Jade Monserrat was selected as one of four artists to respond to the theme of Future SPACE for which she collaborated with curator Chris Rawcliffe. At SPACE Gallery in Hackney, she staged the next step in the evolution of her long-term preoccupation with dancer Josephine Baker, considered the first black celebrity with an unparalleled career in Paris in the 1920s who went on to spy for the French resistance during the war and later participated in the Civil Rights Movement back in the States.
The artist’s interest in Baker initially led to her performance Shadowing Josephine which premiered in 2013 at The Art Party Conference in Scarborough where she lives and works. This piece, which seems to have been a corner stone of her practice over the following years and has been repeated & recorded & modified, is inspired by Baker’s banana dance, her most well-known routine. Appearing on the stage with a skirt made from bananas, Josephine would appropriate animal-like, stealthy movements before wriggling her hips and moving explosively for the negrophilic avant-garde French crowds: ‘Her highly sexualised performance, with frenzied and exotic dancing in a duet choreographed by Daven, played upon her viewers’ fantasies about Africa and black women. Despite its obvious fabrication, they were willingly seduced into accepting its authenticity.’ (1)
At SPACE, Shadowing Josephine played on a monitor in the middle of the gallery, its posited ‘stage’ marked off by two walls covered in charcoal inscriptions collected through the artist’s extensive research. Monserrat was nude, recreating a loosely similar choreography to Baker’s which she would try to sustain until signs of exhaustion became noticeable. Not knowing anything about the artist’s practice before visiting the gallery, I stood confused and seriously uncomfortable watching this ‘show’, alarmed by the set up in which I was staring at a naked black woman dancing to the 1920s cheerful tune (Cab Calloway’s ‘Pickin’ up the Cabbage’). After a few repetitions, while still uneasy about the black female body spectacle and its consumption, my perspective shifted to thinking about the artist’s agency – about her determining to go on, about her clear creative input which transformed an act of exploitation into a performance she could actually control.
Baker’s Parisian success was equally polarising, after all she did capitalise on the male gaze hungry for eroticism and seduction while the bout of negrophilia swept through the fashionable Paris. She reached an unprecedented level of stardom and recognition in an industry/society largely compliant with a white man’s terms but was also hailed as a strong, independent, free woman focused on her career. Griselda Pollock writes about the ambivalence of Baker’s position: ‘It might be that Josephine… had such an impact in that short and strange period of her initial success as a Folies-Bergere dancer in the 1920s precisely because she inhabited their fantasy costumes that bespoke their desire to conjugate the African with the primal, the animal, their vitalizing but subordinate other, while in her actual performance she charmingly undid it all because she was actually dancing in a modern style to the music of a modern vernacular.’ (2)
Jade’s Shadowing Josephine lifts (or stretches?) the black female body from the colonial and patriarchal history and re-situates it into present. In the video, she dances in an anonymous white space that may be almost anytime, anywhere; the phrases drawn in charcoal on surrounding walls also read as something (frighteningly) timeless: ‘testimonies from men of property’, ‘silence of complicity’, ‘contours the fertility of her imagination’, ‘intimate daily contract/contact/contrasts’. The more general/universal elements of the work allow for it to act as a portable capsule which, as it is played in different environments, will question their singular and local enmeshment with (or resistance to) power hierarchies, inequalities and struggles. In a conversation with Chelsea Pettit for Arts in Conversation (which you can listen to here), Jade spoke about the particular context of SPACE Gallery and its alternative foundations, her awareness of structures which can facilitate or inhibit making art in London and, beyond this, the sight of the Grenfell tower: ‘Being here, I cannot think of anything else.’
The charcoal resonating with an unbelievable (criminal!) neglect of mostly migrant and working class subjects is exactly how the localised dialogues emerge in/through the universal; being her frequent material of choice, she wrote about it earlier as substance representing human creativity and one linking our biology with the entire cosmos, both of which are based on the presence of carbon.
Carbon, Josephine Baker and the artist’s exploration of (performance of) labour converge in her ongoing interest in collective formations with the potential for supporting and strengthening its members. The exhibition title, Rainbow Tribe: Affectionate Movement R&R, refers to Baker’s unique attempt at transcending race when she adopted 12 children from all corners of the world, living together as a (kind of controversial) ‘rainbow tribe’. Jade invited a group of 12 individuals who would take part in her research project, provoke ideas about care and affection and articulate possibilities of collective existence. (In the podcast, the artist raised her own objections to the term ‘affection’ which she thought she should have considered more carefully – she suggested ‘empathy’ a more fitting word/intention).
This brings us full circle to the questions of movement and action with which we started: how can bodies perform and/or find liberation from oppressive power structures? Who and how interprets these bodies, who and how assigns them value? In her website notes, the artist writes about a kind of methodology / epistemology of bodies as ‘tools for action; for drawing with, through, around, in parallel, out of, along, in harmony, discordantly. And moving within space means encountering barriers, margins, parameters, strategies for self-care amidst unfamiliar terrain…’ (3) The present landscape is still rooted in the colonial past, discrimination and prejudice against the other, spectacularisation of some bodies, exoticisation of certain subjects, institutional imbalances, stigmatisation of difference, homogenisation, neoliberal marketization of all practices, including education and health care, etc. Jade’s work calls for ‘allied forms of existence’ to challenge the deeply problematic status quo and for cultivating the ability to see the hierarchical/exploitative past ‘re-performed’ in new guises.
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Pollock, Griselda., Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, Space and the Archive, (2007)
Jade’s presentations, papers and research gathered on her website is highly recommended reading!
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PS 1 – Two quite beautiful, embodied responses to seeing Shadowing Josephine at Spill Festival of Performance:
PS 2 – Watch out for Jade Monserrat’s commission to create the Winter Night Tube map cover by Art on the Underground.