Dr. Laura Lomas writes about Marlon Riggs & "No Regret": DISCLOSURE, PERFORMATIVITY & LEGACY
Interdisciplinarity and recovery: Two key terms that gained new meaning on the 8th floor's event in honor of Marlon Riggs. On July 11, 2017, The 8th Floor hosted an inspiring combination of performance, screening and panel discussion between artists, audience and academics, in commemoration of the great Marlon Riggs and in celebration of an exhibit organized by Visual AIDS, entitled Voice = Survival. Designed to combat the whitewashing of the memorializing of the AIDS crisis, the images and conversations at The 8th Floor resonated deeply and inspired everyone in the packed room in which two gorgeous interdisciplinary black artists and intellectuals echoed James Baldwin: their sacred creativity aimed to honor and encounter to people of color, who indeed are rarely addressed by museum and performance, in either Obama or Trump's United States. I felt I was back in the New York City of the 1980s and 1990s in which artists, activists and academics moved in common spaces, when the dominant cultural tone had not been colonized by Trump, Giuliani or Bloomberg. Curated by Claudia Carrera and Adrian Saldaña, the exhibit captures many artists grappling with the HIV diagnosis and its aftermath, and literally invokes the dead. Spellbinding performances by NWA Project director, Ni’Ja Whitson, NWA Project dancer Kirsten Flores-Davis, and Newark native Staford graduate Kiyan "Kiki" Williams, literally conjured a connection between those who were killed in recent ongoing state-sponsored violence, young black boys and men such as Trayvon Martin, and queers of color who died of AIDS. As Whitson rightly theorizes: Only remembering the straight male victim of state terror does a violence to the complexity of the African diasporic community and denies the long recurring history of heteronormative white-dominated violence. Riggs' landmark film Tongues Untied, 1989 and these performances to honor it critique the neglect or discursive disdain that occurred and persists around AIDS: the notion that AIDS is a "dirty" disease, that it was a grandiose moral curse rather than a disease like cancer, or heart disease. Another key theme emerges that places performance art in dialogue of scholarship: performance of archival material is a healing practice, a means literally of communicating with the dead. During the panel discussion Marlon Riggs reigned supreme in his "unleash the queen" shirt, when he intervened at the Black Popular Cultural conference at the Dia Art Foundation, of 1991, an event that set the tone for the most interesting of the academic conversations that happened at Columbia University's English and Comparative Literature Department and Program in Women and Gender Studies, when I began as a doctoral student 1993 in New York. I went to honor Riggs and discovered his living legacy.
I walked away from last night's program with two key insights:
1) Both Ni’Ja Whitson and Kiyan Williams define themselves not simply as performance artists, but as interdisciplinary scholars, and draw on legacy figures such as Marlon Riggs, to claim a long tradition of this interdisciplinary approach. A key question: has anyone written the story of the origins of interdisciplinarity? Does that history—as it is currently written—acknowledge Riggs, who was a writer, an activist, a curator, a filmmaker? For me Whitson and Williams' comments were immensely useful because I am working on a pioneering queer AfroCuban sociologist, poet, activist and dramaturg who has fallen into the fissures of existing bodies of knowledge. Her names is Lourdes Casal and I see her as an important and forgotten predecessor in the genealogy of queer interdisciplinarity. I think Kiyan Williams, Ni’Ja Whitson, and Tavia Nyongo's practice seems like a logical legacy and living testimony to the longevity of Casal's work, but they probably don't know of her, in part because of the fact that she writes half of her work in Spanish, and because it is dispersed across archives and academic disciplines. Black and Latinx cross-pollination and collaboration seemed to be taking place (given Kirsten Flores-Davis' amazing contributions to the performance, and the Latinx voguers in Tongues Untied), but questions of linguistic difference, accent and translation did not explicitly enter our reflections. My question on this would have been about the complexity and heterogeneity of the "Blaq" to which Williams alludes in their title: we heard the accents of Assotto Saint the Haitian diasporic who eloquently recites writing by David Frechette echoing the sentiment of “no regret” in the Marlon Riggs documentary in which five black men reflect on their diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, but how might the framing of this conversation begin to acknowledge our possessive investment in the privilege of global English? What intertexts might seek a dialogue with this production, but resides outside the borders of English? How to continually underscore contributions of what Casal refers to as "Hispanic" blackness in 1978, and Juan Flores and Miriam Jiminez Román have defined as Afro-latinidad?
(2) My second epiphany derives from this hidden or suppressed Black and Latinx connection. I serve on the Board of the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, which also had its origins 25 years ago. In the prevailing conversation around that table and certainly in Hispanic, Latina/o and Latin American mainstream settings, often black consciousness is marginalized or suppressed. I found the theorizing of performance, spirit and archive on the panel particularly inspiring as a redress to the whitewashing tendencies within latinidad, and in "recovery" research.
Williams, as a student at Stanford, had discovered in Box 28, the footage and a document by an as yet unrecovered trans-cestor, Jessie. Through their performance, they reconnected with Jessie's living family members, who noted that Jessie "disappeared" two decades ago, and might in fact still be alive and trying to find a way to respond to the world with their unique artistic vision. Their performance embodied Jessie after playing the footage, in their difficult assertion of an "I," connected to a verb, "am," and completing it with the irrepressible claiming of the status of the "artist." Suddenly the many homeless living on the streets of NYC were reframed as potentially the silenced artist Jessie. Williams and Whitsons' commentary on the significance of working in the archive gives a new meaning to the research that Recovery Project scholars are engaged in: performance and embodiment of a silenced, edited out voice becomes "an alternative way of writing history." This conversation about communicating with the dead or "los desaparecidos" helped put into context and underscore the significance of Blackberry, a babalao in the Yoruban traditional Regla de Osha, who appeared in the opening scenes of Riggs' documentary, and whom Whitson met and connected very deeply with during the course of their preparation of the performative response to Riggs' landmark documentary Tongues Untied. This invocation of Blackberry restored the significance of the Afro-Latinx presence within this conversation, and suggested ways future performances and presentations might affirm this dimension rather than allowing it to abide unnoticed and unacknowledged in a formal way in the presentation of the material, i.e. in the title, and in the reflections on the significance of this work, to which I wanted to contribute with this brief commentary.
Thank you Ni'Ja, Kiyan, Kirsten Flores-Davis and Tavia N'yongo, thank you Visual AIDS; thank you 8th Floor for hosting an incredibly generative conversation last night! I salute you.