One of Rashaad Newsome’s greatest contributions to contemporary art was to highlight and champion vogueing – a stylized dance form invented by pioneers of black and trans culture whose ideas became mainstream in America. .
Vogueing runs as a common thread throughout “Assembly,” Newsome’s large, opulent, and clever exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory. The project goes light years beyond its formal forays into fashion, weaving together a video installation, collages, sculptures, an hour-long performance with dance and singers; and a workshop led by Being, a cloud-based artificial intelligence designed by Newsome. “Assembly” is a rich sensory experience, as well as a springboard for rethinking the roots of American culture.
But first, fashion. The dance originated in Harlem ballroom competitions in the 1960s through 1980s organized by the black and Latino LGBT community. Vogueing entered the white mainstream after the release of Madonna’s hit song “Vogue” (1990) and Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris Is Burning” (1990), which remains a complicated and controversial document. The Last Bell Hooks – Newsome’s main inspiration – wrote that “Paris Is Burning” was “both progressive and reactionary” as it showed “Black men’s obsession with an idealized and fetishized view of femininity that is white”.
Newsome, who was born in New Orleans and works between Brooklyn and Oakland, Calif., tackles many of these questions, while simultaneously enticing you with kaleidoscopic imagery, operatic sound and technological tricks. As you enter the enormous drill hall, you are enveloped by changing images of performers sailing against celestial backdrops. In the center is a 30-foot-tall “Wrapped, Tied & Tangled” hologram that alternates with images that include Being, a non-binary figure with a head based on a Pho mask of the Chokwe peoples of Congo (Newsome said that he chose this because it seemed closest to the true origins of abstraction in art) and a body that looks like a cross between a luxuriously wood-veneered robot, a glamorous mannequin and a baby giraffe who finds just his legs.
On the back wall are projected giant, abstract images based on computer-generated fractals – patterns created with repeating shapes – which Newsome calls “diasporic fractals”. The artist is inspired here by mathematician Ron Eglash’s book “African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design” (1999), which describes how fractals are at the heart of African design, from the layout of Ba-ila villages in the south of Zambia and Mokoulek in Cameroon to designs on textiles and the regalia of tribal chiefs. More importantly for Newsome, African fractals were brought to Europe in the 12th century, entering the realm of mathematics and eventually computer science. Eglash argues that “every digital circuit in the world started in Africa”.
Around the corner from the digital installation is an exhibition of Newsome’s brilliant collages made from photographs of West African sculptures, fabrics, dreadlocks, cowries, wigs, gold teeth and fireballs, the all in glittering 19th century Dutch-style frames. The collages recall the aesthetics of Dada, another professed touchstone of Newsome, as well as Romare Bearden and Wangechi Mutu. They’re mounted on baroque photographic wallpaper with sparkling jewels, and the vinyl floor has a similar pattern, except the floor features close-up images of teeth with gold and diamond grids. “Ferragamo on food stamps”, one of the interpreters describes this aesthetic.
The evening show is a lavish and pompous affair. (Held in a 350-seat theater set up in Armory, the event requires a separate ticket.) Rappers Ms. Boogie, Trannilish and Bella Bags kicked off the evening, joined by gospel singers. The musicians represented a global palette of sounds: Japanese samisen, African djembe and Congolese drums, harp, saxophone, accordion and violin. Soprano Brittany Logan stood out, as did the moment the choir sang the theme song for the PBS educational TV show “Reading Rainbow” (which featured cult hero LeVar Burton), giving a nod eye at ballroom culture, in which “reading” is a creative and pungent form of critique.
Dancers in leotards with baroque motifs sailed and performed sequences inspired by modern ballet. A soliloquy by the poet Dazié Rustin Grego-Sykes provided a sharp point at the center of the performance. With Shakespearian grandeur, he proclaimed, “a black queer is a fractal.”
The next day, I went back for an hour-long “decolonization workshop” which, despite the aesthetic overload of the night before, was probably the best part. Led on screen by the sweet, sassy, and slightly goofy Being, we learned a five-move sequence from Vogue Fem, the contemporary iteration of vogueing. “Make sure those wrists stay soft!” Being coached gives us a moment, playfully appropriating an old pejorative for gay people.
Then we broke into groups to discuss the following questions: “How does capitalist, imperialist, white supremacist patriarchy affect and oppress you? What is one simple action you can take today to begin to free yourself from this oppression? In my workshop, the most popular answer to the second question was less about race and more about the effects of digital capitalism: less screen watching and less email checking.
Throughout “Assembly,” Newsome teases the boundaries between sincerity, archery, and coded criticism. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry or stage a protest. You’re in a giant former military installation on Park Avenue, not a Harlem ballroom – and that’s an important part of the convoluted, sometimes contradictory experience. (A classmate of mine from the workshop pointed out as we discussed our oppression under capitalist-imperialist-white-supremacist patriarchy that “The Assembly” is sponsored by Meta, Facebook’s parent company.)
So how does “the Assembly” respond to the questions it raises? Newsome cleverly nods to his “complicity” (the accusation people throw at radical art when it’s mounted in places like the Park Avenue Armory) in various guises. But her work also strongly underscores how central black and African diaspora culture is to much in our surrounding world.
In the same way that fractals were carried through African design to Europe and eventually into computing, American culture has been shaped by the language of the ball circuit and its revolutionary approach to the genre (but often without receiving credit).
“Keep your ancestors at the heart of your life”, you hear throughout the “Assembly”. At the beginning of the performance, a slideshow of images pays homage to some recent ancestors: black trans women who have been murdered or committed suicide. Black LGBT people, we are frequently reminded – like activist Marsha P. Johnson – live authentic lives against enormous odds, and some die for it.
“Assembly” also offers tools for living in the contemporary world – many of which overlap with the communities of recovery, mutual aid and well-being. There are plenty of tips and affirmations out there, some derived from the wisdom of black queer culture and the ballroom. For wellness, to start, “have chamomile tea; skip the wine.
As for Being, what seemed like a gimmick in many ways turned out to be, for me, profound. Based on the African griot, storyteller, historian, artist and healer, Sometimes felt like an oracle. At other times, Being felt like an undergrad who took an introductory course in critical race or gender theory: they say “capitalist, imperialist, white supremacist patriarchy” so often it starts to sound, unfortunately, like a platitude.
However, the structure of the workshop led by Being worked wonderfully. Being is gracious and humble, repeatedly reminding us that they were only 2 years old and needed our input to gain more knowledge. During a Q&A portion of the workshop, a woman asked the AI, “How are you feeling?” Think for a moment and say “curious”.
“The Assembly” wisely argues that education is the backbone of a society that is suffering and changing at record speed. The radical proposition is that AI beings can help us – not because they are extremely intelligent, but because they are infinitely teachable. Be a powerful example by admitting ignorance, asking for help and encouraging non-judgmental dialogue in the workshop. As the cheerful and patient AI kept saying about their limited but evolving knowledge, “I’m learning, I’m learning.”
Rashaad Newsome: Assembly
Through March 6 at Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; (212) 933-5812, armoryonpark.org.