The Radical Pleasure of Convening: Jaamil Olawale Kosoko & anonymous bodies’ “Imaging Justice for the Dark Divine” and beyond
“…the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color.” And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”
I offer this poem for you to hold onto, reader, as Jaamil Olawale Kosoko offered it to the audience at the opening evening of Imaging Justice for the Dark Divine at The Bushwick Starr this past November. Imaging Justice was a weekend of performances, panels and presentations curated by Jaamil and his company anonymous bodies, which he co-runs with Kate Watson-Wallace. The event convened artists and audiences to express, ruminate on, and challenge notions of trauma, healing, and justice. In his very beautifully written program note (which you can, and should, read here), Jaamil calls into question the circulation of traumatic imagery online and in the media, specifically the sharing and resharing of the pain of black and brown bodies. He sets the motivating question explored in all the work over the weekend: “Where do we find our armor?” Further, he asks us “to reassess the power of imaginative thought as a tool to decolonize our thinking, undo the learned protective reflexes we employ to protect our oppression, and challenge standard stereotypical notions of Blackness, redefining it in the present moment as an infinite space of limitless creativity, empowerment, safety, and evolution.” Not only must we locate our armor, we must also question it, remove it, reform it, and put it back on for a new purpose. Just as Audre Lorde disquiets dynamics of power and protection in the above poem, so did the cumulative work of Imaging Justice over the course of the weekend—rhetorically and performatively, curatorially and spatially, personally and collectively.
It was no accident that Lorde’s writing and ideas grounded the event, and that she served as a touchstone for all the many different kinds of work taking place. In addition to recognizing the confluence of the event with the anniversary of Lorde’s passing, Jaamil honors literature and scholarship as foundational in conceptualizing revolutionary notions of being and doing. In conversation, he told me, “Theater and dance as genres, while they’re certainly trying to do the work of a kind of cultural-historical correction, I think literature is far more advanced, in ways in which scholars are going about opening up the canon and revealing a lot of historically misrepresented or omitted people and actions…You know, well before we were able to see people of color enter into the theater or onto the dance stage or into ballet companies, black people have been making images and have been writing.” Imaging Justice very overtly intended to bring the project of “cultural-historical correction” into an embodied social realm, and offered a different way into image-creation than literary or purely image-based work can: the weekend gave participants a way to see each other, and to create both literal and metaphorical images of Being Together. The condition of Being Together—whether it be performers sharing the stage, speakers sharing ideas and research, audiences sharing in an enveloping soundscape—served as the connective tissue for the event, and manifested in both the aesthetics and politics of the individual works presented.
The three performance presentations on the first evening entangled this notion of Being Together with questions of legibility and illegibility. Beginning with the slow shifting of human shape in Joy Mariama Smith’s video of their performance Joyride, the performances all seemed to be motivated by tensions between extreme excesses and extreme lack. In Joyride, each image presents a body exposed in close-up detail, but never in full frame. We see intimate parts, but never the whole. In André Zachery and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste’s punk-noise renderings of James Baldwin’s words in Fire on the Mountain, lines of poetry and prose were repeated with feedback and reverb, placed within layers of noise. On one hand, it seemed that the louder and more insistently André screamed Baldwin’s words, the more they were lost in a sea of Jeremy’s signals and distortions. But on the other hand, the sheer force of the sound energetically enveloped the room. I felt what they meant even if I couldn’t literally understand them. In moments of technological breakdown, the noise subsided and the words came piercing through, but only for an instant. The effect was that the piece was both confrontationally direct and inscrutable.
The duet dances of Jaimé Dzandu and Brittany L. Williams’ #ourwombtruth and Brother(hood) Dance!’s Up North echoed those tensions between seen and unseen, known and unknown. In both works, performers played with proximity—drawn together moments of intimacy only to find themselves suddenly fighting, an embrace resulting in a throw. In #ourwombtruth the dancers struggled to put on clothing, donning sweaters backward and upside down, fashioning outfits from familiar elements, but covering their bodies in unfamiliar ways. Conversely, in Up North the dancers shed article after article of clothing to strategic effect, transforming from one (supposedly) legible identity to another until both performers ended up naked and facing away from the audience, perhaps rejecting any of the conveniently understandable categories of social self they presented.
During a talk-back/panel after the performances, artists Marvin George of Jouvay Ayiti, Brittany L. Williams of Million Hoodies, Orlando Hunter and Ricarrdo Valentine of Brother(hood) Dance!, Paloma McGregor, and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste of Renegade Performance Group talked with scholar-artist Christina Knight about art and social justice, and legibility specifically: how as artists of color, they might encounter pressure to be legible to broad audiences. The point was made that there is a dubious line between legibility and representation—whereas artists of color often operating in dominantly white cultural spaces, there are expectations to represent a certain viewpoint, or a certain kind of experience, and this has the potential effect of holding their work hostage. Further, there is an assumption made on an institutional level that if you present a representative of a certain oppressed minority, you get access to and understanding of the history, trauma or struggle of that presumed identity. Jeremy offered that he approaches art-making as a means to connect oppressed people, where he can be in his specific experience and have faith that it will intersect and intervene with others’ experience of oppression, creating space for solidarity. Brittany brought in the idea that art, and specifically live performance, redirects representation away from the media and allows for witness, as opposed to spectatorship. These operations participate in a kind of compassionate and empathetic collectivity that Jaamil’s larger artistic project endeavors to create.
