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Art Show in Dungeon Explores BDSM in Relation to Black Female Bodies

Sexual Fragments Absent is MA Curatorial Practice student Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi’s thesis project and will debut this week in a dungeon. The three-artist show will be held for one night, Thursday, April 27, at Paddles, the self-billed friendly S&M club in Chelsea. The setting is fitting if unexpected: the artists involved, Doreen Garner, SHAWNÉ MICHAELAIN HOLLOWAY and Tiona McClodden, each untangle the aesthetic, affective and socio-political trappings of BDSM to uncover excitement and definition in a contested situation. They are also very much in the picture in their respective practices, using performance, video and self-portraiture to locate pleasure, pain, desire, sexuality and the role of the gaze—and the histories thereof—in relation to black female bodies.

Below, Onyeruenyi goes deep on his project and the complicated dynamics of his curatorial interests and practice.

How did you become familiar or involved with these three artists?

I had seen Doreen Garner’s work at VOLTA in 2016; it was sculptural work of organs and innards that from afar, are almost life-like, but up-close, you realize these materials are things we procure and consume. For me, the work immediately challenged ideas around new materialism, prompting viewers to overcome a culture of ignorance around how black bodies and power have always been in this tussle with materiality. I knew some of the motifs Garner was experimenting with on sight, but I wanted to get beyond the viscera of it.

SHAWNÉ MICHAELAIN HOLLOWAY is an artist I had stumbled upon through Bitch Media and there was an immediate draw to her work. Her short film was unlike anything I had seen before, which perhaps speaks to my ignorance. When I don’t entirely grasp a work with language, but I’m visually compelled by it, then it’s worth digging into what’s behind that. Her video a_personal_project, IV: password protected thaumatrope, security measures for a caged bird.mov (2014) was what got me intrigued: the work has this assemblage of online artifacts that capture HOLLOWAY and/or others in erotic acts in homes and non-descript places. Every scene was bursting with a physicality and intimacy wherein the nonlinear narrative becomes secondary. Instead, questions around power, voyeurism and dislocation come to the fore.

About a year later, I had mentioned HOLLOWAY’s work to Tiona McClodden during an installation for a show I had curated at the CP Project Space here in New York. Unbeknownst to me, McClodden and Holloway had been in an ongoing dialogue about how their involvement in BDSM communities informed their work. McClodden’s self-portraiture work, Se te subió el santo? (Are you in a trance?)(2016) captures an intersubjective image of the artist as Black queer woman who is also a Priestess and radical feminist who just so happens to be a practitioner of BDSM. During the install, McClodden and I talked about these conflicting identities—BDSM was not widely approved by the likes of [black feminist authors] Audre Lorde or Alice Walker. And in those talks, McClodden’s ongoing dialogue with HOLLOWAY came up.

With Garner, HOLLOWAY and McClodden, we haven’t arrived at a consummate language for what is going on here. What I do know is that these three black women are agitating against something in their individual practices and have been generous and vulnerable enough to let me talk through that with them.

Can you give a little background as to the conception of or impetus for Sexual Fragments Absent?

Well after seeing Garner’s work, I got interested in the erotics of architecture and material as it relates to abjection, queerness and the black female body. This led me to texts by Samuel Delany, Mario Gooden and Bernard Tschumi. Delany’s Time Square Red, Time Square Blue (1999), got me asking: how do we reconcile the interclass contact created and celebrated in queer social spaces of the past relative to the late capitalist economies that support networked social interactions? Gooden argues that the (black) female body is always already "invisible, occupy[ing] unspoken spaces" or "dismissed to locations of repressive difference where the black body is simultaneously an object of desire and derision, yet has no desires of its own." So that’s where my head was initially.

But the beauty of curating is that if approached with a care for the artists, one’s knowledge can shift in ways that you didn't initially conceive. Talking with curatorial advisors and, more importantly, the artists, it became clear that there was on the one hand a concern about the historical and ongoing violence exacted upon the black female body through visual culture. At the same time, Garner, HOLLOWAY and McClodden are of a different black feminist ilk that are radical and drawing on what we would consider "second wave" thinkers, but in ways that bends away from how they were thinking about the black female body vis-à-vis sexuality.

