Black Feminist Insurgence


Black Feminist Insurgence

By Anisa Jackson April 24, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

A history of oppressive architectural strategies has ensured that Black and feminized bodies remain hyper-visible to their oppressors. Insight into prevalent surveillance technologies—from those used by plantation overseers to their present-day digital contemporaries—have charted possibilities for challenging domineering social orders and strategizing freedom. In a solo, movement-based performance on March 31, 2018, Chicago–based, transdisciplinary artist Anna Martine Whitehead presented her work-in-progress, Notes on Territory, at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center. Whitehead, whose work engages with experimental spatial and temporal dimensions that can visualize Black queer relationships to these virtualities, investigates architectures of containment and resistance through an exchange of meditative gestures and lecture. 

Notes on Territory begins with Whitehead using bodily movements to trace a curious border, demarcated by white tape, reminiscent of a chalked outline and complicated by irregular contours and edges. Whitehead eases into the performance using elements of Black social dance, always weaving along the outline. Only after completing a full rotation of choreography around the prescribed boundary, does she begin to stray from the white-taped form. Entering and exiting the shape as Beyoncé’s Blow plays in the background, Whitehead disrupts any imagined allegiance to the original demarcation. In fact, this intentional departure from the restrictive shape’s borders reigns similarly to the act’s soundtrack; Beyoncé’s refusal to let socialized expectations confine her expression of pleasure and sensuality offers its own liberatory praxis, just as the regulatory structure of Whitehead’s outline melts away. 

Anna Martine Whitehead. Notes on Territory (selection), 2017; performance video. Courtesy of the Artist. 

Stepping outside of this spatial confine and behind a lectern, Whitehead explains that this outline was once imagined by French general David Galula as the “ideal territory for the counterinsurgent” during the colonization of Algeria. Throughout the lecture, Whitehead explores how Black bodies navigate politically and economically fraught infrastructures, which surface first as visible and physical networks of architecture (colonial castles, slave ships, churches, public housing, prisons), and then as the immaterial governing forces working within them. These unseen forces communicate, transport, and control people of color. Galula’s curious configuration, which remains in the setting throughout the performance, inspires the question: Is impending death always delineated by white lines?

Environmental racism, gentrification, and settler colonialism are among many spatial strategies that determine how belonging, placement, access to resources, and power are distributed. Though these strategies are inextricable from the political economy, it is also through these processes that more complex geographies are abstracted—rendering spaces static, apolitical, and ahistorical. The architectures Whitehead engages in Notes on Territory undergo similar forms of abstraction. Within the hybrid lecture-performance, Whitehead reflects on the composition of the church, where “holes [are] cut into the ceiling at such an angle that light hits the golden cross at the head of the beam and illuminates the crucifix, radiates the basilica, and throws the hues into shadows.” Here, the church operates as a site where one ties their identity, optimism, purpose, and faith to its physical and conceptual manifestations. Its power is exacerbated in its ability to produce itself as coincidental, godly, and beyond human understanding. Similar to the mechanisms of political abstraction, the church’s governing capabilities work in tandem with the depoliticization of its own construction.

However, despite the ways in which bodily movement is constricted by the limitations of architecture and politicized space, Whitehead prioritizes the movement of Black and feminized bodies in particular within architectures of containment. Methods of confinement can be inflicted upon bodies and environments (both built and natural), rendering physical space and its populaces as property. These exposed geographies and populations become inextricable from the political economy, and are vulnerable to heightened isolation and exploitation. Rather than centering the legibility of violence on architecture, Whitehead’s work looks at how bodies ultimately constitute a new arena where resistances to domineering social orders are highlighted.

Exploring the liberative praxis of plantation lopes and shuffles (dances constituted by rigid movement in the lower legs and fluidity through the upper body), Whitehead suggests that these movements are indicative of an alternative freedom: freedom in the arms despite the bondage of the ankles used during chattel slavery. The performance of both freedom and bondage appears in Whitehead’s work, alternating between moments of the literal and conceptual. Whitehead considers the relationship between immaterial forces and architectures that govern us, to articulate the irony of political prisoners fleeing into the prison of Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in their attempt to escape the September Massacres during the French Revolution.

“Nina, Nancy, Dionne, Dina, Dianna, Bessy, Alice, Ella, Etta, Billy, Minny, Whitney, Roberta, Sara, Aretha, Anita, Josephine, Jennifer, Jill, Leena, Tracy, Grace, Lauren, Missy, Mary, Mary, Mom, Momma. Why do all the women I love turn out to be runaways?” Whitehead poses. In their search for home and belonging, Black women are subject to criminalization, and are read as fugitives in their resistance to captivity. How do we understand fugitivity and escape in the midst of environments and architectures that have the capability to oppress through white supremacist construction?

Anna Martine Whitehead. Queensbridge, 2018; gouache on paper; 24 x 32 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Notes on Territory can be considered yet another topology of power, as it centralizes the stage and lectern. The power dynamics ascribed to the performance’s presenting institutions (Whitehead also performed the piece at Walla Walla’s Whitman College on April 6, 2018) are explored through performative, spatial inquiry. As Black bodies move through academic and performative infrastructures, our belonging, surveillance, placement, and power can suggest alternative forms of navigation. Despite (or precisely because of) the hyper-capitalist, white supremacist processes and policies that create our most ubiquitously oppressive structures—like public housing and precarious educational institutions—Black bodies are uniquely situated to deconstruct the dominant narratives of otherness. Prioritizing Black bodies’ navigation, Whitehead uses Blackness as a faculty for expressing racialized states, and as a medium that can betray the context in which the body performs. 

Notes on Territory was performed at Velocity Dance Center in Seattle, WA on March 31, 2018 and at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA on April 6, 2018.

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