Kid Oliveira (Boxer), Wim van de Plas, oil on canvas, 100,5 x 80,5 cm, 1939. Courtesy Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.
1. If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? James Baldwin, 1975.
2. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula Le Guin, 1986.
1. If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? James Baldwin, 1975.
2. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula Le Guin, 1986.
~ Houd Vast
The first ‘Queer Performance Art Evening’, curated by musician and performance artist Anthony Hüseyin, took place in the UBIK Theatre of WORM, Rotterdam on Tuesday 25th September 2018, featuring the works of Fazle Shairmahomed & Farah Rahman, Angelica Falkeling, Yun Ingrid Lee, Olave Nduwanje & Nazrina Rodjan and Hüseyin himself. This text journals the five works presented during the event and reads their content alongside James Baldwin’s question, ‘If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?’, whilst holding Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory’ in mind.
‘Anushthaan’ (2018), by Fazle Shairmahomed & Farah Rahman begins outside the performance space. As you enter the theatre, you are asked if you wish to participate in their decolonising ritual. This involves transporting three small amounts of incense from one bowl to another with your fingertips, collectively redistributing the incense, which is later used on stage. You read a hand written sign presenting the artists’ motivations —[to] bear witness to ancestral spirits who have suffered and thrived through a history of colonialism— As you move on to find a seat, your fingertips are stained and these motivations have become your own. Small peaks of incense grow like a vast mountain range in the bowl.
A bowl is a container, a type of tool that the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin uses to define the instinctual desire we have to carry and hold —It is a human thing to do, to put something you want, because it is useful, edible, beautiful, into a bag or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net of your own hair, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people— Moving the incense, we store it, we give it a new home. Home and residence are themes softly intoned in the work’s title by the two Surinamese-Hindustani artists.
Anushthaan is a Hindi word which I translate online. I find that it is composed of two words, ‘Anu’ meaning firm and ‘Sthan’ meaning place, or residence. This etymological root now pervades my reflection on their performance, as ritualistic elements of incense burning, pacing, dance and sounds combine as a confident, ‘firm’ whole. Fazle Shairmahomed is a dancer and graduate of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. On his website, it states that his work —refers to problematics in the politicisation of his body as a Dutch Surinamese-Hindustani Muslim queer gay guy. This experienced reality creates an urgency that shapes his artistic choices. During his studies, he started with modern dance and improvisation. — I think about how I cannot find the right words to describe this work. Is it this thinking, of the limits of language, that led Shairmaomed to practices of the body? Constrained by the formats and hierarchies of academia?
American novelist and social critic, James Baldwin, knows —People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And, if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged)— ‘Anushthaan’ is a performance in a new articulation. Beginning with a sinuous frame, performing painful, repeated actions of contortion and struggle, the body refuses submersion and breaks into new phrases of movement with liberated limbs and a pace to match. Farah Rahman performs with the burning incense, carrying it across the space. Return to what we’ve stored in Le Guin’s bag—take it out and share it or store it up for winter or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred.
In smoke trails, the incense continually flows up-and-around the performers, dissipating in the room and making its way into our nostrils. The artists make a firm-place that pervades all levels of sense, inaugurating what they describe as—a healing practice intended to break out of racist and sexist constructs. To heal, you must cross into permeable bodies with senses that cannot be defined by words.
Photo courtesy Hironori Tsukue
Angelica Falkeling emerges from the audience to perform ‘Salvia Friction’ (2018), lugging a heavy case and textile artwork —because it is useful, edible, beautiful—through chairs and bodies to the empty stage. Perhaps Falkeling has just come from an earlier performance? Just come back from a holiday, just finished a job. We follow Le Guin’s gathering—the next day you probably do much the same again – if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time. A bag onstage refers to a reality outside the performed space.
Falkeling is also wearing a mask, seemingly made in haste from discarded items from a recycling bin. Their headpiece is making the journey across the stage difficult, though Falkeling, like Le Guin, does not seem perturbed. Le Guin describes herself—I am an aging, angry woman laying mightily about me with my handbag, fighting hoodlums off [...] It’s just one of those damned things you have to do in order to be able to go on gathering wild oats and telling stories.
