BERKELEY, California — As the grand finale for SFMoMA’s exhibition, Stage Presence, which delved into the theatrical of contemporary art, Rashaad Newsome performed “Shade Compositions” (2005) in Haas Atrium, just inside the museum’s entrance, on October 4. “Shade Compositions” has been an ongoing performance that began with documentation of particular noises and gestures associated with and performed by some African-American women. The original performers were entirely African-American women, but Newsome has since expanded his subject matter to cast a different conversation about outsider culture writ large.
Following the evolution of motions, sounds, and styles frequently associated with working class African American’s Newsome has mirrored the subsequent adoption of these traits by many different races, sexes, genders, and groups. The performers at SFMOMA were noticeable diverse, with African Americans, Caucasians, Latin Americans, and people of Asian origin, and they featured everything from valley girl, gangster, to drag styles, not to mention they appeared to run the gamut of gender identify from straight, gay, and transgendered to cross-dressed and inbetween.
Trying to figure out who was from where and what they identified as was a truly pointless task, they were unabashedly themselves, and I for one was convinced of their authenticity. While showing some of the original NYC African American women on large projections bracketing the performance, Newsome successfully captured some the queerness and diversity of San Francisco, and it gave those under-represented cultures and people a safe place to strut. The question is, to what end?
As a middle-class, Caucasian heterosexual male, my role as audience member felt conflicted. The musical nature of the piece came and went, and at its climax I couldn’t help but be held in rapt attention; letting the strong beat and powerful performance take me over. However, as the composition muddled or quieted, I felt more self-aware; what right did I have to laugh at the gesturing? What exactly was my interest in these performers, and should I trust it? Was my enjoyment of this work racist and/or sexist? The piece’s power came from this captivating push-pull feeling of celebrating the performers in all of their qualities, and feeling as though they were there to be judged by a predominately white audience.
Their was no clear answers to all of my questions, Newsome simply brought them to the table, and created a space that allowed us to feel both entertained and confused by the performance. No other time was this feeling more visceral when, after the performance had run for some time, a new performer slowly ascending the staircase that framed the entire performance. The black, dress wearing, queer performer swept through the other performers, casting questioning glances at them, to which they returned confused or dejected looks back. Then, after slowly moving through the group, this indescribably powerful figure stared right out at the audience for some time, only to turn slowly and weave back through the performers and strut up the stairs. The sense of power was palpable, but this portrayed still yet another ‘other’ unrepresented by the rest of the performers. I shuddered.
“Rashaad Newsome: Shade Compositions” took place at SFMOMA (Haas Atrium, 151 Third Street, San Francisco) on Thursday, October 4 at 9pm.