Take 5 Performance Festival
Dec 4-8, US Virgin Islands
By KURT MCVEY, JAN. 2017
I skipped Art Basel Miami Beach this year, not as some form of pseudo, self aggrandizing art world protest or because I was too busy in New York or couldn’t afford it, but because I couldn’t really think of a good reason to be there. I’m not a collector of any significance, the parties didn’t seem too intriguing (Madonna?), and nothing really seemed worth covering in a manner that required real in-depth analysis.
Though anyone who feels a part of this whole art world thing may feel a good pilgrim’s responsibility to attend, this begins to fade after you’ve paid your Basel dues, so to speak. For non-writers especially, it should be noted that the editorial enthusiasm for stories related to Miami Art Week has waned considerably, primarily due to the fact that Basel has become so fleeting, over-saturated and experiential, that either you lived it or simply don’t have the time to care.
I still wanted to get the hell out of New York that first gray week of December and particularly someplace warm and less, well, less. Luckily, I was invited to St. Croix along with four other journalists to witness Take 5, a weeklong performance series produced by the compassionate and inscrutable art liaison, dealer, and curator, Alaina Simone. The series featured performances by David Antonio Cruz, Rashaad Newsome, Oceana James, Kharis Kennedy and La Vaughn Belle, with a special screening by Jeannette Ehlers.
Co-curated by the assistant curator at The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, Carla Acevedo-Yates along with Monica Marin of The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, Take 5 “…is the continuation of a series of conversations on forced migrations, from the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade until today, and the notion of the body as a space of resistance,” says the curatorial duo in a joint statement.
Take 5 continues the discussion brought forth in “Migrating Histories,” Acevedo-Yates and Marin’s first long-form, collaborative project, which also featured artists talks and weeklong performances. Where “Migrating Histories” took place this past July and coincided with US Independence Day celebrations as well as USVI Emancipation Day, Take 5 appears to be a rallying cry, not only for Crucian citizens staring down their island’s fast-approaching Centennial on Transfer Day-which commemorates the day the Danish West Indies were formally ceded to the United States by Denmark on March 31st, 1917-but an artistic pièce de résistance for marginalized bodies across the globe.
Not to deviate too far from, in this particular case, the essential first person, but being the only white, cisgender, American male journalist among our group, it would be slightly disingenuous not to incorporate a more philosophical and outwardly anthropological narrative in order to more concretely illustrate the power of performance art as a system-shocking catalyst for cross-cultural empathy. Perhaps the greatest issue currently facing our collective species, outside of gross environmental negligence, is our reluctance to fully entertain and ultimately honor someone else’s experience.
As we approach the inauguration of Trump, a man whose first major statement as a presidential candidate involved calling the vast population of Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists, we’re seeing a more vocal effort to muster up a larger, national sense of empathy amongst straight white men in relation to America’s “othered” communities, as evidenced recently by a ridiculous PSA produced by MTV called “Dear White Guys” which failed spectacularly-and rather ironically-in its intended purpose by propagating the short-sighted yet overly broad, regressive rhetoric that fuels the very same racist vitriol it was looking to denounce. MTV removed the video, put it back up, and removed it again, probably because its only success was in proving the unfortunate reality that “reverse racism” not only exists, but that it’s actually just racism.
Such hyperbolic and condescending generalizations aren’t just being mustered up by Trump and oblivious network execs, however. While inevitably discussing the recent election on the way to a dinner party at a secluded farm to table restaurant in the heart of St. Croix’s jungle, one of the participating journalists declared that “White people are the problem,” when responding to the open question of how and why Americans would elect a clueless Muppet like Donald Trump as the leader of the free world. The van collectively brushed this off with an awkward chuckle and an “Oh, come on.” This was followed by the writer’s incredulous retort: “I’m serious!” The truth of the matter is; America doesn’t have a white people problem as much as it doesn’t have a black people problem. America has an empathy problem.
