SHARJAH, UAE — “There are of course 99 names of Allah, but there are 52 niggers. So therefore, I will be playing two of these niggers.” This is what Julius Eastman said during his introduction to the Northwestern University audience at a concert in June of 1980, and it is repeated in the Otolith Group‘s piece “The Third Part of the Third Measure” (2017), presented at this year’s Sharjah Biennial.
During the video, that lasts 50 minutes, two performers (a black man, Dante Micheaux, and a black woman, Elaine Mitchener) recite the entire statement. It is a riveting recitation by both actors, whose deliveries are very different. Micheaux, who performs at the beginning of the video, is calm and matter of fact in his approach, while Mitchener at certain points wails, as if begging the audience to hear and understand the import of what she says. After the actors’ declamation the pianists play — four pianists at two pianos bring “Evil Nigger,” “Gay Guerrilla,” and “Crazy Nigger,” to life. The appearance of the four pianists provide an odd visual contrast: they are all white and their faces are marked with abstract shapes contrived with silver makeup. The combination of the extraordinary visuals and the minimalist music of Eastman — an avant-garde, black, gay composer of music that sounds otherwordly — keeps me in my seat with no sense of time passing.
The music is astonishing. It begins with trills in the treble clef that repeat in a relatively simple chord progression, which then moves to the bass register and the music starts to become more elaborate from there. Soon, the second piano joins in repeating a motif that is in counterpoint to the first. Together they rise to a kind of driving, repetitive mélange that seems both atonal and melodic. It seems almost overbearing, the kind of music by which you might drive a team of horses beyond their natural capacities in order to bring word of the coming war. It is almost apocalyptic. In his statement Eastman explains that these compositions are “formally an attempt to make organic music.” The performers repeat him saying, “There is an attempt to make every section contain all of the information from the previous sections, or else taking out information at a gradual and logical rate.” I’m baffled by this, but the rhetorical confidence of the performers speaking for Eastman, and the intense urgency of the music makes me suspend my need to intellectually grasp the work.
I didn’t expect to encounter the word “nigger” at the Sharjah Biennial. I thought the politics that are invoked by that word would be thousands of miles away from here. Yet when I encounter this word, it’s soon followed by his explanation: “I reason I use that particular word ‘nigger’ because for me it has … a basicness about it, … the first niggers were of course field niggers and upon that was the basis of the American economic system.” He goes onto say, “ A Nigger for me is that thing that kind of thing that attains himself or herself through the ground of anything, and that’s what I mean by ‘nigger.’ And there are many niggers; there are many kinds of nigger … 52 niggers.” What can I say to this? In his rhetoric and his music he sought rough and uneasy truth and he proffered that truth without apology and without mitigation. Bit by bit, there is a triumph in Eastman’s music, I can hear how he found a way to extricate joy from all the suffering implicated by that term, “nigger,” and by all he would have encountered being who he was, a black, gay composer of difficult and turbulent ecstasies.
The Sharjah Biennial 13, Tamawuj, unfolds in five parts from October 2016 through October 2017. Featuring over 50 international artists, the biennial encompasses exhibitions and a public programme in two acts in Sharjah and Beirut. The Otolith Group’s piece “The Third Part of the Third Measure” (2017) was commissioned by the ICA Philadelphia and the Sharjah Art Foundation and is presented at the Al Hamriyah Studios in Sharjah.