Okwui Okpokwasili makes room for restitution in ‘Sitting on a Man’s Head’

Okwui Okpokwasili makes room for restitution in ‘Sitting on a Man’s Head’

“How do we weave a collective song?”

Performance artist Okwui Okpokwasili muses on this question in “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” the anchoring component of Danspace Project’s multi-week, multi-disciplinary 2020 Platform. The performance — or as Okpokwasili describes it: practice — unfolds over the course of four hours at St. Marks Church to form a chorus of whirring voices, brought together in a sort of communion. The aim, if one can be stated, is to counter an era increasingly oriented toward isolation by allowing strangers to merge in a “space of restoration and restitution.”

Titled “Utterances from the Chorus,” this year’s Platform runs through March 21. Comprising performance, gatherings and readings, the 2020 iteration was curated by Okpokwasili in collaboration with Judy Hussie-Taylor, executive director and chief curator of Danspace Project. In addition to the question at the core of Okpokwasili’s practice, the series also posits: “How can the voice and body be a site of resistance and transformation?” and “How can we share artistic practices — between artists and between artists and audiences?”

"Sitting on a Man's Head." Photo: Vincent Daenen.
“Sitting on a Man’s Head.” Photo: Vincent Daenen.

For “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” presented every Friday for the duration of the Platform, Okpokwasili engaged a group of 30 artists who serve as the “sonic pillars” of the practice. Their task is to engage, or activate, the public to enter the space, helping to weave together the voices of those already participating with those who wish to join. Culled together from Philadelphia and New York, the artists chosen come from multiple disciplines, creating a tapestry of composers, dancers, singers, musicians and poets.

Two components make up the practice: duration and vulnerability. During its four-hour-long allotted time, the practice slowly builds momentum as the evening progresses, threading through dance, song and sound. This long-duration build is sustained by those who add to the space over time, shifting the borders of the moving chorus to accommodate the new voices.

Over the course of a phone conversation with Okpokwasili on Valentine’s Day, she reiterates that “Sitting on a Man’s Head” should not be thought of as a performance. There are no audiences. Those who wish to watch must participate, otherwise they may sit outside the practice space and listen. The structure, Okpokwasili explained, allows for a sense of security and comfort: What are you willing to do as a non-performer with no one watching? How will you join the chorus?

“The interesting space that I feel that this Platform is helping me operate in is to see this kind of dream of like, well, what would it be to try to share this kind of practice with a public who may not have an artistic practice or may not engage it directly?” Okpokwasili said. “Because I think everybody is creative. Addressing how to live day-to-day, particularly in New York, requires a fair amount of creativity. But to ask people to possibly come into a space where they engage in a kind of listening and sonic practice with others [who] are strangers, [who] they don’t know, what is the potential bond that’s built there? What’s the kind of potential moment of restoration for someone, even if the artist never sees them again?”

The genesis of the project came from Okpokwasili’s research of the Nigerian body protest tactic “sitting on a man,” wherein women would show up to publicly shame a powerful man who wronged the community. The women would go to the man’s house and perform the practice, which involved dancing and singing, until change occurred. In her 2017 debut of “Poor People’s TV Room,” created during a two-year residency at New York Live Arts, Okpokwasili merged the tradition with the Bring Back Our Girls movement. “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” created in collaboration with her partner Peter Born, continues this lineage.

Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born.
Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born.

The practice emphasized for Okpokwasili the power of the collective. In her piece, she reverses the concept of shame to muse on how we can use space to heal and find restitution within the community. The process allows for those participating to ponder their ability for change and to carry forth what they learn. In thinking of how to realize the practice, Okpokwasili imagined “marvelous acts of collaboration for the purpose of some kind of justice.”

“I just started to think, oh, what about people coming together and thinking about that thing before the intention to get restitution?” Okpokwasili said. “What is the thing that builds up the community so that we can find a place of restoration before we go out and fight?”

And while the space allows for strangers to come together in a network of care and understanding, Okpokwasili recognizes that, like in life, there will be moments in which there is slight discord or times when the chorus does not sing in complete harmony.

“What is it to be a chorus? What is it to be in a chorus?” posed Okpokwasali, who participated in choruses as a child and found herself taken by the sonic cohesion that resulted. “ … I would say that ‘Sitting on a Man’s Head’ is a space where we’re not always agreeing; we’re not always singing the same song or creating the same sound or making the same utterance.”

She continued: “But it also asks to complicate even that sense of being together. We can be linked and woven together, but even in that dissonance, there’s wonderful tension and space in that — where we’re not always in agreement, but we are sort of recognizing that there’s some productive space of disagreement. How do we go in and out of agreement? How do we be with each other?”

The presentations of “Sitting on a Man’s Head” are woven in with several other programs that occur over the course of Platform, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The series will also feature the work of Moroccan choreographer Meryem Jazouli and French-Algerian choreographer Nacera Belaza, in addition discussions housed under the title “Poetic Utterance.”

Top Image: Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Peter Born.