I had the pleasure of meeting Keith Antar Mason four years ago at a Highways event in Santa Monica. He struck me from the outset as an artist with a deep-rooted sense of conviction, someone who can’t just make art a career because it’s his life. His solo pieces and collaborations with his group, Hittite Empire, which deal with racism in America and black masculinity, are always bold, heartfelt, and polemical. That sensibility inevitably spills over into his off-stage activities, making him a rather notorious figure on the Los Angeles performance art scene.
Lucky for me, Keith is my neighbor. I managed to convince him to stop by one afternoon for coffee and a chat.
Coco Fusco Keith, what does it feel like to be perceived as the Ice Cube of performance art?
Keith Antar Mason People who view me as the Ice Cube of performance art are usually white art curators, who are trying to make a connection, be hip, fit in, trying to have some kind of multicultural dialogue with me, so they come up with these high pitch . . . ideas.
CF I don’t see why there’s such a big need to separate what an African American male performance artist might do from what a rapper might do.
KAM Performance art is a matter of convenience for me. How can I go to people in the African American community and say that I’m really a myth maker, and that I’m attempting to create ritual games to enliven us spiritually, to provide us with an inner life? When I was 17 years old, I used to hang out with my friends. We were not a gang. We were five black guys getting together, talking about art. Believe it or not, and nobody would ever believe it, we all had aspirations to be artists, but we didn’t have any black male mentors.
CF Was this in the ’70s? (Yeah.) What about the whole black arts movement that was flourishing at the time?
KAM We were in St. Louis, they were afraid that there really might be a black Movement there, so it got even more repressive.
CF Were there Afro-American studies?
KAM None of that. St. Louis is the third-ranked most segregated city in the United States. The anger that a lot of people feel in my work comes from that racial tyranny that I experienced in St. Louis. When I came to L.A. people didn’t understand that intensity.
CF You say that when you came here, you were perceived as being very angry. Coming from New York, I see West Coast performance as coming much more from the gut, being much more about anger, and other emotions, more about a sense of one’s emotional, psychic, spiritual self than East Coast performance art, which is cerebral and slick.
KAM I moved here in ’85. In ’87, I began to meet the people who were still doing the Sex, God, and Politics Festival at Highways—the place where I live. We did a group evening called Hot and Sticky. It became the personal commitment to see how far we could really push things.
CF What can you do in performance that you couldn’t do, let’s say, in theater?
KAM I did regional theater. It did not satisfy me. I left the world of talking to a room full of people who are all mannered and sitting in chairs. Now we perform on basketball courts, and in alleyways. The media won’t come to these events. They only go to those places where they feel safe.
CF But you’re testing your material.
KAM Exactly. Let’s take it to an alleyway and see what the real response is.
CF Do you announce your performances when you do them on the courts? (Yeah.) How do you spread the word?
KAM We tell them that we’re coming. Sometimes community groups call and ask for us, like right now, Oakwood has a black community and a Latino community and ten years ago they were in a gang war, which is emerging again, but it’s been agitated by the police. And so people from that neighborhood called us to ask if we can come back to the Oakwood school and perform in the schoolyard, for the kids. We’re gonna do it. And I’ll send the word out to the L.A. Times, but I know for a fact that nobody’s going to respond until I’m at the Mark Taper Forum, Then they will say what a wonderful thing we’re doing, but the wonderful thing has already happened.
CF Let’s talk about your exploring masculinity. Bell Hooks gave a talk about the sense of shame around nudity for black women, the memories that it recalls of having been stripped on the auction block, having been violated sexually during slavery and after slavery. Many artists have stayed away from representing the black body because of what it might mean—that it might somehow or other be catering to the stereotypes, or a perverse desire to violate the black body.
KAM Nudity has been a real issue. Every once in a while there’s a completely nude male figure in my work. Audiences have come to expect to see us in loin cloths and things. I’m even getting nervous talking about it right now, but that’s it. We did a piece called Forty-nine Blue Sons for a Jealous Vampire at the Lincoln Center.
CF That was very controversial.
KAM What inspired this was that two guys told me a story about a strip search that had happened to them. I started to gather stories about encounters with the police. About one in every hundred people I’d talk to had a story. I began to ask, Why is this happening? How often is it happening? What is going on? Is this a rite of passage that black men in this society have to go through—are put through? I am tripping about that, but I don’t have any answers yet.
CF What do you think is the source of that shame that then makes people respond violently?
KAM There is a certain erasure of self in that moment. When I was 17, I was doing research on a paper, so I went to the campus of Washington University. I remember all that in vivid detail, but I cannot remember when the cop put a gun to my head, and told me to get down. The 17-year old guy that he put down on concrete was not the same person that got up. I went home and people thought I was having a heart attack, ‘cause I couldn’t explain what had happened to me. So they rushed me to the hospital. I was just hyperventilating.
CF But looking back on it, do you think that even in the moment of the experience you were connecting what was happening to you with a bigger picture?
KAM I always say I started to hear real slave songs. I started to hear and to feel the noonday. It was night, you understand that, and I felt like the heat of noontime sun on an auction block. It was like this was not just me, it was everybody. How I choose to process it is to get it out through my work, through the art that I’m able to create.
(Break in Tape)
CF What are you working on now?
KAM I’ve collected over 250 interviews with young black guys who have been harassed by the police—interrogated. I need the skills to teach them how to get on stage to tell those stories. That’s more important than me reenacting each one of those. That is where I am going as an artist.
CF You’re trying to get more to the source.
KAM I’m working on pieces called Punic Wars; it compares the story of the peace treaty between Carthage and Rome with peace treaties that are taking place between black men and police right now.
CF Why do you focus on a negative experience of disempowerment, which one could even say is a castrating experience, as the thing that defines masculinity for you as a black man?
