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How Paul Maheke and Nkisi Provocatively Reprise the Phenomenon of ‘Negrophilia’

The artists’ latest performance at Block Universe leaves us hanging in ambiguity

Originally built in 1863 as a venue for music and circus entertainment, Hoxton Hall serves as a kind of battleground for Paul Maheke and Melika Ngombe Kolongo’s (Nkisi) Sènsa, a new performance addressing the intimate rituals of self-fashioning through dance. Commissioned by the London performance art festival Block Universe, the 45-minute work draws upon Bantu-Congo cosmologies, obliquely represented by a circular diagram of hand-drawn lines forming an unidentifiable map projected on the floor.

As Maheke enters on stage and dances at the audience’s feet, the map dissolves. Projected momentarily as a perplexing prelude to the main act, the Bantu imagery, without elaboration or clarification, is left closed as a symbol. While the performance makes no explicit reference to the artists’ biographies, it’s worth noting that Maheke and Nkisi were raised in France and Belgium to Congolese parents. In conversation about two concurrent projects from 2018, Maheke expresses an interest ‘in the idea of circularity’ and  ‘the significance, and the clichés, of speculative belief systems’, which shows through in his dancing. He frequently stomps the floor before transitioning to other motifs, changing directions within the confines of the circle. This meditative style locates his performance as a place of memory expressed through rehearsal.

Paul Maheke, Sènsa, 2019. Courtesy: Block Universe; photography: Manuela Barczewski

As Maheke dances to variations of club music, Nkisi delivers a brief spoken interlude that it is almost inaudible. Her live soundtrack blends moments of hardcore-techno catharsis and buoyant, propulsive trance with sparse string and woodwind instrumental arrangements. Certain segments seem improvised or rehearsal-like, creating a disorientating atmosphere that is enhanced by artist Ariel Efraim Ashbel’s lighting design, in which sequences of flashing bulbs suddenly give way to near-total opacity. Narrative legibility in Sènsa (which translates as ‘coming to visibility’ in Lingala) is substituted for pure spectacle. Maheke’s costumed body confronts us as a mysterious, overburdened symbol of a Black and queer glamour, asymmetrically self-adorned in a single luxurious arm-length sequined ruffled glove. In another sequence, Maheke holds an oval-shaped mirror to the spotlight, twisting himself to generate a reflective beam that bounces from his chest across the audience in a gesture of wordless interaction. 

In her study of music hall traditions in Paris from the 1810s through to the 1920s, Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s (2000), historian Petrine Archer-Straw observes a ‘double-edged infatuation’ with Black culture, which she defines as ‘negrophilia’. She writes of the ‘obvious fabrication’ of performers and stars from this era, whose apparent ‘authenticity’ European audiences were ‘willingly seduced into accepting.’ In this context of Hoxton Hall, Sènsa stages a provocative reprisal of this dynamic. Maheke’s gestures, in parts, recall French poster artist Paul Colin’s 1925 Revue Négre caricatures of music hall star Josephine Baker, particularly in the opening sequence. Maheke’s eyes bulge as if possessed, harking back to Baker’s performative, exaggerated facial expressions. Notwithstanding its conceptual and technical sophistication, the performance, in my reading, bears disturbing similarities to the tropes of ‘negrophilia’. Performed exclusively for white Europeans with explicit references to a mythologized ‘Africanism’, the ‘negrophilic’ phenomena Archer-Straw describes perpetuated stereotypes of Black, African and indigenous populations as inarticulate but in possession of a ‘wild’ sexual energy, earning them the status of physically supernatural ‘freaks’ and ‘monsters’. 

Paul Maheke, Sènsa, 2019. Courtesy: Block Universe; photography: Manuela Barczewski

Paul Maheke, Sènsa, 2019. Courtesy: Block Universe; photography: Manuela Barczewski

In one sequence, an orb-like shadow slowly expands its circumference, radiating from Maheke towards the balcony and ceiling. In a rare moment of stillness, he approaches the microphone but no words are spoken. This segment, like much of Sènsa, could have benefitted from the artists clarifying their intentions. Instead, the performance leaves us hanging in ambiguity, with dance, music and lighting conjuring a hazy impression of histories marked by colonial trauma, histories with which we are offered no direction in how to engage.  

Main image: Paul Maheke, Sènsa, 2019. Courtesy: Block Universe; photography: Manuela Barczewski

Paul Maheke and Melika Ngombe Kolongo (Nkisi), Sènsa, 2019, was performed as part of Block Universe, London, on 30-31 May 2019.

Kareem Reid is a writer and artist based in London, UK. He is the founder of Body Party and his work was included in the 2018 edition of Glasgow International. He is currently studying writing at the Royal College of Art, London. 

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