nA: We’re twerking, trying to embody the femininity within all of us. Twerking as a means for shifting planetary movement, the planets being our bodies and our brains. And that means our asses. It’s super energising when you do it for twenty-five minutes. I’m interested in this repetition because of the absurdity of twerking now: people are often projecting so much sexuality onto the body when it’s twerking, especially a black twerking body. I wanted to fuck with that perception through the repetition, because we’re getting physically exhausted and the viewer is starting to open an empathetic pathway to our bodies: they’re starting to feel care for our bodies, or worry – or to feel it in their own bodies. I love playing with that feeling. The ass is a really powerful tool we’re constantly told to subvert. The black ass is a site for liberation and resistance. Twerking on the floor is our protest. And there’s a club track going on, so it’s a digestible dose of resistance! But we’re pushing people out of the way with our asses. That’s taking authorship into our own hands. The audience thought we were doing this for their pleasure, but it’s not about them.
There are a lot of black tropes in “Discotropic”. There’s a part where we’re a Doo Wop band, a part like a talk show, and I’m voguing eventually. I’m working with Ashley Brockington who repeats this text from Diahann Carroll’s character in the 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special” about how she’d like to live forever and for this moment to last forever. Of course, she’s this black female alien character, sexualised and exoticised in an unchecked, unapologetic way. That trends across a lot of science fiction and fantasy. We’re not just dealing with aliens but with black people playing aliens. They’re always bodacious, they have their own language, they have the moves and music. You can’t help but equate these representations with the black diaspora and how these bodies are regarded as aliens. That’s the norm for our bodies; it’s perpetuating that violence. When Ashley takes the stage, saying “I want this moment to last forever”, she’s just staring at you. She’s playing with “do you believe me?”. She’s also being playful with her body, crawling across the stage but also playing with the text in whatever way she feels. I gave her a set of movements to play with. She has choices she’s developed through her relationship to the text.
JOK: This alien identification of black bodies and queerness… That’s something in the subtext of the next thing I’m working on, which explores how historically, through the guise of science fiction and the horror genre, black bodies and women have been demonised inside the white imagination. I’m calling that out and breaking it apart by using the “outer limits” as a metaphor for blackness and otherness. And the black ass as a site for liberation and resistance: there’s a point in “#negrophobia” where I pull down my pants and there’s “Black Power” written on my ass. You naming that, niv, I thought, “Yes, that is exactly what’s happening right there!”
TAW: Jaamil, you also use a lot of tropes, sourcing things from texts, footage, collaging imagery together as part of your practice.
JOK: I do a lot of research before I enter the studio space. I’m pulling in texts, interviews, media, magazines, images. I don’t always know how it’s all working together, what cosmology it is, but something in me tells me these things are important. I feel like an archeologist. It’s important for me to get books and images, to do the dramaturgy so I’m able to communicate what my intention is to myself and to those around me in the studio. We know what the complexities of blackness are, and black materiality, presence, and life. But I question how people outside the experience understand it. I recognise that the hour I’ve been given to perform is an opportunity to educate as much as to perform or entertain. Whether I’m looking at Claudia Rankine or Beyoncé, I’m interested in what both those artists are giving and the entertainment factor of both. I’m curious about how I can take from the popular realm, academia, society. All of that feels deeply important and present.
TAW: The stage is also plastered with images that we encounter even before we enter the space.
JOK: Outside the space I have these images of white male bodies, magazine clippings. You literally step on the faces of these white people.
TAW: But people didn’t step on them!
JOK: They stepped around them?
TAW: Right, but I immediately thought, “we need to leave these white men at the door”.
JOK: Colonising identifications and attributes come with the signifiers of whiteness that need to be left at the door for you to enter with an open heart and mind for the experience that I’m trying to prepare you for before I’ve even entered the space. I see it as a stepping stone. There’s James Baldwin’s essay “On Being White… and Other Lies” on the door and the camera focused on it plasters it on the wall. I’m interested in the discourse in one’s own psyche, specifically the white imaginal space, before I’ve even said anything, before you’ve seen the black bodies that are going to be in front of you for the next hour.
And there’s no way we can talk about creative practice without talking about the infrastructure behind or not behind the way we’re able to articulate our work and distribute it in the world.
TAW: That has changed significantly in New York City because of #BlackLivesMatter. It’s amazing, but did it really take that happening for things to start changing?
JOK: As an artist of colour, especially a queer artist of colour, it’s almost as if your own prowess is in direct correlation to the destruction around you. And you’re forced into this marketplace around that destruction. It brings up a lot of internal conflict.
TAW: It’s recently become more okay to have a shared programme that doesn’t just have a token artist, but is mostly artists of colour.
JOK: Yes, I’ve been thinking about how much celebrity is created from black and queer death.