Okwui Okpokwasili by Jenn Joy

The celebrated choreographer of Bronx Gothic explores the embodiment of psychic space, the nature of memory, and who gets to write history.

BOMB 137 Fall 2016
BOMB 137 Cover
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Okpokwasili in Bronx Gothic, Danspace Project, New York, 2014. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Dancer, writer, and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili staged her latest work, when I return who will receive me, in the underground magazine of Fort Jay on Governor’s Island in June 2016. The performance and installation entangles histories of war and resistance with expressions of memory, grief, and desire. Okpokwasili’s fierce choreography reflects her minute attention to utterance and gesture as emotional physicality, and to how physicality untethers language. As she performs—shaking, doubling over, collapsing—other dancers play out and repeat intimate duets on partially obscured stages. To witness is always to miss something else and to be reminded of the precarious conditions of address.

when I return who will receive me presents fragments from Okpokwasili’s ongoing research for Poor People’s TV Room. Both works speak to forgotten narratives, specifically the embodied protest practices of Nigerian women during the Women’s War in the 1920s, and are cut with Nollywood cinema drama and speculative fiction. Her discursive practice includes collaborations with artists, directors, and choreographers, among them Ralph Lemon, Nora Chipaumire, Peter Born, and Knut Åsdam.

I first met Okpokwasili in 2013, when she and Lemon came to Rhode Island School of Design’s sculpture department as visiting artists. We met again this past summer, upon her return from a tour of her solo work Bronx Gothic, to continue our conversation about the conditions and ethics of performance in the context of sexuality and race, and around finding words for sensations and events that resist verbalization.

–Jenn Joy

Jenn Joy In recent years, your collaborative work, and in particular your solo work, has focused on cultural and historical memory, and on sorrow and grief. In when I return who will receive me, we find you in an underground room, trembling, dancing…

Okwui Okpokwasili I’m not sure if I would say that my work has focused on sorrow and grief. Perhaps a layer of these emotions is inevitable when you work in performance, its chief problem and strength being impermanence. Maybe it’s more about sorrow and memory, the failure of recall to illuminate and sustain any idea of who we are. I was trying to make a space that resonates with not remembering and then attempting a visceral recall. I thought of calling out, crying out, to a past that can’t be clearly discerned. I thought of a group of women coming together and listening to each other to express not just grievances but grief and pain. They were desperate, and in calling out to each other, they called out to the world. I wanted to make space to have women come together, find each other, and call out.

JJ There is so much to grieve these days, a deluge of catastrophes. I have been rereading Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts all month. She writes of a “dark crescent of land, a place where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear the most, where heavy rains come and wash bodies up and out of their graves, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.” Nelson conjures a darkness that feels like depression, but also illuminates how writing can navigate fear with attention.

OO My new piece, Poor People’s TV Room, is about a critical absence that I feel when a tragedy happens—like the kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram and the Women’s War in Nigeria. My work is not explicitly about the incredible women in northern Nigeria who came together to shame their government into doing something to get these 300 abducted girls back. African women are not just victims of colonizers and oppressive or corrupt governments. They have been building collectives and advocating and fighting to be visible for a long time. I don’t want to make documentary work—but I don’t want these women to disappear, either. My piece is about visibility, or collecting—

JJ It feels essential that history is not just being represented, that the physicality of performance conjures a point of contact against forgetting, an imagining specific to history.

OO It’s material. So how do we imagine? What is the nature of that imagining? I claim an Igbo identity in Nigeria. Yet, when I am there, I am clearly a very distant relation, if not a tourist. My family is Igbo; they came to the US and stayed because the Biafran War devastated their homeland. So my being raised in the United States is directly tied to the legacy of the Igbo people. But I didn’t grow up there. I don’t live in Nigeria. I don’t even speak Igbo. I can say “shut up” and “If I hit you, you will cry now.” I feel like I’m looking at so much from the outside, yet it’s also inside me. I’m wrestling with that. That’s why I had to create a fiction.

How do I guard against erasing the marks of my Western position, my inflection, or infection? How do I attempt to possess these practices of the Other—even if I commingle my multiple, buried selves, insofar as these women are related to me, or are ostensibly my ancestors? Traditional Igbo cosmology is deeply concerned with sustaining the tie between the living and the dead. You give libations to the ancestors; they are dependent on you to feed them, to quench their thirst. They die again when they’re forgotten. So perhaps they are okay with my attempts at possession.