In Falkeling’s performance, stories are told in the loose form of a stand-up routine with three anecdotes that blur into, and across one another in their retelling. There are two mouths on one performer. Falkeling uses their right hand as an acting companion to give body to one of the narrative threads. The act displays how you could, in the artist’s words—carry a first, second or even a third language within your own body; spoken out of the mouth or typed down by hand... [this is] directly tied to the concept of nation states. One country, one mother tongue— Questioning how language comes out of a body, Swedish artist Falkeling queers the notion of speaking aloud by performing ventriloquism, transferring the action of the mouth to the hand. The story told by the hand uses select letters from the alphabet; in sign language. Describing ways in which the mouth holds language, the hand tells us that—[the] tongue is constantly dipping and touching the back of the two front teeth, just between the throat and the tongue plaza.
In the performance, anecdotes from the workplace intertwine with the act of learning a language. As the artist goes over these mundane narratives, our thoughts are brought to the perceptions of the verbal: performed, enacted and taken for granted on a daily basis. The work reminds us to pay attention, for we do not say what we mean. Baldwin knows this too, as he describes how, for french speakers—Each has paid, and is paying, a different price for this ‘common’ language [...] it turns out, they are not saying, and cannot be saying, the same things: They each have very different realities to articulate, or control.
Another awaiting unopened-bag is the punch line for a joke in Anthony Hüseyin’s following work, ‘Potato Potato’ (2018). The work begins with long periods of silence while Hüseyin, a Turkish-Dutch singer-songwriter and performance artist, stares into the audience from behind dark glasses. Then: bursts of song, a fur coat, an awaiting guitar case, and... (more gazing and questioning-moments) small scalpels and rubber gloves are handed out to members of the crowd. Anticipation builds as the audience gradually becomes suspicious of what could be an avant-garde performance “event” (something that might sound cool and antagonistic in art history but in reality makes you want to move to the exit). Instead, the guitar case, the container with its own form, is opened to reveal that... it is full of potatoes. Because (potatoes are) useful, edible, beautiful (!) Those with gloves and knives are invited to peel these potatoes collectively with Hüseyin, as he recounts —working in a kitchen for the first time as a vegan cook in Berlin, after having been active for 10 years as a musician and performance artist, and teaching music at a ‘University of the Arts’. His monologue charmingly poses questions that I know are familiar to many of the audience. Le Guin tells us that stories come in bags—The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.
Hüseyin’s guitar case reveals to us: potatoes, expectation and worth; elements which are held in powerful relation to one another, as well as to the audience, and to the artist, bearing questions such as—What is my value? and: On what does that depend? Keep these elements in your bag, with Le Guin’s theory:
One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd [...] conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole, which itself cannot be characterised either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process. (p.153)
Presenting yourself as a bundle of parts, you as a carrier bag of variable contents, as opposed to an impermeable whole, allows another bundled-body to perceive the continuing process that is the formation of you. Hüseyin presents us this formation, his bag of hopes, doubts and anxieties, allowing us to hold his character in relation to our own. I return to Le Guin’s definition of a novel, and edit her words; a voice holds words, words hold bodies. So if medicine, broadly speaking, is used to remove or alleviate something, then our words can be our redefining remedy. Using the double bind of language; expression and control, to work in our favour, choosing our words and holding our socio-political identities in powerful relation to one another and ourselves.
After an Intermission, we return to experience Yun Ingrid Lee’s On Legibility (2016), and continue to discuss the ways we hold identity. Lee’s work questions the socio-political constructs of what we define as legible in our current controlled, identity politics. James Baldwin too, discusses how language can be used to control, used— as a political instrument, means, and proof of power [...] the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.
