BWW Review: MARJANI FORTE-SAUNDERS Combines Nightmarish Images To Little Effect in being Here.../this time

Jessica Hearn in
Marjani Forté-Saunders' "being here.../this time" at
the Museum of Contemporary African Diapsoran Art.
Photo by Marani Rae.

Regardless of how exquisitely crafted, the numerous elements of Marjani Forté-Saunders' "being Here.../this time" result in not enough to sustain this evening of political art. Presented at the Museum of Contemporary African Diapsoran Arts, "being here" invites the audience to wander around the companion exhibit "being Here... In memory" - curated by Ms. Forté-Saunders -- before sitting for the performance. Featuring the cast of three dancers posed throughout, the art pieces -- which have been set up as artistic commentary on racial violence -- include: mannequins wrapped in Saran suspended between silver rings, a tree with postcard notes attached to the branches; a table and chair setting secured upside down to the ceiling; a video of Ms. Forté-Sauders having brief epileptic fits or freak out dance moments as she makes her way from the subway to above ground; a room filled with video tape that resembles the wall of a cave; a collage of brightly colored geometric shapes; a video collage of older news footage and African Americans. The link between all of this work seems tenuous, especially as a background for this concert piece.

Efeya Ifadayo M. Sampson in
Marjani Forté-Saunders' "being here.../this time" at
the Museum of Contemporary African Diapsoran Art.
Photo by Maria Baranova.


The performance begins with Jasmine Hearn -- who has been spinning a large silver hoop on the ground while the audience explored the exhibition -- delivering a confusing monologue as she removes articles of clothing. When she takes off a face-obscuring hood, the audience is shocked to discover that Ms. Hearn is sporting a knit bondage mask which gives her a Saurian mien. She could be an alien straight out of Star Wars. Ms. Hearn's rambling speech and sad striptease continues until she is dressed in nothing but silver body paint, a thong, and a pair of sneakers. All of the performers - including the Amazonian Efeya Ifadayo M. Sampson and the panther like Wendell Cooper - are bedecked in body paint and sport sneakers. From here the performance unravels into an uncomfortable evening that is half lecture and half torturous physical poem.

Efeya Ifadayo M. Sampson in
Marjani Forté-Saunders' "being here.../this time" at
the Museum of Contemporary African Diapsoran Art.
Photo by Marani Rae.

It is commonly accepted wisdom that inflicting pain comes more easily than granting joy. With multiple moving parts spinning in isolation of each other, though all declaiming the same unhappy theme, Ms. Forté-Saunders has created an evening of misery that blocks any discourse beyond the bleak. If her intent was to wield art as a blunt instrument with which to hammer home her point, then she certainly succeeded. The tragedy therein is that she could have done much more. Hers is a ferocious intellect that charges unswervingly towards what is distressing. While I admire her forcefulness, I wonder if she has confused strength for bravery. This is not to call her fearful -- she is anything but -- however in arranging her work

Wendell Cooper and Jessica Hearn in
Marjani Forté-Saunders' "being here.../this time" at
the Museum of Contemporary African Diapsoran Art.
Photo by Maria Baranova.

she has arrived at the most obvious conclusion. This display of inelegant political points is forced upon the audience until all that remains is numbness. During a harrowing depiction of addiction, Ms. Forté-Saunders debunks the accepted rationale for why the atrocity of drug use plagues the black community with the brilliance of a seasoned cultural anthropologist. Her heartbreakingly dazzling recorded speech -- which unfolds while the dancers exhibit the daze and shakes of hard drug users in the throes of horrific delirium - declares that it is easy to judge outside of context without delivering context itself. She illustrates effects in a game of show - which at one point transforms her dancers into snarling animals -- while telling us what others have decided about this issue, but fails to tell us what she thinks besides the obvious: addiction is bad.

Wendell Cooper in
Marjani Forté-Saunders' "being here.../this time" at
the Museum of Contemporary African Diapsoran Art.
Photo by Maria Baranova.

One would have hoped for greater nuance from an artist who has gone to such lengths in arranging this fascinating data. While little of this information is new, it is delivered with a polished spin that immediately converts the listener to the speaker's point of view. Disappointingly, what follows is always more of the same. When the audience is not being exhorted by these speeches it is treated to movement sequences that find the dancers stuck in one note depictions of violence interspersed with two spectacular dance phrases that lead nowhere. The evening is a house of mirrors crafted from non sequiturs. Imagine a person stomping her feet with growing intensity before breaking into a dance phrase that spins off into dizzying turns, then suddenly launching into a head kicking grand battement that pulls back into a deep lunge, and finally sliding along the floor with the silky grace of a jaguar only to restart the entire sequence in a new direction. After an hour of this coupled with the admittedly exquisitely rendered passages on unhappiness, it is all but impossible to feel. We are overwhelmed and willing to believe anything else that might be said, but only if it is something other than what we have already been told. That something never arrives.

Wendell Cooper, Jessica Hearn, and Efeya Ifadayo M. Sampson in
Marjani Forté-Saunders' "being here.../this time" at
the Museum of Contemporary African Diapsoran Art.
Photo by Maria Baranova.

While visiting Soweto, which speaks to the poorest of the poor, I was struck by the fact that despite their plight my hosts were happy. Rather than focus on what was bitter, they gave praise to what was joyful in their lives. When something that was unbearably painful arose, it was that much more traumatizing because of what had preceded the sadness. I think that Ms. Forté-Saunders is a compelling artist who does not shirk from her anger. She knows exactly what she wants to say and does so with uncompromising fury. I can understand why she is angry, but if all she has to show is anger, then what she has crafted does not bear enough weight to hold one's attention. I wish that she had something else to say beyond strife + hopelessness = destitution. As an artist with bold statements, intriguingly arranged materials, and dancers who perform with the fanaticism of blind believers -- how these marvelous performers managed to dance from the floor to the ceiling and all over the walls in tight quarters without grievously injuring themselves is beyond my ken -- I expect more than the sum of what was presented on this bill. An artist like Ms. Forté-Saunders should be crafting entire planets of ideas instead of wallowing in the maw of despair.

Photos by Marani Rae and Maria Baranova.

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