JJ Your work infuses gesture with the somatic. It happens on a cellular level. Bronx Gothicalso imagines a possession of another kind, one that feels more intimate, even autobiographical, as the main text takes the form of an epistle: you read a series of letters between two young girls. For the audience, it’s tempting to assume that one of them might be you. But it is fiction—representation at its slippery limits.

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Okpokwasili in Bronx Gothic, Danspace Project, New York, 2014. Photo by Ian Douglas.

OO With Bronx Gothic, there is no authority even in my own history. I can’t trust the writing even though I wrote it. I constructed this weird and complicated story around a poor girl who needs to remember the awful things that happened to her. She has to collect them, put them all together, and share them so that someone will remember. But only the body remembers. That’s how you can try to get to some of these things: through the body. I do believe these memories are material in the body.

JJ When you visited my Trespass Performance seminar at RISD, you shared the Amos Tutuola story about a boy who walks into the bush. He encounters ghosts who take him and place him in a bag full of snakes and bugs. The shifting scale is spectacular, as the bag is huge, and yet it can be carried. This story is neither magic realism nor memory, but is rather a collection of material, of trauma and fear with all their leaking odors. You asked the class to translate these images into gestures, forcing language to disintegrate but maintaining something of the images’ affective densities.

OO How can you be so you that you disintegrate? How can the density create an electric dispersal? Perhaps the beginning of Bronx Gothic is about trying to create a density that can break the audience’s will to make meaning outside of their own bodies; about attempting to position audience members squarely in the center of their own corporeal density, their own insides. It’s about the insides of a girl, a particular girl, me—but it’s the memory of me. I’m looking back, shaping—I is not enough. There were other people. It’s their narratives that I need to explore.

JJ You described Bronx Gothic as your Jane Eyre—writing as self-possession or coming into sexuality and friendship.

OO Bronx Gothic is about being unbound. That restrained language in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is something I reject, yet I am also compelled by it. I want to undo manners. What I love about Jane is that she is so deeply loving even as she’s perceived by her supposed benefactors as a rude, awful child. And it becomes clear that those who brutalized her were in fact brutal, or greedy, or desperate themselves and in her sense of fairness they detected a rebuke that they would not tolerate. She’s full of justice, and her longing to be loved and to be in communion with someone—anyone just and simple and plain and good—kind of broke my heart when I was younger.

JJ There is much violence and desire in both the novel’s content and form. In the opening sequence, as Jane is reading about colonial histories, another character takes her book and throws it at her. It emphasizes the urgency of coming to knowledge and the danger of it.

OO I’m concerned with violence. I’m concerned with desire. I’m concerned with my little girl and what she’s going to do when she starts looking at her vulva. What is my daughter going to do with her desire? How is she going to understand it? How is she going to satisfy it? I don’t know. I remember what I was doing at a young age. I remember what my friends were doing. Is there a place in performance to deal with a brown girl’s body as the site of innocence and desire? How can we all go inside the body, inside the psyche? How can I get people in the room to go there, even if I’m not asking them to move? I always talk about the psychic space as an embodied space, a body space. Maybe it’s empathy.

JJ I was thinking about empathy as a part of the dramaturgy or the spaciousness that Bronx Gothic creates. You are already on stage as the audience walks in, and you shake and keep shaking. Your shadow, too, vibrates, and between you and the shadow lives an interstitial space that doesn’t flatten out or become pictorial. You create shifts in distance and intimacy, and then you read us a long letter from a yellow pad. In your reading, we are also read.

OO While I’m the performer, I want you to remember your body, too. It’s important to look at people. For other works, there will be other strategies, but for Bronx Gothic I felt the need to acknowledge that I’m not the only person in the room. You, the audience, are not invisible or just sitting there, looking at me. I’m looking at you, too. I want the gaze to move in both directions.

In Bronx Gothic I didn’t want to perform a particular virtuosity that makes people sit outside of it and go, “Ooh, look at how those black people sure can dance.” What’s the space of being together in a room? How can we tap into that charge and undermine the normal models of how we’re together in a room?

Someone asked me after a show, “How do you feel about doing this piece in front of largely white audiences? People get to see this brown or black body in pain, but you never transcend that pain. Aren’t you playing into or reifying this position? Are they getting off on it?”

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Omagbitse Omagbemi in when I return who will receive me, 2016, performance at Fort Jay, Governor’s Island, River to River Festival. Photos by Peter Born.