On subsequent studio visits and conversations with the artists, these very themes came to the fore. Garner indeed had source images pinned about her studio at Pioneer Works that referenced leather, latex, suspension and objectification. And McClodden and HOLLOWAY were already meditating on BDSM aesthetics and practices in their work. After all this, the work of Ariane Cruz in The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography (2016) really provided a historical context to this bend to pleasure, desire, sexuality and even the gaze that was coming up in conversations with these artists.

BDSM is at the center of this bend or kink that frames Sexual Fragments Absent. But the body and its contortions are also important. Articulating a contemporary, polyvalent sexuality concerning the black female body involves embodying a politics of pleasure—thanks to BDSM—that bends, leans, dips and gyrates in and with the historical violence of chattel slavery and misogyny. This bending is not a show of acquiescence to these histories, but an interrogation of wholeness, as well as the narrow, single story narrative that has introduced a concomitant danger and violence to how we understand black female subjectivity.

This is a one-night only show. Can you speak a little to the performativity and impermanence of such a one-time exhibition, and what relationship that might have to the artists' works or the overall interests of the show? What led you to this format?

If we think of performativity as this process, this becoming, then it maps on to how we might best understand the working out of black female sexuality over time and space. Performance curators all seek to have their exhibitions to enact something rather than describe—that's where the notion of the "performative" and "performativity" comes out off. At the same time, I'm mindful of how the words gets thrown around in visual arts and culture without anyone really being critical of its use.

Even as a one-night performance, Sexual Fragments Absent is in no way completely performative because parts of it will get ensconced in a performance-based canon. The documentation, for instance, will eventually emerge as this fixed, "performative object." But the conversations around the performance and the performance documentation, to me, take on this impermanence that gets reworked over time and across varying spaces. This circles back to the relational aspects of BDSM that can't be conveniently packaged for capitalist circulation.

Part of the approach for Sexual Fragments Absent is to mirror how these BDSM parties actually manifest—they are usually one-night escapades. But so much happens over the course of a night. Bodies bend, intersect and hold ground for one another, fashioning a community for other bent bodies for gather. Some of these parties at Paddles happen on a monthly basis, which ultimately leads to a community much like the early BDSM communities that congregated around the Meatpacking District in the '70s and '80s.

How does this exhibition fit in with or relate to your ongoing curatorial (or writing) practice and time thus far at SVA?

What I'm noticing from the curatorial and writing projects I've realized while in New York is this leaning towards feminist issues or just working with women artists. Writing about certain shows got me thinking about stereotypes that continue to stalk after feminism and the female body, respectively. As a man, these concerns can be quite a thorny terrain—the history and continued practice of mansplaining is there. And unless you approach feminist thought with care, humility and a willingness to listen, then you'll repeat that same history, that same silencing. I don't know if I've approached these exhibitions perfectly. But I've befriended an amazing set of female artists that have kept me honest and ensured their voice and practice is front and center.

You're graduating next month. Do you have any immediate plans for after school?

I'll be taking a position at the Hammer Museum out in Los Angeles. It'll be a curatorial assistant role with opportunities to possibly program some performance and public programs. We'll see exactly what it entails but I'm just chuffed to have landed something right around graduation.

Much thanks goes to my chair, Steven Henry Madoff, and all my professors and mentors at the various institutions I've worked at, including Yona Backer, Adrienne Edwards, Elizabeth Ferrer, David Frankel, Jenny Gerow, Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman, Lumi Tan, and Brian Kuan Wood, to name a few.

The opening reception for Sexual Fragments Absent will be held April 27, 7:00pm to midnight, at Paddles, 250 West 26th Street. RSVP required to attend.

For a full list of MA Curatorial Practice major year-end exhibitions, click here.

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