Hard Opening: Vigil for Black Death
On the morning of Sunday, June 7th, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted the curfew he had imposed five days earlier. By then, 10 days of protests organized and led by Black Lives Matter organizers and countless other activist groups had inundated many neighborhoods throughout the city, a response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and a spate of other recent, highly publicized extrajudicial killings of BIPOC. That Sunday—the day before the city’s first phase of reopening after months of quarantine—saw an even larger turnout of protesters than previous days. Heartened by the cancellation of the curfew (de Blasio stated that Saturday’s demonstrations were peaceful enough to rescind the order but many activists maintain that the decision was a response to the injunction’s clear failure to deter them), the crowd marched into the night largely unhindered by the NYPD presence that had instigated violence and destruction throughout the previous week.
It was at this historically loaded juncture that HOUSING gallery opened the doors of their new location at 191 Henry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, providing water, face masks, and a place of respite to the weary but resolute activists making their way through the city’s streets. Several cultural institutions had done the same as a gesture of solidarity, but HOUSING’s iteration was unique in a few significant ways: the storefront window of the gallery was illuminated by a TV playing a selection of works by “artists who dissent and evoke social justice in their performance and video practice,” according to the gallery’s website, which also invited viewers to contribute flowers, candles, and other mementos, which were arrayed across the metal cellar doors below the window. Divided into two cycles—the second cycle began streaming on Juneteenth—the exhibition presented a wide range of videos and performances by younger contemporary artists punctuated by a few historical works that function as both a critical framing device and a daunting attestation of the enduring cultural and political failures that have been inherited by the current generation. Hard Opening: Vigil for Black Death thus crystalized the fervor of its moment, manifesting a rare confluence of art, activism, and testament.
Dialogue comparable to that spoken by the titular character in Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21 (1980) (performed by the artist in heavy makeup and a wig), which emphasizes the willful ignorance of the White community of matters pertaining to racial discrimination, could easily be found on Twitter in recent weeks. Likewise, David Wojnarowicz’s ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion) (1989), a stinging critique of the dissemination of misinformation and hyper-politicized state and federal responses to the AIDS crisis, is hauntingly relevant to the current pandemic, which has disproportionately affected BIPOC communities. Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) celebrates the bonds among Black gay men as a constituent aspect of their contributions to mainstream culture; footage of Willi Ninja, one of the first dancers to vouge, demonstrates both the longevity of the community’s cultural influence and its appropriation by the mainstream fashion and entertainment industries.
Documentary video of Keijaun Thomas’s 2019 iteration of his performance My Last American Dollar carries these themes into the present moment; dressed in drag and variously interacting with the audience, bottles of liquor, and buckets of glitter, the artist performs dance moves common among strippers while moving about the performance space, effectively elevating and repossessing the movements and regalia of the disenfranchised yet inveterately creative sex workers who popularized them. Other works, such as Alyssa Mattox’s short, Untitled (2017), are more allegorical, but no less affecting. The beautifully shot black and white film shows a Black woman (whose face we never see) tying a rope holding one black and one white garment between two trees in the forest. The figure tries on both before we cut to a scene at the edge of a placid lake, into which the woman eventually disappears.
Baseera Khan’s Braidrage (2019) performance addresses the historical subjugation of the Black body in postcolonial society and the struggle inherent to transmuting its compromise into a creative act. Suspended by climbing ropes and covered in black chalk dust, the artist struggles to ascend a rock climbing wall made from resin casts of her own body filled with gold jewelry, braided hair, and fragments of hypothermia blankets, ultimately executing a large scale wall drawing through the improvised movements of her body. Sondra Perry’s IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 (2017) connects the contemporary exploitation of Black athletes with the relics of colonization that remain in our most prestigious institutions. At one point, we watch the artist’s twin brother, Sandy Perry (who played basketball for Georgia Southern University), discussing the video game that used the likenesses of college athletes without compensating them—including himself and his Georgia Southern teammates. This dialogue is juxtaposed with video of the siblings wandering about The Metropolitan Museum of Art, observing the artifacts looted from various indigenous cultures during the colonial era.
Aria Dean’s But as one… (rework feat.) (2019), a silent supercut of shots culled from several music videos featuring hip-hop fans rocking in unison to the beat of the unheard track, hints at the potential power of collective, often leaderless action, especially when bolstered by a vibrant cultural unity. Indeed, much of the nuance and timeliness of Hard Opening, which, as I write this, is set to close just shy of Independence Day (perhaps a coincidence, but no less appropriate in any case) stems from the urgency with which these works reveal that the systemic racism that sparked the BLM movement is a manifestation of centuries-old structural forces that continue to oppress and subjugate those who resist it.