Dance icon, Dianne McIntyre was familiar with close-calls between her dancers and the sculptures on the gallery floor. Near the end of the 1970s, she and her company, Sounds in Motion, practiced every day at 2033 Fifth Avenue—the spacious loft above a liquor store, home to The Studio Museum in Harlem. At first, choreographing movement in a gallery took some adjustment. To protect the exhibited artworks, McIntyre restricted leaps and combinations across the floor. Hanging on the walls, instead of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, were paintings by Betty Blayton Taylor, Ed Clark, and Al Loving. Yet, McIntyre began to think of the abstract paintings as her mirrors, reflecting the colors, lines, and energies of the works in her performances at the Museum.1
A photograph of Sounds in Motion shows dancers contorting their bodies in a shape visually similar to the painting in front of them. In the background, visionary musician Cecil Taylor sits at a grand piano, setting the tempo and rhythm of the piece alongside members of the Cecil Taylor Unit. Through Sounds in Motion, McIntyre casted a light on the symbiosis between contemporary art shown in museums and artists who create alongside it. Animating the paintings with spatial interventions generated new contexts and possibilities for the works and for McIntyre’s practice. Forty years later, collaboration between artist and art object would shape the programmatic vision for a set of performances at Studio Museum 127.
Organized under the Artists on Artists model, the Public Programs & Community Engagement Department presented a two-night performance series in February 2020. Though the model usually entails in-gallery artist talks, this edition of Artists on Artists invited Ari Melenciano, chukwumaa and The Standing On The Corner Art Ensemble to perform sonic works inspired by and in response to the recent inHarlem exhibition, Dozie Kanu: Function. The series marked a major moment in Studio Museum 127 history as the first time performances activated the space.
Unlike the preceding exhibition Radical Reading Room, which encouraged visitors to physically engage the materials on display, Function re-established the expected rules for viewing art in museums (read: Don’t Touch the Art). With the mission of bringing exhibitions to life, the programming team considered ways to deepen visitors’ art-viewing—one that encouraged patrons to forge connections with the artworks beyond sight. The team landed on sound. In an artist’s studio, sound can encode critical inquiry and material experimentation to form. For Kanu, repetition and rhythm thread together to provide the soundtrack to his process of gathering and repurposing found objects into sculpture. Within the parameters of a museum setting, sound becomes immersive. Its qualities envelop and surround listeners in a fugitive suspension of space and time. Even silence, the absence of audible sound, can transform a space.
To accompany the series, Kanu created a playlist with picks as fun and boundless as Koopsta Knicca, Diddy-Dirty Money, and Björk. On both nights, songs from the playlist accented the coming and going of museum visitors. Julius Brockington’s “Forty-Nine Reasons” circled people as they greeted one another and settled in.
Building on samples from Kanu’s playlist, multidisciplinary artist and creative technologist Ari Melenciano performed a live modular synthesizer set. The word “EXPERIMENT,” in red, on the synthesizer’s cover signaled to audiences the structured spontaneity of her piece. Layering pulsating hums and taps, Melenciano created sharp polyrhythmic patterns that mirrored the industrial textures of Kanu’s practice. Every loop, splice, and sample paralleled Kanu’s remaking of old and discarded materials with stained concrete and found fabrics. As Melenciano turned glowing knobs and fastened neon cables to her instrument, sounds oscillated between a crash and a groove. She maintained a measured approach throughout the performance, moving with a precision that contrasted the aberrant sounds swirling the room.
On a crowded dance floor, the place behind the board is a powerful position. Melenciano demonstrated this power with a futuristic soundscape that abstracted the dance floor, transforming chair-sculptures into surrogate human forms and the stagnant bodies of spectators into flowing, sensorial beings. Fully plugged into the matrix of audiovisuality, she fragmented haptics and time as sound embraced things-turned-bodies and bodies-turned-things. Held together by the beat, audiences were left to contemplate the forever in the now.