JJ This is so complicated. I was speaking with Ligia Lewis about this question—whether performance can only reify subjectivities or if it can ever do other work. Bronx Gothic forces a more complicit questioning of subjectivity.

OO The spectacle of brown and black bodies in pain is a deep tradition in this country. I’m not interested in transcending it; I’m living in it. How can we transcend something that is ongoing? Bronx Gothic is not about progressing from confusion to clarity, or from pain to no pain—as if I can act as some kind of anesthetic. My character’s ability to eventually see and meet herself in that pain—to me it’s like, Fuck, finally! As brown women, we are able to see ourselves through all of the constructions of who we aren’t.

JJ When you repeat, “Am I awake? Am I awake?” the character multiplies through the question. There is no resolution, but a visceral awakening that simultaneously holds many textures, emotions, and sensations.

OO Maybe I should have been courageous enough to say, “Why should we run away from pain?” There was an article in the New York Times about the medical establishment’s inherent racism: because doctors don’t think black people have the capacity to experience the pain that white people do, they tend not to prescribe opioids at the same rate and levels that they prescribe them to white people. In this country, brown people have occupied a place between beast and human. As Hortense Spillers says about the difference between flesh and body— we are flesh but not necessarily body.

JJ Spillers’s analysis is brilliant—describing race as undoing the body as the subject, whereupon it becomes either captive or liberated through “pornotroping” methods. As you said earlier, you are redirecting the gaze to make room for other ways of seeing.

OO My pieces always contain something that I’m hoping for—a transmission of this open pathway of our mutual embodiment. How to keep that pathway open, how to stoke it? How can we get into the viscera? Whose body gets primacy? Whose body gets to be seen? And how do we look at the body, its shape and frame in performance? How are certain bodies lifted above others? Magic or virtuosity in performance are fine, but not at the expense of the brown body’s experience in the room. How are we all embodied together in a space? What are we doing to each other as we share a space in time, in a particular time? These are my primary concerns. When I first saw Min Tanaka at PS122, I felt like my body changed watching him. I’m not going to do what he did—but I am interested in the potential for a body transformation among those of us in the room.

JJ Tanaka is such a powerful conjurer of history and geography. His intense physicality and excruciatingly slow movements transmit dark and difficult images—trauma. What was your experience touring Bronx Gothic and then bringing it back to the Bronx?

OO Man, that was weird. One thing I feel about doing performance is that my body gets rooted deeper and deeper in the piece. Just when I think there’s nothing left in me or nowhere to go with the work, it keeps opening up. Duration definitely has an impact.

The Bronx building in which I performed Bronx Gothic was right next to the graveyard and church I used to attend. A receptionist from the church brought a picture on the last night of the show. She thought it showed her brother and me in confirmation class, but the picture was so blurry that I couldn’t tell. Still, that feeling of being out of place was coming back to me. I remembered the silence—or having to be silent.

JJ The proximity to the church must have been powerful. The silence and silencing around sex and sexuality that you describe reside so deep in the church and our culture in general. I was just reading the anonymous woman’s public letter to Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer who assaulted her.

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Omagbitse Omagbemi in when I return who will receive me, 2016, performance at Fort Jay, Governor’s Island, River to River Festival.

OO I was weeping at the end of that motherfucking thing. She made him witness her embodiment. She was silent for so long and, finally, she speaks.

JJ She is clear: This isn’t about inebriation; it’s about consent. This isn’t about promiscuity; it’s about rape. Let’s not confuse them!

OO She said, “It’s like if you were to read an article where a car was hit, and found dented, in a ditch. But maybe the car enjoyed being hit. Maybe the other car didn’t mean to hit it, just bump it up a little bit. Cars get in accidents all the time.” She makes it clear that in our culture, we have more respect for a wrecked, inanimate object than we do for a woman sexually brutalized. It’s as if our culture somehow needs to protect this expression of rage and violence, needs to hold onto it and cultivate it. “We should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error.” She said that beautifully, but, of course, it made me realize that that is precisely what this culture teaches our boys. If rape is really an expression of power, or a particular way of wielding it, cultivating it as one of the tools in the proverbial woodshed of national defense makes sense. It’s said that violence should be used as a last, extraordinary recourse, but is that true in practice? How can we undo the impulse toward violence, especially when we believe it might serve us, allow us to get what we want faster? Rape has always been a tool of war, a weapon, a way to undermine and destroy a culture. Will women’s bodies continue to be the first site of practice? What can we do to undo this?

