Dancer/choreographer Rhodnie Désir journeyed to Haiti, U.S.A., Brazil, Martinique, Canada, and Mexico from 2015-2019 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 developed, understanding these dances to be a means of surviving enslavement, evading cultural genocide, and cultivating strategies that would lead to liberty and emancipation. Désir’s installation and inaugural exhibition Conversations uses video, light, paper sculpture and sound to investigate how the visible and invisible bodies of the afro-descendant people have utilized dance as a tool to navigate historical and current social traumas. With a cumulative and polyrhythmic approach, the artist seeks to provide new perspectives through a plural conversation between the past and the present.
At the heart of the exhibition are Désir’s own internal questions that sparked conversations: those that helped her to commemorate and spotlight Black culture from a rich understanding of the past and those that still need to take place to distribute and circulate that knowledge. Examining the practice of dance among enslaved people and their descendants, Désir sees movement as a tactic of resistance and survival. She reveals how dance can foster resilience and ingenuity.
The video work, featuring Désir’s original travels for her Bow’t Trail performance and redeveloped by new media artist, composer and production director, Manuel Chantre, documents her journey along with the many encounters she had with the people she deems “memory keepers.” Through this exhibition, Désir is able to connect past and present through a direct exchange from human body to human body. She finds the thread that penetrates dance and conjures up the movement that occurred on ships during the transatlantic slave trade, that persisted and grew during slavery, and that continues to evolve in order to traverse the vestiges of colonialism that persist today. Recognizing that dance is a powerful, political 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 while honoring the survivors and freedom seekers who re-invented the so-called normative and dominant cultural, despite living in a world that commodified their bodies. Désir’s video documentation and Paul Chambers’ lighting design uncovers the duality of African dances. Outwardly entertaining to appease a white audience, dance could secretly contain messages of resistance within articulated movement. Bursting with rhythmical codes and concealed symbols, dance could be understood only by those who spoke its hidden language. In this exhibition dance becomes a means of reconfiguring identity and altering narratives. Désir beautifully illustrates the power of the body and movement 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. Désir invites museum visitors to put their own bodies into conversation with the memory spaces collected through her travels and to move beyond those reflections, to find the rhythmic messages and remind us of our own humanity and place in this history.
Conversations unmasks a hidden narrative of survival and highlights the movements that continue to create culture and community while navigating systems of oppression.
This exhibition is supported, in part, by the Arthur F. and Ulla R. Searing Endowment. Additional programming support is provided through the generosity of the Ellin Family Art of Our Time Endowment.
Image: Courtesy of RD Creations