Anger is 'An Appropriate Reaction' at Cement Fondu, Sydney
Since its cultural inception, the internet has been perceived as an emancipatory global medium. However, the three video performance works by Tabita Rezaire on display in An Appropriate Reaction at Sydney's Cement Fondu (23 January–23 February 2020) cast doubt on the internet's misguided assumption of universality.
Bella Waru, performance as part of Ngāti Kangaru, experiential club night curated by DJ Matariki at An Appropriate Reaction, Cement Fondu, Sydney (23 January–23 February 2020). Courtesy Cement Fondu. Photo: Four Minutes to Midnight.
The exhibition—which also includes a series of live and performative contributions crossing theatre, performance, music, and dance curated by DJ Matariki, Hannah Brontë, and Black Birds—responds to Audre Lorde's 1981 speech 'The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism'. The speech defends the rage that underpins anti-racist work by people of colour, and the exhibition title comes from one line in particular: 'Anger is an appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, as is fury when the actions arising from those attitudes do not change.' Some 40 years on, An Appropriate Reaction articulates that fury within the context of the contemporary digital era.
In all three videos, Rezaire creates an idiosyncratic visual language consisting of an eclectic range of screenshots and online graphics. In her video essay ASS4SALE (2014), for instance, Rezaire records her desktop screen. Videos and gifs of twerking dancers, flashing dollar signs, and screenshots of YouTube comments, which vary from '[twerking is] a worse disease than Ebola' to 'twerking is the highest form of wisdom', are layered on top of a hot pink background. Such collages suggest that the internet is neither linear nor objective, but rather a process; piecemeal, subjective, and perpetually shifting.
Rezaire's playful optics contradict the insidious manipulation and surveillance that occurs in cyberspace, contributing to the hyper-visibility and objectification of black women. In one shot of ASS4SALE, the depiction of a surveillance camera suggests how the politics of the image is ingrained in the architecture of the internet, replicating the structures of white supremacy, including its surveillance and appropriation of the very culture it often oppresses.
Such collages suggest that the internet is neither linear nor objective, but rather a process; piecemeal, subjective, and perpetually shifting.
Take, for example, the appropriation of twerking. Originally embedded in African traditional dance, ASS4SALE laments its co-option by Western media and popular culture, analysing Miley Cyrus' appropriation of the dance form in 2013. At one point, Rezaire records a Skype call with artist Fannie Sosa who explains the 'holistic, medicinal, traditional' origins of 'twerk', which 'comes from mapouka, ndombolo, and all these dances from Africa that themselves come from rituals of fertility'. These comments are juxtaposed with an audio recording of an interview with Miley Cyrus who superficially explains that twerking is simply 'dancing' and 'a lot of booty'.
Rezaire reclaims twerking and its potential for emancipation in the performance video installation Peaceful Warrior (2015). Described by the artist as a 'radical self-love kit', there are golden Yoga mats for visitors to meditate on through Kemetic yoga, which the video describes as 'the African spiritual science of yoga from Ancient Egypt.' A vertical screen depicts Rezaire as a yoga instructor; at one point she twerks while the words 'pussy booty magic' flit across the screen. For Rezaire, twerking is part of what she describes as 'a decolonial self-care-preaching tutorial urging people of color . . . to heal our traumatic genetic memory.'
In Peaceful Warrior, to decolonise the internet by imbuing cyberspace with spiritual practices is to create worlds of digital resistance. In shots where Rezaire combines ancient Egyptian symbols such as the Eye of Horus alongside backdrops of microscopic slides of cell organisms, technology and spirituality are not dialectically opposed. Rather, divinity is seen to accompany scientific innovation, and within this synthesis there are new healing ontologies and methodologies to be harnessed.
As a project dedicated to the 'metamorphosis from an angry warrior into a peaceful warrior,' Peaceful Warrior connects to the component of this exhibition organised by Hannah Brontë, DJ Matariki, and Black Birds, which celebrates the many voices and talents of First Nations communities in Australia. On the mezzanine, and included in the third live event on 15 February, a performance video titled Our visions begin with our desires (2020) by Black Birds riffs off the reality television series The Real Housewives of Sydney to expose the prevailing stereotypes of women of colour in mainstream media, thereby using humour as an effective tool that demonstrates Lorde's emphasis on channeling 'anger as an important source of empowerment.'
For their contributions, DJ Matariki and Brontë organised events that brought Australian communities of colour into the doors of Cement Fondu. DJ Matariki curated Ngāti Kangaru, an experiential club night foregrounding 'notions of womanhood and the wahine experience' with collaborators Jamaica Moana and Bella Waru, transforming the sterile white cube atmosphere into a queer night club complete with dancefloor and hot pink neon lights. While Brontë curated FEMPRE$$: MOON TIDES, where a 'femme militia' of RnB singers and producers from Western Sydney—Kealoana, L.Ai, and SPVRROW—performed in the gallery space.
Instead of placing emphasis on the trauma and oppression faced by women of colour, these events commemorated the creativity of their communities instead. As Lorde writes, 'anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.' —[O]