Media @ McGill

Black Women on the Run: The Counter-Poetics of Black Women’s Cinematic and Performance Art Practices

Submitted by Media@McGill on


Ayanna Dozier


In her seminal essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, Hortense Spillers recounts that Black womahood is a marked existence filtered through the production of stereotypes---i.e. jezebel, mammy, mule, etc.---meant to situate their bodies outside of the distinction of human existence. In doing so, these harmful stereotypes are used to justify the mistreatment, exclusion, and omission of Black womanhood in society and the arts. My current scholarship examines how Black feminist experimental cinema and performance gets around, negates, and dismisses recursively predetermined portrayals of Black womanhood, precisely through its embodied and feminist use of Black expressive culture. The films and performances that I will analyze are less interested in engaging with “positive” portrayals, or the “truth” of Blackness, as they are invested in the possibilities that arise through experimentation. Experimentation here refers to what Black Cultural Studies scholar Carla Peterson states as the “empowering oddness” that is used to create a freedom of movement in the world. Experimentation in Black women’s cinematic and performance art practices enables bodies at the cultural margins to restore movement and memory to their lives, histories, and futures. During the 2017-2018 academic year, I aim to revise and submit three already drafted journal articles that examine the role that experimentation plays in Black women’s cinematic and performance art practices.

The body of work that I intend to revise during the year will successively build upon each preceding research analysis. The first article revision concerns the performance exploration of stereotypes of Black women in the short-film, The Basket (2009) by Narcissister. Narcissister’s deployment of burlesques, masquerade, and humor---all components of role play---push her “culturally debased stereotypes” of gendered Blackness beyond representation. Narcissister’s performances are resistant to singularity, they instead suggest new ways of encountering Blackness, desire, and gender in the world. Narcissister’s experimental performance videos provide a visual archive of the discomforting afterlives that the debased status of being marked has upon the (re)presentation of Black women. Narcissister performs, inhabits, and lives through those marked women---the mammy, jezebel, sapphire, video-hoe, etc., ---in her work, calling attention to the limited mobility of Black women’s bodies and performances in the world. Of course, Narcissister’s exploration with the stereotype enables her to work through her relationship with the (re)presentation of Black women while potentially acting as a source for self-pleasure for the artist. From there, the following article “Fucking Whiteness: Shame, Desire, and the Negotiation of Intimacy by Black Women in the Performance Root Work: Work that Root (2016), critically examines desire, pleasure, and intimacy in relation to Black women’s bodies through a performance by Monica Rekas. The “desire” for Black women’s bodies is still intimately connected to the language of rights and property. I am interested in how the flows of affect, specifically as it exists in shame and desire, are informed by what Frantz Fanon stated as the sociogenic principle. In this way, desire and shame are impersonal as they have their roots in the social historical.  My research aims to interrogate how narratives of white “desire” of Black bodies are informed by the socio-historical relationship of ownership and consumption of Blackness, and thus are not “personal” nor regulated to the “private realm.”

The Media@McGill Graduate Research Fellowship will facilitate the revision and submission of the above mention journal articles---culminating to the production of a final article that draws upon the previous arguments to map out experimentation as a counter-poetic in Black women’s contemporary experimental short films. I intend to use this last argument as a template for the third chapter of my dissertation on Black women’s experimental cinema, tentatively entitled “Body work: The Human, Fugitivity, and the Performance of Liberation.” Counter-poetics, as originally defined by Sylvia Wynter in her critique on white film criticism “Rethinking ‘Aesthetics’: Notes Towards a Deciphering Practice,” defines the work of individuals commenting, engaging, and challenging hegemonic structures of being in the world through artistic form and narrative. I want to be clear here, that my focus on Black women is not an essentialist argument, nor is it meant to paint the peculiar lived experience of Black women as top of an ontological hierarchical stance. But rather, it is to acknowledge the unique ideological perspective that Black feminist ideology offers that is distinctively informed by their corporeal (dis)placement and treatment in the world. As the author Toni Morrison notes, it is not that Black women are the gatekeepers of ideological truth in the world, it is just that we’ve been asking the questions longer. I have already successfully published an article reclaiming Wynter’s “Rethinking Aesthetics” in the Feminist Media Studies journal earlier this year, so I have considerable amount of research invested in this terrain. Pursuing this research now---through the revisions of these journal articles---will enable me to, ideally, broaden my publication history before completing the final chapters of my dissertation next year.

These pieces broadly draw attention to the “on the run” status that Black women inhabit to produce and disseminate artistic work---meaning sometime working in and with hegemonic institutions of power. This status of fugitivity also means that Black women constantly must use, subvert, and sometimes reconcile with the harmful images and stereotypes of Black womanhood that exists in society, what Spillers defined as a marked existence above. In doing so though, my research argues that experimentation through performance and cinema offers visual tools in which we can analyze and critique the production of being that has situated Black women as outsiders of human existence.