This past Friday, MASS MoCA hosted a dance performance by writer, choreographer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili. The performance, which was a collaboration between Okpokwasili and Peter Born, took place within MASS MoCA’s Building 5 exhibition of Nick Cave’s Until. Okpokwasili, who has worked on many other projects in partnership with Peter Born in the past, employs various art forms, including writing, music and dance, to create raw and emotional experiences in her practices. In the past, Okpokwasili has worked on other projects that center on her experience of race and gender. She frames her MASS MoCA piece as her personal way of dancing with Nick Cave, combining the raw emotional force behind Cave’s Until with the human form to explore how or if she could channel that energy into her own performance.
The evening started with a walk through the Sol LeWitt gallery space and began after the audience had settled into the large warehouse-turned-gallery space that currently houses Until. From there, Okpokwasili accomplished what Nick Cave set out to do in creating Until – to bring the inner world of his famous sound suits to life. After her performance, she spoke a little about her own conceptualization of this space. For Okpokwasili, this performance, like many other performances of hers, was about black and brown women’s bodies and how they are seen in performance. She seeks ways to convey that performance in ways that defy reductiveness and that draw upon a myriad of sources with personal importance to her, including early West African sculpture and pre-Christian Igbo mythology and culture.
The first section of Okpokwasili’s performance began in the midst of the wind-spinners constituting the opening of Until. Along the path that winds through it, she made her way through rhythmically and slowly to amplified percussive sounds reminiscent of marbles hitting metal. Strapped to her back was a bright light covered with thin white plastic. As she moved across the room towards the audience, the light she carried caught on the shimmering, multicolored forest of wind-spinners above and around her, embedded with guns and bullets. The light seemed at times like a shell of sorts, and at other times it read almost as a pair of wings. Sometimes it seemed like another body hoisted upon her back. Okpokwasili described the masquerades of her parents’ hometown in Nigeria “where the living and the dead encounter each other” that inspired her for this section. She and Peter Born discussed what it looked and felt like to be lost in this space, which Okpokwasili compared to the bush, a landscape which she saw as a similarly liminal space in Igbo mythology.
In the second section, the audience packed into a smaller second room with looping, projected images of minstrels and chicken heads, where a single voice spoke out. Later Okpokwasili spoke about the text that she wrote that was spoken here, clarifying that it was a reflection of the Igbo belief in the “ogbanje,” or the “child who returns.” An evil spirit used to explain the phenomena of women that suffer multiple miscarriages, she speaks about food, love and enduring suffering as the audience sits hushed and listens.
At the third section of her performance, set upstairs, Okpokwasili abandoned the large white figure she had strapped to her back earlier in favor of all black. In this relative darkness, she seemed to almost disappear into the streamers, surrounded by warm wind and the soft, white noise reminiscent of the ocean. The closing scene was an emotional one, dominated by repetitive, anxious movements in her hands and arms and ended with a soft chanting as she exited the scene. Afterwards, Okpokwasili and Born spoke about the thought processes that went into the project. Ever eloquent, Okpokwasili explained to her audience, “I do it in the hopes of reaching. I do it in the hopes that I can create space for you to reach back.” With a soft but measured defiance, she uses performance to gaze back at the projections put upon her body. At the close of her conversation, she asserted that “to be vulnerable is to be truly liberated … my challenge is joy.”
Okwui Okpokwasili employs various artistic practices to create a dialogue with Nick Cave’s ‘Until’. Photo courtesy of PS122.org.