Reflections on keyon gaskin's [lavender]: a self portrait May 8, 2019

by Kiera O'Brien


you ain’t gotta explain nothin’ to nobody: a reflection on keyon  gaskin’s [lavender]: a self portrait

we are masterpieces of collective imagery. we are promised  divinity in our own bodies. the depths of the internal, that  which is not outwardly facing. the living archive of the Black  experience is one that is not form fitting or for coding. like a southern, Black home, one that is most familiar to me and my lived experience, you can come and be as you are. you ain’t  gotta explain nothin’ to nobody.

[lavender]: a self-portrait by keyon gaskin is a beautiful  rendition of internal perception and reflection. those who were  able to engage in this show beared witness to performance  portraits that reflected the vision of gaskin as well as the  accompanying performers. as the show travels between cities, the  performers change and manifest new vision. who we saw at the OxBow are specific to seattle except for gaskin themself.

i arrived to the performance late assuming that it would be  at On The Board’s normal location. i came to OxBow about twenty  minutes into the beginning of the show. i was not sure if myself  and my date would be let in because typically in the performance  academy this is not permissible. after being greeted and given a  small, thick, purple book, i stood and observed. i was waiting  for some sort of instruction. it never came. and everyone around  me looked confused as hell. i begin to open this book of  gaskin’s text in search for answers and noticed quotes that  almost immediately broke down any and all expectations i had for  this performance. i was signaled to be in conversation with not  only the piece, but also with myself.

"dafuq you lookin’ at?” it is grammatically a question, but  most fittingly a declarative statement. i do not have to speak  anymore after this. and it begs the question for this particular  circumstance: what are the audience members looking at? or  rather, what were they expecting? “dafuq you lookin’ at?” implies that you were looking at something in a way that you  were not supposed to in the first place. i interpreted this as  gaskin very clearly rejecting the style of performance that  might invite audience members to look for their entertainment.

rejecting a style of performance to lay out exactly what  onlookers were seeing and why. this question invited me to bear  witness to all performers and be in my own internal process. i  was no longer interested in being translated to. i was no longer  interested in being an observer, but to transform my experience  as active participant. i then saw melanated bodies across the  room and they looked comfortable, so i felt comfortable. i fed  off the energy of the crowd. collectively, the performers are in  their own world and actively participating in them. i am  energized by this.

one of the performers places a silk scarf that is variation  of cobalt blue with floral prints and a white face over their  head. they move around the entrance near the door quietly and  intentionally. while reflecting on this moment of the  performance, Frantz Fanon’s 1952 work, “Black Skin, White Masks  (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs)” crosses my mind and I reflect on  the performance of cultural and racial identities. often times  for Black bodies, performance is about direct translation of  self and experience. and performing in relation to whiteness.  the white mask either on the performer or in the room. the mask  stared at a group of onlookers and everything about the  interaction declared “dafaq you lookin at?” the white mask a  symbol for everything you were anticipating. don’t do that.

i am typically not in my own body 
i walk through grey dystopia  
as a conditional permission  
on or off 

hard to tell  
hard to tell  
hard to tell

collective affirmations in 
bring me back into the conversation i was having with myself  before you interrupted 

sound is a sacred material. the soundtrack of Black feminine  energy is not to be passed over. Nicki Minaj and Bbymutha are  amongst the chosen lyrical contributors to this portrait. their  unapologetic declarations pierce through any respectability  politics that may have entered the space. “miss me with the bullshit” is paraded in a white, ceramic cup to amplify the  sound. a body is dancing with this talking cup in hand. the  crowd is confused. i see this body as the bearer of ceremonial  matter. the divine Black feminine rejecting respectability  politics and encouraging self expression in the rawest form.

a bubbling vibration of raspy, deep hi-pass filtered sounds  commence our witness to the piece. it is a call to process all  that we have just participated in. while the sound plays, i  focus on a ball of kinky-textured hair placed next to the warm-lighted lamp. i sit down and am back in the living room of  my ma’s house. i stayed up until 3 a.m. detangling my hair with  olive oil from the kitchen, throwing the afro-textured balls on  the hardwood floors. to be centered in Blackness does not have  to be an outward facing declaration. to be centered in Blackness  can be the call to witness or rejection of witness. gaskin’s  performance did both for me. and through this performance, the  academy of art as a supremacist structure upholding dryly  unimaginative and inherently violent performance standards has utterly and profoundly missed keyon gaskin with the bullshit.

Performer Interviews
by Ellen McGivern, 18/19 Curatorial Intern 

Presented at Oxbow, a multi-displinary residency space in the Georgetown neighboorhood from March 22-24, 2019, artist, keyon gaskin performed their work titled keyon gaskin: [lavender]: a self portrait. This self-examination of keyon was embodied through collaboration with  local performers Vivian Phillips, David, Karen Nelson, Fox Whitney, and Markeith Wiley. Please enjoy their responses and relationship to keyon’s work.

keyon has vocalized their interest in working with people they personally know. What is your relationship to keyon and their career?

Vivian Phillips: I met keyon at the TBA festival in Portland a few years ago and had the pleasure of traveling to a dance festival in Burkina Faso with them.  We became fast friends through these interactions.

