in the Category: art
Deconstructing and reconstructing representations of the black body
Dutch dancer Cherish Menzo, born to Surinamese parents, is set to perform at the Buitenkant Voet festival which will be livestreamed from nona arts centre in Mechelen. Her dance performance JEZEBEL is inspired by the video vixen trope, female models who appeared in hip hop music videos in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Interview by Iz Elwood & Désirée Ketabchi
Photos shot in Brussels by Mélanie Musisi
JEZEBEL is inspired by the so-called video vixen. Can you tell us more about this inspiration? Have you ever identified with these black women on TV?
My initial opinion about video vixens and female rappers, when I was younger and I would watch MTV and The Box, was not negative: these images and representations were part of what I knew. When starting the research and creation process of JEZEBEL, I was more sceptical. I asked myself, 'Why do they have to be so sexual?'. I felt very restrained by this image of the black woman, that it was the only image out there but at the same time I could see images I felt connected to. The bodies seemed recognisable and representative of my body and my mother’s body. I used to have a love/hate relationship with the video vixen. Now I see them as a phenomenon that has a lot to do with how I identify myself as a woman.
I reflected for a long time about the representation of the black female body and about how it was represented in stereotypes; there wasn’t a broad enough variety of the black female. Now we are at a point where we can criticise all this. I started asking myself if there is emancipation to be found within this criticism. This is also something that JEZEBEL triggers. I look a lot at the black female in her extreme broadness. At the moment I question the body itself a lot, and how we attach such much value to it.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other, the beauty or the grotesque. I find that contradictions have to be there for us to find and build ourselves
From a capitalistic point of view, sex sells. Hypersexuality is often connected to the black female body. When I look at the representation of the white female body and the black female body, I find more romantic associations with a white woman’s body compared to the hypersexuality and even fetishism associated with the black female body. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, the beauty or the grotesque. I find that contradictions have to be there for us to find and build ourselves.
It’s very important for me to reclaim sexuality within my work and share the complexities of myself and of my body on stage.
In your performance JEZEBEL you embody three archetypes of the black woman. Can you tell us more about them?
While researching the video vixen I bumped into three archetypes of the black woman; the Jezebel - not the biblical, but the black Jezebel, as in the black female as the golddigger, someone who uses her sexuality to get somewhere; the Sapphire, who is the caricature of the angry black woman; and the Mammy, who comes all the way from slavery and who represents a plump black woman with a big smile on her face, someone the slave owners could trust to take care of their children. These three archetypes come from the US but are also present in the Surinamese culture in the Netherlands. It’s interesting to see how these archetypes echo within the image of black females. For me it was quite a shock to realise how we kept them intact. For instance, I could see the black Jezebel and the Sapphire in the video vixens. By embodying the Jezebel I really wanted to refer to the reclaiming of one’s own sexuality, and, more specifically, the female and black female body. The way we portray ourselves is way more complex than we think, and there is always a background or a history behind it.
It’s very important for me to reclaim sexuality within my work and share the complexities of myself and of my body on stage
What are the accessories and costumes associated with each of the archetypes in your performance? Why are they exaggerated? What do they wear?
There is a big blend of the archetypes in JEZEBEL, with even a male rapper finding his space in the performance. I looked at ways of overdoing certain aspects. For instance, I wear very long nails; I found them beautiful, particularly in the videos of female rappers nowadays. I overdid them to see if they could eventually create a new form, and they did. The result is an almost mythical creature. I also wear a big fur coat, which is a symbol of wealth in the rap scene. Different forms pop out, which really excites me. It’s really a cross-fading, from the recognisable codes and references that a lot of us collectively could connect to, and at the same time also looking for distortion in those images, seeing how strange they can become - will there be a new form generated by this blending and overdoing? JEZEBEL uses existing codes and references and turns up the volume.
Which codes and references are you thinking of?
I refer to the language and words in rap, such as the N-word which is repeated a lot, or bitch, or the female genitals, or the link between money and sex. As a listener, we sometimes glide over strong statements and forget that they don’t always mean what we think they mean at first. Another reference to rap is the over-accessorising, which for me gives some kind of value to the black body or the grills I wear in my mouth. The performance also includes specific embodiments of the gestures used by rappers.
As a listener we sometimes glide over strong statements and forget that they don’t always mean what we think they mean at first
I am working on my new creation
DARKMATTER, where I once again question the representation of the black body and blackness. Although now, looking at the references and associations, I ask myself: is there space to reimagine? Is there space to rethink?
Cherish Menzo will perform JEZEBEL on 26 February
at Buitenkant Voet festival by nona arts centre.
The performance will be livestreamed at 21:00 and is free for Subbacultcha-members.
Members will need to pre-book their free ticket before Feb 25th at noon.
Click here to request a ticket.
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