Earlier that first day, barely an hour after touching down on the unincorporated island of St. Croix, artist David Antonio Cruz performed his increasingly iconic piece, “Green, howiwantyougreen” in the Great House of the Whim Estate Museum, a former sugar cane plantation dating back to the 17th Century. Drinks were being served before the show just a stone’s throw away from the dilapidated, former slaves’ quarters as the Caribbean sun slipped behind the trees and into ideal magic hour positioning. “Having five people of color standing on light boxes resembling auction blocks in the middle of a slave owner’s living room was life changing and powerful,” says Cruz of his performance. “I wanted us to transform, change its history, and own the space.”
Cruz brought in his usual heavies for the piece: Jennifer Jade Ledesna, Diego Carvajal Peñaranda, Lisa Strum, and the composer, singer, and cellist, Daniel de Jesus. Kharis Kennedy, another featured Take 5 artist, filled the masked “chorus” role originally played by the multidisciplinary artist Elia Alba. Cruz’s piece, which is based on Sonnets of Dark Love, the last eleven poems by the late Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca, is as much a short play as it is performance art, dashing between spoken word, song, and emotive contemporary dance.
I watched Cruz’s piece from several different vantage points and often through multiple doorways, as seating was limited and I was continually asked to move by various locals and several programmers who were a bit confused initially as to who I was or why I was there. Happily, the viewing took on an interesting voyeuristic quality, as increasingly warm sunbeams streamed through the space like natural spotlights, lighting the way for the occasional Bridled Quail-Dove to dive in and out of the house at will.
We were soon back in the van, as previously mentioned; five liberal art writers to mirror the selected performers, being chauffeured back and forth between the island’s two districts (Frederiksted and Christiansted) for five days by the indispensable Mr. Joseph, a Crucian native and our driver/tour-guide. Mr. Joseph was in his fifties, presumably, and would every so often interrupt our frequently heated debates to fill us in on the local history, while subliminally reminding us of how great we had it in America and how we are all ultimately on the same side. In many ways he was our chaperone and moral compass, especially when our real and presumed differences and combined first world privilege would get the better of us. On his dashboard was a pocket photo of his son, smiling in a navy blue cap and gown with the words “Think of me” written above it.
There were moments throughout the trip where Mr. Joseph would pull me aside and explain that he actually agreed with me regarding certain issues, which created its own interior conflicts for me, primarily because I had to wonder if his own perspective was too entangled with the status-quo of the island’s previous generations. Within the highly pressurized van, I would find myself slipping into this token white male advocate position, often reflexively and a bit defensively. This entails leaning on capitalistic, objective talking points dealing primarily with American society as a functioning, all inclusive meritocracy, while acknowledging, but frequently under appreciating the severity of systemic modes of oppression, primarily due to my severe lack of visceral, personal experience on the matter.
This often manifested by questioning if the SATs are truly biased or whether or not multiple buildings at Harvard being built by slaves when slavery was unfortunately legal in the US is a relevant offshoot of the same discussion and to exactly what extent it should tarnish the reputation of America’s most prestigious institution of higher learning. During the SAT debate, I would watch Mr. Joseph’s eyes in the rearview mirror go to the photo of his son, smiling proudly in graduation garb and wondered where the young man stood on the subject.
Day two featured a multi-media performance orchestrated by Rashaad Newsome at the University of the Virgin Islands in Frederiksted. I had interviewed Newsome (and Cruz more recently) for this same magazine almost three years earlier. Newsome appears to have fully stepped into a sort of playful Godfather role for younger artists, dancers, musicians and performers, especially in the queer black community in New York, while gracefully ascending the blue chip art escalator.
The title of Newsome’s performance, “Five,” referred in part to his five chosen vogue dancers, all in different colored fluorescent wigs. Their dynamic movements were being motion captured and translated into a digital rendering (like a tangled, frenetic ball of yarn) that would eventually become a 1:1 metal sculpture as well as a series of lithograph collage prints that blur the line between 2D and 3D. Newsome nonchalantly conducted the movements of his dancers along with a troupe of musicians, most notably Precious, the ferocious vogue MC and her counterpart, the baritone Stefanos Koroneos who, despite their polar opposite genre leanings and niche vocal stylings, meshed seamlessly. The swell of authentic Djembe drums, indigenous to the Congo, which raged in tandem with Newsome’s glitched-out, digital drum machine, created a simultaneous “portrait of progression” for percussive instrumentation, dance, and image making, while thrusting urban gay culture into the hearts and minds of the primarily Caribbean audience.
