“I know exactly what you mean” A Community of the Curious with Ogemdi Ude by maura nguyễn donohue
December 15, 2022
maura nguyễn donohue is the Writer-in-Residence for Platform 2021: The Dream of the Audience and Platform 2022: The Dream of the Audience (Part II). Her reflections on the Platform 2022 performances and events are posted, accumulatively here, in Issue 14 of the Danspace Project Online Journal. Her reflections on Platform 2021 can be found in the Online Journal Issue 12 and in the Platform 2021-2022 catalogue.
In this essay donohue brings bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Janet Jackson, among others, into conversation with the biomythographic fabrication and fabulation presented in Ogemdi Ude’s Platform 2022 premiere work, I know exactly what you mean.
This essay is offered in both audio and text. Read or listen below.
In her essay “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” from Art on My Mind Visual Politics, bell hooks declares the photographic snapshot collection displays in Black households as essential and revolutionary tools in the construction of a Black identity. “The history of black liberation movements in the United States could be characterized as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights, for equal access.” A recent Juneteenth photo essay and accompanying writing by Tiya Miles and Michelle May-Curry “Holding Tight to Family in What’s Left Behind” considers the place images have as heirlooms for those who were violently dislocated from ancestry and historically barred from the accumulation of capital among people worshiping the accumulation of capital. Miles and May-Curry state “weaving stories of kinship and care across the generations. In the American lands of the African diaspora, kinship has persisted and family bonds have endured – preserved by and reflected in heirlooms.”
When an image becomes a precious artifact, the adage, an image is worth a thousand words might have the capacity to over-run the griot, the storyteller, the orator and the orature. However, in I know exactly what you mean, Ogemdi Ude devises a recovery of cultural memory, with collaborating performers, Selah V. Hampton and Symara Johnson, through a mash-up of true and tall-tales, painting imagistic personal histories with an array of careful and chaotic snapshots of word and play. If one needed to teach a lesson on bringing Audre Lorde’s literary device of biomythography into choreographic being, this would be high on my bibliography. During a preparatory conversation for the second Conversations Without Walls: The Dream of the Audience for Platform 2022, fellow discussant, devynn emory said “there is grief in the gap.” And while Ogemdi brings in personal grief, she also exploits the possibility of gap spaces as realms of great opportunity. As she states in the introduction to a conversation with Selah, that appears in the Platform Catalogue, I know exactly what you mean is about “All the ways we navigate gaps in knowledge in order to create some semblance of a cohesive narrative of where we are and who we belong to.”
The 2016 Danspace Project Platform Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now included an evening curated by Eva Yaa Asantewaa called the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds. In notes for that Bessie-award-winning performance and historic event, both in a revisionist sense and in sweeping scope, she quoted the vital directive from seer and speculative fiction writer, Octavia Butler that “you got to make your own worlds, you got to write yourself in.” And here, once again, a Platform became a platform, a space upon which and into which worlds could be built and find themselves in a shared system orbiting a common dream. And here, once again, the celebration of a fantastic and fantastical black femme community went from the realm of speculative fiction into this known realm at East 10th and 2nd. And here, once again, a live performance became a community of the curious with the space and time for belonging.
Throughout Ogemdi’s work, the play of words, the way of words, and the sway of words piles up and spills out. A huge industrial printer sits at the edge of the stage and spews spools of paper, printing, in real-time, the various stories the dancers tell. During a latter part of the work, the dancers kneel and crawl reading from it. Why wouldn’t any of the stories these performers keep telling, de-composing and re-composing in tandem, in concert, and in delicious cacophony, not be actual events? But also, what’s so cool about being real when the fabrication is so much more fluidly fantastic?
Ogemdi, Selah and Symara begin the piece by sitting casually on the steps under the arch of the altar, in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, while audience members continue talking with one another. As the work progresses the dancers speak of painfully awkward or scintillating moments, from childhood or adolescence, that never reach a final resolve. Before one can finish a story, another begins. These stories are told in succession, in simultaneous overlap, with the dancers sometimes crawling across the floor with microphones, the words projected onto the walls behind them or printed onto rolls of unfurling paper. Written into our imaginations are the fantastic possibilities of multi-layered lives and a way in which Ogemdi can, as she says, collect the experiences of others as a balm for Fear-of-Missing-Out.
How do we meet the chronic ache of existing inside and alongside times of massive loss and grief? So often at Platform events, the way a work speaks to the larger world and acts as a beacon, a time capsule, and a harbinger all at once, sits deep in my center of gravity. Throughout Ude’s I know exactly what you mean, I feel myself bouncing along to a juicy playlist, delighting in the well-crafted shifts in and out of shared time and movement and an easy sense of familiar femme feelings and dance-related near disasters. But, I also felt the effort to accumulate collective narratives against the larger tides of erasure. Here is the kind of adrienne maree brown Pleasure Activism that makes new worlds in the wild imaginations and reclamations of belonging and freedom when we “invite people to the pleasures we have constructed from dreams and thin air.” Or, as the famous scribe Janet Jackson sings out over the speakers:
Baby you can’t hold me down
Baby you can’t hold me down
After all the lovin’ we’ve been through
And after all you’ve put me through
Yeah yeah, hey yeah (oh)
Love me, hey yeah, love me yeah
It’s the pleasure principle