JJ As a mother of a young boy, I think often about how to counter this deeply embedded fascination with violence in speech and action.

OO What Brock Turner’s assault victim did was a “performance” in line with some of what I’m looking at in my research on the southeastern Nigerian women for Poor People’s TV Room. It’s a work that’s still in progress. My concern is with particular bodies that are invisible. We are specters. We are shadows. How to exist as both shadow and living body—which is also a position! It’s a place that you’re emerging from. The dark shadow is a rich and dangerous space. Who gets to define its outlines and meaning? It’s not alive; it has an unshakable weight. It presides over our nightmares.

JJ The shadow is immaterial and exquisitely material at the same time.

OO I don’t want to leave the nightmare zone. I want to build full and rich characters with integrity as brown bodies, but I never want to lose the context of what they’re working out of. The shadow and the fears have to be there. That is really important. Peter [Born], who does the staging for me, is amazing in terms of designing the architecture in which to situate these characters.

JJ In early iterations of Bronx Gothic at the Park Avenue Armory and then at Danspace Project, Peter created a stage as a membrane or skin within the theater. The shadows are cast onto an almost permeable architecture of sheets.

OO I like thinking of it as a skin. Sometimes I think of it as a bedroom, a secret chamber the audience enters. The sheets are marked with all our effluvia and secrets are told. It’s a zone where strange things happen, the zone right before dreaming.

JJ Peter’s installation design for when I return who will receive me beautifully extended the architecture of Bronx Gothic into the dank military cavern of Fort Jay.

OO This piece is my attempt at making a shrine in the magazine under Fort Jay on Governor’s Island. A shrine to what? The destruction of a particular shrine in southeastern Nigeria in 1902 was a signal to some indigenous people that the British had won. It was the beginning of the British attempt at unifying the southern and northern parts of the country. The north was mostly a Muslim patriarchal structure that the British could recognize and understand how to manipulate. But in the south they couldn’t read the social systems. They considered the south more undisciplined, almost feminine, and much more dispersed and local. Discipline and violence were perpetrated to control the south. Villages were burned down; there was mass conscription—what they called corvèe labor—to build the colonial infrastructure. The destruction of the shrine marks the beginning of the end of the two distinct social systems.

JJ There are only female performers in when I return. You sing together.

OO There are seven of us, all brown women. We are coupled or alone throughout the space, speaking, singing, dancing. I wanted to create a sacred intimacy, a space where we could be considered together and apart. That space held our volume. I’m always looking to resonate.

JJ The echoes are very powerful in this piece. The words refrain and carry us into the shadows where they linger in the air. One performer walks into the tunnel singing, “Have I swallowed enough, have I swallowed too much, have I swallowed enough, have I swallowed too much?” while another woman speaks on a small platform at the entrance, parsing questions of visibility and legality like, Who is counting, who is being counted, who is speaking, who is a mouth piece, who is just a piece?

OO Some of what I’m reading around the Women’s War looks at the British officers who were colonizing on the ground. They were especially afraid of the bodies of brown and black women, whom the officers considered Amazons, beasts, especially in collectives, and whose nudity only further reinforced their malicious intent. A woman baring her body is an affront to morality, stability, and peace. When African women, especially older women, showed their bodies to shame the people watching—it was a terrifying act.

These women seemed free to me; their embodied protest practices were liberating acts, and not just in service of their own liberation. Their war was also referred to as the Grand Egwu. In the Igbo language, egwu means dance, so it seems that this protest practice is linguistically tied to performance.

JJ In your piece, the choreographic relationships between the women performers—how they embrace, how they grieve, how they hold each other—suggest their coming into possession of sexuality while also referring to the violence that surrounds them.

OO One act of embodied protest was “sitting on a man’s head.” The women would collectively go into the home area of a particular person in power and sit on the men’s heads. They would sing and dance. They would insult the men, or show them their naked bodies. Apparently, it could get quite scatological. To British or missionary ears, these songs contained highly salacious lyrics that called into question a particular man’s sexual prowess.

There were known places of female control, like the marketplace where the women worked and formed organizations.

JJ Collective resistance was already part of the economy?

