On Blackness – Ligia Lewis: minor matter (2016)

Blackness is certainly not an easy topic to write about, especially for an author who is not black himself. I have watched Ligia Lewis’ minor matter three times since January but I have been very hesitant to analyze it, because it is important for black writers and black activists to be at the center of the discourse on blackness, to define and redefine what it means to be black within this white supremacist society. Yet at the same time, blackness certainly cannot be understood as something insular, something that only pertains to black bodies, something that we who are not black cannot, or more accurately can be exempt from thinking about. For me, it is not a matter of obtaining permission to write about blackness, but it is the responsibility and the critical urgency to locate not just myself, but ourselves within and among blackness, to seriously acknowledge and confront the atrocity that we have wrecked upon black population.

After all, it is we who are not black that have been benefiting and profiting tremendously on black corpses, building an economic, political, and colonial empire that has been, and will be, riding the tide of slavery, of exploitation, of dehumanization, of turning the black bodies into the “commodities who can speak”[1]. How can we then turn our back against blackness, declaring that it has nothing to do with our experience and therefore we won’t speak about it? If anything, it is precisely this amnesiac response that is emblematic of this fucked up system which both breaks black people and forgets the injustice that it has brought upon. To say “I don’t see color” is never appropriate, even with the best intention through which one enunciates that sentence, but it is time everyone needed to see color, to train themselves if need be to see blackness, to not be oblivious to the fact that they owe their so-called civilization to blackness.

What blackness is cannot be taken for granted, cannot be conceptualized as a straightforward concept that is synonymous with black people’s struggles and oppression: blackness “must be understood in its ontological difference from black people who are, nevertheless, (under)privileged insofar as they are given (to) an understanding of it”[2]. To think of blackness that is ontologically different from black people is not necessarily to distill it and abstract it from black people, but perhaps to imagine something more penetrating, more fugitive that escapes the regulatory force of governance, the “management of self-management”[3]. Indeed, what is taken as blackness is often produced and manufactured by whiteness, feeding black people a certain version of blackness that has nothing to do with them but is paradoxically reinforced among themselves performatively because it is the only reality available to them, generating a vicious cycle that prescribes what it means to be black, delineating certain zones that blackness can only inhabit – zones of urbanity, or primitivity for instance.

Within this restrictive prescription of blackness, Ligia Lewis set out to explore a more elusive mode of blackness in minor matter that is not so stable nor is it easily articulated. The work is the second part of the trilogy (BLUE RED WHITE), where she explores the color red to materialize “thoughts between love and rage”[4], opening up a post-apocalyptic space that is both ominous and uncannily celebratory. Positioning herself alongside the minority as opposed to the majority, Ligia Lewis is interested in the peripheral rather than the central – the interstices of space, time, poetics where black bodies, black aesthetic and black politics can fugitively emerge, occupy and concurrently disperse.

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minor matter opens with the stage shrouded in a thick layer of mist, immediately lifting the audience out into an extra-daily space, an extra-reality even before the piece officially starts. As the light dims into darkness, Lewis’ voice fills the room with her sombre tone, reciting excerpts taken from Remi Raji’s “Dream Talk” in what resembles Beyoncé’s sober narration in Lemonade. Catapulting the viewers into the realm of blackness, both literally and referentially, the choreographer establishes what can be easily seen as the black matter, only to destablize it and minorize it as the piece progresses.

Immediately after the poem, the sound score kicks in with obvious references to classical baroque music, which one can frankly describe as “white” music. Meanwhile, three black bodies, Lewis’ one of them, are lying flat on the floor, striking very aesthetically arresting poses before making their way up and towards the audience. Their eyes pitch black, at times their faces inhumanly distorted, their bodies caught up in the spastic bursts of energy – they seem to be playing with the representation of (sexual) primitiveness, alien-ness and otherness that are often associated with black bodies. Exploring whether or not black bodies can be abstracted, or should they be at all[5], Lewis is situating herself and the performers in a slippery in-between place that treads back and forth from pure abstraction, immensely influenced by a white canonical figure Merce Cunningham, to the more explosive signification of blackness.

In one section which can be problematically labelled as “pure” dance, the three performers dance restlessly to the rhythm of contemporary beat-driven music, and to a large extent, to the rhythm of their own voices, their own bodies. Nevertheless, the very fact that all of the bodies on stage are black suddenly renders this abstraction somewhat impure, contaminated with the loaded-ness of the black skin and the masculinity of their movements and gestures, which cannot be fully formalized or neutralized. At some point, it feels as if the audience is in the middle of a sports events where the three athletes on stage are getting fired up, chanting, cheering, performing a call-and-response ritual that animates the whole periphery. In a way, her investment in abstraction stems not from the purity of curves and lines in space, which have traditionally been a more or less exclusive site for white choreographers, but from one of the core engines of blackness: the drive to create something from nothing[6].

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It is important to start from a place of nothingness because historically, Ligia Lewis has more or less nothing to work with because black bodies have been written out of the Western (dance) archives. Thus, the illusion of nothingness in abstraction is hopeful for the choreographer because it is this nothingness that incessantly produces things: three bodies lying low on the floor, with nothing other than themselves and each other, manage to generate meaning, generate minor things that matter. They entangle into each other, hurl into one another to destroy any structure that they are building throughout the performance, and yet, in the finale they work with each other to reach up higher, and higher, and higher with no definitive ending, leaving the audience hung up with this unsettling image that is also an ongoing ghost haunting blackness. Within this final series of entanglement, there is no clear-cut relationship between the three of them, as it is ambiguously all about love, rage, pain, joy, determination, frustration and celebration. Blackness is not one thing, nor is it about anything that we can see, can grasp and capture.

For Lewis, blackness is not insular within black people or even what is popularly understood as black culture, but it penetrates through the interiority of the space and the bodies, demanding a process of excavation, explication and complication. Indeed, with the first of the trilogy Sorrow Swag, the choreographer decided to work with a white male dancer to really trouble the question of identity, using whiteness to perhaps paradoxically illuminates on the fugitivity of blackness. In the program note at American Realness 2017, she asks: “Can we institute a practice of togetherness in the minor? Can the black box be host to a black experience that goes beyond identity politics?”[7]. By delving into the fugitive, she is turning identity politics on its head, problematizing its consolidation and prescription of what certain identities, in general, and blackness in particular, can look like and can signify. It is not a matter of majorizing, or massifying of an identity in order to rally together to create an illusion of unification, but it is the practice of minorizing experience, or aesthetics, or politics, in order to allow more intimate multiplication of blackness to unfold, that eventually matters.

Images sourced from Ligia Lewis’ website

 


[1] Fred Moten. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

[2] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions, 2013.

[3] Ibid

[4] ligialewis.com

[5] http://temporaryartreview.com/minor-matter-an-interview-with-ligia-lewis/

[6] Fred Moten. “Blackness and nothingness (mysticism in the flesh).” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (2013): 737-780.

[7] http://americanrealness.com/portfolio-type/ligia-lewis-3/

 

 

4 thoughts on “On Blackness – Ligia Lewis: minor matter (2016)

  1. I enjoyed this. Usually people who are not “of color” can not get one word out of their mouth about racism without it being labeled invalid. But you structured this very well. It was a nice read.

    Like

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