“Performing in St. Croix was important to me because it allowed me to tap into rhythms indigenous to the island-rhythms that I am very familiar with coming from New Orleans,” says Newsome, who will soon be returning to the Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans for Mélange, a multi-media exhibition that will feature a video of his recent “Five” performance from SF MoMA last April. The show, which opens January 14th, will also feature lithograph prints made from the forms captured during the SF MoMA performance. Newsome’s troupe will also be reprising “Five” live at CAC Gallery on January 20th.
After Newsome’s St. Croix rendition of “Five,” as the sun set on day two, we piled into Mr. Joseph’s van and made our way to Mango Hill Greathouse, a 7,000 square-foot plantation style home inside a gaited community and perched at the top of a hill overlooking Christiansted Harbor. Artists, curators and select locals, all dressed up, schmoozed around the in-ground pool and its covered verandas or mingled inside with the impressive contemporary Cuban art collection. There was a bit of politicking needed to decide whether or not it was cool for Mr. Joseph to drive Newsome and his fabulous troupe to the location and eventually back to their hotels, as Mr. Joseph was deputized only to transport us journalists around. Luckily, Ms. Simone worked it out, as the cramped ride to and from the after party, momentarily devoid of relentless political discourse, was a highlight of the trip. Credit should be given to a hilarious Precious for lightening up the van, figuratively speaking.
Day three involved a tour through a small vernacular cottage in Free Gut, a part of Christiansted where free Africans lived during Dutch colonial times. The space is owned by Tobago-born artist La Vaughn Belle and will be featured in her forthcoming documentary, The House that Freedom Built. The small cottage, a work of art as much as a work in progress, was serving as a quaint studio for Belle. The small abode stood in stark contrast to the previous evening’s Mango Hill Greathouse. There was no concerted follow up discussion regarding the polarized nature of the two locations or how the island remains economically polarized, while serving as a clear microcosm for wealth disparity in America; perhaps because it’s only appropriate to deconstruct the nature of white privilege when you’re not directly enjoying the fruits of it.
Since 2011, Belle has been uncovering the complex and tumultuous history of the small cottages and is quite vocal about the prevailing obstacles in place for black members of the Caribbean community to take out bank loans in order to purchase land and property. Much of the funding for her artwork and the documentary comes from various artist grants. It should also be noted that Belle had to personally contend with a deeply embedded drug addict who had been squatting there, even weeks after she officially owned the space. I found her compassionate tone regarding his removal and ultimate fate to be quite touching. Once Belle was able to enter and fully evaluate the amount of work that was needed to bring the space up to code, a new, ongoing internal conflict developed for the artist concerning the erosion of the house’s original architecture and the need to replace it with new materials not directly linked to its historical roots.
Belle walked us through a series of unfinished paintings featuring zoomed-in images of the blue patterns often found on “chaney,” a Virgin Island slang term for fragments of European fine china, unearthed in the dirt by children who would use the fragments as faux money (china+money=chaney). Belle has become so fascinated with these fossilized artifacts of fractured European decadence that she traveled to Denmark to examine the country’s preserved collection of colonial fine china, dating back to the 17th century. She was flatly denied permission to see the china, as major institutions are not always enthusiastic about exhuming their various skeletons, however pretty they may be.
One of Belle’s more impactful pieces was a sculpture featuring various fossilized fragments of the surrounding coral reef, which slaves and eventually free men, bloody feet and all, would use for the foundations of their Free Gut housing. The gray coral was piled and encased in a see-through Plexiglas pedestal. Belle’s studio visit fell directly on the heels of our “Harvard erected by slaves” discussion in the van. This unassuming work, inside this humble structure, illustrated the idea, and rather powerfully, that no matter how far we thrust into the future as a collective Western society and bury our transgressions in the past; we must push ourselves to fully comprehend, as transparently as possible, both the real and metaphorical foundations of our homes, communities, and institutions, whether they be academic, economic, or governmental. Despite Belle’s hospitality, and perhaps due to her extensive and ever-flowing knowledge regarding the space’s history and her warm but penetrating eyes, the walls started to creep in on me, and I had to step outside and take five with the island’s numerous little lizards.
