Conversation in the wake: Séancers

Ebony Bailey and Miriam Nordine

Jan 17, 2019

Performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko meets with students in the Pages program in the Performance Space at the Wexner Center for the Arts on December 7, 2018; photo: Katie Spengler Gentry

In December, multidisciplinary artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko presented Séancers to both general audiences and to Columbus high school students through the Pages program. Below, Ebony Bailey, intern for the Shumate Council, and Wex Education intern Miriam Nordine collaborate on a response to Kosoko's powerful performance work. 

On December 7th, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko performed Séancers, an exploration of Black life, Black death, and the force of grief. During his hour-long performance, Kosoko used music, costuming, objects, and movement to investigate communion and community with his late mother, father, and brother while acknowledging how the black body is constantly terrorized, sexualized, and policed. 

This performance was part of Pages, the Wexner’s annual writing and art program that involves high schoolers and their teachers in Wexner Center programming. With Pages students from West Liberty High School and Whitehall-Yearling High School, Kosoko’s work struck a powerful cord. Sitting in the audience with the students, we were fascinated by the conversation they had with Kosoko following the performance—so much so that we continued to discuss his work. In a blog post, we hoped to continue this discussion and, most importantly, keep his conversation going. Kosoko inspired us to ask questions about five themes in his work: wake work, ritual, materiality/sensory, identity, and dis/embodiment. Below are questions and ruminations rather than endings or definitive answers—invitations to those who experienced Séancers to consider your own questions, responses, and thoughts. 


Wake Work

Kosoko’s Séancers drew on Christina Sharpe’s concept of “wake work.” Sharpe’s In the Wake: Blackness and Being defines wake work as a lens or consciousness, with black history at its center, that contextualizes what it means to live and die as a black person in the 21st century. It is the analytical work of “imagin[ing] new ways to live in the wake of slavery, in slavery’s afterlives, to survive (and more) the afterlife of property” while “inhabiting and rupturing this episteme with our known lived and un/imaginable lives." How can we find “ways of seeing and imagining responses to terror” in the ways that Black lives “lived in, as, under and despite Black death”? What does such thinking prompt "‘us’ to do, think, feel in the wake of slavery”? 

Sharpe shows how art and literature can “take up the wake as a way toward understanding how slavery’s continued unfolding is constitutive of the contemporary conditions of spatial, legal, psychic, and material dimensions of Black non/being as well as Black aesthetic and other modes of deformation and interruption." Art works by dwelling in the presentness of the wake. 

How does Kosoko engage in “wake work” and how are audience members invited to engage in “wake work” as well? 

Ebony: Kosoko illustrates the importance of wake work, for both the artist and the viewer. He asks difficult questions: “What does it mean to defend the dead? To tend to the Black dead and dying: to tend to the Black person, Black people, always living in the push toward our death?” Like wake work, he turns with care to the Black people in his life who he has tended to and lost, his mother, father, and brother, and acknowledges their living and dying not as a past event but as an ongoing state in the present (a state which will continue with each future performance). Also, Kosoko performs wake work by not seeking a definite resolution; he confronts the omnipresence of antiblackness and creates a space for theorization (Khanmalek 56). He, for example, ends his performance by suggesting that high schoolers explore Black theorists and writers such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Saidiya Hartman. By striving to continue a dialogue, he voices a call similar to Sharpe, and one that Pages students and educators undertook: as informed and contentious viewers, we must do the work of contextualizing Black death and life and, committed to this learning process, continually revisit such re/thinking.

Miriam: Kosoko engages his family members by exploring the moments before they died. He explores death as a familiar acquaintance by giving his audience a look at the deaths within his own family. Kosoko makes grieving an active process by creating a performance space that he calls a “spatial creation of acknowledgement.” Through his use of wake work in his performance, Kosoko challenges the presiding ideologies surrounding death. Rather than treating the deaths in his family as commonplace and expected, he acknowledges and engages with the history that puts the Black dead and dying in context. Alongside his other literary suggestions, Kosoko mentions the poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, which consists of short sentences with action verbs, but ultimately ends with “We / Die soon.” He gives his audience many opportunities to further join his artistic journey by engaging with his suggested readings. Kosoko is persistently urging his audience to recognize and contemplate the Black dead and dying as he exemplifies the power of wake work through his performance work. 



With his title and theme of spiritual communication, Kosoko evokes the idea of “ritual,” both in spiritual spaces and in daily life. How does ritual appear in his work? 

Ebony: I think that ritual manifests both as a main theme and as a guiding signpost. Kosoko dwells on the rituals that we associate with death and remembrance: wakes, funerals, and memorials. At the same time, he repeats phrases such as “I just didn’t want to be myself no more.” With this repetition, he acts out a ritual before the viewer’s eyes, a performance that not only alludes to a ritual but also performs one. “Séancers” becomes a ritual for Kosoko’s own family members, a ritual that expresses vulnerability and remembrance.       

Miriam: It seems that Kosoko uses ritual to question the way that death is handled and digested. By invoking ritual throughout his performance, the audience becomes aware that death is going to be explored in a revolutionary way that not only recognizes and honors the dead, but also explores the events preceding the deaths of his parents. The performance first struck me as ritualistic when Kosoko began the “séancing” portion by picking up the white streamers and thrusting them up and down during a repetitive dance, which vastly increased the intensity of the room. After familiarizing himself with the audience, he moves into a ritual dance to further legitimize wake work and perform it as an action. Kosoko exposes his own experiences with death and performs rituals to make loss an active, rather than passive, experience. The performance as a whole can also be considered a ritual, which complicates and stretches the concept, and inspires the audience to find freedom, agency, healing, and hope in their future, ritualistic endeavors. 

