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By Audrey Johnson, guest contributor
Audrey Johnson is a movement artist with roots from Detroit, MI, currently living in the Bay Area. Her work centers black and queer futurity and joyous survival, through the belief that movement is transformative justice. Audrey currently dances with GERALDCASELDANCE, and was a collaborator with Jennifer Harge/Harge Dance Stories for three years. Audrey is a co-founder of Collective Sweat Detroit and holds a BFA in Dance with Honors from Wayne State University. She loves slow time, mountains and the desert.
Photo courtesy of BMBO Creations/Breeann Birr de Oliveira
I attended The Festival of Infinite Imagination, an evening of Black queer and trans performance hosted by Topsy Turvy Queer Circus, on Friday August 16, 2019 at ProArts Gallery and Commons in the Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Oakland. Organized by India Sky Davis and Ana María Agüero Jahannes, the festival centered around the question: What does your radical and expansive imagination have to offer the Black past, present, and/or future?
PRESENT, AT HOME
I arrive right before the show begins, after a day of time travel (i.e. flying in an airplane after 5 weeks in the midwest), to embraces from sweet friends among a gorgeous audience of QTBIPOC folks. Everyone here is hot (can I say that?) and I wonder about how our community’s expansive self expression defies and re-writes definitions of the status quo, in turn, opening up the present to rewrite the future. I feel at home in this community that I am newly making my own home, while already sensing the imminent intergalactic journey we are all about to embark on.
By the entrance is a structure built by Ana María Agüero Jahannes and Avé-Ameenah Long. “Homecoming,” a wooden dome-like space where people are invited to enter and rest as they wish throughout the evening, is our first offering to travel to other places within this physical present.
Commencing the evening of performance is an invocation: a figure in all white sounds a cowbell and dances through the crowd, bringing energy from the plaza into the gallery. We are captivated, and I wonder where this being, messenger from beyond, will take us.
Our MC is Lafemmebear, aka LeahAnn Mitchell, who tells us that The Festival of Infinite Imagination was organized for artists as a space to create without expectation. The Festival indeed transports us to a place where expectations do not serve us - instead the work we see tonight asks us to imagine worlds and experiences beyond this present one.
I SIT AND LISTEN TO THE PAST
Invited to sit close, we gather around artist Omi Osun Joni L. Jones for “Water Recipes,” a storytelling journey sprinkled with a generous amount of audience participation.“Water Recipes” carries us back to childhood through the tale of Mimi, a child uncovering the meaning of aging through observing her Nana. Jones starts off by teaching us a dance from her childhood call and response style. As we sing and shake our hips to the East and to the West, we embody a spell to transport us to Mimi’s world. Jones tells us that Mimi is trying to make her Nana grow tall again, effectively fighting the aging process. After careful observations of a ficus plant in their home, Mimi sets out on the first water experiment, “Watering Nana,” which involves the daily act of secretly pouring small amounts of water on, watering, Nana. If water makes plants grow, then surely this life giving element can fix Nana. The first water experiment fails. Another experiment is making Nana a “Don’t Die Pie,” and in this section we split into small groups with a worksheet to create a recipe for our own version of a Don’t Die Pie. This pie, a recipe for life, is a success - not in that Mimi is able to gift immortality to Nana, but in that the pie is a hit. After serving it, Mimi sees her family laughing over her raisin pie creation, and she expresses feeling that everything is right as it is. This story back to the past about a child grasping the concept of aging is a reminder to enjoy the present.
During the present moment experience of “Water Recipes,” when Jones prompted us, I shared with someone sitting next to me a story about the oldest person I know and I listened to their story with open curiosity. At another point, the audience shared raisins to snack on, handed out as Jones began telling us about the pie experiment (a great move - never let your audience stay hungry). Throughout these audience involvement moments, I met and connected to at least five wonderful people, pulling me into a sense of community while we all went on the water journey led by Jones. “Water Recipes” facilitated present moment connection and sharing between the audience members, asked us to dream alongside Jones’ storytelling, and showed us how to accept change as a beautiful part of life through the curious eyes of a child.
OUR PAST MAKES SENSE OF OUR PRESENT
Rashad Pridgen’s “De/Mystifying AfroHouse” is next, and we are back outside to the plaza watching projections of hieroglyphics on the opposite building face. Pridgen first appears crouched in the corner. Sporting a large billowing white fabric that expands with his movement, eventually Pridgen is dancing across the wall and then out in the plaza, embodying the postures of the projected figures. Throughout the work the video projection becomes a sort of montage of different Black dance vernaculars. The footage spans from early film to present day including people across the African continent and of the American Black dance experience, such as voguing and dance battles. Against the projection, Pridgen dances with both abundant energy and the stylized Black aesthetic of the cool, his movement vocabulary encapsulating Black dance both past and present. The music is insistent in its classic house downbeat, and I can’t help but groove along with him.
