Multidisciplinary artist Okwui Okpokwasili’s work can best be categorized as the synthesis of a chemical reaction; multiple reactants working together to form a single product, a solution.
The artist herself is a writer and choreographer who utilizes artistic practice and gestural study to retrace narratives of women of color, who are not always the focus of our cultural microscope. Working in collaboration with husband and director Peter Born, Okpokwasili will be lending insight to these oft-closed narratives during a two-day activation, Sitting on a Man’s Head, that kicks off today at Project Row Houses.
The artist is adamant that the event, happening Friday, April 12 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday, April 13 from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., is not a performance, but a practice. The project consumes an entire Row House in hopes of building community, all while maintaining a personal and intimate connection with audience members whom Okpokwasili has chosen to call, “guests” for the duration of the practice. Both she and Born are artists-in-residence at Project Row Houses and are hosted by the initiative of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts through the returning arts festival, CounterCurrent19.
Over a phone interview with the MacArthur Genius, I learned about the artists upbringing and what she wants to offer her guests and collaborators through the powerfully orchestrated physical movements she has prepared for Sitting on a Man’s Head.
What time we did share ended up being more of an open-ended dialogue than an interview. I listened to her speak, entranced by the power of her voice and the authority she claimed. I was in complete awe of her ability to effectively communicate and resonate with me, a complete stranger, on what expression can look and feel like for a person living in diaspora. Below is our exchange.
Byline Houston: You’ll be performing this piece with your husband and collaborator, Peter Born. This isn’t your first collaborative piece together, right?
Okwui Okpokwasili: No. We have been working together, oh my gosh, y’know, . . . It started with a piece in New York back together in 2007/2008. We’ve been collaborating for a while. Not super easy all of the time, but we have shared sensibilities about what we want to be.
Byline Houston: What are your similarities and dissimilarities in your working practices?
Okpokwasili: We try to refrain, even though were a married couple, from making many assumptions about each other. I think I feel an intuitive sense of what belongs in a space; a sense of how we shape an environment. [There is a ] . . a kind of respect that is shared, a psychic occupation of the space and a kind of psychic intertwining of folks when we share a space, [sic] wanting to shape a realm. This is especially when you think about the privilege of live performance, sharing time and space with strangers in unpredictable ways. There are openings that you can explore, vulnerabilities that you can plumb and take care of. Yeah, it is special that both of us have respect for the mysterious and serious things within human interaction while sharing space and time again, a shared psychic space that we all occupy together. How do we work? A deep appreciation for that. And a willingness to understand. Completing a work as your own secret. It’s powerful.
Byline Houston: I read that you have a three-year relationship with Project Row Houses. Can you share what it means maintaining relationships with a cultural community center that aims to preserve cultural identities and nurture innate creative expression that’s often indivisible from one’s cultural ties?
Okpokwasili: [Like Project Row Houses, I] . . explore different ways of building relationships and undermine and undo prevailing social constructs of how you relate to strangers that you don’t know with fear and apprehension. I hope that I can undo that. I feel that the concern is finding, and particularly this work, fighting or finding new ways of building relations.
Building a public platform and a shared song, a shared sonic vibration, is my attempt at thinking about particular performance practice might have something to offer or teach about how we build community together, how we build bonds of kinship. I think of our love to create [as] like children, [we want to] engage in elaborate games. They [children] do these things that draw them closer to each other that rely on our innate instincts of collaboration and generosity.
[Our] collaboration leads to generosity. Looking at embodied practices of protest — taking cues off practices I was reading about — the piece [“Sitting on a Man’s Head”] is kind of what happens before the protest. How do you discover, what a meeting? A town hall, not as adversaries but as potential collaborators. Our work does center around making a space for the complicated renderings of interiors of black lives of women — reading about white men all of our lives, understanding something about humanity and the course of our nature, centering black [sic] feminine around that, and maybe to do that is to upset certain ideas about whose reality can give us — some sort of lens into a bigger world.
The idea of insisting on a presence by saying, “We are here. We are not going anywhere” like Project Row Houses [is] expansive in their vision — not only reclamation, restitution, and the history of the row houses and residencies, for they have with single women and children. Our vision is irreducible. We hope our work is in some way aligned.
Byline Houston: Can you draw any parallels about performing in the neighborhood, say any to the Bronx?
