NI’JA WHITSON with Dillon Heyck
Moving Between Queerness and African Ritual in Oba Qween Baba King Baba
Ni’Ja Whitson performing Oba Qween Baba King Baba in 2018. Photo: Ian Douglas
In the opening of Oba Qween Baba King Baba, Ni’Ja Whitson stands firm and grounded in front of their audience. But something supporting Whitson’s posture empathetically lifts their presence beyond the room and to the heavens, the cosmos, or somewhere even higher. Gathering spiritual and performative momentum, they erupt, yelling out: “Where are the Gods?”
Not many artists today are willing to ask that kind of question. And fewer artists would know how to ask it with such command as to shake their audience, maybe even causing some to scramble, looking for an answer. This potency is what has established Whitson as a widely-praised artist, having received a number of awards, fellowships, and residencies. They are also a professor at University of California Riverside where they teach composition and experimental choreography. Devoting years to developing their artistic process has allowed Whitson to follow lines of inquiry into conceptual depths that are so distant few peer into them.
I met Whitson at a park near where they live in Brooklyn. As an interdisciplinary artist, Whitson is a poet and they speak in cumulative sentences with rolling clauses that attempt to pick up everything they can. And when constructing an artistic environment, Whitson reaches for everything at hand—language, textiles, highly symbolic objects from water to collard greens, movement, visual art, ritual, prayer, memory, and anything else—all to conjure spiritual energy, and honor untold histories. Crafted by a master of multiplicity, Oba is a work to which one can continually return and always find something new and valuable.
Dillon Heyck (Rail): Let’s begin with the title—Oba Qween Baba King Baba. Immediately, you’re giving your audience a Yorùbá lesson before they even sit down for the work.
Ni’Ja Whitson: I hesitate to suggest people can’t access my work without having some education or an understanding of the references I’m making, but simultaneously I find that I’m crafting my art in a way that I’m constantly building context. I do think it’s important for folks to know some context, whether that’s a “knowing” in a cognitive, educational, top-down way, or if it’s a kind of knowledge accessed through the work’s immediate environment. But when I’m context-building it’s important for me to acknowledge the people in the room. The context is more for honoring the people and the work and less about creating an educational container for witnesses. I’m pushing back on something tangential to the idea of me “giving a lesson,” which is didacticism.
I also don’t want to posit that there’s one lens with which to approach the work. In a way, the unknowing, or the unfamiliarity, of the audience is as important to me or as useful to me. It’s an interesting challenge as a maker to recognize there will be people who won’t understand references, who won’t understand aesthetics and tones, but I can make something with such rigor, deepness, and truth, whatever the exploration may be, that didactic teaching isn’t necessary.
Rail: The work’s title definitely foregrounds the unfamiliar. Was that the primary motivation behind using Yorùbá or was there more you’d like to say on that?
Whitson: I wanted to give Yorùbá language and Yorùbán people an anchor so the ideas behind the work weren’t floating as something invented. The title partly emerged as trying to understand the relation between “oba” and “baba” The words feel connected to each other and it’s a grouping based off their etymology related to the masculine. “Baba” can be an abbreviation or it can be a nickname for a father and so there are number of associations available: “King Baba,” “Daddy,” “King Daddy.” It’s critical to begin with “oba” as a queering of all those terms. “Qween” is another immediate queering that I see evoking the divine, the divine feminine, and even an agender feminine. But to have the father follow “oba” and “qween” gestures towards a reframing of father, king, and the masculine.
Rail: Returning to the way you position yourself in relation to your audience, it sounds like you never want a witness to be a remote, passive spectator. How does that work for you? And when doesn’t it work out?
Whitson: After working in performance, visual arts, and across disciplines, I’ve learned I want to share what the artistic process is like with witnesses. I don’t like there to be a distinct separation between the work and viewer. And I do not want my work to be objectified anymore than I would want my body to be.
There’s just so much energy behind a performance, which can sometimes undercut the fact there have been years of thinking, inventing, hoping, praying, and learning…and sometimes failing…behind its culmination. Decisions are always being made about timing and when/where something is happening. We’re often focused on exactitude. But all of that is in service to ritual, since certain things need to be in place for spirit to happen. The decision making isn’t to craft a perfect product but I’m looking to create accessibility for spiritual activation for everybody in the room.
