BY Andrew Hibbard in Profiles | 03 JUN 19

Okwui Okpokwasili and What It Means to Sit on a Man

The New York-based choreographer’s intensely physical performances are a protest against forgetting the stories that go untold

BY Andrew Hibbard in Profiles | 03 JUN 19

In late 1929, Igbo women in British-occupied Nigeria waged what has become known as the Women’s War. Threatened with the taxation of their market activities and denied representation in the colonial government system, these women partook in a practice known ‘as sitting on a man’. This form of public shaming involves performing dances and songs that dramatize grievances against a specific figure, inhibiting him from conducting his daily affairs. The Women’s War was fomented by the colonial government’s misunderstanding of women’s power in Igbo society, resulting in what the British government called a riot. But at the heart of the problem was the colonial imposition of Victorian gender ideas, which pushed a form of patriarchy onto a social system that had a more complicated relation to the entanglements of gender and power.

The Women’s War and the practice of sitting on a man have been an enduring research interest for the New York-based artist, choreographer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili for roughly five years. Okpokwasili has collaborated with artists including Nick Cave and Ralph Lemon but, over the past decade, has been increasingly leading her own adventurous, collaborative projects, often with the close participation of her partner Peter Born. Her intensely physical performance work explores structures of feeling and the ghosts of history, particularly as they relate to women of colour.

Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic, 2014. Courtesy: Young Vic, London; photograph: Ian Douglas 

In 2015, Okpokwasili began a two-year residency at New York Live Arts in which she began developing a project based on erasure and resistance, spurred in part by the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram and the subsequent Bring Back Our Girls movement. Okpokwasili took interest in the protest as a female-led movement that demanded visibility for those made invisible. These connections to Nigeria are a crucial strand of Okpokwasili’s practice and life as the daughter of parents who immigrated to the Bronx from Nigeria during the Biafran War in the late 1960s. And it is this deep interest in histories and experiences that have undergone some form erasure that inspired Okpokwasili to begin drawing connections between the Bring Back Our Girls movement and the Women’s War.

The resulting performance, Poor People’s TV Room – which takes its title from Okey Ndibe’s 2014 novel Foreign Gods, Inc. about a Nigerian-American taxi driver returning to his home village – was made in collaboration with four other women. Accounts of the performance tend to cite its use of plastic sheeting for stage scenery, its references to Oprah as an idol, the Women’s War, and a general thread of feminism. This patchwork of Okpokwasili’s research references is inexact insofar as her work tends to evade any kind of about-ness, instead focusing on the affects and experiences that develop from live performance. The impact of her performances is in the tenor and emanation of utterances, the experience of being present with her body and its vibrations, generating an experience irreducible to language. Yet the depth of research in Okpokwasili’s work does not vanish under these proto- or extra-linguistic measures. Instead, she is interested in activating themes deep inside us: the ways in which Western ideologies deny histories, experiences and social systems, particularly for women of colour, which challenge Euro-American dogmas. Hers is a version of performance that corresponds to the definition given by Diana Taylor in The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2007): it ‘makes visible (for an instant, live, now) that which is always already there: the ghosts, the tropes, the scenarios that structure our individual and collective life’. 

Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic, 2014. Courtesy: Young Vic, London; photograph: Ian Douglas 

The intensity of Okpokwasili’s embodied performance is perhaps most apparent in her widely celebrated solo work Bronx Gothic, which premiered in 2013 and opens at London’s Young Vic Theatre tonight. In it, Okpokwasili inhabits the role of two adolescent girls. Performing what she calls a ‘break body,’ Okpokwasili quakes and tremors, presenting an image of intense bodily stress and also of incredible control and strength. Her movements call on experiences and spectres of experience – black, gendered – that cannot be contained in any official history or system, and that lie outside of what can be communicated through language. For Okpokwasili, this interest is very much true to her life. She cites the strength and power of the women that she grew up with in the Bronx as a key parallel to the practice of sitting on a man: where, despite patriarchal structures, mothers and grandmothers had an intense ability to marshal shame and assert their authority. In this sense, her insistence on embodiment is not so much about pure visibility, but a deeper material memory, activating a complicity and connectedness with her audience that reaches beyond consciousness or optical recognition. 

Her work Sitting on a Man’s Head premiered at the 2018 Berlin Biennale and was recently restaged at Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas. Once again taking inspiration from Igbo practice, the piece conjures a space in which people come together to explore gestures and languages of lamentation and complaint. The practice of sitting on a man in large part relied on the visibility of bodies in spaces where women had social power. Its political force, in the colonial context, came from its affront to Victorian mores, yet this is also what fuelled it as a practice of ethnographic intrigue. In her film on the same subject, London-based filmmaker Onyeka Igwe similarly explores group lament. Her film Sitting on a Man (2018) juxtaposes archival footage of the practice with contemporary interpretations by dancers Emmanuella Idris and Amarnah Amuludun that challenge the ethnographic gaze of the found footage. What her film captures is not only a different vantage on this material but also the impact of its sounds and intensity, how a collective experience can also be a system for individuals to channel their own laments and complaints using a skilled language outside of rhetoric. 

Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic, 2014. Courtesy: Young Vic, London; photograph: Ian Douglas 

In Okpokwasili’s Sitting on a Man’s Head, participants move through a flimsy architecture of wood and plastic, initiating them into a constructed social space. In the first iteration, at KW, visitors were confronted with questions (e.g., ‘What is something you’ve been afraid to say and why?’ ‘What do you carry with you?’): an antechamber for reflection that asks them to slow down and adjust to the space they are about to enter. Visitors would then transition to a plastic-wrapped hardwood floor space – evocative of Poor People’s TV Room – where a chorus of vocalized melodies plays through speakers. During the opening at KW and Project Row Houses, the space was activated by a group of collaborators, invited by Born and Okpokwasili, who engaged in a set of repeated gestures that act as a mode of communing. Okpokwasili thinks of the psychic and emotional space conjured in Sitting on a Man’s Head as one in which we might develop a language of protest or work toward articulating a complaint. It dramatizes the ways in which people come together and the spaces that allow them to do so. 

Okpokwasili’s work offers a repertoire of experiences and possibilities as a means of empowerment. Yet they do not court resolutions or answers but, rather, suggest ways of perceiving the forces that animate our social lives and the possibilities for seeing and sensing otherwise. 

Bronx Gothic runs at the Young Vic, London, UK from 1–29 June 2019.

Main image: Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic, 2014. Courtesy: Young Vic, London; photograph: Ian Douglas

Andrew Hibbard is a writer and curator based in London, UK.