Accomplices in the Realness: Rosy Simas, Nora Chipaumire & NIC Kay

Shamar Watt and Nora Chipaumire #Punk at American Realness

January. Almost done. Almost did me in. Earlier tho, American Realness (and Under the Radar) did me good. Nora Chipaumire #Punk, Rosy Simas We Wait in the Darkness, NIC Kay lil blk, The Fibers with which we Weave: Native Artists Decolonizing Performance and Place, White Privilege (the lecture performance by Thomas F. DeFrantz/SLIPPAGE), Alicia ayo-Ohs’ mesmerizing performance in After, Ayesha Jordan and Charlotte Brathwaite’s riotous Public Theater lobby party Shasta Geaux Pop, the David Byrne/We Could Be Heroes Choir Choir Choir singalong, Wang Chong’s Thunderstorm 2.0, and 15 performances in the Motus/Great Jones Repertory Company’s Panorama wasn’t the full plan for January. I missed more than I caught, and I definitely caught something serious, but still… here in the after, there’s a nice glow (or is that just my fever spiking).

Last year, I wrote about the work Ben Pryor, AR’s Founder, Curator and Producer, and Rosy Simas began towards a Native American / First Nations / Indigenous reckoning. After Rosy, a Haudenosaunee (Seneca, Heron Clan) choreographer based in Minneapolis wrote an open letter concerning Latifa Laâbissi’s Self Portrait Camouflage as presented by MoMA PS1, Ben withdrew the frame of AR around the presentation and Native American Realness was birthed. This year, the Realness brochure opened with this full page statement: We acknowledge and pay respect to Lenape Peoples. The facing page stated that “American Realness, participating artists and collaborating partners pay respect to Lenape peoples and ancestors past, present, and future. We acknowledge that the work presented for American Realness is situated in Lenapehoking, the Lenape Homeland.” On Thursday, January 11, Rosy Simas and Christopher K. Morgan convened a discussion at University Settlement (co-presented by Gibney Dance and The Performance Project at University Settlement) on decolonizing curatorial practice. The Fibers with which we Weave: Native Artists Decolonizing Performance and Place was facilitated by Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán and featured participants Ty Defoe, Sheldon Raymore, Tony Enos, Murielle Borst Tarrant, Laura Ortman, Anastasia McAllister, Melissa Iakowi:he’ne’ Oakes, Kaina Quenga, Anthony Haumanava, Mataheiari’i Aiu,  Kapena Alapai, Vaimoana Niumeitolu and Moses Goods. The Colorado Sisters (Elvira Colorado & Hortensia Colorado), Emma Rivera and Bradley Pecore also offered valuable insight and considerations. The two hour discussion gathered womanist/queer/trans Indigenous artists and advocates to consider strategies and methods for dismantling colonized thinking, curatorial and presenting practices, and how to cultivate healing and sovereignty moving forward. Among the various things shared, the operating structure of concentric circles allowed for a centering of native & indigenous voices, intergenerational communication and clarity about listening. Rosy pointed out this kind of work takes time, and that presenters need to recognize that even getting to her moment of speaking took a lot of time and resources, more than “you are used to giving, but we deserve it.” Space, in particular the outdoors, and food were also listed as important tools for resisting structures that maintain colonial structures. Slow down, spend time outside and eat together. We could take each as separate steps or do all 3 at once, either way reasonable suggestions, no? A challenge to the idea of “the ally” – we should be accomplices instead – resonated deeply for me. The residual 80s-multi-culti idea of being an ally, I stand beside you, has lost its potency and the suggestion to fold ourselves into the endeavor as culpable participants in the insurrection, as willing accomplices activated a sense of supportive collaboration rather than passive acceptance. The group also discussed how individual artists can re-define success and continue to educate towards innovation while simultaneously recognizing the urgency of preservation when a culture has been brought to the brink of extinction. Among the most powerful component was the seemingly simple, but logistically complicated, act of gathering, in one space together. With so many participants echoing the loneliness of too often being the only Native artist or one of very few Indigenous speakers at any given event, on that particular morning, it stirred the spirit to hear, see and feel the accumulated energies and stories. With over 567 recognized tribes in the US, it takes time and attention to understand, respect and acknowledge the differences and similarities of a contemporary Native experience, but as Rosy concluded it is worth it and overdue.