How do we locate the wound? How do we reconcile our continual displacement, and honor those ancestors who crossed the same paths as us? These questions unraveled in chukwumaa’s mkpọtụ azịza (Harmattan Dust), serving as a meditation on the connections between Harmattan—the dry, dusty, windy season in West Africa—and trade winds of the same name, exploited by European colonizers during the transatlantic slave trade. Comprised of four parts, the piece began with a manipulation of sonic technologies. chukwumaa breathed into a microphone and adjusted sliders on a mixer until breath became wind and filled the aural space of the gallery. Wrapped around his torso was a chestplate in masking tape, carrying an international calling card and a flattened box of Dove soap with “RETURN TO SENDER” written on it. The crux of the performance centered on chukwumaa’s sweeping gestures, amplified due to the microphone taped to the palm frond broom. As the broom slid across the gallery floor, its sounds echoed the swells of high winds. These sonorous glides evoked the trade winds, sails of ships, and reflections of diaspora present in the exhibition.
Mindful of dust and its constricting effect on asthmatics, the Nigerian-born artist had asked the Museum to provide audiences with disposable face masks prior to his performance. This request referenced the physical, embodied experience of Harmattan and revealed the artist’s care for those witnessing him at work. In a world ravaged by the terror of the COVID-19 pandemic, chukwumaa’s care-full deed now acts as an oracle into what would come in the weeks following this night and how we might gather together again in enclosed space in the future.
For further exploration of mkpọtụ azịza (Harmattan Dust), read the performance score here.
The set performed by The Standing On The Corner Art Ensemble channeled the beauty and pain that lives on both sides of the Atlantic. Positioned as their own installation among the display of sculptures, and effectively playing inside an enclosure, the ensemble conveyed Black futures and pasts via a musical lineage that blended sorrowful hymns with anthemic second line flows. At times, the songs appeared to make audible the works on view. The arrangement of horns sounded the boxing gloves in teepee home (Pro Impact), 2016, evoking a sense of triumph that is purposeful as it is fragile. Deep, weighted rumblings from the double bass transmitted a record of the intricate weaving pattern in Chair [xi] (New Weave). A highlight of the set was the percussion interlude, a brilliant moment of call-and-response. Each pound on the drums further cemented the concrete, hand-dyed, and assembled onto the chairs by the hands of the artist. The ensemble wore the color blue, an aesthetic invocation of the Regla de Ocha deity and divine mermaid, Yemaya. Because mermaids do not appear in precolonial West African imaginaries, the image of Yemaya, too, sits in the legacy of “the loss of homeland and the trauma of slavery.”2 As ruler of the surface of the ocean, whose form was born when the eyes of enslaved Africans saw sirens carved on masts, who better than Yemaya to bear witness to a sonic exploration of a “history that hurt[s]”?3
A Black Sense of Time
The evenings’ three performances, though disparate in genre and form, brought forth a Black sense of time. What does it sound like to be Black and a/live? Dried palm fronds against concrete. Limbs extending and contracting across wood floors. A collective present flooded with the dreams, memories, violences, and aspirations of generations past and future. This collapse of linear time, long thought about by Black artists and thinkers, resonates with our relationship to time during this pandemic. Yet the performances also held a specificity of time: in drawing from Function as source material, the performances represented a twenty-first-century counterpart to the synergies between Dianne McIntyre and Cecil Taylor.
In “movement/melody/muscle/meaning/mcintyre,” Ntozake Shange writes of her longtime collaborator Dianne McIntyre: “No matter how the 20th century has denigrated the human body, the black people, the land, McIntyre’s choreography insists that living is arduous and remarkable.”4 When reflecting on Studio Museum’s different homes, from the loft on Fifth Avenue to the shiny renderings of a new building on 125th Street, I think fondly of the sounds that have steadied us over our arduous and remarkable history, and eagerly await the old-new sounds that will emanate from our galleries and onto the streets of Harlem in times to come.
1Katrina De Wees, “Dancing Visual Art: An Interview with Dianne McIntyre,” Studio Magazine (Fall/Winter 2013), 68.
2. Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 224 quoted in Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Ezili’s Mirrors, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 161.
3. I borrow the phrase “a history that hurts” from Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, (New York: W. W. Nortion & Company, 2019), 285.
4. Ntozake Shange, “movement/melody/muscle/meaning/mcintyre,” Lost in Language and Sound: or How I Found My Way to the Arts, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 59.