Okpokwasili: I performed Bronx Gothic in a church where I grew up. [It was] a psychic trip to go back there. Memories of the Bronx are really really abstracted, molecular and fragmented. But I don’t remember performing spaces in the Bronx or formulated collaborative spaces. [While] people made informal performance spaces like break dancing like Radio Raheem. Not necessarily preservation or institutional spaces in the bodies of people, played that out wherever there was room. Not a parallel there, but there is a connection. Third ward is gentrifying in a way, but parts of the way the Bronx is later, [though] more slowly than Brooklyn.
The Neighborhood I grew up in… I lived in a building built in post-WWII housing, made for returning veterans — white veterans. Parkchester did not experience the ravages of some areas of the Bronx that did.
Byline Houston: Will we be seeing semblances of “break body” from your Bronx Gothic piece movements or have you created new visual language specialized for this piece?
Okpokwasili: Good question. I don’t know that is very specifically for me that is happening for me, specific to Bronx Gothic, we are developing particular physical languages and gestures with local artist activators, basically our collaborators, on the piece, meeting with them and working with them developing our sonic explorations. There might be [iterations of break body movement], but we are not intending on bringing that language into a piece.
When I generate gestural work that comes from language and particular inquiries, texts we’ve been looking at. Who knows, it might be that will resemble a broken body because this project begins with the artist activators, the liaisons into the piece. [They] will have questions they use to speak with guest’s audience, spark conversations and generate content for the sonic vibration? Maybe.
Byline Houston: I want to take a moment to talk about diaspora. As a Nigerian-American artist, I read that your parents moved to the African diaspora of the Bronx. Obviously, colonialism has a lasting, multi-generational effect. Would you say that trauma can be passed down through generations in social and formative cultural implications likes diaspora? Does your work exhibit that?
Okpokwasili: It’s impossible for my work not to touch on that. And even though the processes that I do in order to excavate, maybe not excavate, but the processes that I engage, to tap into for cellular memory, it brings up something that can’t be articulated. This movement is being articulated because of this buried traumatic response to the colonial violence of colonial project.
Even if you don’t feel the same things as your parents, you are compelled to ask the same questions as your parents are asking (re: diaspora) for instance, my family and a lot of first gen families that home is a bifurcated sense — home is where you built your new family, home is that you left behind. Absolutely comfortable in that, first gen of where is home. How much of that happens with diaspora — remake that in your physical environment about said is that remaking about fear.
There’s a sense of identity, [a] very, very tenuous construction. Or it is fragile and secure in its insecurity, that you may have to choose/actively construct.
In the work that we [Peter Born and herself] do and the work that I do — child of diaspora people that immigrated, also the unique position of being an African woman and African America in a country that is built on white supremacy — a double inheritance that I feel and operate within about trying to liberate and save my own psyche.
Byline Houston: There’s a quote you say in your work about the collective resistance making a psychic resonance. Can you elaborate?
Okpokwasili: Thinking about Poor People’s TV Room — embodied protest in precolonial times in Nigeria, and I was thinking about those practices during black lives matter movement and exoneration, the murder of Travon, women rising in age of Obama and black violence being out on black bodies and felt like unending barrage.
Artist greater than activist, but I do feel that there’s a connection to all of these movements that I connect to as viable, not going anywhere, we will be here. The work that I do is trying to, and also predicated on, that existence/presence/space I will occupy. This space in a way that I need to and, in a range, express this space with power and vulnerability. There is something about insisting on your presence and remaining sometimes feels like an act of resistance.
Look at violent white supremacists, insistent upon having space and keeping space in the minds of those that are replaced [it is] interesting to me, an act of resistance to act on our lives, folks of color, women. We are threatened by the ideology of white supremacy. We will occupy the internal landscapes of our own existentialism.
Shared practice is not always performance. So complicated a proposition — shared practice. Tension between the performance and being concerned with the end result. Product vs. a practice, which is the space that you’re playing within.
Sitting on a Man’s Head is a come-and-go engagement practice with collaborative aspects that expand on the research of the disruptive protests by southeastern Nigerian women. These women, who actively built community protests in a struggle for civil rights, were later known for the actions leading up to the Women’s War of 1929. The experience intends to form movement and physical extensions of the research conducted by the artists Born and Okpokwasili through gestural expressions and improvisational vocalizations with the artists and local artist collaborators. Okwui’s activation will attempt to magnify previous works while aiming to procure collective bonds and shared dialogue with the community while constructing spiritual and physical room to transform collective protest into song.