Rosy Simas Photo by Ian Douglas

Rosy’s solo performance work We Wait in the Darkness, at The Playhouse, does the attentional work of attempting to heal the historic scars of trauma. In a program note she states: Recent scientific study verifies what many Native people have always known, that traumatic events in our ancestors lives are in our bodies, blood and bones. Within an environment of images and sounds from Seneca lands, Rosy’s singular frame works to remold the wounded DNA. From the striking opening image of her exposed back to the tearing apart and redistribution of a map of Seneca lands, Rosy places her biographical self up against the larger frames of geographical relocation and colonialist land grabs. Composer Francois Richomme’s sound design floods us with experiential data. We can feel the result of a dam project that flooded Seneca homelands as we sit amidst an immersive soundscape of people speaking in Seneca language while watching video of lush landscapes and soaked marshlands. The images and sounds, the waters and wildlife roused energies and invigorated the space. It was a particularly captivating and transportive blend, submerging us and filling us with wind, warmth and cleansing rebirths.

Nora Chipaumire Photo by JESÚS ROBISCO

In a previous life, my sister and I spent the same New Year’s Eve at the the same Bad Brains concert in Montreal without ever seeing each other. Not because it was such a huge club, just a simple case of temporal misalignment. We both witnessed a brawl with the bouncer, but she had just entered the club and watched it from inside, I arrived from the street in time to catch the tail end of the fight. After Nora Chipaumire’s #Punk performance, also in the Playhouse, I walked out as ready to fuck or fight something as I felt that night decades ago. Though the post-modern NYC audience didn’t quite rally the same level of hardcore zealotry that “Banned in D.C.” once incited in my restless 80s/90s kindreds, the looping “Leaving Babylon” scrapped away at the stale web of compromised musical choices in my brain and primed me to piss myself jumping up and down and screaming. The audience stood, or crouched, around Nora and the electrifying Shamar Watt on the Playhouse stage as they chanted, yelled, screamed and powered through a deconstructed rock concert. Nora and Shamar crackled like multi-volted live wires, both rippling with the frenzy of punk rock’s early nihilistic mania and the performative prowess of seasoned and studied artists. They repeatedly returned to their “Introduction of an introduction” and Nora detailed racial slurs on the streets of American and Europe, responding to the demand to “Go back to Africa” with an ironic positivity and commanding ownership. “I am African!” In Nora’s universe, the hatred and bigotry are power pellets and she just keeps leveling up to the ultimate contestant. The game gets played out by her rules and what an exultant battleground she lays out. She yells “Jesus died for your sins but not mine” at us, amping Patti Smith’s Gloria up a notch from disclaimer to indictment and old Bad Brains lyrics bang around:And so it’s now we choose to fight, To stick up for our bloody right, The right to ring, the right to dance,The right is ours…we’ll take the chance.

NIC Kay Photo by Nana Adusei-Poku

NIC Kay’s lil blk left me dazzled and dazed. A history of a body, a body, a body, a body in dance, and a no body, no body, no body dancing. They arrived sliding down the Underground Theater’s banister with the “once upon a time” tale of a little black girl who in believing they could “be what you can be” pursued a dance contest dream only to be told by an Aunty that they were dirty and to have their prize money was taken away. Throughout the hour long, solo performance, NIC Kay rips in and out of the tense borderlands of religion, race, and respectability. Pulling upon ballroom culture, butoh practices, praise dance and an intimate and epic biomythography, lil blk is a true American gothic. It is profoundly personal and heartachingly familiar. The struggles with dismissive and disgusted family members, the desire to serve higher powers and primal urges, the work and the werk and the twerk, each moment is a luminous gem of a deeply lived life. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is read out loud, smoke machine and floor fan are deployed, flashing lights and looping beats ramp us up and a compelling vulnerability charms and disarms any viewer detachment. When they climb across the railing, the heroic quest forms all around them, and later as a “letter to a little black girl, a letter to a femme, a letter to a spirit” is proclaimed, I feel the truth of: “You are the shit. You can be as tuff as you wanna be. Soft as you wanna be. Your pussy is magical and your cunt is timeless.” Summon. Preach. Live.


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