Art A Performance Artist Testing the Limits of Her Own Endurance

Art A Performance Artist Testing the Limits of Her Own Endurance

Art T PresentsIn deeply personal works such as the acclaimed “Bronx Gothic,” Okwui Okpokwasili explores ideas of cultural memory through poetry and vi

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Art T PresentsIn deeply personal works such as the acclaimed “Bronx Gothic,” Okwui Okpokwasili explores ideas of cultural memory through poetry and visceral body-wringing choreography.ImageThe performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili, photographed in her dressing room at the Young Vic Theater in London.CreditCreditCarlotta CardanaIn the opening scene of Okwui Okpokwasili’s experimental one-woman masterpiece “Bronx Gothic” — an intoxicating blend of dance, theater and installation art — the writer, choreographer and performance artist stands, in a purple slip dress, twitching and jerking her nearly six-foot-tall frame. Her gestures fill the air with a strange hurt. She calls the movement “the Quake,” and it swells long before the audience enters the theater to find Okpokwasili, 46, already onstage and working herself into a maniac sweat with her back to the room. After almost 15 minutes, she turns to face the audience. For a moment, her body sways with exhaustion, and her dark brown eyes stare vacantly at the expectant faces that fill the black box. Then she moves to a small microphone and says, in an octave that telegraphs the ingenuousness of an 11-year-old black girl: “I want to share something with you.”For such visceral performances, Okpokwasili was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the honor informally referred to as the “genius grant,” in 2018. It was an acknowledgment of her work pushing performance art past its limits in nonlinear, interdisciplinary narratives that incorporate, to astonishing effect, dialogue, sound, song, installation and movement. In March 2020, the artist will take a turn as guest curator for the Platform performance and exhibition series at Manhattan’s Danspace Project. Her own work highlights the interior lives of black women and girls contending with history, exposing the messy terrains of femininity and race without turning representation into clichés about black liberation or struggle.ImageThe artist sits onstage beside a set designed by her husband and creative collaborator, Peter Born.CreditCarlotta CardanaWith the 2019 piece “Adaku’s Revolt” — the story of a young girl “whose big, unruly hair has magical properties” — Okpokwasili created a meditation on rejecting narrow notions of beauty; “Poor People’s TV Room” (2017), meanwhile, considers Nigerian women’s resistance movements, spanning from the Women’s War of 1929 to the 2014 #BringBackOurGirls campaign against Boko Haram. In that narrative, a story of intergenerational black sisterhood among four women unfolds on a stage wrapped in plastic scrim. The set is activated by a camera that projects the women’s actions as a visual installation on large white screens. Okpokwasili and the other performers sing, slow dance and lie with each other. In one sequence, the artist appears to drink milk from another woman’s breast. They possess heritage and love, political and social agency. The identity of victimhood does not count for all that they are, all that they will be.Okpokwasili, who was born in New York to Nigerian parents, says she has wanted to “make stuff” since she was 7 years old. She started by writing plays, inspired by the TV series she watched. But from that early age, she recalls, “I always felt like, ‘Where are the black people?’” So she wrote them herself, creating characters that looked and lived like her community. In 1996, she graduated from Yale University and has since built a breathtaking body of professional work, collaborating over the years with the artist and choreographer Ralph Lemon, with the playwright Young Jean Lee and with the artist Arthur Jafa on Jay-Z’s “4:44” music video, wherein she improvises a mesmerizing duet with the Brooklyn flex dancer Storyboard P.VideoThe trailer for the one-woman show “Bronx Gothic,” written and performed by Okpokwasili.CreditCreditOkwui Okpokwasili / Bronx GothicImage“I start with text,” Okpokwasili says, describing the process by which she creates experimental works that combine elements of narrative, movement, sound and installation art.CreditCarlotta CardanaImageThe artist photographed during a recent run of “Bronx Gothic” at the Young Vic Theater in London.CreditCarlotta Cardana“The narrative of the character is to lose control,” Okpokwasili says of her role in “Bronx Gothic,” which recently completed its run at the Young Vic Theater in London. First performed at Danspace Project in 2014 and later made into a film by Andrew Rossi, the work is a collaboration with her husband and creative partner, Peter Born, who often directs, designs and scores her pieces. She calls it “a bit of a stew” that incorporates her training in theater and grew out of a text she wrote. The core drama centers on “the nature of innocence,” Okpokwasili says, and it explores lust and survival in the story of two young black girls who come of age in 1980s New York, a city where their dreams and bodies go unprotected. “I feel like ‘Bronx Gothic’ was me trying to figure out how to disentangle desire from violence,” Okpokwasili says. The piece examines the ways black girls and young women are perceived and treated and “how much sexual violence is embedded in an inevitable layer of the patriarchy.” It is loosely autobiographical, composed of fragments of her own childhood and the lives of girls she grew up with in the borough.Like her 2009 Bessie Award-winning performance piece “Pent Up: A Revenge Dance,” a folk tale about the relationship between a Nigerian mother and daughter that loosely explores Okpokwasili’s own experience as a “child of the Bronx and Nigeria,” the 80-minute “Bronx Gothic” is a test of emotional and physical endurance, in which she charts the interior contours of the diasporic black female experience. Her art is simultaneously tough, direct and courageously vulnerable. It is the body in communication with itself.In “The Twins,” an in-progress piece that the artist introduced at a benefit for the arts magazine Triple Canopy in 2017, Okpokwasili and the performer Helga Davis, both dressed in white, move against a backdrop that recalls a galaxy of stars. Voice-overs recite excerpts from the work of Hilton Als and Toni Morrison. The performers fall into each other as a metaphor for the ways black women hold each other up. In this pas de deux, Okpokwasili evokes a range of emotion with each contortion of her body: She raps a foot on the floor, the ground shakes, and we, too, recall the strength of our own bodies. “The body has a kind of truth,” says Okpokwasili, and in her performance, she seeks to go inside that space. “Then I feel like I’m free.”Read more from T MagazineCorrection: Aug. 8, 2019An earlier version of this article misidentified the venue where Okwui Okpokwasili’s “Bronx Gothic” was first performed in 2014; it was Danspace Project, not New York Live Arts.A version of this article appears in print on , Section ST, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: The Performance Artist; Sweat and Endurance. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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