As Pridgen grooves, at times he links in unison with the footage, bringing 2D images from the past into his present living body. Other times he moves in contrast to the video, new movements erupting and gesturing towards an infinite AfroHouse future. As I watch his performance I am wondering about the title of the work, as I feel inherently and excitedly mystified. I don’t want to be de-mystified, I don’t want to leave this magic land of motion he has created. Yet, I realize in this space of traveling through a visceral montage of Black dance forms foregrounded by his live, dancing body, Pridgen asks us to see both.
The / in the title initiates us to see both past and present, both Africa and Oakland, both contemporary house and indigenous dance within the moment of feeling mystified. In activating this sense of both/and, Pridgen situates African dance in the present, contesting a belief that dance from the African continent is simply history, from the past. Pridgen’s body enlivening and referencing the movement from the videos takes it out of antiquity and into the contemporary. At the same time, Pridgen’s work does more than activate the past as reference to the present. He also actively mystifies in the power, specificity, and intention behind his movement. An intelligent and clear work, “De/Mystifying AfroHouse” actualizes the depth and nuances of Black dance through the performance lens of AfroHouse. Pridgen delivers both a funky House groove dance experience and the coolest history lesson you’ll ever see.
AND IN THIS PRESENT WE COMMUNICATE DEEP
ACROSS THE OCEAN LIKE WHALES DO
LIKE WAVELENGTHS OUR WORK RESPONDS --
SOMETHING TO THE COLOR BLUE.
We materialize into a place with no space or time in India Sky Davis’ “Wavelength,” which also featured Marshall Jarreau and Jahslyn Chen See. This is my first time watching Davis and Topsy Turvy Circus perform and I can maybe come close to describing the experience as watching the divine feminine in self actualized storytelling magic.
India Sky Davis paints an oceanic dream world throughout this four act performance. In each section, she speaks to a little whale, who we hear respond to Davis in sound cued (and very cute) whale calls. We find out later in the evening that the work references the true story of Tahlequah, an orca whale who carried her dead calf for 17 days last year in the Pacific off the Pacific Northwest coast, by Davis’ hometown Seattle. In the beginning of the work, Davis proclaims, “In this body of mine I hold a well of deep memories,” connecting the depth of our bodily and ancestral knowledge to the depth of the ocean. She invites us to breathe together in order to “fully materialize” so we can arrive in this dream world she creates.
What does it mean to fully materialize? Perhaps to gather our minds into the present, to call ourselves into our bodies, to make our whole selves available to experience magic. The work of fully materializing through collective deep breaths is something we can surely carry with us in our day to day lives.
After we have materialized, the rest of the piece feels effectively nonlinear. Davis, Jarreau and Chen See sing and dance to awaken memory in the “place with no space and time,” which I infer as the ocean, yet maybe more, when Davis tells us that orca whales are the guardians of dreams. In this orca dream world, we witness freeing, full of feeling movement, and at one point we are showered in flower petals as we experience “what comes after love.” Davis performs an impeccable pole solo, a continual spiral of divine femme power; her circling motion seems to spiral towards an infinite experience of space and time. I am reminded of the idea that the shape of queerness is a spiral, and through the pole work in “Wavelength,” I see how spiraling motion transcends the linear status quo. Here, the spiral roots her body as a well of memory and power, queering time and revealing the infinite possibilities of a body in motion.
Another highlight of “Wavelength” is a stop motion video projection that tells a history of the whales of the Pacific Northwest. We learn about the life-giving salmon that they depend on for food, and how the human-made dams in the Snake River are interrupting salmon migration, threatening the resilience of the whales in this region. In response to this, the final act is “A Spell for Water to Flow,” and Donna Summer’s music plays while dreamy footage of her projects onto the wall. This spell listens to the “infinite wavelengths of the ancestors” to perhaps activate ancestral knowledge held in the body to make water flow. In this oceanic dream world, movement and song is spellcasting; pleasure, joy, and breath are ingredients that activate the life-giving flow of water; honoring the ocean allows for ancestral knowledge to materialize in the body. The body is a vessel of shaping change by being of nature, rather than acting upon nature.
Through themes of ancestral memory, water, and the lives of whales, “Wavelength” calls its viewers to dive deep into a place where capitalist hustle and disregard for nature will not serve the love that lives at the core of our existence. Later in the evening, Davis tells us that sperm whales are capable of sending a sound from one end of the ocean to the other. I wonder, then, if we (Black folks) are communicating through wavelengths in this way; sharing knowledge about healing, power, and the color blue* at distances long as the width of the oceans. In “Wavelength,” I am enchanted and empowered by this invitation to fully materialize in the presence of oceanic magic.