OO Right. In 1925 there was an event called the Nwaobiala that was the first hint of women’s active resistance against the British colonists and missionaries, and against the effects of colonization. Traditionally in some of these southeastern villages—particularly in Igbo culture—the younger women were naked and the older women policed the younger women’s bodies; they watched them. If you were pregnant, it would show. But then the young women started to clothe themselves. To be clothed was, in a way, to be hidden, to be amoral. One of the demands they made in 1925 was that young women should go undressed and let their private parts be in the sun, see the light.

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Thuli Dumakude in when I return who will receive me, 2016, performance at Fort Jay, Governor’s Island, River to River Festival.

JJ How does this research translate into your work?

OO I find that these collective acts—sitting on a man, building a song and dance—are not only protest practices but also performance practices. They are performances in and of themselves. I want to think about them and create a new and resonant form of embodied practice. The research I did in Times Square in the fall of 2015 was an attempt to gather prompts from strangers about what they always wanted to share with the world. I have over 150 interviews and songs so far. Can I assume that we all have a collective grievance or a problem that we want to communicate? We don’t seem to know whom we are addressing. The woman who was assaulted by Turner had someone to address in court. The Nigerian women were addressing a colonial government and the indigenous leaders empowered by this government to set rules that the women felt undermined their traditional practices, the land, and their world. I want to access the collective space.

JJ You’re asking performance to behave as an ethical practice. Unlike in court, embodied performance asks not only how we tell stories but what work these stories do when they come together. What image of the present is incited when disparate stories become contiguous? Judith Butler speaks of the bodily demand for more livable lives, of moving from the act of speech to public assemblies. She asks, “What does it mean to act together when the conditions for acting together are devastated or falling away?”

OO As stewards of the culture, older Igbo women recognized that the breakdown of the cultural body was an existential crisis. The women believed that the British brought disease and famine. They saw that the “body” they were responsible to protect was in a sense already infected. The British were an abomination. The earth was not only rejecting the colonizers, it was reacting against the indigenous people. The women needed to do something to appease the earth. That meant going back to some of their traditional practices. The estimates are that hundreds of women were killed during this time. Masses of naked brown women went to the district offices. The British reacted. They fired into the crowd. The women asked, “Why would you shoot into us? We’re trees that bear fruit.”

I keep reading these stories, knowing that they will signal something in my body.

JJ Reading as a way back into the body. Writing as a way of awaking to the materiality of your experience.

OO Sometimes I have to run away from the body and then go back to writing. I was told the story of when Nelson Mandela came out of jail and said that he had to relearn how to love his wife. It amazed me that someone who was about to be president would reveal such vulnerability, that after fighting for so long, he didn’t know his wife.

JJ His love was so foundational to the transfer of power, to the disposal of tyranny.

OO This idea that you embody a fight, a conflict, and now you’re finally the victor—so what is your task as the victor?

After 9/11, I asked two of my female friends—one is a lawyer, the other works for the state—if there is a department where people are considering peace? Why can’t we spend our energy and resources on seriously investigating what it would mean to sustain nonviolence—a world without war?

JJ Isn’t that what your performance does, just with fewer resources? (laughter)

OO Ultimately it’s about love, empathy, being in communion, being in community in a way that doesn’t need too much. It’s not about giving an answer or having a prescription. How can we be in community without demanding things that we can’t give?

JJ To be listened to and to be looked at feels so rare, precious.

OO Yes, people want to be seen and heard. It’s fundamental. Can I hold the image of a thousand middle-aged-to-elderly brown women stripped naked and singing? Imagine Trayvon Martin’s mom, Sandra Bland’s mom, Tamir Rice’s mom, Eric Garner’s mom, Michael Brown’s mom, the thousands of moms in Chicago marching naked against state violence, gun violence? Singing, “Are your dicks so small that your guns have to be so big? Come and fill me with your bullets, impotent dicks. Fuck me with your big guns, since you can’t get your dicks up?” Imagine for a moment this mass of naked brown women slaying with wit and shoving their pussies in the face of any instrument or symbol of corporate or state violence? My mind can’t contain it.

Jenn Joy cofounded collective address, a choreographic research space in Brooklyn, and is the author of The Choreographic (MIT Press, 2014). She is a BOMB contributing editor.

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Originally published in

BOMB 137, Fall 2016

Featuring interviews with Sarah Oppenheimer, Mel Chin, Marina Rosenfeld, Okwui Okpokwasili, Laia Jufresa, Nell Zink, Jen Bervin, and Dianna Frid.

Read the issue
BOMB 137 Cover