, Castillo and Watts’ aesthetics share a spirit of fearless introspection that easily transmutes into public confrontation: Castillo’s The Unravelling featured a haphazardly broken mirror that had the words “Are You Happy Yet?” written across the top and bottom, forcing the viewer to ask this question as they gazed at their own broken visage. And one of Watts’ site-specific sculptures, A Seat in the Mind, showed a chair, seemingly frozen in time after being shattered into pieces, with fragments hurtling across the room and a phone dangling above it with the words “GET THE FUCK OFF YOUR PHONE” scrawled across an otherwise black screen.

I sat down with the two artists to talk about their upcoming exhibition, Permission to enjoy. The multidisciplinary show uses music, video, and interactive sculpture to, as their artist statement explains, “explore joy as a part of self-preservation” by looking closely at the tradition of birthdays: how they’re celebrated, what they’ve come to represent in our culture, and how they can teach us to generate joy in our own lives.


How did y’all meet?
Sly Watts: We were in orbit of the same people, but somehow never came in contact. Just as Elvira was moving out of her art studio at 912 Julia, I moved into mine. But I remember seeing her photography and film equipment as I was moving in and thinking, “Whose film set-up is that?” And then a while later, a short film I wrote and narrated, “A Different Perception,” was showing at the New Orleans Film Festival. It was a visual poem, and it screened in 2022. Elvira had been working the entire fest.
Elvira Castillo: Yeah, I was the production manager at the festival, and I was taking photos on the red carpet after the documentary shorts program. His family was there—they were all giddy. And Sly was just super awkward and overwhelmed by all the attention he was getting. And then I introduced myself and said, “Yo, your film was cool.”

Elvira, what was your first impression of Sly’s work?
EC: Sly is this spontaneous person: He’ll have one thought, and then he’ll jump to another one. And that reads in all of his work. His music is very jazzy, it’s very punky; it’s all over the place. And his visual art, in a way, is doing the same thing. But sometimes I think his art pieces give him a space to go into a darker headspace. He’s less scared of exploring those feelings in his art than he is in his music.
SW: That totally resonates. Yeah, when I’m making music, there’s a desire to make things palatable and generate community, which is probably why my artwork visually comes across as a more secluded dialogue. I think I’m trying to catch up with myself in visual work—this is what a conversation with me actually sounds like, or looks like, or feels like. Ironically, I feel like rap specifically was born out of the same unapologetic spirit that’s guiding my visual work. But translating that over to music has been difficult because, in my music, I can be very discontinuous, but I also want to map everything all out so that there’s actually a connection taking place between me and the listener.

Sly, how did you first respond to Elvira’s work?
SW: Yeah, I saw her first exhibition, The Unravelling, at The Front in January 2022. It was very visceral and intense. I first saw the images of her with a rope online, but then when I saw them in person, it became something much more elaborate. Like, oh, the rope has been elaborated to be braided as a frame. And in her cinematic work, she has such a vision for telling stories and connecting scenes. She had this breathwork video as part of her last exhibition, and when I heard her talk about it, I realized there’s a drama to the expression. Nothing about it is shy.
EC: The Unravelling was touching on much darker emotions and themes. It was rooted in my experience with anxiety and depression, but it was meant to serve as a mirror for the viewer—less to talk about my own experience with those feelings, and more to show how people look at themselves and encourage them to ask what was going on in their inner world, and whether they’re actually content with that. A lot of that conversation was based on my own experience with mindfulness, and using that as a foundation for healing. I’m very proud of that project, and a lot of great things came out of it, but now I want to try something that’s the complete opposite. I wanted to flip that on its head, and for this show, explore mindfulness of other, lighter emotions.


Sly Watts, THESE N____S IS WATCHING,
Oil, Charcoal, Oil Pastel, Ink, and Acrylic on Pastel Paper, 2021
Courtesy The Front / Sly Watts 


How did y’all end up doing an exhibition at The Front together?
SW: So new members join The Front at the beginning of the year, and right after that, there’s a meeting where everybody chooses when they’ll be showing works. I joined at the start of 2023.
EC: I joined The Front about a year before him. And so we were at this meeting where everyone chooses when and where they’ll show over the coming two years. I had already chosen my rooms, but I went up to Sly and said, “We’re doing a show together. Choose July.” And then he was like, “OK, fuck yeah.” And then he chose July as his month. I got really excited in that first meeting, because I’d really wanted to work with Sly for a while.
SW: Yeah, I had seen her Unravelling exhibition right before that meeting, so I already had a good feeling about it. And then, as we got acquainted, it was immediate—I didn’t know why, but I was pulled to whatever Elvira was doing.

