Zinzi Minott’s much-awaited performance at BALTIC explored Black and Queer identity through a thought provoking film with an immense soundtrack. The performance space on Level 1 was filled with two huge screens surrounded by plants of all sizes and shapes. We were told that we would be watching a performance-film, a video featuring clips of dance performance and practice, followed by a Q&A. I sat down and melted into the dark murmur of the audience whilst lights lit up the plants. Waiting for the film to begin, I was mesmerised by how the plants, so reliant on natural light, seemed to thrive in the darkness.
The theme of nature vs manmade intervention, introduced by the presence of so many plants in an artificial space, was extended through the film. We saw ships out at sea and anchored ashore, people walking through natural landscapes, the artist dancing in her studio against a natural background, and archive clips of Black people dancing and gathering. What particularly surprised me was that the video was glitching, almost robotically, which was both confusing and intriguing at the same time. Soundscapes by the musician Gaika (Tavares) began with very robotic, computerised beats that quickly morphed into African drumming, dancehall, dance/house music and other sub-genres that I recognised from my own experiences of clubs and parties in London and Birmingham. Gaika is a South London artist and writer and is known for experimenting with dancehall and R&B roots (some have compared his music to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings). The sounds were taking us on a journey whilst the film was showing us what was important to Minott. Some of the music may have felt dissonant to people less familiar with these genres, some with lyrics in Patois, English using London slang, some without any lyrics, in what seemed to be no particular order.
Minott has focused her work and practice on the themes of Blackness and Queerness, two aspects of her identity that she believes have shaped her daily life and her ability to experience her practice. Minott emphasises the importance of growing up in South London, the way it has informed her collaboration with Gaika, her responses to specific genres of music, her understanding of what it means for Black people to dance and her socio-political circumstances from a young age. After finishing dance school, Minott began working on Black on Black as her first important project. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was forced to postpone this premier at BALTIC. Her experience of the pandemic, different to many and disproportionately worse than non-marginalised communities, featured heavily in the way the film was produced and displayed alongside the music.
The context of Minott’s personal and professional growth fascinated me as I watched the film and considered how all these tiny snippets of archived videos of the natural world alongside her own clips of dancing in a studio – how this all feels to her. This made the Q&A as inspiring and critical as the film itself. My first impressions of the film as confusing and erratic were quickly illuminated by Minott as she explained the importance of ‘repetition, duration and exhaustion’. These three concepts are integral to her practice and the way the work is presented, and encapsulate her experience of growing up as a Black, Queer woman. A lifetime of experiences of racism has manifested in her physical practice. The repetition of clips in the film drives home this difficulty.
The computerised glitches in the film reflect Minott’s experiences of racism as, what she describes as ‘glitches’ in her life. That is, waking up every day as normal and being interrupted by racist comments or reminders of her experience of living a racialised version of life. Minott explains how racism feels ‘unnerving’ to her, like a stutter or the bubbling up of tension that can be felt when listening to garage or grime. These experiences find themselves expressed in youth culture, music, dance, film and television. The glitches in the film break down the flow of the waves and the natural images, illustrating the artist’s experiences in a repetitive and unnerving manner. The navigation of these ‘glitches’ can make aspects of life more difficult than for non-marginalised groups and the film forces the audience to sit through and endure them. Throughout the film, I felt fidgety and confused. The durational and repetitive aspects were exhausting but brought with it a sense of enlightenment once the film ended.
Minott describes her dance practice as the management of this triangle of emotions. Black on Black explores how this triangle intersects with both her practice and her socio-political circumstances. During the earlier stages of the project she visited the British Library to explore dance archives, specifically black dance traditions. Most of the footage depicting various groups of Black people dancing were found in the British Pathe archives. Minott explained how her research did not always match up with the stories she heard from her family elders because ‘the archiving of dance is exceptionally difficult’. This is even more true for a community that has suffered from cultural erasure within historical archives.
In Black on Black, Minott explores how the knowledge of dance has been archived within the Black body. She explores actions such as ‘gun fingers’ and twerking and other physical movements by representing them in her film. These actions that come naturally to Black people when around each other or listening to music made by Black people are often depicted as being ‘cool’ or trendy, so this was an important point to discuss in the Q&A. Minott was keen to represent Black people’s limited and sometimes non-existent, access to their own histories and freedom. Dance is a type of freedom that can be expressed, archived and shared.
This focus on physical bodies that hold knowledge became a stronger part of the project when Minott was required to postpone the performance. The pandemic had a huge impact on her dance practice, preventing her from going out and communicating with others physically. She had developed friendships and community primarily through dancing, rehearsing in groups and going to dance classes. In these spaces, there were limited introductions and less small talk; they had communicated through breathing exercises, finding and exploring their bodies through dance. As these physical aspects of her daily life were stripped away, watching and depicting groups of dancers became increasingly integral to the story in Black on Black.
Realising how much physical contact had affected and impacted her life and work, Minott was inspired to depict ‘community life through dance’. The most effective way to do this was through collaboration. Minott describes her collaboration with Gaika as a natural, magnetic synergy stemming from their shared place of growth and background, both being Black and from South London. As a result of complications with production due to the pandemic, Gaika hadn’t seen the film before producing the sound. This added an extra layer of disjuncture, repetition and endurance to Black on Black that Minott hadn’t accounted for. The added uncertainty of their collaboration, and its circumstances, highlighted the difficulties and beauties of being a Black, Queer artist.
Through Minott’s experience of dance, I was taken on a journey of disjunctive yet joyful videos, beats and glitches, surrounded by lush plants and calming waves. Minott talks about plants and nature in human society, and how humans can thrive in nature. The film opens a conversation about how blackness and queerness exist within one’s body and how dance can free one of the exhaustive scrutiny of others.
‘Black on Black’ was premiered at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art on Friday 10th June 2022.
Mymona Bibi is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne
This article is supported by Siobhan Davies Dance