Lee’s performance physically displays the inability of identification technologies to account for identities outside of a central, white, cis-het figure and Baldwin tells us that language fails to account for identities outside of the central white western narrative. Using facial recognition technology and masking their face, with the second mask of the evening, Lee takes us through a performance lecture which scrutinises current biometric technologies and physically enacts their proposal.
Photo Courtesy Yun Ingrid Lee
Wearing a mask of modelling clay, portraying what we imagine matches their real face underneath, Lee uses their hands to alter the face; gradually forcing it into new expressions. The facial recognition tool loses grasp, its software failing to provide a textual description. Having begun by defining them as —Young, Asian and Female— as the work progresses, and Lee’s face appears increasingly distorted, the software loses its ability to categorically define Lee’s identity. In Yun Ingrid Lee’s own words, this work is —a lecture on ambiguity, and finally on strategies of camouflage (passing, realness) and masking.
Baldwin too, expresses the need to hide —There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one's antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden.
Just as Lee unpacks—the implications of being legible in the eyes of the state and society, and, sides with the aesthetics and politics of illegible and fluid bodies and faces — so does Le Guin define increased malleability as a way to use our tools differently. She proposes alternative readings of her chosen medium: If one avoids the linear, progressive, Time’s - (killing) – arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic and redefines technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination, one pleasant side effect is that science fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field … less a mythological genre than a realistic one.
Enacting in word play once again and performing like Falkeling’s ventriloquist hand, I edit this quote and dress up in Le Guin’s words; If one avoids the linear, progressive, identity killing algorithmic mode of the Techno-Heroic- White-Western-tale and redefines technology and science as cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination, one pleasant side effect is that stories posing alternatives become less a mythological genre than a realistic one.
Lee’s work is at once fantastical and practical, their story not only describes modes of discrimination but also ways of evading capture.
The final work in the Queer Performance Art Evening is a story re-written outside of the Techno-Heroic-White-Western colonising narratives we too often tell. We learn that another way to evade capture can be to refuse the vocabulary given to us.
Writer, activist and local politician Olave Nduwanje & artist and illustrator, Nazrina Rodjan present an animated video work combined with powerful live narration. The work discusses a painting in the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, of Kid Oliviera — a black boxer of some renown in the late 1930’s — the event press release informs us. Nduwanje narrates, and engages in dialogue with the figure in the painting. Begun in collaboration with other artists when asked by Van Abbe Museum to propose methods for the inclusion of trans, inter-sex and queer bodies in the museum space, Nduwanje & Rodjan chose to re-read the museum through the painting of Kid Oliviera and through the body of a black man. Through the work we learn that the painting of Kid Oliviera was previously held under the title: ‘painting of a nigger’. Through him you encounter the institutional violence that pervades contemporary culture. A word holds bodies. The artist’s refuse the derogatory term. Renaming the painting, they refuse the singular word that, when used by a white mouth, a white body and a white founded institution, holds generations of subjugation and enslavement in its letters. Instead, Kid Oliviera is allowed an identity by being allowed a name. A new word for his body. Through Kid Oliviera’s position you perceive how museums are not made for him but for bolstering the history of the white westerner. The brutal act of a white body calling a black body nigger, that word given space in a white walled museum (a space for the people and their education), where generations read and repeat; is inherently violent. It is an act that ends lives. James Baldwin explains why:
The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in America never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child's language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.
How to stop losing lives? We continue to live in a world where it is the bodies without a voice that suffer first, who suffer the most. Those without a voice do not survive. I come in a middle-class, white, western carrier bag, like Le Guin, raised with the sense that my words, and therefore my bundled sack of being, are important. This is my privilege and it is what lets me live. How to stop losing lives? Returning to Falkeling’s talking hand, if ventriloquism is the art of projecting one’s voice so that it seems to come from another source, then this is a tool to use words, with your voice, your body, to carry and share the stories that are not heard. In Anthony Hüseyin’s biography you read how he became a performance artist — During the political tensions in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in 2013, [Huseyin] released his song ‘Mr. Prime Minister’, an open letter addressing Turkey’s social injustices. Besides going viral on social media, the Turkish national newspaper Hürriyet selected it as one of the top 10 protest songs of the year.
