Séancers: A syllabus

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko

Nov 14, 2018

Multidisciplinary artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, creator of "Séancers"

This December at the Wex, multidisciplinary performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko takes on the racialized body, systemic oppression, and personal loss in Séancers, a viscerally intense journey into the black experience.

In an episode of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking with Nora McInerny, Kosoko reflects on the role that literature has taken in his life, as both a vehicle for escaping his heart-rending reality and as a path toward healing and power.

He notes, “I think of a quote by James Baldwin: ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ And I think really situating myself inside of being bookish has allowed me an understanding to know that my story is not particularly unique.”

By contextualizing his personal tragedies within the framework of systemic oppression that black people in America contend with every day, Kosoko attains a state of “post-traumatic enlightenment” that propels his creative work.

Below is a list of 20 sources that inspired Kosoko to make Séancers. Many of the texts, along with other pertinent works, are available from the Wexner Center Store.

1. News: Abby Martin's The Empire Files: Black Radical Tradition, with Mumia Abu-Jamal and Cornel West


2. Documentary: Karen Thorsen's James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket 

Critic quote: “If Raoul Peck’s fiery documentary I Am Not Your Negro piqued your interest in all things James Baldwin, then try this movie as a companion piece… This 1989 documentary is full of archival footage, recordings of Baldwin reading his work, old interviews, photographs and memories from friends like Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka. Although some scenes, like a recreation of Baldwin’s fight with his father, haven’t aged gracefully, the documentary’s focus on Baldwin’s personal and creative life humanizes this literary legend.” —Monica Castillo, New York Times


3. Lecture: Tina Campt, “Black Feminist Futures and The Practice of Fugitivity” 


4. Book: James H. Cone, The Cross and Lynching Tree

Sample quote: “The lynching tree is the most potent symbol of the trouble nobody knows that blacks have seen but do not talk about because the pain of remembering… is almost too excruciating to recall. In that era, the lynching tree joined the cross as the most emotionally charged symbols in the African American community—symbols that represented both death and the promise of redemption, judgement and the offer of mercy, suffering and the power of hope. Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.” 


5. Lecture/performance: Thomas DeFrantz, “i am black (you have to be willing to not know)”

Sample quote: “The discourse of race in contemporary performance falls apart when whites try to understand black performance. Contemporary black performance is saturated with experience and complexities that evade easy affiliations or knowings. This dialogic manifesto-lecture-performance offers strategies for acknowledging how artists of color and their collaborating audiences of color operate in several keys simultaneously but are inevitably compelled to reduce their work and experience to the unknowable, shameful category of ‘race.'” 


6. Playlist: Songs referenced in the work above


7. Book: Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool

Sample quote: “With dance as the focus and race the parameter, this work is a personalized cultural study, the third installment in my exploration/excavation of Africanist presences in performance. When Michael Flamini approached me about writing a history of ‘black’ dance, I responded that, instead, I wanted to tell the story as a geography of the body itself… I interrogate the black dancing body through personal experience, critical analysis of visual and print documentation, and through the eyes of the 24 contemporary dance practitioners interviewed for this book.” 


8. Book: Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name


9. Essay: Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora

Sample quote: “Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation. This view problematises the very authority and authenticity to which the term, ‘cultural identity’, lays claim.” 


10. Book: bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom

Sample quote: “There is a serious crisis in education. Students often do not want to learn and teachers do not want to teach. More than ever before in the recent history of this nation, educators are compelled to confront the biases that have shaped teaching practices in our society and to create new ways of knowing, different strategies for the sharing of knowledge. We cannot address this crisis if progressive critical thinkers and social critics act as though teaching is not a subject worthy of our regard.” 


11. Book: Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition 
with the essay, “Resistance of The Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream”  

Sample quote: “What if the beholder glances, glances away, driven by aversion as much as desire? This is to ask not only, what if beholding were glancing; it is also—or maybe even rather—to ask, what if glancing is the aversion of the gaze, a physical act of repression, the active forgetting of an object whose resistance is now not the avoidance but the extortion of the gaze?” 


