Staging portrait of myself as my
father at the Uppercut Boxing Gym is the first indication that the performance will be unconventional. The gym lives in a renovated warehouse in the Northeast area of Minneapolis and carries the faint smells of oil, sawdust and sweat. The boxing ring was blocked from view on entry, the audience of the show standing shoulder to shoulder in a waiting area when we arrived. We were provided ear plugs and wondered why. Then the sound begin – loud and cacophonous.
The crowd was ushered into the seats surrounding a boxing ring, Chipaumire shouting into a microphone in English, French, Shona, and a custom argot. Lights flashed, and music and boxing gym noises mutated together into an assaultive soundtrack. Chipaumire wore shoulder pads and was tethered by a long, flat white band that extended across the space and disappeared into the walls. Shamar Watt, in red tracksuit pants and shirtless under a ring master’s tailcoat, stalked around the space tethered like Chipaumire. Inside the boxing ring, reclining motionless in the corner, was Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye (a.k.a. Kaolack). The experience was immediate, immersive, and disorienting. After bells were rung and a referee whistle blown, the “Round One” placard appeared.
The program provides some context for the performance, explaining that “the stage transforms into a boxing ring, and together, they teeter between combat and play, challenging and exploiting stereotypes of black manhood.” Nora Chipaumire seamlessly and convincingly performes this interpretation of black manhood, adding a layer of intertextuality to the performance – black woman enacting black manhood (and then briefly acting as a ‘ring girl’ later in the production, casting off parts of the stereotypes before re-adopting them again).
Chipaumire has created a concussive interrogation of masculinity as performance art. A three-time winner of the Bessie Award, she has received the 2016 Trisha Mckenzie Memorial Award for her impact on the dance community in Zimbabwe, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts grant, Doris Duke Artist Award, Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, and United States Artist Ford Fellowship. She is a graduate of the University of Zimbabwe’s School of Law and holds an MA in Dance and MFA in Choreography and Performance from Mills College. She has studied dance in Africa, Cuba, Jamaica and the USA, and has performed internationally in France, Italy, Japan, Senegal and Zimbabwe. The diversity and extensiveness of training, expertise, influences, and experiences are manifest in portrait of myself as my
father in the title is Webster Barnabas Chipaumire, a man that the creator/choreographer/director did not have contact or connection with from the age of five. He lived in Zimbabwe and died in 1980. She writes that she “put him in a boxing ring to battle with himself, his shadow, his ancestors, the industrial gods and that merciless tyrant: progress.” This battle includes a compelling blend of movement and dance, sometimes to Zimbabwean music or modern American hip hop. Chipaumire, Watt, and Kaolack move in and out of sync, converging periodically in the ring for tightly choreographed segments. The shifts in mood and style are frequent – athletic to tribal to hip hop to modern.
portrait of myself as my
father is dense and complicated. The work is a tangled composition of metaphors and symbolism and representation: shoulderpads to suggest football/sports to represent a stereotype of black manhood, boxing ring for combat, ring ropes that suggest prison bars, white bands tethering the performers for white colonialism/enslavement/racism/control, diamond-encrusted codpiece for penis-centric sexuality, whip-leather-wrapped waists for bondage/enslavement, imitations of gorillas and the handing out of bananas for dehumanization, masks for hidden/suppressed identity. Muhammed Ali is invoked: “Rumble in the Jungle,” “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and, most meaningfully, “what’s my name!?!” Definition and control of racial and personal identity, and the implications on/in/for the black body is a primary preoccupation.
In the work, Chipaumire talks in terms of manifestos (“a manifesto to end manifestoes”), and examines stereotypes of black manhood by magnifying them. This results in moments that force the audience to negotiate these representations, and even with the position of being a predominantly white audience watching these magnifications of stereotypes of black manhood. portrait of myself as my
father is challenging, beautiful, violent, and provocative. According to Chipaumire, “portrait . . . is less about my personal relationship (or absence of it) with Webster Barnabas Chipaumire, than a portrait of a man who is nothing but a man of his time. I give him boxing gloves so that he can have a fighting chance.”