When I asked Jaamil what led him to his animating question “Where do we find our armor?”, he located its roots in the online aftermath of the wide media coverage of the murders of black men, women, and trans people throughout 2014 and 2015, and the subsequent distribution of images and instances of violence as a kind of currency:
“I was thinking about this issue of digital trauma sharing…As someone who is certainly a social media connoisseur, I (dare I say) enjoy engaging in social media, I am able to find pleasure in that act. But within that, I became really skeptical, really fearful when all of this death was being feeded to me, streamed to me in my feeds…There was no place where I could look where there weren’t black and brown bodies being broken and murdered. I began to ask, how do I protect myself?”
With heart- and record-breaking numbers of trans women of color murdered this year, continued reports of black and brown men and women killed by the police, the recent non-indictments of the officers responsible for the deaths of Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice, and a hung jury in the case of Freddie Gray, the cycle of online outrage in response to both the physical loss of human life and the emotional aftershock of yet another loss for the side of justice, humanity, civil rights (and the list continues), is all too familiar. Jaamil himself experienced this loss first hand, as his own brother was killed in early 2015—this personal trauma informed and inspired the creation of his piece #negrophobia, originally presented at Gibney Dance in September 2015, which will be presented at the upcoming American Realness festival in January. In curating and creating Imaging Justice, Jaamil expands the opportunities to acknowledge and process trauma from the particularly modern burden afforded us by technology, “Witnessing a murder with your own two eyes, is that any less traumatic than that murder being shared with you repeatedly in a digital form? Is it? I don’t know.”
So what does it mean to image justice, in a moment when it feels especially hard to even imagine it? Jaamil, in both this event and his larger project as a creator/curator, asks participants (creators and receivers) to engage with trauma—a site of experience and a subject of discourse that is gnarly and complex. He does so, however, by honoring that complexity, and thinking through the holistic possibility of a performance as an expanse for both experience and discourse to play out:
“Curatorially, I’m certainly thinking about audiences, engaging audiences, and the formation of audiences and how they configure, cohere, relate and challenge each other, just as much as I am [thinking about] the art and scholarship and thinking that’s needed for the performance stage. It’s a conversation between the two. This is where my work in what I call socio-choreological mapping comes into play, because curatorially/artistically, I’m thinking about that relationality between history, between digitality, between reality, between theatricality—how all of these interface with each other.”
As Jaamil defines it, socio-choreological mapping is “the simple practice of being present together while locating each other in community without fear, without boundaries. In its most radical definition, [it] disrupts normative readings of bodies and/or spaces which inevitability creates space and inclusion for historically disinvested and misread, ‘illegible’ individuals. Through the act of moving together through pleasure without judgement, we reinterpret our bodies and environments into stations of freedom, healing, idea-sharing, and restorative justice.” It engages imaging in live performance and discourse as an iterative process that unfolds over time to create a picture of a whole—time spent with an idea, time spent with a collaborator, time spent with an audience, time spent with an image, time spent in community, and as Paloma McGregor noted during the opening night panel, culture itself is a practice that necessarily takes time. In the same panel, Orlando Hunter expressed that sharing time and space, and particularly sharing in a creative practice with another black man, as he does with Ricarrdo Valentine, is divine and sacred, disrupting culturally accepted/enforced images of togetherness, intimacy, creativity, masculinity, blackness. Whereas the feed operates as an increasingly deterministic screen, homogenizing the visual and imaginative language of experience, the event (and even more so, the constellation of events over time)—whether it be at a show, a protest, or in a rehearsal room—supports a different value system, a richness of imagery and imagination, of being and doing.
Part of the imaging process involved in Imaging Justice was the creation of a new population within a familiar space, both in terms of bringing diverse disciplines together in a singular theater event (or, at least, an event in a theater) and in terms of reframing who constitutes a theater audience. By specifically curating and and inviting people of color into the historically white, bourgeois, exclusionary space of the theater (and dance), a different image of how we come together around creative performance practice begins to take shape. Even though The Bushwick Starr itself has taken specific, demonstrative efforts to push further open their doors and cultivate an audience that reflects the diversity of its neighborhood, such as with their Big Green Theater project and in their work with Brooklyn Gypsies, it cannot singularly resist the history/present of the theater as a force for gentrification, nor is it immune to the overwhelmingly centralized whiteness of experimental performance in New York and elsewhere. I am reminded of another of Paloma McGregor’s comments during the opening night panel—that part of her art practice is that every room she is in is changed because of the work she is doing. Every meeting, rehearsal, performance is an opportunity to change the parameters and expectations of social space. It becomes apparent that a larger, metaphorical image creation is happening in the work of anonymous bodies—the work of creating a community in an image of something different than what the means of production generally permit or support, and changing these spaces through creative practice and convening. I highly recommend taking a look at Jaamil’s own words on the subject in the recently published anthology Configurations in Motion: Performance Curation and Communities of Color.
Returning to Audre Lorde’s essay quoted at the beginning of this article, Uses of the Erotic, in my encounter with the dance, theater, talk and thought presented at Imaging Justice, I am left with an understanding of the erotic as Lorde describes it: “not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” What Jaamil seems to be doing is imbuing erotic sensibilities across multiple planes of activity—planes of time and space, embodiment and thought—to open up a fullness and complexity of experience.
The next opportunities to partake in Jaamil’s radically pleasurable and richly thoughtful work: the upcoming #negrophobia, as well as Blue Disco, which anonymous bodies will present at JACK in the spring, and which they describe as, “a two-night installation, an extension of their work in creating a de-colonized space, one that leads from pleasure, power, agency, resistance, honesty and complexity.”