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DECEMBER 11, 2013

Interview with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko on ‘Black Male Revisited’

Artburst Miami

In 1986 Robert Mapplethorpe’s solo exhibition Black Males and the subsequent book The Black Book sparked a controversy with its erotic depictions of African-American men.

BY MIGUEL ANGEL ESTEFAN JR. | NO COMMENTS

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko Photo by Umi Akiyoshi

In 1986 Robert Mapplethorpe’s solo exhibition Black Males and the subsequent book The Black Book sparked a controversy with its erotic depictions of African-American men. The work was sculptural; focusing on the body in segments, often times phallo-centric. Reaction to the work saw the extreme gamut of opinions from criticizing the work for its sexual objectification or exploitation of the black male body to its polar opposite of being hailed as a celebration of the beauty of African-American men.

In a larger context this and other works by Mapplethorpe and other performance artists became the fuel and fire in 1989 to derail a planned exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s work at the Corcoran Gallery. Ultimately they pulled the exhibit in an attempt to diffuse action against appropriations to the National Endowment of the Arts. Senator Jesse Helms and other conservatives began their crusades against what they deemed government-funded obscene art.

Within this milieu of sexual politics and art, Black Males also confronted viewers with the politics of race and sex in art and culture, and further unmasked white attitudes towards imagery or sexuality of black men. In his 1994 tome, Race Matters, Cornel West writes, “Americans are obsessed with sex and fearful of black sexuality.”

The same year of West’s publication, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York installed the exhibit, The Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. The exhibit chronicled the changing perceptions of African American masculinity in the visual arts.

Twenty years later, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko commemorates the Whitney exhibit and again addresses the representation and perception of African-American men in the arts. The solo work and installation, appropriately titled Black Male Revisited: Revenge of the New Negro, will makes its premiere in Miami on Dec. 13 at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores.

Kosoko is an independent performance curator, producer, poet, and performance artist currently based in New York. He is also a contributing correspondent for several dance and arts publications; has sat on funding and curatorial panels including the aforementioned NEA; and his solo performance work entitled other.explicit.body. premiered in April 2012 and is currently touring nationally.

Made possible by a $100,000 Knights Arts Challenge, Black Male Revisited is directed by Kosoko, with support from movement/performance consultant Sidra Bell, dramaturg Kate Watson-Wallace, and studio assistant Aaron Maier. Part visual installation, part live performance, Kosoko asks viewers “to reconsider their impressions of the black male body via original poetry, live music, wild theatrical antics, and live sculpture.”

Artburst talked to Kosoko about this latest project.

AB: The company’s greater mission statement says it uses social-political arts advocacy to push history forward. What facets of our culture would you emphasize needs to evolve and how much weight does an artistic platform have to this end?

Great question. I believe art is a healing agent. I know first hand; it literally saved my life. I honestly don’t know where I would be if I had not been exposed to art as a teenager. That said, there is still much work that needs to be done. I am still too often the only person of color in the room, in meetings, in educational situations, at shows.

I think as a nation we are still experiencing the after shocks of the civil rights movement, which was only 50 years ago more or less. Many Americans still suffer from unconscious bias. With this show, I’m really calling a lot of cultural institutions out on it. I’m saying there is a real issue here with visibility for artists of color, and in particular, with representations (or the lack thereof) for black men working in various artistic forms. It’s important that varied images of black men enter the media and public domain if we are ever to overcome the criminalization, danger, or over sexualization that is so often associated with black male bodies.

Is the art itself a means to an end or can there be expression without advocacy?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, especially when I encounter work that is more “privileged.” I think I can only speak for myself. For me, art is ingrained with advocacy. There is always some deeper socio-political component to my work. I don’t know how to make work that is not in some way societally conscious.

How does your work engender audience diversification?

Well, I try to cast a variety of bodies in my work. Especially in my work with my company anonymous bodies|| art collective, it’s our mission to give voice to the historically disenfranchised. This means working with racially, sexually, economically diverse people.

It’s hard to get the word out to black urban communities, and more especially with this project, I wonder how many black men will actually come see the show? I really want this work to be seen by more black men.

In your upcoming work you will ask the audience to “reconsider their impressions of the black male body in performance and visual art.” What do you think those impressions are now and what is the basis of those impressions?

One can never truly know what preordained notions a viewer will bring into a performance space. I can only say that the frame of the African-American male particularly in South Florida is a complex one, with so many kinds of blackness converging. I certainly think popular media plays an integral role in the way black male bodies are perceived.

As part of MTC’s Sandbox series, Black Male Revisited will premiere on Dec. 13 at 8:00 p.m. with other performances on Dec. 14, 20, and 21, and a matinee on Dec. 22 at 3:00 p.m. Open talks with free admission will follow the performance on the 13th and precede it on the 20th. The series also comprises a free gallery installation which will remain open for viewing by appointment only from Dec. 8 to 22 for a suggested donation of $5-$10; 9806 N.E. 2nd Ave., Miami Shores. Tickets: $20. For more information call MTC at 305-751-9550 or visit mtcmiami.org.

Photo by Umi Akiyoshi