Working Through Yourself: Kia LaBeija Interviewed by Nina Chanel Abney

The artist, activist, and voguer on her Bauhaus-inspired performance for the Performa 19 Biennial.

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Kia LaBeija, Untitled, The Spiral (Self Portrait), 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

I first met Kia LaBeija in November 2016, when the two of us shared the experience of being the odd ones out at a networking event of mostly wealthy, white liberals—a situation made even more untenable by the televised election results that would soon put a well-known bigot and white supremacist into office. If we were already feeling out of place among that legion of influencers, watching the electoral outcome felt like a vice grip tightening on our sense of belonging.

As a fine artist and queer black woman, LaBeija is invested in making space for others, like her, who are constantly searching for genuine belonging and the freedom to be in a world often hostile to social difference. Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, LaBeija began manifesting that intention as a young performer in the ballroom scene, and in 2017 served as a mentor for other queer and trans artists of color as Mother of the Royal House of LaBeija. Outside of the ballroom scene, she has developed her oeuvre of radical artistry primarily through photography and dance, often using her own body as a tool for expression. This month, LaBeija will premiere her first large-scale performance work Untitled, The Black Act, a piece inspired by Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus ballet piece Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet) (1922)Co-commissioned by Performa and Performance Space New York, the performance is co-produced by The Josie Club—a social organization founded in 2019 by myself, Jet Toomer, Mickalene Thomas, and Racquel Chevremont, and whose mission is to make space for affirming the lives and accomplishments of queer women of the African diaspora. 

I am blown away by LaBeija’s intuitive ability to make work that creates a sense of belonging. Untitled, The Black Act is an intimate glimpse into her personal exploration, inviting you on an intense, beat-driven journey of self-reflection.

— Nina Chanel Abney

 Nina Chanel AbneyHow is your artwork healing for you?

Kia LaBeija Everything that I create is autobiographical. I focus on healing because this was my mother’s journey, and I bore witness to that. My art practice is the way that I process my life experiences or things that I’m currently experiencing. I can’t make something unless it’s relevant to current issues or what I’m working through mentally. And when I can get all of that out into tangible, existing work, I feel like I can shift, move on.

NCA So with that, how important is it for you to be the subject of your work?

KLI wasn’t seeing representation of myself, and I felt lonely. Sometimes you feel like you are the only one who’s experiencing XYZ. You search for answers, and when you can’t find them, sometimes you just have to become the answer.

NCA What is your favorite type of music to dance to?

KL I dance to everything. My style is a mixture of different things, like classic forms of voguing and contemporary styles—and by contemporary styles I don’t mean in the way that people define “contemporary dance” as its own genre, but contemporary as in of today, of right now. When I vogue, it’s not always to ballroom music. It could be something completely different, like Kendrick Lamar or Robert Glasper. I love to mix different genres to create something that feels unique to me.

NCA What are your processes for dance and photography? How do you approach them individually?

KL I’m such a Pisces. I just do things when I feel them. In my photo practice I’m always looking at what spaces I’m in, what histories exist in those spaces, and how I’d like to place myself into those histories. And I’m always looking at light, natural light. I grew up in an apartment with big windows. I’ve always paid close attention to how lights would peer into the space during different seasons. It’s magical.

With movement, it’s about the music first. It’s always about what’s moving me. You know when you hear that sound and something in your heart just kind of breaks open? That’s what I’m always searching for in my work.

NCA Shifting toward your upcoming performance, I know that Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet is a source of inspiration. The colors are amazing, and there is something creepy about the dancing that is also kind of seductive. How did you come across this piece, and what about it inspired you?

KL Well, the overarching theme for Performa 2019 is the Bauhaus, which is celebrating its hundred-year anniversary. I was really interested in the sculptural element of the Bauhaus, the shapes. There was already an interesting connection to voguing, because it’s also very architectural, working with clean lines and picturesque poses. Then I came across the film version of Triadic Ballet, and I just saw myself in it. I guess that’s how my process begins; I see myself in something. It has three acts including the black act, the final act, which I found the most interesting. I think what got me first was the spiral-shaped stage. I felt really connected to it. My mother was interested in shapes, especially shape as geography. It also reminded me of life, how there are these moments when we totally spiral out. Losing my mom at a young age, I feel like I have been going through the spiral of grief for a long time.

I noticed that these different parts felt like a narrative. I thought I could use this structure as my reference point and bring in my own journey of figuring out who I am, who I’ve been, and where I’m going. My practice is about creating a dance live, so I wanted to construct a narrative around these different sections, but also give the performers room to put themselves into it. I see the other artists as reflections of myself, but it’s their story too. I placed each of them in particular parts that felt close to where they are in their actual life journey. It opens up so many things beyond the performance; it’s about working through yourself.

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Kia LaBeija, Untitled, The Grid, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

NCA There is also a grid structure in the Triadic Ballet that appears in your performance. What does the grid mean to you in relation to the spiral?

