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“The body goes through incantations of itself” | Jaamil Olawale Kosoko Brings Seancers to the Wexner Center

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford “The body goes through incantations of itself” | Jaamil Olawale Kosoko Brings Seancers to the Wexner Center
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The Wexner Center closes out the 2018 performing arts schedule on a high note with Séancers, a righteous, provocative piece from Detroit-born poet and performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko.

Kosoko’s work exemplifies the blend of artistic disciplines with globally-minded thought, connections to local scenes, and an intensely personal point of view that’s the best of what the Wexner is known for bringing to Columbus. The website Dance Enthusiast said of the work’s 2018 premiere at New York’s American Realness festival, “Séancers invokes thoughtful feminine energy dislodging the intellectual into the physical. It opens a dimension between the unapologetically messy and the legible.”

I spoke with Kosoko by phone in advance of his trip to Columbus. Talking about the original impetus for the piece, he said, “It was quite a natural progression from the work I made previously, #negrophobia. While showing that piece, a lot of folks referred to that world-making as a ‘ritual séance.’ That’s how I landed inside this world: building my own performative experience of a séance.”

“At the heart of the work,” Kosoko said, “I’m thinking about the everyday séance many people of color have to go through in order to go about living, being and surviving in the world. the daily ritual of describing one’s self into existence. Essentially creating a framework of possibility for how that might be done — radically. Those were the early ideas behind delving into this idea of the séance and it grew from there.”

Kosoko expounded on his personal ties to the thematic material. “I kind of conjure performance more than choreograph. This was a way of moving in space and sitting with the spirits of my relatives. I’m the only living member of my immediate family and so I think this work was also a way to be in communion with my family.”

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko has a background as a poet and curator and he talked about texts that were important to this piece. “This series of texts helped to become pillars of the work — Audre Lorde’s ‘Power,’ Howardena Pindell’s ‘Free, White and 21,’ Ruby Sales. These black women voices seemed to be speaking to me, wanting a platform, and they seemed to make sense, to belong in the same universe. They became this mantra I kept returning to.”

I asked more specifically about Power,” a poem still (in some ways sadly) vital many years after its composition and which was a guiding light for this writer in college. He responded, “Audre Lorde has been a powerful force in my life for many years now and continues to be, along with writers like James Baldwin, Maya Angelou. She coined the term ‘biomythography.’ Talk about what it means to position oneself, to describe oneself into being, to essentially rewrite their own history as a mode of their own survival. And she continues to speak to us, though very much long gone; there’s a power there.”

“Coming on the heels of the previous work and still thinking about what the remnants were that didn’t quite resolve,” Kosoko commented, “I ventured into this text ‘Power.’ She wrote this piece 40 years ago and [if] you read it now, it could have been written yesterday. This is a critical moment to really interrogate how has our country changed, how has it been repositioned, but also what still lingers. What are some of the stains on the conscience of the American project that continue to exist with no resolution? She really seemed to [bring into] language a lot of these questions inside of ‘Power.’ At one point in the work I thought the Ruby Sales text might open the piece, but then I realized there’s another way the power of these words can situate in this performative experience. All of these voices together seemed to be in a conversation, almost serving as this guiding light to help me shape the world of [Séancers].”

We spoke about trying to mold this personal material into work for an audience. Kosoko said, “In the performative action we all take on the roles of séancers. We’re all communing with certain spirits. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we’ve all experienced some kind of loss in our lives. I do try to create a space, fairly early on in the work, that’s a real situation the audience has all been invited to. So that we all can really think about the losses we’ve endured. I try to create a space for that, to pause and acknowledge in silence someone who has supported us or mentored us or loved us in some way who is no longer here. That’s a way of inviting – the proposal of the invitation helps to create this space where the audience feels comfortable and able to go on this journey with me as the shepherd, if  you will, or the medium between these worlds.”

“A deep part of my research has been blending or working with things of reality as it relates to performance, as it relates to the sociopolitical climate, as it relates to my own biography and personal histories. Sort of fleshing out, maybe you’d call it an autoenthographic approach to ways in which the personal is universal and the universal is personal.”

“I also find art is a way of communicating with an audience so we know that we’re asking the same questions as it relates to our humanity and ways of being in the world,” Kosoko said. ”We’re going about it in different ways but I think those core inquiries are certainly present in all of us. That proposal invites the audience, piques their interest enough to venture into the room and come on this journey with me.”

A key component of the piece is Kosoko bringing in guest artists unique to the locale being toured. At the time we spoke, the identities of these artists were still being solidified, but he told me, “[The guest artists are] a way in which I am able to stay in dialogue with what’s happening in the local community. Knowing what questions are arising — theoretical, activist-centered proposals, a combination thereof — the guest séancer has become an important part of the touring production.”

In that same collaborative spirit, Kosoko spoke effusively of his collaborator, composer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste. “I’ve worked with Jeremy for years now. We met in 2014 and some months later I invited him into the studio with me just to play, to see what might be possible. It was a great experience to work with him and see what ideas and textures and ways in which his sonic proposal might influence the shaping of the work. [My team is] always talking about the politics of sound and vibration and the role that has inside the performative experience. Jeremy talked a lot about creating a vibration that isn’t necessarily audible but is felt. A way in which the room is still sort of rumbling but a sound isn’t [obviously] the source of it. He approaches the theme [of the piece] in ways I wouldn’t have even imagined. It’s been such a pleasure working with [him].”

We spoke a little about the set, referred to as “detritus” by Kosoko in previous interviews. He said, “Without giving too much away, there’s a mass of historical rhetorics; materials that have meanings — a horse mask, chains, a whip, an American flag — with weight and a historical context that can be taken in a number of ways. I leave it to the spectator to manifest whatever way of seeing they choose but I do try to shepherd [them] along in the moment to see this kind of transformation, this mutation that occurs through the use of the materials. [As] a visual proposal, it brings the metaphor home. The body goes through incantations of itself. These materials cling to the body and my work is to try to shed myself of it.”

Anyone who has experienced loss, anyone trying to make sense of the present moment, anyone trying to shed the skin of at least one past, should make a point of showing up for Séancers.

Séancers has performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6 through Saturday, Dec. 8 at the Wexner Center. For tickets and more info, visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/jaamil-olawale-kosoko.

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