Karen Nelson: We’ve run into each other in some different cities and performance venues in the Mid and NW US, and I invited them to join a performance-lecture-dem experiment I was directing in 2017 at Seattle Festival Dance Improvisation, CI [Contact Improvisation] interrogates it’s own history through the body. So that was where we first met in some work. Their presence in the interrogation pulled at all sorts of questions the inquiry had in mind, particularly for me about race and whiteness, so I’m super grateful that they were up for joining. Career-wise I love that they eschew credentials in their bio, walking their value of disrupting what’s become expected of an artist. It is super refreshing and clarifying. It’s almost like getting reborn to be struck by it; or some part of me that’s been disallowed gets to live. I dig their influence.

keyon performs sometimes outside of traditional performance space. How has this specific setting challenged you artistically or physically?

Vivian Phillips: It was not at all challenging from a space perspective, in fact, it was a more comfortable environment, removing all of the norms and expectations that come with traditional performance spaces.

Karen Nelson: Back to fabulous disruption! “Traditional” performance space must also have a history with royalty and high court something or others, including proscenium productions and the high cost or competitive nature to get into them. etc,.How disrupting that situation reveals other possibilities. keyon’s work seems to challenge the notion, that like credentials one need not dignify work by putting it in the venue that “normal, successful, worthwhile” work is shown in. On a felt-experience level as a performer within the fluid, non-proscenium gallery space, contact with the audience was unavoidable— the intimacy of touch, smell, eye contact, direct engagement— these were somewhat challenging for introvert me, but I found while dancing in the portrait, my personality migrated to their role in the piece, and their character fed on the challenges of proximity. I found mutual respect with the ‘’audience” as they were also “on the spot”, choosing— where to be, where to look, or to even stay in the room with it (or not).

What does your ideal performance space look like?

Vivian Phillips: I am comfortable in traditional thrust and arena performance space settings, as well as black box, outdoors, and re-envisioned spaces.  The space does not necessarily guide my interest in the work being performed which is what I am most inclined toward.

Karen Nelson: Well, it looks like my body since that’s the site where it all happens, eh? I mean, more specifically, it’s my awareness being awake and IN my body. When that is happening there is felt-presence and attuning with space. In some ways the physical space of a performance is an extension or another aspect of the body performing within it. The influences of environment, and the multi-perceptive energies flowing from each member of an audience— these influence and create the site specific-ness of any performance. Visually the space container looks like something you want to or are atleast willing to be in collaboration with, by entering your body. I might fight with it or love it up; the work is to learn about the space in order to inhabit it, and each time discover how my bodyanimal survives it.

keyon titles their self portrait as the color lavender. How would you describe or name your own self-portrait?

Karen Nelson: keyon’s title here seems to be a reminder that the self-portrait is not name-able in language. This is very exciting and reveals the currency of flowing experience-beforewords that one finds oneself in while performing/witnessing [swatch of lavender]. This spaciousness allows the performer’s imagination to extend beyond a role, and into what makes something meaningful to one’s self. The terms “mirror” or “technology of mirror” or “[ ] a self-portrait— reflecting it’s environment”, all those come to mind. But since I have only freshly performed keyon’s self-portrait, I can’t quite extrude my own selfportrait from that performance experience. I love considering the new thought for me of dance and performance as self-portraiture— and how keyon furthers that as performable by 3 other bodies besides their own.

How do you juggle your personal artistic practice when are executing another artists vision?

Vivian Phillips: Considering that I am not a practicing artist necessarily, I am more interested in the role I can play in supporting the artists vision.

Karen Nelson: I’m very familiar with collaboration where each artist has full responsibility for the space, and the vision. We are all deciding things about what we are doing. Either that, or I direct a space which includes that sort of freedom and responsibility. So my habit in performance is not to “execute another artist’s vision” in any traditional way— but more in a collaborative spirit. So, in this work I found my responsible-for-the-space muscle had an opportunity to completely “let go”, since keyon had that realm all covered. It reminded me of walking a labyrinth, where all the decisions are made, you just travel the path which has a destination— to the center and back out again— even though sometimes you turn back on yourself and it feels like you are going the wrong way. You end up letting something bigger or outside you guide where you step. That was the deal dancing in keyon’s self-portrait, and I felt lots open up for me.

JOY MA is an emerging, interdisciplinary artist who delves in media including, but not limited to performance, experimental music production, DJing, and writing. They are passionate about bridging the arts, historical research, and community organizing for racial, economic, and gender justice. JOY MA reps the South Side of Chicago and the planet Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, all day every day. Currently, they are working on a series of essays that explore the intersections of Black feminist theory, speculative fiction, environmental justice, and respectability politics in the African diasporic community. You can win their heart by bringing vegan deep dish pizza and flamin’ hots to the turn up.

Ellen McGivern is drawn to work focused on process, research, ritual, vulnerability, and accessibility. Growing up in Kansas, McGivern became fascinated with the Prairie Print Makers, a collective founded pre-World War II that examined her home state with an emphasis in working with community and self-promotion; similar values that are embedded in her curatorial practice. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the University of Kansas and will graduate with an MFA in Arts Leadership from Seattle University this June. Beginning in marketing and communications at the fine craft gallery, 108|Contemporary, Ellen has progressed her career towards curation, residency management, art criticism and artist professional development through opportunities at the Hedreen Gallery, the contemporary performance space, On the Boards, and as a resident in The Black Embodiments Studio, an arts writing incubator and lecture series in collaboration with The Jacob Lawrence Gallery and the University of Washington.

About the Artist
gaskin prefers not to contextualize their work with their credentials.