Opinion

Black Women Artists Bear Witness in Red

The performers for a circle outside of the New Museum as part of the Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter event.
The performers for a circle outside of the New Museum as part of the Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter event (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

First you see red. Red halts the traffic. An undulant corpus of red women crosses the Bowery and flows toward the New Museum, breaks into an arc and then a circle. They are chanting “say her name” — the repetition is like a mantra. It’s what I imagine someone says, holding herself after receiving the news that her sister has died, in jail alone with no one to bear witness to her passing, or in her apartment surrounded by police who couldn’t imagine a détente that didn’t incorporate her dead body. A black woman’s inert, lifeless body is too often the chief condition for surrender as imagined by those employed to enforce the laws of the state. But there’s no surrender today, not as the women warriors halt the flow of vehicles and commerce for a moment, cross the Bowery, sing and chant, chant and repeat. Their voices concoct a prayer, an affirmation, a call for justice.

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T. Sabine Christie wears her own memorial during Litany (photo by Una-Kariim A. Cross)

Twenty-six women enact this litany loosely modeled on the “Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde, individual bodies acting in unison, converging on the New Museum to say her name. Really, there are many names, more than I have space here to recount: Natasha McKenna, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Tanisha Anderson, Malissa Williams, are some of them. Say their names. Like the women who are saying “it’s time,” “black lives matter,” and “our survival.” It feels to me, standing on the edge of the crowd as they enter the museum and form another incantatory circle, that through this public memorialization they are making the dead live again. At the center of these politics is the idea that nobody gets left behind.

A pensive moment during Litany
A pensive moment during Litany as Nina Angela Mercer kneels and stretches out her arms (photo by Una-Kariim A. Cross)

I first think of the red as representing the squandered blood — though the color of the performers’ clothing is less crimson, more like the hue of a Blaze Climbing Rose. Artist Nina Angela Mercer tells me it’s more about embracing their power. The performers wanted to contrast themselves with the use of white clothing in performance work that refers to or is based on religious ceremony. Red stands for power. The color and the ritual form of the intoning circle is meant to syncretize many diasporic strategies of resistance to the murderous or indifferent state: it refers to the Haitian rebellion, the Hoodoo of folk ways, the ring shout ceremony — the sacred and secular traditions that set the red dresses and skirts swaying, the chant building to cry, eyes sliding closed as they insist we, “Say her name.”

This Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter event includes other components in addition to the performance, which, later, as the performers and audience move up to the museum’s sky room, turns more musical, more mournful, and then celebratory. But I come away with James Baldwin’s promise and prophecy, and the idea that the red also represents the fire next time, a conflagration that will consume all of us unless we learn to treat black women’s bodies like our own — no, even better than our own.

The Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter event took place at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on September 1.

 

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