Details, left to right: Olalekan Jeyifous’s Improvised Shanty-Megastructures, 2015; Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), 2018; summer fucking mason’s Copper, 2017; Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born’s Sitting on a Man’s Head, 2018.
Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.
As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.
With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.
This fifth transmission (7.30.18) features Charles Davis on Olalekan Jeyifous’s Improvised Shanty-Megastructures, Steven Nelson on Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Obodo (Country/City/Town/Ancestral Village), The Black Aesthetic on summer fucking mason’s Copper, and Tina Campt on Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born’s Sitting on a Man’s Head.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
Bay area-based filmmaker summer fucking mason’s Copper—made in collaboration with their arts collective ONX1—is all elemental, elliptical, and associative. Composed as a ceremony for the black deceased, the film only addresses death at a remove. You will find no scenes of gratuitous violence in Copper. Instead, the viewer is met with dance, swaying, touch, and forlorn eyes serving witness to a ceaseless mourning.
Copper begins with a figure cloaked in black and seated for a haircut. The scene is scored with a multi-tonal rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness.”2 On the steps of a cathedral the figure is met by a troupe emoting elegiac black femininity. The figure dances through them with tender touches and an intimate gaze. A strobe light effect is interrupted by a voiceover: “… this thing is a target / marking me an unsovereign, uncitizen, a ghost in the shell of a black body.”3 This sonic surge breaks into a procession of brown bodies on a beach. At their center, two black femmes touch as if tending a wound. The film cuts to a scene of studio photography. Black men and women pose for the camera, shirtless or in oversized blazers. Abruptly the scene then cuts to the interior of a warehouse. Black dancers lean, hold, undulate, and interweave their bodies with intention. In this sequence, there are grayscale ripples of movement from two intercut solo performances. With this change of pace Saturn Rising arrives making long-limbed, wide-legged gestures and dancing their rage in stark black and white.4
As a depiction of a number of mason’s “fragile dreams” it was only after completing the film that mason came to realize the piece was also about “the death of their ‘black femininity.’”5 In Copper the loss of gender that Hortense Spillers terms ungendering is met by an erotic ethics of the flesh.6 Here, the violence of ungendering is attended to by black embraces. From the street, to the church, to a beach (a nonworld bereft of propriety) a movement vocabulary is summoned to trace the “hieroglyphics of the flesh.”7 Dancers serve as haptic witnesses to the somatic etchings that loss leaves on the living.
What is it to be black and dance in cities that are in the midst of tech takeover, where the compounding losses are not just of bodies but the spaces that once held them?8 The film starts within the reimagined confines of a barbershop, where dancer Minkah Taharkah is getting her hair cut by an older black gentleman while surrounded by an enormous stack of decaying newspapers. In the next shot, Taharkah has ascended from the chair where, now, in a blur, sits a similarly dressed figure in all black. In this space, as in the East Bay where Copper was shot, things are withering away. mason’s film envisions black spaces that continue to serve their aesthetic function but where gendered scripts play out with a difference. In our black queer dreams, we come to imagine living loss, death, and violence differently. In our black queer dreams, we come to imagine black spaces that stay black.
Copper visualizes death as a capricious expanse. A mezzo-soprano hum greets you at the doorway to grief. Fading in from black to revolving levitation, a tremor of electronic sounds follows closely behind, around, and through a sea of bodies. Jasdeep Kang’s cinematography pulls the viewer into relation with the protagonist, into a slow dance on the periphery of a spiral.9
In this moment where tenderness is disrupted by a cacophonous strain of lights, there is reassurance and cadence in the strobes. The combination of high frequency, percussive sounds and piercing lyric process the depth and stratifications of death. The mise en scène is a perpetual gradation of bodies traversing the turbulent mourning for a black gendered body.
Bodies are fragmented and unrestrained. A violent disrobing occurs with a format shift. High contrasted flickers of bodies in a grainy black and white sequence are difficult to distinguish. In this space everything is desaturated and murky as an onslaught of text reads “fragile dreams” and “sensitive black boi.” The visual and sonic journey of Copper is fragile and circuitous, much like a black boi discovering themselves through the death of a former body.
This thing feels like a daydream.
A yearning to be at peace with the familiar dead thing we have come to know as the ‘black body.’
This grief is a black boi’s sorrow song for the parts of themself interrupted or stalled
or otherwise no longer in service.
This grief feels like molasses.
A thick and sweet heavy brown thing.
“This thing is not me,” a voice insists from beyond a black screen after death dances its hand across the cheek of a black femme angel with a face framed by a box braid bob.
A slow army of nude clad femmes of color walk solemnly towards a duet of black mourning.
An array of browns interrupted by a scene of staged high-necked couture and
one beautiful nigga in a wave cap.
Dark brown bodies dance through each other into new beings.
Black hair tosses itself over the edge of concrete stairs like the drip of a stain.
Senegalese Twists whip through the air, but never land.
After the calm of mirrored holding, it is a startling, contorted wringing out.
Copper tastes and smells like blood. These visual fragments ask us to think not of the moment bullet breaks skin, but instead of the gentle weight of eyelids closing.10
This piece reflects the collaborative labor of Jamal Batts, Leila Weefur, and Malika Imhotep.
This is one of four essays from the fifth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
About the editors:
Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.
Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.
- ONX feels like the jolt of an imposed absence, a decision to move beyond a screen of ‘blackness’ as codified by institutional expectations. Through ONX, black UC Berkeley undergraduates (many of whom star in the film) imagine themselves as art bodies—as part of a collective effort toward new optics.
- The song is performed by Spellling, a Bay Area experimental artist.
- The text is by poet Malcolm Thompson.
- From vogue-inflected dance performances to a spellbinding role in the Topsy Turvy Queer Circus’ PARADISE: Return to Aja to music, Bay Area-based performance artist Saturn Rising’s practice charts a black queer erotic futurism.
- Sarah Burke, “ONX: The Collective Redefining Black Grief and Creative Allyship,” KQED (May 11, 2017): https://www.kqed.org/arts/13175977/onx-the-collective-redefining-black-grief-and-creative-allyship.
- Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65–81.
- Ibid. 67.
- On “compounding loss” see Dagmawi Woubshet, The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).
- For more on Kang’s cinematography, see Eda Yu, “Inside Jasdeep Kang’s Meticulous, Interrogative Filmmaking,” KQED (July 27, 2017): https://www.kqed.org/arts/13748611/inside-jasdeep-kangs-meticulous-interrogative-filmmaking.
- summer fucking mason’s first solo exhibit Gemini runs June 20–August 26, 2018 in San Francisco as part of the Museum of the African Diaspora Emerging Artist Program. https://www.moadsf.org/exhibition/moad-emerging-artists-presents-summer-mason-gemini/