The Space Between – Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s “#negrophobia” at Gibney Dance Center

Performed Friday, September 25, 2015
Jaamil Olawale Kosolo | anonymous bodies
The Performance Lab at Gibney Dance Center
New York, NY

Kosoko holds a sign with the text,

“They labelled us as constructs and we believed them.” Photo by Scott Shaw.

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s #negrophobia has many forms. It is an art installation, a practiced, choreographed performance, and a poetry reading. It is a personal story and a history lesson, told through the lens of internet culture. It might be consciousness-raising and Afrofuturist, but it might also be the negation of both. It is overstimulating, anxious, and empathetic. But it has to have many forms because Negrophobia – the real-life kind that can’t be fixed by hashtag activism – has many forms. Racism has many forms. Blackness has many forms. And fear has many forms.

So perhaps the best way to describe the duet presented by Kosoko (co-director of the art collective anonymous bodies) and his collaborator IMMA MESS at Gibney Dance Center last week is as a magnifier, blowing up the inventions and conventions of modern American (White) paranoia that have worked in tandem to construct the notorious “black male” of today. #negrophobia is a portrait of a man unanchored, struggling to find footing in a sea of racial obsessions, double standards, and miseducation.

IMMA MESS captures Kosoko's breakdown through the lens of an iPhone. Photo by Scott Shaw.

IMMA MESS captures Kosoko’s breakdown through the lens of an iPhone. Photo by Scott Shaw.

This isn’t to say that Kosoko’s work is a request for pity or victim status. On the contrary, his work rejects those shallow thrusts of sympathy as uninspired and unproductive. They are just more polite expressions of fear. Instead, Kosoko would rather address the curious origins of the black male identity (of which, he shows, there are several), and offer some explanations for its perpetuation and evolution in the digital age.

Since only about 25 viewers can squeeze into Gibney’s spiffy Performance Lab, the work is immediately very personal, and, quite frequently, confrontational. For starters, Kosoko delivers nearly the entire piece through the lense of an iPhone. Operated by the nearly-naked IMMA MESS, the camera feed is projected onto a wall in the Performance Lab so the audience can follow actions outside the room. IMMA MESS first finds Kosoko sitting on the floor of an adjacent bathroom, dressed in gold with lit incense sticks tucked in his headband. IMMA MESS circles around Kosoko’s face as he quietly sings Olivia Newton John’s “Magic” and Seal’s “Crazy,” little affirmations that prepare him for his encounter with the audience. Even when Kosoko and IMMA MESS are in the room with the audience, the iPhone camera keeps rolling; a nod to the way phones are used to consume curated snippets of “content” and “images.” It creates a concentrated layer of virtual space that both supplements and distracts from the viewer’s engagement with reality.

Seated on the floor amongst stacks of famous books, Kosoko holds each title up and proclaims, “I’m reading! I’m reading!” Photo by Scott Shaw.

Seated amongst stacks of books, Kosoko holds each title up and proclaims, “I’m reading!” Photo by Scott Shaw.

Media and literature have clearly played a large role in Kosoko’s research for this piece, and he skillfully weaves many threads of thought into his performance. He reads casually from Audre Lorde (among many others), and delivers a heart-wrenching recitation of his own poem “mama, a litany.” An audience member is asked to read James Baldwin while Kosoko prowls about the space. The soundtrack, expertly engineered by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, includes interview clips from Nina Simone and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Kosoko even does his own impression of President Obama’s “Yes We Can” soundbites. But rather than bringing clarity, this literary inundation in overwhelming. Seated on the floor amongst stacks of famous books by African-American and Caribbean authors (bell hooks and Junot Diaz are there, to name a few), Kosoko holds each title up and proclaims, “I’m reading! I’m reading!” With each book, his declaration becomes more desperate; he has read the material deemed mandatory and appropriate for understanding the black identity in America, but has this solved his problems of being feared and endangered in the real world? No; the canonization of ideas is one thing, the deployment of them is another.

Kosoko, seated, reads to IMMA MESS. Photo by Scott Shaw

Kosoko, seated, reads to IMMA MESS. Photo by Scott Shaw

Of all the ideas that Kosoko explores, the fear of black male sexuality is paramount. Taking on a teacherly affect, Kosoko deliniates white men’s obsession with black male sexual (genetic) potential, starting with the power dynamics of slavery through to urban politics today. Black men create more black men, and there is strength in numbers. But black queerness also factors into this fear. The straight black male is a known quantity; the queer black male is subversive and unpredictable. His motivations are mysterious to the white man, and that breeds suspicion. In #negrophobia, IMMA MESS’s character symbolizes the more current danger that black queer men present to the racial status quo. Muscular, tattooed, and completely silent, IMMA MESS parades about in a wig and high heels on the makeshift catwalk, using the camera to zoom in on his legs, his shoes, or his seductively reclined body. A sheer stocking obscures his face, and drawn-on feminine features give him one static expression of constant surprise.

Sporting a white sweatshirt with three bloody, cartoon bullet holes decorating the back, Kosoko poignantly shows that none of these complex identities can save a black body from a fearful policeman’s gun.

Cartoon bullet holes decorate Kosoko’s sweatshirt. Photo by Scott Shaw.

Though it is impossible to know the person beneath these accoutrements, it is through IMMA MESS’s character that the audience comes to know Kosoko. His camera recording provides our first glimpse of Kosoko, and later on, Kosoko directs many of his monologues towards IMMA MESS. In one particularly jarring section, Kosoko confronts him, repeating, “You ain’t shit. You ain’t never gonna be shit.” As IMMA MESS turns the camera on himself, all he can do to respond is politely raise a hand to his garish mouth. Despite being visually amplified through the wall projection, he still has no voice. Instead, Kosoko’s character does the talking for the both of them. His performance traces the many the attributes frequently applied to black bodies (thuggish, angry, defensive) as well as its many traits that are less likely to make the local news – loving (especially in his mention of his brother, who was killed), reverent, and scared. Through all these characterizations runs an awareness of mortality. Sporting a white sweatshirt with three bloody, cartoon bullet holes decorating the back, Kosoko poignantly shows that none of these complex identities can save a black body from a fearful policeman’s gun.

Though it is possible to describe these bits and pieces of #negrophobia, the piece as a whole is hard to pin down. Its many parts come together to tell the story of a man grappling with the American cultural landscape’s hold on his body and his mind, and it seems that he does not yet know how the next chapter will read. That, it seems, is up to us to decide.

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