 Multidiscipliinary artist Jaamil Olawale Kosko during a performance of his "Séancers" at the Wexner Center for the Arts


How does Kosoko use and interact with materials to engage the senses?

Ebony: Kosoko orchestrates his performance through tactile means. For example, Kosoko draped deflated white blow-up dolls on his body. On the floor, he gasped for help, his shape unrecognizable under white, reflective streamers and bodies. For me, this act, which drew attention to materiality, powerfully illustrated the emotional weight that a person of color endures while operating in white spaces. While showing Black erasure, Kosoko also materialized Black luminance. Kei Cobb, Kosoko’s guest séancer for the performance, pointed out that Kosoko’s reflective materials are important symbols: they suggest how one shines from within, a radical revisioning of society’s definition of blackness--that which absorbs all light. While Kosoko uses materials to demonstrate the external pressures of race, he also deploys them to illuminate internal lives. 

Miriam: As someone who has recently been exposed to performance art, I was awestruck by Kosoko’s use of sensory objects to portray meaning. I was first drawn to the pile of white streamers, pictures and dolls in the middle of the space, and Kosoko engages with these objects to portray a black body being strangled by white materiality. By using objects to embody the intense pressures of race and the effects of America’s oppressive atmosphere, Kosoko gives viewers agency in interpreting his engagement with different sensory objects. While watching the performance alongside high school students, I wondered about what emotions the other audience members were feeling. Kosoko powerfully employs his use of objects, recitations, and ritualistic acts through his intense emotional presence and engagement with the audience. He seemed to be further materializing the performance artist, which was particularly formative for me, by repeatedly getting up close and personal with the audience and performing throughout the seating area.



How does identity manifest in his work and promote reflection? 

Ebony: Kosoko’s work is unique because it both particularizes and contextualizes identity. He shares personal content from to his late mother and his father, such as his father’s last voicemail. These moments surface as glimpses into his own particular journey in (re)communing with them. Kosoko is also concerned with contextualizing racial, gender, and sexual identities. For example, by honoring the black men and women in his life, he explores gender; he also curates the performance space with books such as José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009). And, with Kosoko’s quote from Sharpe, he too reflects on death as living and dying as black, in the wake of slavery.   

Miriam: Kosoko empowered the theme of identity by including recitations and concepts from different authors, and family members. While performing wake work, he recognizes that one’s identity is heavily impacted by the thoughts and actions of the people one is raised around. Since the audience was mostly composed of students, this theme was fitting. It is necessary to recognize Kosoko’s engagement with wake work, but he also highlights how the deaths of loved ones can form a person and their motives. I contemplated identity when Kosoko repeated these phrases: “just didn’t want to be myself no more” and “I was just so tired.” Kosoko seems to invoke his late mother with these phrases, and this implication leads to the analysis of what it means to be tired of being oneself. The audience is asked to explore Kosoko’s persona further to understand the meaning of these phrases, but the Pages students conveyed that they connected to the sentiment because of the confusing emotional ramifications that accompany adolescence. These hopeless phrases can invoke the question of mental illness, which many young students deal with. These students expressed a connection to the performance and found comfort in not being alone during their journeys of identity. 

 Multidiscipliinary artist Jaamil Olawale Kosko speaks to student following a performance of his "Séancers" at the Wexner Center for the Arts


How does Kosoko uniquely represent and contemplate “the body”?

Ebony: During the Q&A session with Pages students, Kosoko observed that it is hard work living in one’s own body. This was a striking comment because we rarely attend to our bodies as we hurry to class or pick up groceries. But, if given a moment, we might realize how one expends energy in order to exist in a body--and how each person’s experience is different depending on the body that they inhabit. Kosoko performs this labor; he dances, crawls, walks, and calculatingly moves every muscle. This labor is poignant because Kosoko, as he physically struggled under white streamers and material, alludes to the specific labor of surviving (living and dying) in a black body. At the same time, he expressed the resistance that one’s body can exert; Kosoko energized the room by sashaying into the audience in heels--objects that society often genders--and an afro wig--a hairstyle that became a black political statement, thereby reminding us how the body can (and has been) used as a way to both assert identities and resist society’s imposed identities. 

Miriam: Through his use of rituals, Kosoko vividly portrays a body struggling and thriving throughout the performance. As the artist dances, walks, and performs, the audience picks up on the immense energy Kosoko exerts. In watching his energized performance, it is natural for the audience to contemplate the difficult physical and emotional labor that accompanies living in a body. When Kosoko is entangled by the white, material body of streamers and dolls, the audience is asked to recognize the difficult labor he is engaging in. While he cries out for help amidst his entanglement, the viewers are confronted with a black body being wholly restricted by white materialization. This intense struggle calls back a phrase that was repeated earlier in the performance: “just didn’t want to be myself no more.” Kosoko’s physical struggle allows audience members to contemplate both the physical and emotional battles that accompany embodiment. Kosoko alludes to suicide when a doll falls face-first off of a table, which represents the ultimate escape of the body; however, Kosoko seems to advocate against this option by displaying his body struggling, thriving, and surviving during his wake work amongst the deaths that he illuminates. 


Final Thoughts 

Kosoko’s Séancers conjured the thoughts above because his multimodal, sensory-charged performance, as it explored space, opened space for dialogue. This conversation included guest séancers, Pages students, educators, and more. Kosoko encouraged us to never relinquish this exchange but to continually work from its center and generate more thought-—as he stated after the performance, “thinking is action, a part of reality making.” So, please share your thinking with us.


Resources/Further Reading 


Photos: Katie Spengler Gentry