And when I think of failure, I think of the way [dance scholar] Thomas DeFrantz writes about it. On black art he writes, “black failure implies the possibility of black success,” which can be interpreted to mean there is no such thing as pure failure. Anything that could be encapsulated in the idea of failure is usually, for me, that momentarily intense experience of what I thought I wanted a work to be is different than what the work itself wanted to be. That’s not quite failure, though. That’s process.
Rail: Would it be accurate to call your work “spiritualizing”? Or do you prefer to create from a more ambivalent mindset?
Whitson: Someone some time ago, when I was building my first significant piece in this way, talked about my work really straddling the line between actually doing ritual and ritual informed performance. I think there are times in the work where that line isn’t clear but I don’t need it to be clear. However, I wouldn’t say that anything I do is ambivalent but I would say that everything I do is multiplicitous, that I’m drawing from simultaneity.
Not totally unrelated to the spiritual, queerness and nonbinariness do show up in my practice and it’s not just that they’re a part of who I am but they become methodologies, as those methods work in the title to reframe certain identities and ideas.
Rail: You touched on a number of topics—black tradition, queerness, ritual, and religion. How did you develop your choreographic aesthetic?
Whitson: In this work we’ve been looking at rituals from the Afro-Baptist church tradition, Yorùbá ritual, and Gẹlẹdẹ festivals from Nigeria and Benin. All of those have inspired the structure of the work and also movement texture. I’ve been working with line dances. The collaborators and I have been discussing the way I want the work to feel like a party. I think it’s really easy in a piece like this where we’re focusing on queer and trans bodies and black sacred spaces, like ritual spaces, could maybe take on an overtone of mourning. I am really interested in the converse of that, which is that black, queer, trans folk have also invented really celebratory modes of honoring the sacred. Embodying indigenous practices and traditions that may on one side look like a masquerade, another side might look like a parade.
The time I can distinctly remember learning a line dance where I could say “Oh, I’m in a space where people look like me” was when I was in an after-hours gay club in Ohio where I was probably like seventeen, definitely not old enough to be there. And my sister took me! I wasn’t out yet, so there was even the wonder if she saw me at a time when I was scared to have that seen. But learning line dances in that context has stayed with me—a continual queering of how I experience line dancing. So line dancing shows up in the work from that personal context but also on its effect on black, queer sociality.
Rail: Have you made any changes to the work since you first performed it?
Whitson: There have been tons of changes. I’ll still be performing alongside by Kirsten Flores Davis. But four other performers—Djola Branner, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Paloma McGregor, and Annie Wang—will be joining us and there will be an accompaniment by Douglas R. Ewart. People who saw the first work will recognize the seed but people experiencing this will see something that’s fully germinated.
Rail: There’s a moment during your first performance when you read a chiding text message from your father. Do you still include it?
Whitson: I do but it’s very different this time. I received that text the night before the first show. And I found it divine and serendipitous that this was received right before this performance, which was informed by my relationship to my father. I don’t regularly speak to him. Years can go by. But the reverend wanted to stay in the room, so he’s still in the performance with some changes and his voice is more abstracted.
Rail: It sounds like you really want to call together everything and invite as much into the environment you’re creating as possible, even what’s at first unpleasant or difficult to work with. Those presences are still important for you to acknowledge, yes?
Whitson: Yeah, that’s how ancestry works. Ancestry is the good and the challenging. Being mindful of the opening to whom we’d like to invite and knowing when to close that opening is important because not everything is in service of the work. Some of those things are what we’re challenged by. I know my work is service, ritual, and it can be healing for the people in the room. It can stir things in people and I’m available to being responsible for that.
In terms of the witnesses to my work, I see value and importance for younger queer folk knowing I am here for them and that the work is here for them. I just feel that’s important for me to say. Also teaching a curriculum that includes and centers black, POC, queer, trans thought, practice, and sometimes magic-making, for an educational framework and establishing that immediately from the beginning of my teaching has helped me build a space I want. And that’s a space where experimental work can happen, has happened, and is happening. That’s at the forefront of what I’m doing.
Oba Qween Baba King Baba, returns to Danspace Project—which co-commissioned the piece with Abrons Arts Center—on March 23rd for a free showing for queer and trans POC at 7:00pm. The show will then run from March 28th–30th.
DILLON HEYCK is a writer interested in performance, pop culture, and activism. His work has appeared on In Media Res, Hyperallergic, and other publications.