Even the palms, dem bow
Collaborative performance by Joiri Minaya + Ian Deleón, 1 hour duration
at Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, Brooklyn
presented as part of Field Notes: Extracts
Curated by Holly Bynoe | Photography by Tif Robinette
"We're interested in exploring notions of the normative/sexualized Caribbean body through an investigation of male/female relationships to the palm tree--women being often depicted hypersexualized adjacent to a phallic palm, while a prevalent homophobia makes images of men and palm trees a rare occurrence. Drawing from the transnational influences of dancehall, dembow and reggaeton, we will attempt to whine with these cultural signifiers and tease out their liberatory potentialities."
Essay-length reflections by performers and audience members on INCIDENT Magazine
Joiri is dressed in a black cotton dress, black soldier's cap, and black leather gloves. The dress is accented with shoulder epaulettes made from a brassiere and braided hair pieces. The hands are adorned with fetish gloves, palms and fingers lined with small, sharp pins. The effect is at once sexy, somber, and militaristic -- like a distortion of the sartorial exuberance of such historical authoritarians as Rafael "El Jefe" Trujillo or Colonel Gaddafi.
I am wearing tight navy blue booty shorts, leather thigh straps, fancy dress shoes + socks, studded belt, gloves, and a light blue women's button-up shirt with an embroidered palm tree and chest hair poking through.
We both begin the performance by entering the gallery space and interacting with an installation by Deborah Anzinger, which includes a mirror with its center laser-cut out and replaced by a mounted potted succulent plant – this was our vanity. I start to prepare myself by gazing into this flora-subject while purposefully teasing out my hair, emphasizing its coarse texture, which I carry with me from my South American / Caribbean ancestors. I do this that I might highlight a daily ritual for me and many others, the "taming" of so-called unruly or bad hair. My hair in its "wild" natural state is carefully shaped by me into a smooth curly-wave, like a small ocean breaking at the shores of my scalp, with the use of Black-marketed hair product. I also add a little makeup and lipstick to my face, then we both head to the "dance floor".
A grove of plastic inflatable palm trees are scattered throughout the exhibition's first room. The lights are down very low and there's the occasional bright flash from a monitor playing one of the video works in the show. A speaker and a microphone are set up and there is a crowd. The blaring music alternates between Jamaican dancehall, Panamanian dembow, Dominican reggaeton, and Brazilian baile funk – describing the acoustico-linguistic migration and transformation pattern of this infectious language of the Americas. Shabba Ranks, Nando Boom, El General, Vakeró, Buju Banton and Mr. Catra are among the artists featured in our playlist.
Joiri adopts her performance-length posture of steely resistance. Her cold stares are sometimes directed at me, other times at the audience or at nothing at all. It is not a look of indifference, but rather a look of confrontation. She continues her exploration of inverting and returning the gaze, challenging its art historical role in cementing the male-centric perspective of Western visual culture and communication. Her gestures seem antithetical to the typical role played by women in these uninhibited tropical dance party contexts – she is often stoic in the face of the pulsating electro-beats, and her primary objective appears to be the destruction of every single vinyl phallus in the room.
My meta-performance focused on cultivating a promiscuous and sultry relationship with each palm tree on the dance floor. A garden pressure sprayer filled with dark rum was used as a bizarre Burroughs-esque, narco-erotic prop. At times, I was predatory, sipping rum from the nozzle and using the canister as a way of marking my territory, flirtatiously dousing a certain palm tree I was desiring at that moment in pornographic pantomime. Other times the sprayer assumed a deadly quality, serving as a harbinger for a palm's coming demise – an insectoid inversion, exterminating the fabricated tropical landscape.
My relationship to the music and its lyrics fluctuate greatly throughout the piece. I may display my subtle protest to a song's homophobic lyrics in one instance, by grinding fiercely and unabashedly with the palms, while giving the finger to and smacking the audio speaker itself during flagrant lyrics such as: "It's like boom bye bye inna batty bwoy head". At another point, a dembow track from Panama announces that to "swallow a microphone" makes one a bow (in other words, an undesirable, a man of questionable sexuality). I respond by picking up the live microphone and attempt to sing along to the track unironically while shoving the instrument as far into my mouth as possible, garbling the lyrics in an eerily snuff-ish gesture.
Joiri and I agreed to inhabit the same performative space for this piece, but it was not until the very end that we finally interacted directly – our bodies having previously passed through each other, affecting each other's environments but never making contact, like spirits in a house of hauntings. Often, I would be in the middle of an amorous rapture with a palm tree, or two, and Joiri would approach a tree, grabbing it by the trunk or the coconuts with her needle-sharp gloves and quickly extinguishing its life. I would then appear to mourn the palm, making futile attempts to re-inflate the ruptured plastic – to breathe life again into its collapsed lungs. The rum spray became an elixir of veneration then, as I "poured one out" for my fallen homies.
“Homophobic and patriarchal songwriting is only bitterly humorous if we’re re-contextualizing them by dancing and laughing instead of crying and mourning." - Kareem Reid, BODY PARTY
"To protest too much, to insist too much—indeed, to do anything too much, to invoke excess—is to risk queering."
"The increased freedom of bodily movement has freed as well the limitations of certain male practices, meaning that the male dancing body has the freedom to tell different stories in the context of dancehall more than almost anywhere else in Jamaica."
"In his movements we see the freedom that the space of dancehall allows for precisely that which so many of its lyrics ostensibly disallow: curly hair, tight pants, bleached skin, funniness."
- Out and Bad: Toward a Queer Performance Hermeneutic in Jamaican Dancehall