SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates – âOf course there are 99 names of Allah, but there are 52 negroes. Therefore, I will play two of these niggers. This is what Julius Eastman said during his introduction to Northwestern University audiences at a concert in June 1980, and it is repeated in the Otolith group’s piece “The Third Part of the Third Measure” (2017) , presented at this year’s Sharjah Biennale. .
During the video, which lasts 50 minutes, two performers (a black man, Dante Micheaux, and a black woman, Elaine Mitchener) recite the entire statement. It’s a captivating recitation by the two actors, whose deliveries are very different. Micheaux, who plays at the start of the video, is calm and realistic in his approach, while Mitchener moans at times, as if begging the audience to hear and understand the significance of what she is saying. After the actors’ declamation, the pianists play – four pianists with two pianos bring “Evil Nigger”, “Gay Guerrilla” and “Crazy Nigger” to life. The appearance of the four pianists offers a strange visual contrast: they are all white and their faces are marked with abstract shapes made up in silver. The combination of the extraordinary visuals and minimalist music of Eastman – an avant-garde, black, gay composer of music that sounds different – keeps me in my seat with no clue of the passage of time.
The music is amazing. It starts with trills in the treble clef that repeat in a relatively simple chord progression, which then move into the bass register and the music starts to get more elaborate from there. Soon, the second piano joins him to repeat a motif in counterpoint to the first. Together, they rise to a sort of catchy and repetitive mixture which seems atonal and melodic at the same time. It sounds almost overbearing, the kind of music with which you could drive a team of horses beyond their natural abilities in order to herald the coming war. It’s almost apocalyptic. In his statement, Eastman explains that these compositions are “formally an attempt to make organic music”. The performers repeat it, saying, “There is an attempt to make each section contain all the information from the previous sections, or else to remove the information at a gradual and logical pace.” I am taken aback by this, but the rhetorical confidence of the performers speaking for Eastman and the intense urgency of the music cause me to suspend my need to intellectually grasp the work.
I didn’t expect to encounter the word âniggerâ at the Sharjah Biennale. I thought that the policy invoked by that word would be thousands of miles from here. Yet when I encounter this word, it is soon followed by its explanation: basis of the American economic system. He goes on to say, “A nigger to me is that kind of thing that gets through the ground of anything, and that’s what I mean by ‘nigger.’ And there are a lot of negroes; there are several kinds of negroes … 52 negroes. What can I say to this? In his rhetoric and his music, he sought out a crude and anxious truth and he offered this truth without apologies and without attenuation. Little by little there is a triumph in Eastman’s music, I can hear how he found a way to squeeze joy out of all the pain involved in that term, “nigger,” and everything in it. would have met being who he was, a black, cheerful composer of difficult and turbulent ecstasies.
The Sharjah Biennial 13, Tamawuj, takes place in five parts from October 2016 to October 2017. Showcasing more than 50 international artists, the biennial includes exhibitions and a two-act public program in Sharjah and Beirut. The Otolith Group play “The Third Part of the Third Measure” (2017) was commissioned by ICA Philadelphia and the Sharjah Art Foundation and is presented at Al Hamriyah Studios in Sharjah.
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