Dancer/choreographer Rhodnie Désir journeyed to Haiti, U.S.A., Brazil, Martinique, Canada, and Mexico to expand her knowledge of her own ancestors as well as other peoples of the African diaspora. As part of her research, she explored the dances and rhythms that enslaved people produced, understanding these dances as a means of surviving enslavement, evading cultural genocide, and cultivating strategies that would lead to liberty and emancipation. Désir’s video installation and inaugural exhibition Conversations investigates how these dances continue to thrive, evolve, and transform the world today.
At the heart of the exhibition are conversations: those that helped Désir commemorate and spotlight Black culture from a rich understanding of the past and those that still need to take place in order to distribute and circulate that knowledge. Examining the practice of dance among enslaved people and their descendants, Désir sees movement as a tactic of survival. In her video work, Désir documents her journey along with the many encounters she had with the people she deems “memory keepers.”
The exhibition uses video imagery and Désir’s costumes to evoke the connection of past and present. She finds the thread that penetrates dance and conjures up the movement that occurred on ships traversing the Middle Passage, where enslaved Africans were frequently forced to dance as a form of exercise and entertainment. Recognizing that dance is a powerful, non-verbal communication tool, Désir focuses on this resistance, revealing enslaved peoples’ ability to use socially constructed roles to navigate a colonialist society in which subjugation and forced labor turned their bodies into property. She discovers that dance was a conduit of transformation for these survivors and freedom seekers who re-invented the so-called normative and dominant cultural, despite living in a world that commodified their bodies while simultaneously fearing and punishing them.
Désir’s video documentation uncovers the duality of African dances. Outwardly entertaining to appease a white audience, dance could secretly contain messages of resistance within articulated movement. For Désir, and her ancestors, dance becomes a means of reconfiguring identity and altering narratives. She beautifully illustrates the power of dance to evaluate and transform a subjugating culture from within by highlighting how the rhythms and dances of the ancestors have become the foundation of culture throughout the Americas today and how dance can foster resilience and endurance. Désir invites museum visitors to put their own bodies into conversation with the memory spaces collected through her travels and to use the rhythmic messages as a reminder of our own humanity and place in this history. Conversations unmasks a hidden narrative of survival and highlights the dances that continue to create culture and community while navigating systems of oppression.
Image: Courtesy of RD Creations