*I bring attention to the color blue because of the oceanic world and the shade of blue of “Wavelength”s costuming. These costumes are all a deep shade of blue, vibrant, and speak to me as the exact color blue of which Detroit artist Salākastar has meditated on for her current performance work ALL BLUE: PART ONE (MAJORELLE), which I was blessed to witness in December 2018 and again while home this August. Salākastar’s work activates senses through the healing qualities of the color blue. I find it valuable to draw the connection between what I saw in India Sky Davis’ “Wavelength” and in Salākastar’s work, which both utilizes this striking shade of blue for Black healing, pleasure, and power. It makes me feel that perhaps the state of the earth and the urgency of our healing is shaping us to dig down to similar ancestral depths of knowledge. Perhaps we are communicating across continents and oceans about our resilience, healing, and pleasure practices, connected by the ocean, or at least something in the color blue.
I WITNESS BLACK GIRL MAGIC
SING FOR A FUTURE WHERE WE THRIVE
FROM A DEEP WELL OF INTUITION
THE FUTURE IS BLACK AND BRIGHT
After an intermission, the last part of the evening featured the vocal magic of artists Davia Spain and SPELLING.
I saw Davia Spain earlier this summer as part of the Black Life series at BAMPFA, so I was ready for the transformative power of her voice. Tonight her performance “DAWNING” is a selection of songs from her new album by the same title (which also features Bay Area artist Peekaboo on cello). Her music uses an Afrofuturist lens; speaking to and from her life experience as a Black trans woman, she positions herself as a messenger of sorts to share intuitive knowledge on how to survive (and thrive) in a world that is against us. Spain’s lyricism and electronic sounds create a beautiful, aural landscape around topics of resilience, letting go, and growth. I am intrigued by the small musical device connected to her microphone through which she plays the otherworldly musical sounds that accompany her live singing. Her voice, at times operatic, ranges high as mountains and deep as the ocean. Throughout her set she dances with a gentle ease and joy that makes me feel as if her performance is for her - and we as the audience are the blessed witnesses to this ritual of sacred femme magic. She sings “I had to let go,” and reminds me to consider what I might need to let go of to move forward. Spain is certainly a messenger whose work might help us understand how to survive the impending climate and social crises we face today through beauty, power and pleasure. I am in awe of the power of her clear and heavenly voice and presence that transfixes the room.
Closing out the night is the spellbinding magic of SPELLING. If Davia Spain was a divine messenger of sweet sounds of resilience in the shade of lavender, SPELLING appears as a messenger from the dark, vast and starry galaxy: a Baba Yaga from far into the future, her sounds are the taste of Black licorice, sourcing deep down into the Black consciousness to access some serious magic. She starts the set with organ like, orchestral sounds coming from what I assume is a synthesizer, keyboard, and sampler set up. I can almost feel myself surrounded by gothic architecture, cobwebs, and I’m wondering where the vampires are at. Her voice is both sweet and distorted, and her lyrics evoke specific imagery like “a dark that is pure,” a “black angel bird to slice through space and time,” and “a new language to pierce the minds of all life.” This set is both a haunt and a delight, and cuts to the core. With all of the fantastical sounds of SPELLING’s performance, I am carried to an alternate present, one that brings together both past and possible futures to swirl in a cauldron of Afrofuturist magic work.
The canon of Black artists communicating with and from outer space runs deep and wide: from musical legend Sun-Ra, writers like Octavia Butler, the Afronauts, Ingrid LaFleur’s recent Manifest Destiny exhibit in Detroit (which features a billboard reading “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE,”), Afrofuturism posits outer space as a site and source of liberation.
Afrofuturist artists engaging with the fantastical potential and aesthetics of outer space expand how we can dream about the future: they help us imagine (and create) worlds where Black folks can thrive, space travel, and transcend the limitations we face in the present and past on Earth.
Both Davia Spain and SPELLING take me on such an Afrofuturist galactic journey, from floating past shooting stars via the sweet waves of their voices, to imagining space creatures who pierce truth through the universe, and dancing at a disco under the sun. Like returning back home after a long time gone, I am changed when I return from this journey, both deeper and lighter than I was before.
THE FUTURE IS BLACK, BROWN, QUEER, AND BRIGHT
THE FUTURE IS BLACK, BROWN, QUEER, AND BRIGHT
The Festival of Infinite Imagination was a trip to childhood, a visit home, a journey deep into the depths of oceanic memory, and a catapult far into outer space. The Festival’s question what does your radical and expansive imagination have to offer the Black past, present, and/or future? manifested an excellently curated experience of the imaginations of deeply inspiring Black creatives. The evening showed that as a community we are listening to and healing our past, we are expanding our present, and we are carving out a bright, liberated, joyful future.
I left the performance feeling more space in my body, more creative potential, with deep appreciation for the work these artists shared. Topsy Turvy Queer Circus and all of the featured artists are doing the radical work of shaping our past, present and future - and they are doing it brightly, excellently.
This was an evening that made me excited for our future, and enthralled by the potential of our imagination to be a pathway towards beautiful liberation.
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