KL I see everything in parts. The grid is part three of four. Part one, the spiral, is the moment of realization, of shifting. Part two is the duet—the “dueling duet,” I call it—when you confront your ego. Part three, the grid, is finding out where you’re going to go, how you are going to arrive on your journey. The grid was the hardest part because I had to figure out how to move three bodies within the geography of this grid without telling the performers exactly where to go. And it really didn’t happen until the very end, when I finally figured out what gift I could give them that allowed them to take this journey on their own.

NCA It sounds like you work intuitively most of the time.

KL Yeah, I work intuitively, and I’ve been working closely with everyone to make sure that each piece fits for them. Choreography can feel like a dictatorship to me. Like, I don’t want to tell you to move your arm like this, in this exact way, because then where are you? Coming from a dance background and learning choreography for so many years, it made me feel like I didn’t know who I was outside of it. So when I found voguing, all of a sudden there was something that unlocked inside me, this freedom. I never wanted to do anything else that felt boxed in.

I wanted to experiment with that on other people. Some performers in the grid are freestyle movement artists, but for others, this is their first time letting themselves go. So it was really interesting to watch folks expand in certain directions while staying attuned to who they are and what feels right for them. 

NCA How have you incorporated music in your performance, and why did you choose to work with your family? 

KL I always choose to work with my family. My brother and my dad are both incredible artists. For the past six years, I’ve watched my brother work on a synthesizer called RESHI that creates music using particular frequencies with relationships to modalities of healing. I thought it was fucking genius and wanted to be the first person to use it, to incorporate this sound that could penetrate on a whole different level. A lot of the tones and sounds that you’ll hear are created by this synthesizer that my brother made during his journey. I like to bring everyone in from where they’re at currently.

So I wanted to see how I could integrate this music made on a computer with my dad playing live. He’s an amazing drummer and musician; it’s his whole life. When I hear him play and move to his sound, I feel this connection that’s unlike anything else. I knew that I wanted my dad to go off during the finale. I wanted him to also have that moment of freedom. I wanted a specific sound. I wanted that boom-bap. I wanted to feel all the sounds that I love—like funk, jazz, and R&B. I’m working exclusively with artists of color, and I wanted to celebrate us. I want folks to come in and feel that.

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Kia LaBeija, Untitled, The Dueling Duet, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

NCA Was there a back and forth? Were they able to look at what you were doing and make music based on that?

KL Yes, it actually began with my brother and I working on the music. We built it over time during the workshopping and rehearsal process. Once we had a framework, we brought in my dad. We knew we wanted the drums to build so that they crossfade with the synth, until, at the very end, it’s just live drums. That’s also an interesting link to Schlemmer and his thinking about how man and machine were starting to have this symbiosis. It’s funny because as much as I decided to move away from some of his original ideas, I came right back to them. But that’s because we’re both looking at our current moment. It’s 2019, it’s about to be 2020, and everything’s shifting. This digital age is crazy. Humans are evolving with technology. But, I’ve also moved away from Schlemmer in that my piece is more personal.

NCA Where does your activist work meet your artistic career?

KL I think my art practice really came out of my activism. There are so many different types of activism. And my activist work is really about being vocal. I wanted to be a voice in the world, a voice I felt was always missing. As brown and black folks, our narratives are always being erased, or we are left out of the shit we created. I also try to use my gifts as an artist generously with my gay kids. I still feel like I’m just at the beginning, but the things that I can give, the knowledge I do have, I like to share it.

NCA I know you’re a star in the ballroom scene, and clearly it has informed your artwork. Has anything from the art world informed your voguing? 

KLI’ve always loved fashion photography. There’s an important connection between voguing and photography in general, but especially fashion photography. Historically, it comes from poses that models were creating on the pages of Vogue. It’s crazy, because if you flip through old magazines from the ’70s and ’80s, you can see the dance, all those classic, iconic, Pop, Dip and Spin poses.

I’ve also always felt connected to old Hollywood glamour. I’ve always loved black-and-white films. I love that lighting in photography, too—the very dramatic, old Hollywood stage lighting. I’ve used a lot of that aesthetic in my photographs and my voguing. I’m not super invested in the fashion world. But I am invested in particular types of looks, glamorous things.

I actually was recently invited to Pyer Moss Fashion Show. It blew me away: its context, its relationship to blackness, the music. I saw many elements that I incorporate in my own work. I love when there’s a conversation between art, theater, and fashion. That was one of the reasons I wanted to work with the designer Kyle Luu. Her costuming and styling are also very current, and very much of the world we live in.

Untitled, The Black Act will be showing at Performance Space on November 7–9, as part of the Performa 19 Biennial and Performance Space New York’s Stages Series.

Nina Chanel Abney’s large-scale paintings create a collision of socio-political commentary and popular culture. The Chicago-born, New York-based artist employs acrylic and spray paint in creating hot-button-themed compositions. Emoji-like symbols, historical references, soul-crushing headlines, iconic faces, and avatars meet in disjointed narratives, addressing themes that range from abuse of power to celebrity worship, sexuality, and race, all rendered in eye-popping palettes and geometric figures. Harnessing the barrage of the information age, Abney paints in a bold, upbeat contemporary pallet.

Studio Visit: Nina Chanel Abney by Osman Can Yerebakan
Nina Abney22
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