12. Book: Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study 
with the essay, “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons” by Jack Halberstam

Sample quote: “If you want to know what the undercommons wants, what Moten and Harney want, what black people, indigenous peoples, queers and poor people want, what we (the ‘we’ who cohabit in the space of the undercommons) want, it is this – we cannot be satisfied with the recognition and acknowledgement generated by the very system that denies a) that anything was ever broken and b) that we deserved to be the broken part; so we refuse to ask for recognition and instead we want to take apart, dismantle, tear down the structure that, right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls.” —Jack Halberstam


13. Book: José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications 
with the essay, "Performing Disidentifications"

Sample quote: “The story of identity formation predicated on ‘hybrid transformations’ that this text is interested in telling concerns subjects whose identities are formed in response to the cultural logics of heteronormativity, white supremacy, and misogyny—cultural logics that I will suggest work to undergird state power. The disidentificatory performances that are documented and discussed here circulate in subcultural circuits and strive to envision and activate new social relations.” 


14. Article: Soraya Murray & Derek Murray, “Public Ritual: William Pope.L and exorcisms of abject otherness

Critic quote: “At 62, Pope.L is inarguably the greatest performance artist of our time. This is exactly the kind of label he would find absurd, but over the course of the last four decades, no artist has so consistently broken down the accepted boundaries of the genre in order to bring it closer to the public, with lacerating, perspicacious and gloriously anti-authoritarian projects that play with our received notions of race and class and almost always cut more than one way.” —Megan O’Grady, from a recent T: The New York Times Style Magazine profile of Pope.L


15. Performance: Okwui Okpokwasili, Bronx Gothic

Critic quote: “In 2014, I saw Okpokwasili in her piece Bronx Gothic, and the top of my head blew off… The piece is a tour de force on the order of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the author’s seminal text on black girlhood and power.” —Hilton Als in The New Yorker

Note: the documentary Bronx Gothic by director Andrew Rossi was presented at the Wex in 2017. 


16. Performance: Howardena Pindell, Free White and 21 


17. Poetry: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Artist quote: “One of the things I wanted the book to do was speak to intimate moments. I asked a lot of friends and people I’d meet, ‘Can you tell me a story of a micro-aggression that happened to you in a place you didn’t expect it to happen?’ I wasn’t interested in scandal, or outrageous moments. I was interested in the surprise of the intimate, or the surprise of the ordinary. So you’re just moving along and suddenly you get this moment that breaks your ability to continue, and yet you continue.” —Claudia Rankine in an interview with Guernica


18. Video: Ruby Sales in conversation with Michelle Alexander about Martin Luther King Jr.'s Riverside Sermon


19. Book: Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being

Sample quote: “What does it mean to defend the dead? To tend to the Black dead and dying: to tend to the Black person, to Black people, always living in the push toward our death? It means work. It is work: hard emotional, physical, and intellectual work that demands vigilant attendance to the needs of the dying, to ease their way, and also to the needs of the living.”


20. Essays: Hortense Spillers, Black White and in Color
with the essay, "Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: American Grammar Notebook

Sample quote: “It seems clear, however, that ‘Family,’ as we practice and understand it ‘in the West’ – the vertical transfer of a bloodline, of a patronymic, of titles and entitlements, of real estate and the prerogatives of ‘cold cash,’ from fathers to sons and in the supposedly free exchange of affectional ties between a male and a female of his choice – becomes the mythically revered privilege of a free and freed community. In that sense, African peoples in the historic Diaspora had nothing to prove, if the point had been that they were not capable of ‘family’ (read ‘civilization’), since it is stunningly evident, in Equiano’s narrative, for instance, that Africans were not only capable of the concept and the practice of ‘family,’ including ‘slaves,’ but in modes of elaboration and naming that were at least as complex as those of the ‘nuclear family’ ‘in the West.'"