As artist and body, Hüseyin uses his voice to dispute, he speaks out. Olave Nduwanje & Nazrina Rodjan also use their creative energies to verbalise stories sung in a minor key. On Rodjan’s instagram account you see in a series of illustrations created for Diverge Festival, Queer heroes and LGBTQIA activists with their stories attached, alongside a series of illustrations re-imagining Bollywood films with diverse representation. Nduwanje’s writings are a powerful account of the emotions her vessel carries — I carry my anger close to my heart, I tuck it under my armpits, I fold it neatly into the knot of my waist wrap, I hold it dear and near, sheltered, cherished and valued. Yes, anger is a kind of renewable fuel — Nduwanje’s text Moving to Where? from the Dipsaus Podcast website tells us. It is important that Rodjan & Nduwanje’s work is presented with live narration: there is a voice, a mouth, a body, speaking in space. You, as audience, are addressed by a bundle of stories and reactions. You can feel what the story feels, you feel — the violence of oppression, of entitlement, or privilege, of exploitation, of hatred, [as] a tactile and material intruder — In this quote from Nduwanje we return, to hold and cycle back to this article’s title: ‘Houd Vast’.
‘Houd Vast’, from the Dutch word ‘Vasthouden’, translates as ‘hold onto’ as in ‘hold that thought...’, used in a moment of interruption.* I use these words because they apply to the action these artists continue in their practice and daily experiences. They persevere with thoughts that continually compose their identity. Holding their complex carrier bag self tight, and the stories, emotions and reactions inside. I wonder if it can be a suggestion for other carrier bags that may read this, to recognise their stories as ones told in the white, western, wealthy narratives that exclude such works as we have discussed. I do not mean to say that you are complicit but that your ignorance will make you feel as such.
As a carrier bag who knows my stories are part of the dominant discourse, this evening motivates me to act in ways where I am not repeating the dominant stories again and again. The works Hüseyin curated present a multiplicity of narratives across a vast yet intimate scale. As an artist I want to use my privileged body, to listen to, hold, learn from and pass on stories that are not my own. As this carrier bag, I am reminded of how this should not be performed. Le Guin knows — It is the story that makes the difference— and we (if a white, western carrier bag) must make sure that telling a different story is not for personal gain. Nduwanje tells us how this leads to further exclusion and extortion — shun the researchers that do not give back, that do not teach, that mine data and appropriate theory, that re-package it in career-advancing books and publications, and that speak in a strange and nebulous language. We need teachers that teach, far beyond the confines of the classroom and the university halls.— I am affected and I want to move beyond those classrooms. I want to learn to do this with humility and sensitivity because I have the luxury to choose my words.
Baldwin knows it is up to us to choose — We, the blacks, are in trouble, certainly, but we are not doomed, and we are not inarticulate because we are not compelled to defend a morality that we know to be a lie.— I, somebody white, am not bound to defend the techno-capitalist story of the white west when I also know it to be a lie.
* Houd Vast: This phrase, and the English term Hold, also of course relates to sailing and ships. It is likely that these metaphors grew from nautical expressions, where if one’s grip to the rigging was not secure, and the rigging itself was not tight, you could be thrown off the ship yourself, or veer off course.
The scholar of English literature and Black Studies, Christina Sharpe, writes brilliantly on the materiality and metaphors of ‘the wake’, ‘the ship’, ‘the hold’ and ‘the weather’ in relation to contemporary Black life in the diaspora. The wake is the path behind a ship, it is the aftermath of slavery. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being describes how the specter of the hold produces conditions of containment, regulation and punishment in and on the black body, but that something in excess is created too. The wake can be a site of artistic production, resistance, consciousness, and possibility for living in diaspora. Sharpe writes a way forward. I mention this book in a footnote but it is one that we should all read, to keep moving towards consciousness, towards what the wake can be.
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