I had a similar experience the next day while watching the NYC based actor, singer and activist, Oceana James’ superb one-woman performance, the theatrical experiment, For Gowie: The Deceitful Fellow at the crumbling, ivy entangled House of Venus Johannes in Frederiksted. Venus Johannes, a Solomon Northup type figure, was captured in West Africa by slavers when she was only twelve years old. Just days later she was purchased by a Dutch sea captain at a holding station off the coast of Africa, who quickly married her, granting her freedom and promising that she would eventually be returned to her homeland. Johannes was instead betrayed and sold into slavery as soon as she reached St. Croix. She eventually won her freedom after three decades in slavery. Many speculate that her plight and ongoing protests served as a major catalyst for the slave uprising that led to the St. Croix emancipation in 1848.
James utilized Johannes’ historic, run down, but spiritually potent plot of land as her stage. Local kids helped light numerous candles on origami sailboats that were strewn across the dirt and concrete lawn as familiar faces, mostly spectators from the previous performances, settled into their seats on the blocked off street. On the gravel in front of the audience, James had written the words “rebel” and “love” in white chalk. The transformative, empathetic moment came, when in the middle of James’ marathon performance, while deep into a passionate monologue about the similarities between past and present modes of oppression, James cried out in a Creole accent, “And dey give us tests dey know we can’t pass!” At that point, several of my journalistic counterparts, who were sitting in the front row, quickly whipped their heads around in unison and shot me a silent “told you so” look.
Though there is no real evidence that the new or old SATs are inherently racist or biased, the statistics regarding the racial and economic disparity between those who do well and those who do not are telling. The conversation regarding the constitutionality of affirmative action in direct relation to the significance of standardized test scores needs to be scrutinized at a deeper level, no doubt. My push back on this matter stems from an athlete’s Darwinian predilection for positive motivation and a genuine interest in celebrating exceptionalism as a catalyst for inspiring others.
For someone who spends much of their lives speaking to and writing about successful people who are amazing at what they do, and this includes the five artists in Take 5, it’s true that I have a difficult time entertaining the idea that standardized tests as filtering obstacles should be removed as opposed to surmounted. By this token, should parents of black children, when looking to Obama as a model of success, explain that he is in fact a fluke or the exception to the rule? Should poor whites, blacks and Latino students, or even international Asian students speaking English as a second language, who may very well have studied for and eventually conquered the SATs or ACTs, be similarly shrugged off? Should we openly support any ideology that acquiesces to defeat? These are all questions Take 5 pushes to the forefront.
Directly after the conclusion of James’ show, I walked over to a small table where some Take 5 volunteers were pouring wine. They seemed a bit indisposed so I poured myself a generous glass and slammed it back. “Looks like we have a new bartender,” I overheard one of the ladies say, somewhat perturbed as I walked off in search of Mr. Joseph and the van. James’ performance was the first in the series that Mr. Joseph took the pleasure of watching. Until then he had simply sat back with the van, presumably under orders, only to relive the performances vicariously through our praise or criticism. Earlier that morning I insisted he no longer sit it out. Afterwards, he and I drove over to what would be the last leg of our take five experience; Kharis Kennedy’s Touch Has A Memory painting exhibition, followed by her short performance piece at CMCArts, "What Can I Do To Kill It and Be Free?"
We had been given a daytime preview of Kennedy’s paintings earlier in the week. During that walkthrough we discovered that the paintings were inspired by the unfortunate truth that Kennedy’s significant other had been having an affair. Leading up to confronting her partner on the matter, Kennedy had been having a series of bizarre dreams where she would experience visions of other women’s labia. The paintings, featuring ambiguous female figures and their spirit animals, and labia, were bold, tall, thin and mysterious, a bit like Kennedy herself. The exhibit also featured Dance To Me, a documentation of a collaborative performance with Seattle-based modern dancer Bryon Carr as well as a video booth that captured and later projected gallery visitors busting a move in their own right.
