Monday, February 10, 2014

Image to movement: Kosoko's "Black Male Revisited" at Danspace Project

Whitney V. Hunter
(photo by Sylvain Guenot)
The challenge of representing and questioning the image of the black male is great. Black masculinity suffers not just from overrepresentation, but oversimplification, demonization, and (at times) utter incomprehension.
I wanted to produce a project that would examine the black male body as body and political icon.
--Thelma Golden, curator, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Whitney Museum of Art, 1994
Our how to widen the conversation within the aesthetic, again."
--Greg Tate, Danspace Project Conversations Without Walls panel on "Revisiting Black Male Today: A Look 20 Years Later"
I'm revisiting the catalogue I bought in 1994 at the Whitney's multi-media Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art show. Its dramatically matte-black card cover contains and confines a multitude: "pretty" Muhammad Ali in his prime, white towel slung over his perfect, gleaming chest; Emmett Till, dead, his ruined face for all to see in that open coffin; an anonymous slab of muscular thighs and genitals, courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe; a homeless man revealed as if by Rembrandt's light; O.J. Simpson awaiting judgment; King and Malcolm clasping hands while gazing anywhere but at each other.

Each time I lift this book, I'm surprised anew by its heft and its stiff, awkward, locked-in feel; the small type of its text hinting at how very much there is to say and all that is still not said.

In its time, Black Male triggered confusion and strong objections. Some in the Black community felt that curator Thelma Golden's choices--including works by artists who were not Black, not male or not heterosexual--dangerously reinforced racist stereotypes. Others thought that the Whitney's first Black curator had missed a significant opportunity, that the show was not extreme enough to be truly subversive. When Golden later brought Black Male to Los Angeles (UCLA Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center), community groups mounted alternative exhibitions devoted to imagery they considered more representative and positive.

Now, twenty years on, performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko has taken Thelma Golden's controversial project as a springboard for his own inquiry into Black masculinity. For Danspace Project, Kosoko curated a three-evening, multi-genre program, Black Male Revisited: experimental representations through the ephemeral form, "incorporat[ing] voices from trans and queer artist communities and situat[ing] their work inside an experimental dance context."

I attended two of Kosoko's Saturday afternoon panels where most of the panelists admitted only tenuous, if any, personal experience with the 1994 exhibition. But in the era of Obama and racist backlash, of stop-and-frisk, of obsession with what's on--not in--Dante de Blasio's head, and when a Black man might become the NFL's first openly gay active player, there remains good reason for new generations to explore the images and meanings of Black masculinity in American society. The Black-Dominican transgender performer niv Acosta--whose recent piece, i shot denzel, I reviewed here--is an interesting example. [Listen to Acosta, introduced by panel moderator Thomas Laxhere.]

On Friday evening, I attended a performance featuring solo turns by Rafael Sanchez, i n d e e, Whitney V. Hunter and IMMA/MESS (Jarrod Kentrell).

Taking a portion of space in Peter Stuyvesant's sanctuary, Rafael Sanchez (Con-Sume me/Con-Sume You) constructed a contrarian altar, setting before us a protective clear plastic drop cloth and a variety of kitchen aids and produce.

Splatter of sliced and puréed produce. Mess of hypersexual hip hop. Burlesque of feral masturbation of butter- and chocolate-smeared cucumbers. I'll see you, Karen Finley, and raise you....

Time and again, a frenzied Sanchez took a machete to his own fake phallus, replaced the slippery prosthesis and set about massaging or mangling it again. Blending a potion of green-tinged phallic juice, he poured it into a bottle shaped like a crystal skull and offered it. Some audience members willingly raised this elixir to their lips.

The wide, vaulting space of St. Mark's Church seemed hushed, untouched, drawn back, like a pearl-grey hem, from the riot of sound and action. And when Sanchez was done, how quickly, how efficiently every trace of was whisked up in the plastic and carted away. A sense of I'm throwing the worst of it in your face followed closely by That never happened. Just how much force does it take to make change? St. Mark's Church floor--held sacred by Christians and dancers alike--was once again empty, spotless.

The performer i n d e e describes themselves as "a queer evolutionary transmasculine multi-gendered femme" who investigates "non-normative gender expressions found amongst black females in the performance realm." In the concise Oh MiMi My, they shed clothes and spin/wrap/firmly bind their entire torso in cling film--plastic containment again--before donning high heel boots and a wig and launching a lipsync and dance routine.

Whitney V. Hunter, entering the space in D.R.O.M.P., could be any guy on his way to do manual labor. He's dressed in pristine white coveralls and carries a white bucket and a big roll of white paper under one arm. In short order though, he approaches a mic and addresses his onlookers. With a warm smile, he tells us "don't be shy; don't be embarrassed" if we're called upon to give him a hand.

A voice recites single words, one by one--cool, strong, vulnerable, independent, well-spoken, restrained, sexual, reflective--and Hunter becomes its scribe, unrolling a stretch of paper and laying one end of it over his body. As he scribbles each word on the paper's surface, he slides sideways beneath it. The rustling paper accepts these words that, otherwise, might be projected upon his Black body. He controls the paper, cutting and, if necessary, ripping it into sections. But why do this alone? In a playful spirit, he races towards the audience, pulling up a group of folks to help speed the work.

Like i n d e e and Sanchez, Hunter finds that sweet spot where confinement gives way to possibility. Those coveralls, it turns out, conceal gold-spangled bikini briefs and some inexplicable plastic patches stuck to his bare skin. He spins in joy as his "assistants" make a hash of the torn, crumpled paper. (D.R.O.M.P. stands for "Don't Rain on My Parade," the song heard on his soundtrack.) In his exuberant resistance, all of those labels--cool, strong, well-spoken, restrained--become liberated and fluid, disposable or recyclable, at his will.

Hunter scoops up every shred of paper to stuff inside his discarded coveralls. This belongs to you, I imagine him thinking. Here, you take it! The white cloth swells to receive the paper and takes the shape of a body, not so much a person as a man of straw, and I envision that straw man burning.

Finally, Hunter carefully feels around his legs, shoulders and back for the mysterious patches. Monitor patches, perhaps? Whatever they are, he makes sure to peel each and every one of them from his body.

Imma/Mess (Jarrod Kentrell)
(photo courtesy of the artist)
In Ordinary Love, which closed the program, Jarrod Kentrell (aka Imma/Mess) worked within a rectangular box of light (shades of Sanchez restricted to his rectangular, plastic altar). He werked Beyoncé's "Haunted" (All the shit I do is boring, all these record labels boring/I don't trust these record labels, I'm torn/All these people on the planet working 9 to 5 just to stay alive) with his real face obscured and with super-pliable and spastic movement.

Performance creates a space of transparency and focus, a space of ritual, which is about doing the work that makes a future possible. Of these four rituals, Hunter's D.R.O.M.P. offered me the clearest sense of forward movement--of breaking out and going somewhere of one's own choosing.

Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art is closed. For information on upcoming Danspace Project programs, click here.

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