Revisiting the “Black Male” Through Performance: A Conversation With Jaamil Olawale Kosoko
“Why are there so few black men in the field? Well, we surely can’t overlook the economic, social and educational situations currently facing many black men in America. Yet those problems haven’t stopped us from being dominant forces in sports and other popular arts. Considering our historic contributions to American performance technologies, the reasons for our absence from the world of performance art are numerous and this situation should be quite embarrassing, if somebody really gave a damn. Those reasons lie in 1) the very nature of American alternative spaces, 2) in the utter cowardice and lack of vision at many art institutions of color including theaters, galleries and museums. 3) in the lack of sensitive white curators, matched with a scarcity of black curators and finally 4) in the ongoing feud between folk-based art forms and high art forms in American culture.”—Homer Jackson, “Where, Oh Where, Are the Black, Male Performance Artists?” (1997)
Last week, toward the end of my interview with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko at a coffeeshop in Chelsea, he mentioned a 1997 essay by Philadelphia artist Homer Jackson called “Where, Oh Where, Are the Black, Male Performance Artists?” I stopped him to write it down in my notebook. The title alone caught my attention. 1997? How the times haven’t changed, I thought. Fourteen years later, I wrote an article called “Why Aren’t There More African-Americans in Contemporary Performance?” I mentioned this to Kosoko, and he laughed, reached across the table to grab my arm to emphasize the point, and said, “But there are! You just don’t know!”
That is the impetus behind this week’s “The Black Male Revisited: Experimental Representations Through the Ephemeral Form,” the latest iteration of Danspace Project’s “Food for Thought” series, which Kosoko has curated. The event directly references an influential and fairly controversial 1994 exhibit at the Whitney, curated by Thelma Golden (then on staff at the Whitney, now the head of Harlem’s Studio Museum) called “The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.”
A native of Detroit, Kosoko was only in late grade school when Golden’s show went up. The road he took to “The Black Male Revisited” was a long, winding one. He attended high school the prestigious Interlochen Academy in Interlochen, Michigan before moving to Vermont to go to college at Bennington. After college, he spent a short while touring before eventually settling in Philadelphia, where he began questioning the ways in which we create and support the production of art. Those questions led him to form Anonymous Bodies, a collaborative art group, with like-minded friends. But with the larger economic system deteriorating at the beginning of the decade, Kosoko decided he needed to rethink his role as a cultural producer again, and after time at the Kennedy Center in DC joined the first class of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan, after which he relocated to New York.
“Black Male Revisited” emerged from research conducted during the ICPP program. “It arose out of this sincere loneliness, from consecutively having been the only black man in the room,” he told me, “whether it was at the Kennedy Center, whether it was at Wesleyan, whether it was in my poetry workshop at Interlochen at 15. And not really recognizing at the time how impacting that feeling of isolation was. So this was really an attempt to combat that, and find my brethren in the field.”
The idea was to revisit the ideas Golden originally proposed—to challenge the dominant representation of black masculinity as tied to sex, crime, and sports—by presenting the work of contemporary black performance artists as an extension of the dialogue Golden helped facilitate in the 1990s. The initial iteration of “Black Male Revisited” premiered as a performance installation by Kosoko at the Miami Theater Center in December 2013, in the midst of Art Basel Miami.
“Now it’s progressed and taken on the shape of a curatorial platform,” he explained of the New York iteration, “where I’ve created this space for a number of other artists who go about showing their ideas. I think there’s a big cultural issue at the moment with the amount of support that’s going toward the creation of experimental black space.”
That’s perhaps the main concern of this weekend’s series. “It was intentional for me to create space, to put up a bill of artists no one knows anything about,” he continued. Indeed, the line-up speaks to the same yawning gap in access to resources that Homer Jackson referenced in the quote above. Most of the artists that Kosoko is presenting are in a sense self-taught. While many have backgrounds in dance, their current radical, experimental practice has been arrived at through an organic process of responding to dominant modes. Many of them, as have countless other emerging artists, first developed a following on the Internet, through video, photos, and social media, essentially doing an end-run around the alternative performance spaces that, for all their well-intentioned concern about diversity, are often anything but.
The series unfolds over three days. Thursday features a pairing of artists working in music. First is The Georges, a new project between Alec Duffy (who Kosoko praised for the curatorial openness he’s brought to Jack) and his long-time collaborators Jason Quarles, Julian Rozzell, Jr., and Steven Leffue. The Georges have been paired with Lawrence Graham Brown, a performance artist and experimental theater-maker.
“It’s interesting because it’s the sort of straight crew conversing with this radical black queer” work, Kosoko told me, laughing. “I hope some kind of dialogue is created naturally.”
“Lawrence Graham Brown is an experimentalist that is working in a deeply erotic way,” he continued. “He’s thinking heavily about the black male body and particularly the queered black male body in the public domain, as a direct antithesis the brutality and stereotype and super hetero normative figures we see plastered in popular media and culture. I know that his work is very controversial, because he is interested in eroticism and pornography and showing queer black love in the public space. And he’s sort of like, ‘Here, deal with it!’”
Friday night is a series of solo performances. IMMA/MESS, a project by artist Jarrod Kentrell, “is super interested in how women have affected him as a black man. He’s taken on this alter ego that is really delving quite deep into issues of misogyny and reversal.” SirLady Indee, a trans performance artist from New Orleans originally, works in a similar vein but adds “this need to shout trans identity out and make it present, that these kinds of alternative bodies are here and we should see them,” Kosoko told me. “So often the female to male transition, and the masculine identified females in the world, we just don’t see these bodies.” And Rafael Sanchez explores issues of tokenization through his experience growing up Puerto Rican in Harlem, where his own self-identity as black was challenged. Whitney V. Hunter also performs Friday. Saturday, the event closes up first with a special edition of “Conversations Without Walls,” featuring Kosoko and a host of other artists, curators, and thinkers, and then ends with performances by King Britt with Ishmael Houston-Jones.
“This ideal of black masculinity is so unstable, it is not the codified, stereotypical construct we’ve been engendered into recognizing,” Kosoko explained of his curatorial mission. “Negotiating mixed identity. How does one negotiate the criminalization of one’s body with the sexualization of it? The intellectuality of it versus the historical disenfranchisement of it? All these various conundrums are just a continued state of presence that many black artists have to live inside of.”
If “Black Male Revisited” in many ways speaks to how little has changed since Golden’s show opened twenty years ago at the Whitney, Kosoko is anything but cynical. “The fact that someone like me, someone who wears multiple hats, who is quite explicitly refusing to be categorized in one specific way, I think that alone is a clear expression” of development in the cultural field since 1994. “The fact that we have more people of color in positions of power working behind the scenes. Thelma Golden can’t exist in a vacuum. We need a lot of Thelma Goldens. And what’s so important about the work she’s done and continues to do is in creating pathways for the next generation of cultural producers. This idea of mentorship, of supporting the next generation.”
Kosoko is trying to doing his own part to continue that tradition, to create space for diverse voices to speak to their respective experiences, and to challenge the dominant paradigm not just in the broader culture but in the contemporary art and performance world.
“I feel in so many ways with this project that it’s really a call to the field,” he told me. “Can we really pay attention to this in a real way? Can we have the discussion?”