How has the collaboration been going?
SW: It’s consistently a negotiation. If I go, “What if this?” Elvira’s immediately gonna ask, “Yeah, and how about this?” and vice versa. And there’s always going to be pushback. A lot of it, too, is contingent on personal chemistry, in addition to artistic chemistry. When we talk or express ideas, I feel like she just gets it. And that speeds up a lot of the negotiation process. It feels really automatic.
EC: There’s always a need for balance. We need to make sure that we both feel heard. I think that Sly feels this need to take huge risks in his art—he has to take multiple risks for him to feel like he’s really gambling something. But this whole thing has already been a risk for both of us, because we both decided to play with mediums that we don’t usually play with. We’re collaborating on music—I’ve never made music—and we’re also adding a film element so that Sly can experiment with film.

How did the musical collaboration play out?
SW: Since the very first meeting, this whole project has centered on music. We played a bunch of songs, and we talked about tone and sound, and we picked apart why we like certain songs that encapsulate a specific feeling. But leading up to that, we had been meeting throughout the year at meditation services, which gave way to some of our ideas for the exhibit. We were already talking about mindfulness and enjoyment.


Elvira Castillo, To Resist or Surrender,
Digital Photography with framed ropes, 2022
Courtesy The Front / Elvira Castillo


Meditation services?
EC: Yeah, shortly after Sly and I agreed to work together, I started leading these guided meditation groups. I had been looking for a community to meditate with, and I just put out a message on Instagram: “Hey guys, if I started a guided meditation group, would you all be interested? I wouldn’t be teaching anything, just leading conversations about meditation and how we can use it in our creative lives.” Sly showed up, along with four other people, and we met for a few weeks. Every week we just talked about different feelings that we felt as artists and as regular people, and how we can use mindfulness to tackle those feelings and sit with them.
SW: And so in our first meeting about the exhibition we talked about sound, performance, and mindfulness, with this ethos of not performing for an audience. And we were playing songs back and forth, asking what songs make us feel joy, and why. And then I created this document that mapped out some of the preliminary concepts for what we’re building right now: all of these sounds, rhythms, genres, and song arrangements that inspired us. And then we had to figure out how to make music according to the references we’d built. We were creating a prompt so that we could dive in and be creative. So I brought all my gear to our next session. Elvira had expressed feeling nervous, since this was her first time making music.
EC: The show is studying how to be present in your joy, how to prolong it and maintain it. And as I’m putting effort and attention into the show, I have to consciously apply these same concepts of fostering joy.
SW: Normally, in a musical collaboration with someone, I just back up and let the other person do their thing. And I remember the nervousness dissolving, as Elvira just started playing with sounds. There was this childlike wonder. The next thing I know, Elvira’s arranging songs, building melodies, and adding her own vocal performance. It became a real musical collaboration. And that made it all worthwhile, just being ambitious enough to try it.

Can you tell me more about the exhibition title, Permission to enjoy?
SW: Elvira pretty quickly landed on this idea of joy as a diatribe. So we’ve been focused on this assertive reclamation of our own joy. I haven’t had the natural space to explore that in my own work, but when Elvira and I were sharing source materials, we found so many artists who managed to simultaneously express a forcefulness and an exuberance. So tonally, how can we do something similar and express joy as a diatribe?

I think we think of joyfulness as a state of being, rather than an act of being.
EC: Exactly. And that was a lot of our conversation. Most privileged people, who haven’t had to experience the things that Sly or I have experienced, aren’t familiar with this impulse to assume that joy has an expiration date, or to look at it as something that’s not really there, or falsified. It’s an impulse we have due to our state of being as children, growing up as people of color in the South. We impulsively look at joy as something that’s fleeting, as something that’s limited, as something that shouldn’t really be shown or experienced, because you have to hold it really close to your chest, because somebody or something will take it from you. And so what you just said, about how most people see joy as a state of being rather than an act, is true for most people who have lived a life of privilege—if adversity doesn’t happen to you, then joy is just a state of being.