KAM Because in that source of agony or pain or castration or whatever the image is, there was a resurrection. There was a 17-year old boy who was put down face down on concrete, who got up as a man asking himself how he was gonna navigate in this world.
CF In The Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy discusses Frederick Douglas’s essay about his experience as a slave and his decision to fight back against the master as a formative moment in his experience as a black man. What he focuses on is precisely that moment when the dynamic turns around, when the slave says, I’m not going to accept this anymore. So that’s his moment of coming into being as a free person in his mind and his heart. How do you connect that with what you are talking about?
KAM I was in the hospital for two or three days afterward, inarticulate, totally mind-fucked, you know what I’m saying? The universe had to be made right again. I asked how I was going to be responsible, and the only thing that you then have is the knowledge of all the stuff that you’ve gone through up until that point. If I can begin to get young black men to transfer bullets into words instead of shooting each other, then I think that’s where the power is for me.
CF Kids in black neighborhoods aren’t just shooting, they’re also yelling and screaming and talking.
KAM I’m talking about stopping one of the older human rituals, human sacrifice, and I think that’s what I’m really trying to get to. I have to get where words will stop a death.
CF The backlash against multiculturalism in L.A. is directly connected to the real fear experienced by the white population in this city, as a result of the insurrection. You publicly took a position on the insurrection, and then later, on the trial of the men accused of beating Reginald Denny. I got the sense the cultural establishment was saying, “We’re not giving you money anymore, we don’t even like you nasty people. We can get some African musicians from Zaire to come play for us, and we don’t need to deal with your anger anymore.”
KAM There is no doubt about it that I’m on the blacklist. In ‘89 I was on the favored son list, one of the reasons why L.A. was supposed to be moving into the 21st century. Because of the inhumanity that I have witnessed since then, I had to take action and not allow anyone to forget what happened. That’s why I say I’m more vehemently opposed to the white liberal pretense of concern than I am against straight out state repression . . . I understand clear-cut divisions between blacks and whites. In St. Louis, there was a highway that divided us.
CF Okay, but what about now? You are the enfant terrible of the 18th Street Arts Complex.
KAM I didn’t know this.
CF Oh, yes you did.
KAM When did this happen? (laughter)
CF When you built that crazy altar on your door.
KAM That door is a threshold. That door is a threshold for opportunity.
CF Well, part of the problem has to do with a perception from some people that you were pushing the edge, that you were blaming individuals who see themselves as the good guys. That is also the position of many white curators and presenters across the country. Many believe that if they support multiculturalism, then we shouldn’t attack them, because they’re not the enemy. If they’re presenting work by African Americans and Asian Americans and Latinos, then they’re on our side. We in turn shouldn’t direct any anger toward them or toward the audiences coming to see the work. How do you respond to that?
KAM They’re not on my side. It’s clear to me this is a deception. We have not really sat down and talked about what our agenda is. If I am told that I am bad for the art world because I’m bringing up some of its fallacies, the art world is not a healthy place and we need to get it straight. Everybody’s making false assumptions. That is what became clear two weeks after the insurrection. Everybody wanted to rush back to it being quote-unquote, normal, and it wasn’t. I think that’s still going on and I think it’s going to heighten the cultural wars. These cultural wars are going to produce exciting work, alright. We’re engaged in inter-cultural politics in Los Angeles in a way that the rest of the country is not.
CF Do people impose a particular set of rules about what performance art is supposed to be when you go and perform in an alley?
KAM People from the community welcome it. They welcome the idea that there is somebody in their neighborhood making art. What that art says though, may be of concern, and that’s with any community.
CF What is so scary about rage? (pause) Your rage?
KAM What’s scary about rage is that most people think it is uncontrollable.
CF Maybe it’s a matter of being too confrontational.
KAM I hate that word “confrontational”. When they use that word in particular to describe the work of the Hittite Empire, they always make an assumption that it’s just my rage. Hittites are a collective and we process work together and if we come up with an image that is confrontational, it’s a group consensus that this image needs to be presented. They identify me simply because I’m a spokesperson for the Hittite Empire.
CF You write a lot of the material.
KAM I do, but that doesn’t mean that I’m the one solely responsible for that image. People in general don’t like rage ‘cause it makes them feel like they’re the bad guy.
CF Well, we should talk a little bit about the Hittites, how they formed, why you decided to make a group as opposed to just pursuing solo work, and where you see that project going.
KAM The three founders of the Hittite Empire got together in college. In St. Louis, Missouri at Webster University. In ’87 we officially started the Hittite Empire with just the three of us. We did a piece called “Paint,” which was about Dr. Martin Luther King and a middle-aged wealthy community was outraged at our take on Dr. Martin Luther King, and we said: “Hey, we got something going on here.” (laughter)
CF So your solo work is really limited by comparison to your commitment to the Hittites.
CF If you could outline what would be a positive development in inter-cultural dialogue, what would it be? What for you is the right response for people who are outside your culture, whether they are other minority groups or whether they are part of the white population?
KAM In ’87 we started to value our art-making process and our products, and I think we need to go back or go ahead with that kind of commitment, and not let funders or institutions interfere with that process.
CF Well, what about that proverbial white person who always shows up somewhere and says, just like the Malcolm X movie, “Malcolm, I understand your struggle. I want to help. What can I do?” What do you say to those people? There are millions of them in California. Not everybody is pointing the gun at your head.
KAM Right, no.
CF What do you do with them?
KAM What I say is that they’re not gonna be in charge of my response to that. What they can do is to continue to support multiculturalism. What they can do is continue to support inter-cultural dialogue. What they can do is give up their power in that situation. And it’s all right with them to be a comfortable spectator. They don’t have to be a maker or a shaker in the event. But they are very reluctant to do that. And that’s the backlash.