Kennedy’s “What Can I Do To Kill It and Be Free?” was delightfully surprising in its brevity and impact. Kennedy had set up a Polygraph machine on a nondescript table in the middle of the concrete basement of the gallery space. The accumulative audience of the weeklong series flooded in and waited on the periphery for Kennedy to emerge. When she did, she quietly sat down in the interrogation chair, strapped the lie detector’s tentacles around her fingers and chest, and began answering simple preliminary questions which she had pre-recorded in her own voice. After answering several questions, Kennedy’s own voice asked, “Are you Kharis Kennedy?” At this moment, Kennedy broke down crying (or acted like it), stood up, ripped the test off her finger and stormed out of the room. After a long, collective WTF moment of silence, the crowd burst into applause.
My take on this (and of course, this can only be my take) is that being a presumably liberal white person, male or female, in relation to tricky discussions regarding race, privilege, guilt, and oppression, entrenched in the process of examining your own particular role or identity within a frequently unjust system can be overwhelming. I had been experiencing this exact feeling with progressive intensity for four concentrated days that I had a vision of myself crying and storming out of the room right behind her.
As white men in America, particularly, as well as white women to a lesser degree, self-reflection within the frame of identity politics can be taxing, brutal, confusing, if not entirely alien. Kennedy’s work seems to be about the reexamination of self-worth and accountability, the internal and external trials that come with this, whether in relation to our lovers’ bodies or the diverse body of people around us, and ultimately the incredible catharsis that follows true self-awareness. This momentary shock of uncomfortable introspection, which Kennedy illustrated so simply, needs to be digested with the understanding and real appreciation that marginalized bodies struggle with this sensation for much of their waking lives. You won’t get this from a feeble MTV PSA.
The next morning we headed to The Buccaneer, a hotel and beachfront resort in Christiansted, not far from Mango Hill Greathouse. We would often spend the early afternoon at the resort drinking mimosas and iced coffees and writing as much as we could until our laptops overheated from the Caribbean sun. Our group of journalists was set to fly out of St. Croix later that afternoon. That meant we would unfortunately miss Jeanette Ehler’s video performance, “Whip It Good” which would be projected on the yellow walls of Fort Christiansvaern, a citadel built on the water by the Danish in the mid 18th century. This is the actual location where authorities would whip and punish rebellious slaves and other dissidents. Ehler’s video features the artist violently whipping a white canvas into submission.
While finishing up another story remotely in order to meet a deadline, I couldn’t help but challenge the notion put forth by the same, highly vocal writer, that black artists must be pitched as “the second coming,” or something equally sensational in order to garner coverage in major magazines. Newsome, who had joined us with a few members of his traveling entourage, listened in as many of us did. As I mentioned earlier in the piece, I had interviewed Newsome years ago for Whitehot’s annual cover story, and the pitch required no greater enthusiasm or hyperbolic declarations than any other artist pitch. The same was the case for the numerous other black artists I’ve spoken to. It was here that Newsome leaned in and offered probably the greatest piece of advice I heard all trip. “Sit with it for a minute.”
I took that as an invitation to jump into the Buccaneer’s clear, emerald green waters, soaking it up before Mr. Joseph was scheduled to drive us to the airport. Newsome, who has a gift for cross-cultural diplomacy, joined me moments later. “You need to understand something,” Newsome said rather matter of factly, with his head floating just above the water’s surface. “We’re all living in a capitalistic, white male, hetero patriarchy in which we are all oppressed and you too. All you can do is honor other people’s experiences. Your ongoing protest to this reality can be radical acts of kindness.”
We soon found ourselves spilling out of Mr. Joseph’s van at the entrance to the airport. We each hugged Mr. Joseph goodbye like he was our dad and we were headed back to college. I pulled the writer aside who had been my worthy foil for the trip (a true social justice warrior in the most literal sense of the term), as he was headed to Puerto Rico while the rest of us were headed back to chilly New York. We both respectfully agreed, that despite our varying opinions and perspectives, there were no hard feelings. Before he shook my hand and turned to go, he added, “We’re all just going to have to get used to being a bit more uncomfortable over the next four to eight years.” WM