portrait of myself as my father
Walker Art Center
March 23-25, 2018
A boxing ring is the setting for nora chipaumire’s sparring match with the spectre of her father. The Walker Art Center’s patrons, transplanted to a mildly dilapidated industrial neighborhood and welcomed into the Uppercut Boxer Center (which has the faint scent of all old-school sports facilities: sweat and old socks) may feel out of their comfort zone already as they make their way past chipaumire herself on the way into the performance space. The mostly-white audience ducks under the elastic tether by which chipaumire is bound to the large boxing ring, and they hurry to find seats as chipaumire scolds them to sit down in a mix of English and pidgin.
The boxing ring provides a prominent metaphor for chipaumire’s subject, as the competitive arena of violence-based professional sport is the venue for examining the somewhat mythical figure of chipaumire’s father, Webster Barnabas Chipaumire, and by extension, the entire construct of black African masculinity.
The costumes, designed by chipaumire, accentuate the masculine. She wears large shoulder pads, goggles, saggy pants, a plethora of belts, and a talisman around her waist that doubles as a phallus. Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye, as her father, is put on display as an object in a metal-studded leather harness, light red shorts, and a few pieces of jewelry, but mostly a black body bared to the scrutiny of the audience and of chipaumire.
The father is explored as the expected paragon of all things: the strongest, the fastest, the most terrifying, the most commanding. One sequence involves a step-by-step breakdown of how to become a black African man, involving such tips as: slow way down, look shifty, act like you have all the bling in the world, and talk real loud. The expectations of and pressures on the black body mount, and any failure to live up to the ideals is met ruthlessly.
“Pussy,” chipaumire taunts when the man doesn’t want to fight any more. She berates him mercilessly, spurring him into the next action (“run”) and the next (“fuck”) in a physically exhausting sequence until there’s nothing left but the eventual promise of death.
Through it all, the third performer, Shamar Watt, cheers on the action, operating lighting, proffering props, and generating hype like the best of traditional African wedding MCs, pumping up chipaumire and the crowd with a constant stream of praise and enthusiasm. Indeed, the performance generally maintains the atmosphere of a sporting event or a celebration rather than a funeral dirge. Between the deep dives into the psyche of the black African male are moments of pleasure and whimsy, like the sequence in which the performers break out selfie sticks and pose in the pitch-darkness for photos with each other. There are sequences of more traditional African dance where the audience is called upon to clap and shout along, and where the performers good-naturedly argue about what to do next.
In the end, however, chipaumire reminds us that this portrait is, for her at least, more than a theoretical exploration. “I carry the carcass of my father,” she says, as Ndiaye clings to her. In that moment, stripped of theatrical trappings, lit only by the light of Watt’s cell phone, she reminds us that this arena is no mere game to her, but a thing to which she is forever tied.
photo: Gennadi Novash, courtesy of Peak Performances@ Montclaire State University, 2016