Zoe Leonard’s poem/manifesto/open letter, I Want a President was penned in 1992 when Bush senior was President and a trip on the NYC metro would set you back a dollar twenty-five. Over the years, it has been repeated, reinterpreted, reprinted, and performed, with and without the artist’s blessing. That is the beautiful thing about public art, once on display it becomes everyone’s.
On October 11th the High Line installed a 20-foot wheat-paste of Leonard’s poem under the Standard hotel to coincide with the 2016 election. In a lot of ways, the work is still culturally relevant. Today, the High Line hosted “Readings and Performances in Response to Zoe Leonard’s I Want a President” and it was difficult not to be moved. The event began with Leonard herself clarifying that she is “with her” come Tuesday and a reading of this work, and continued with other poets, artists, and performers responding to or reimagining the work for themselves. Performers included Morgan Bassichis, Justin Vivian Bond, Mel Elberg, Malik Gains and Alexandro Segade, Sharon Hayes, Fred Morton, Pamela Sneed, Wu Tsang, Eileen Myles, and Layli Long Soldier.
While all of the performances were inspiring, Layli Long Soldier’s reading left many in tears. She is a citizen of the United States living in Santa Fe, New Mexico but is also a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribe. It has been said that her writing “emphasizes possibility, not closure,” and she “articulates her message without defining answers” to reach a wider audience and today was no different.
Her response to Leonard’s poem was a composite, a collage of indigenous voices she gathered from twitter feeds, instagrams, and videos who have been speaking out about the violence and treachery currently happening in North Dakota. She began with our current President’s words to Native leaders in 2009, “brothers and sisters here, I pledge to all of you, I am partnered with all of you in the spirit of a true nation to nation relationship. I hope I’ve done right by you, we know the history that we share. It is a history marked by violence and treaties that were violated and promises that were broken when Washington thought it knew what was best for you. That is a history that we have to acknowledge before we move forward. That is why I want you to know that I am absolutely committed to moving forward and forging a better future.” Moving words that unfortunately became meaningless the moment the pleas of hundreds of protesters who marched from the pipeline site to Washington DC, carrying a petition with 140 thousand signatures to halt proceedings, were ignored.
Long Solider asks what does “brother and sister” mean to our President? She explains that the people are tired and sick from protecting this land, they are tired of being made into criminals, being arrested, maced, and shot with rubber bullets. She took a moment to compose herself, feeling overwhelmed by these events, as the audience encouraged her to continue.
She ended her response with a powerful passage that I can not erase from memory:
from this election, I doubt I will see a President that regards natives as relatives, who regards this land as his or her mother. Who understands hair as being connected to knowledge and knowledge as being connected to water. I doubt I will see a president with hair down to their waist.
About the author:Diana Ledesma is an arts professional living in New York City. She obtained her masters from New York University in 2016, completing her thesis on the status of the Mexican American art market.
Diana Ledesma is an arts professional living in New York City. She obtained her masters from New York University in 2016, completing her thesis on the status of the Mexican American art market.