So maybe what I just said comes from a place of privilege.
EC: Maybe. I think that privileged people do think of joy as a state of being, but I think most people, including people of color, do as well. Because if you’ve been broken down in whatever ways for years, have all these traumas and feel downtrodden, then you will forever feel like joy is something that’s outside of you, right? And that’s where mindfulness comes in. I’ve personally had to come to the realization that joy is an act. It’s an exercise—you have to practice it every day, you know? And none of this is to disregard the hardships that we all go through. But even on the hardest days, joy can be treated as an assignment that you have to complete. You have to fight for joy, because no one else is going to get it for you. I’ve personally had to fight for this understanding of joy, and this show was conceived to put that on display. Neither of us feels like putting our negative feelings on display. I mean, yes, those conversations are necessary and important, but I also just want to see more joyful shit. I think that showing joy as an act, and doing that in representation of people of color, is radical in and of itself.
SW: We are working from light, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Maybe there are some shadows, but we’re in the light. Every piece in the exhibition feels like it’s coming from this premise of spotlighting a moment that is euphoric or pleasant, and prolonging it.
EC: This whole idea kind of originated on my 30th birthday. I was on a phone call with my dad, and I told him that this was gonna be my J.Lo year, because by the time I’m 50, I’m still gonna look like I’m 30. And my dad said something along the lines of, “Yeah, every day is your birthday!” And so I made that my tagline for the year—every day was my birthday. And I honored that by doing something to celebrate my birthday every single day. And that idea reared its head when Sly and I were talking about this show and how people give themselves a limited amount of time to celebrate themselves: one day or week or month each year. But why not make it a birthday year, and how would that change your life? How would you look at yourself differently if you were celebrating yourself every day? As a kid, when it’s your birthday, you have some sense of freedom. You’re so excited for that day. But so many adults get really depressed on their birthday. Either they don’t want to do anything, or they’re not even sure they should be celebrated. And so we’re trying to take it back to a moment that I think resonates with most people, if not everyone: being a child and basking in the joy of being celebrated, playing with all of your friends around, and having your favorite cake. It’s just pure joy. Using that as a guiding metaphor has been both helpful and challenging.

How does the spectator come into play in all of this?
SW: When I think about my music as a full presentation, I imagine myself as someone else at a bar encountering Sly Watts—would I walk away from the conversation, or would I stay engaged? When I hear some of the rap that’s still fixated on the misogyny tales or exuberant flauntings of wealth, I want to walk away immediately, you know? There’s something about music that has this magical effect of creating an impact on people, because it’s more experiential. But with visual art, you just spectate it and consume it. So there’s a cultural difference between playing a gig and presenting at an exhibition, because people have different expectations of the work. Oftentimes I’ll be in an art space and feel ogled like a piece of meat.

As they’re looking at your work?
SW: Yeah, and I’m like an extension of the work. Maybe it’s because I’m Black in these spaces where a lot of people aren’t. It gives like auction-y kind of vibes—like I’m being presented as for sale. It all kind of reminds me of Basquiat. It’s very consumptive.

Are y’all selling work at this exhibit?
EC: We haven’t discussed that, but yeah, I’m down. I have no interest in being a starving artist. I need money in order to fund all of this work that I want to do, and also to help other people. So yeah, I don’t believe that selling my work or selling my time is selling out. It’s possible to sell out without being intentional about how you’re using your time and money, and who you’re using that time and money with, but there are also ways to sell out while still benefiting yourself and your community.
SW: That’s kind of the point of this show. We’re giving ourselves permission to enjoy the practice, because it’s eventually going to be a product for other people to consume. So we can at least exercise control over the process—we can be happy with what we present. We’re taking ownership of the fact that it is an industry, and I will be commodified in a certain way. So let’s find ways to make all of it worthwhile. Let’s have fun and enjoy the process, and even enjoy what we sell. We’re focused on joy, and we’re also aware that there’s a spectating happening. We’ve been thinking of the spectators as a control group for an experiment—we’re actually not worried about what people may think about it, and that’s allowing us to have fun.


Permission to enjoy is scheduled to open on Saturday, July 13 at The Front Gallery. For more info, go to nolafront.org.


Top and bottom photos by Katie Sikora

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