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Features EssaysPerformance Published 24 November 2017

Aesthetics Off Centre

As $elfie$ comes to Hackney Showroom, Malik Nashad Sharpe explores the Black and Queer contexts behind their performance.
Malik Nashad Sharpe
Malik Nashad Sharpe and Kam Wan perform '$elfie$. Photo: Ryan O’Donaghue

Malik Nashad Sharpe and Kam Wan perform ‘$elfie$. Photo: Ryan O’Donaghue

I feel generically disheartened. Manufactured brokenness. The daring behaviour is to dream. Conjuring futurities despite vicious attempts to erase, dismember, and minoritise you into silence, in many cases eliminates you outright. Neoliberalism is quite the funny thing because it forces you to package everything about you into products for consumption. As the overarching spectacle of our moment, neoliberalism is as fervent and intrusive, as it is co-optive, and violent. What can we sell to people despite all of this scarcity? How can we recapitulate the violences required to confine you in boxes, so that everything can be sold here with much more efficiency and less discreteness? Destroying all semblances of multiculturalism (and the cultural capital of the underdog) in the process, the very system that has destroyed me has also has given me my name. But authoritarianism is rising rather quickly these days. 

We are at a very dangerous crossroads in the world…at least for this generation. The climate is spiralling out of control, as proven most recently by the multiple hurricanes to batter the Caribbean, one after the other, affecting people of colour the most. Racial nationalists are marching not just in Europe, but everywhere, and it has sparked widespread critiques of the current world order, which will also undoubtedly affect people of colour the most. What actually happens when nationalist separatists separate, to the minoritised in their throes? I’m so skeptical. Nothing is ever as good as it seems and nationalism is, by most measures, completely dangerous and antithetical to subcultural life. There are White nationalists in the White House and surely in the British parliament, too (my two contexts), T*ERFS are out, platformed, and in full force clawing down the years of hard work and labour made by Trans and gender nonconforming visibility, and the ultra-wealthy are literally stockpiling resources in bunkers, as they prepare in paranoia for the collapse of the world order that favours them. Democracy has already begun its descent into inimitable chaos and it was all unfortunately predicated. My work is built upon the necessity to generate aesthetics against the abject derision of the status quo– to go into the deepest levels of emotionality to reclaim my own humanity back. And the humanity of the people who continue to uplift me. Under regimes of neoliberalism, the price of kindness cannot buy back the pain and suffering of unfair, second-class citizenship.

I get harassed a lot when I go outside and have found ways to deal with that: the scorn that is poured upon those of us who physically challenge the long-held myth of gender, of there being only two of them, and of them being assigned roles to enact without question nor protest. I worry that sometimes my life would end that day. Every move in the moment of assault must be exact and maintained because any subtle or sudden movements could be the last ones you ever make. Masculinity feels so threatened by the redistribution of resources in the world. Other times I try not become less visible because some days it feels like the safest bet for everyone involved. Visibility can be rewarding, but it isn’t without the dangers of being vulnerable publicly. This holds especially true, if you are a person of colour and if you are outside of/challenging binary gender. Racists want us dead, and men want us dead, too and there is one left to talk about the terrorism of that experience.

Whenever I have spoken most overtly about the things I have seen, I am left vulnerable to attack. I once wrote an article and received many death threats which is so boring to deal with when you’re a workaholic. It is like: “I don’t actually have time for you to call me a Nigger because I have things that I need to do, and you were not even penciled in!” It’s a strategy for recognising that when someone is already hell-bent on dehumanising you, there is no reason to waste your time. It doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it when you are not even human enough to have a voice. One must simply look at Facebook comments of just about any video of any Black person, or/and genderqueer person, or/and person of colour, or/and woman, talking about literally anything. James Baldwin said in an interview to some semi-ignorant Dutch journalist in 1981, that we, people of colour, are actually the majority of people in the world–so that he, the interviewer, should stop problematising us. We don’t need to be fixed.

But imagine being at the site of targeted violence? I remember being called a Nigger to my face by two White boys in Texas and not actually feeling at all ready to deal with it. If I said something back, would they murder me? If the police came, whose side would they be on? Would my Grandmother be happy with me eschewing the advice that I’ve only now realised has kept me alive? It is routine for me to wonder about my safety in this world, it’s as tantamount to my Blackness as breathing is to my cellular regrowth. You see, most people assume that all artists:

1. Make work in a vacuum where politics should be disguised by immaterial fodder
2. Live far away from sites of actual violence
3. Are so loftily in their own circles and worlds to understand what the real world is like.

