Artists Reach Out: Ni’Ja Whitson - Gibney
Week of July 6, 2020
Making space for

Artists Reach Out: Ni’Ja Whitson

nonbinary black artist blowing bubbles on stage.

ARTISTS REACH OUT: REFLECTIONS IN A TIME OF ISOLATION

Senior Curatorial Director Eva Yaa Asantewaa dreamed this series of interviews, Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation, out of grief for her work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance.

“In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there’s no distancing around what we still can share with one another—our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I’m glad they’re part of our beautiful community, and I’m eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.” – Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Senior Curatorial Director

This interview features Ni’Ja Whitson, multidisciplinary artist and 2017-18 Gibney Dance in Process (DiP) Resident artist.


Ni’Ja Whitson (NY/LA), is a Creative Capital and “Bessie” Award winning, Queer Nonbinary multidisciplinary artist, wound and word worker, who has been referred to as “majestic” by The New York Times and recognized by Brooklyn Magazine as a culture influencer. Whitson engages a critical intersection of a sacred and conceptual transdiciplinarity in Black, Queer, and Transembodiedness, architectures, science, and spirit. Whitson is an 18th St. Artist in Residence (Los Angeles), 2020 Center for Performance Research artist in residence, 2018 MAP Fund awardee, featured choreographer of the 2018 CCA Biennial, 2018-2020 Urban Bush Women Choreographic Center Fellow Candidate, and invited presenter at the 2019 Tanzkongress international festival.  Other recent awards include a 2018 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize Shortlist (The Unarrival Experiments),  Jerome/Camargo Fellowship, Dance in Process (DiP) Residency, Hedgebrook Fellowship, LMCC Process Space Residency, Bogliasco Fellowship. Recent commissions include EMPAC, Danspace Project, BAM Next Wave Art, American Realness Festival, California African American Museum. They are an Assistant Professor of experimental choreography at UC Riverside and Artistic Director of The NWA Project. www.nijawhitson.com

Artist holding a rope of light in their mouth mid-motion.Photo by Maria Baranova.

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

There isn’t an area of my life untouched by the pandemic. My creative work is an agreement I made with the Divine before coming here, and I have taken that agreement seriously. It means that I work hard/a lot/ often. When the pandemic began to impact the U.S. directly, I was not only developing one major, sprawling work with residencies and research endeavors, I was managing several other commissions and collaborations simultaneously. All of those residencies, research activities, commissions, and collaborations through June 2020, were canceled or postponed. Other engagements for later in the year are on standby.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

I followed incessant joys, and curiosities that wouldn’t leave me alone, by spirit showing up in the eyes of people who I believe were brought here to show me that my ancestors loved me greatly but didn’t want to see me join them before my time. Not until late in college did I really see myself as an artist where I understood that the arts could be a space of thrival.  My particular practice is constantly growing, but it is a result of interdisciplinary, Yorùbá and Diaspora study, an embrace of research and process that I began over 20 years ago.

I also grew up reading and writing poetry. Writing and reading books were the first ways I explored creativity and imagination, and where I found safety as a closeted child experiencing physical and sexual abuse. On more than one occasion the arts and learning saved my life, held my heart.

Nonbinary black artist dipping their head in a bowl of water.Whitson in Oba Kween Baba King Baba (2019) at Danspace Project, photo by Ian Douglas.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

While this is not everything, it is an enough….

I’m practicing:
art as sacred warriorship
fugitive morphologies
spiritual herbalism

I make:
radical queered ceremonies
interdisciplinary live works
imaginary revisionings of space and installations
poetic text experimentations
art i know but don’t need to understand (even when i think do)
whatever i am called to

Grounded in:
an unrelenting care-politic
blackness
ancestor work
queer trans embodiedness
research
inhomogeneities in gender, body, cosmos

It is a difficult moment to vision out loud, but I know that I am. I know, firmly that a Future is both being created and simultaneously that the Divine is preparing us for a coming. My visioning is that we are better warriors on the other side of this, that we are non-negotiable in what we need to do the work we are here to do, that we choose to create and unravel time in our favor.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I love this question. Firstly, I care about care. I regard my practice as sacred work, so it means that alignment is non-negotiable. It means that failure isn’t a misstep, unless I miss seeing the door it left ajar.  It means that visioning requires leaving space for the strange, unexplainable, wise, playful, sometimes frightening intervention of the unknown. This pandemic is another serious intervention–on time and on some kind of purpose.

Tangibly, this looks like hiring and collaborating with Black, Indigenous POC who are Queer and Trans and BIPOC allies. Looks like treating site visits and space prep as space to learn what spiritual work will need to be done to honor the land, the ancestors, the artists, the work. In this pandemic, it has also meant paying my collaborators their full fees for cancelled residencies and research activities (regardless of whether or not I get paid), reimagining projects so that funds or resources or care get in the hands/lives of as many Black Queer, Trans and Nonbinary artists as possible.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

I do not know what practice looks like right now. I guess I can say that it is reflective of this now world in that it is shifting day by day, refusing predictability, requiring slowness and a lot of love. It looks like compassion. It looks like honesty and precarity, experimenting in the literal, metaphorical, and metaphysical dark. It looks like discovering spaces of joy, eroticism, rage, curiosity among the simultaneously here and nowhere. My practice has been moving slow and refusing to be owned (especially because the art marketplace has reminded us that in many ways it is like all others). My practice looks like paying attention to the people and institutions with whom I want to be in relation, those who will vision with me in bold ways.

self-care tip:

Remember that computers are not humans.
Leave space in each day to hear the nothing/everything. Turn off/unplug.

 

To read all of Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s Artists Reach Out interviews, visit infinitebody.blogspot.com.

 

Top photo by Scott Shaw.