But I’ve really seen it all. I have felt some of the things I can only scratch the surface of, as they come up, often inconveniently in my work. I always try and make my work from the places that I know, balanced with the humanity that I envision I would like to have intact in this world where I can’t fucking dream. Where those with more power will continue to gaslight me out of my own actual experiences of violence. I want to cry my eyes out sometimes. And sometimes I do, but usually I put it into my work. I bring it all to the table. I don’t erase myself–I learned that by watching performances by Miguel Gutierrez.

I work a lot, and I make work that is in itself, not a problem –that makes it difficult for White audiences to understand because usually Black bodies are viewed with a certain and specific lens that I am still working to figure out–why is it so hard to imagine Black experimentalism, or a work that reflects the social imprints left behind by images of targeted violence, or work that dreams, or work that isn’t built around the expectations of neoliberalism. I won’t propose a problem that needs to solved, I’ve decided. My goals are not singular, but I wish to unravel more, disperse my ideas into giant webs of entangled ideas, theories, dances, practices, rituals, and more. I want to subvert the desire to try and understand everything we encounter as the basis for connecting to the things we cannot make immediate sense of. I want to go on tangents, and I want to sing songs with lyrics made from gibberish, I want to start before the audience enters and make sure that there is something happening that only me and the space share, I want to make less ontological sense and never result to dogmatism. Despite being very comfortable being vulnerable about who I am with strangers as my witness, I go through the world in a particularly shielded way. I want to have the right to be emotional– to show people that we are not just the receptors of violence, but that I feel. I suddenly had the desire to take the risk.

My research process for any work always starts off with the same idea– I work from a studio-based practice. I go into the studio and I dance I take all of my baggage with me and I abandon them if I choose in my dancing body. I create a little container that is very loose with porous edges. I examine my dancing and I play games with myself. I try to make things and then I tear them apart. I’ll say “surprise yourself”, “prepare to do one thing and forget all of the material”, “move continuously in the same vein as everything else that you’ll do, without knowing of course, and see what it tells you.” I just generate a lot of material and at some point it feels like it’s enough. I was inspired by Tere O’Connor to avoid introducing a structure to my work prematurely, and now I typically wait until the very last minute. Sometimes for me, adding structure looks like drama– and at some point I was very interested in ridding my work of all kinds of drama but found that to be a useless venture. I enjoy when people notice the raw emotionality of my work, those feelings of intensity because I risk being too honest in my replications of political tenseness. I enjoy when my work can be felt, raw, human, in an otherwise fantastical scenario– I learned the value of humanity in my work from my mentor Hana van der Kolk, who always encouraged me to look at the body in pain. Making room for Black pain, for sexual pain, for gender pain, for non belonging pain, for immigrant pain.

I work a lot because there are many things that are worth dismantling– there is a well-known cliche which says: “The world’s a stage.” But is there an inverse? Can the stage be a world? I certainly work with the fervour that it can at least suggest another world, most simply because it uses live material in order to tap into the subconscious, the layers underneath the people, the space, the music, and everything in the room that one might find materially on surfaces. But what if I use the stage to dream? To dream of a place where I can be honest about the things I have seen? It goes beyond the desire to be seen, or heard, or even appreciated. It is more about wanting to dream in the most daring scenarios– against the bleakest political landscapes and geographies. I make myself vulnerable in order to inch closer to very essences of who I am, and what I’ve felt, in order to transcend entirely into another realm where I can exist as I am. To share the feeling of wanting to purposefully diverge from the violences that I feel, and the ones that I bear witness to. To let it be known that in order to enter my work, one must understand who I am talking to. My work relies on the context and conditions that surround it. It names what must be transcended.

Right now, I am coming off of the intense trip I’ve been on with my first evening-length show, $ELFIE$ which has been exciting and extremely difficult– I made a rather wide container for the work and all that I know about it has come from the material. My body is the point of which I receive things and what I receive becomes visible on my body, in my dancing. Here, I talk about a violence that is continual– never transforming, never shifting, never changing, just continuing. The spectacle of Black death created by White supremacists and the mainstream media, the terrorism of masculinity and its deadly effects on trans and gender nonconforming people of colour, the advent of environmental catastrophe and how it is going to displace my Black family in the Caribbean, the enveloping economic scarcity that has been left by neoliberalism and how its collapse falls especially hard on minoritised bodies, the vicious displacement of people worldwide in order to further imperialism, it’s all violence that just continues. So I must ask the questions in my work, who has permission to dream? Which bodies have rights/rites and which bodies are forced live without? Who thrives and who is discarded? And perhaps the most difficult question, what is my responsibility to these experiences?

$ELFIE$ is on at Marlborough Theatre on 25th November, at Hackney Showroom on 27th November, before appearing at Buzzcut at Glasgow CCA on 29th November.

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