Flick Of The Wrist

Part of Hands Performance by Rashaad Newsome

Rianna Jade Parker unpacks the voguing history and AI context of Newsome's new commission.

Once described as “gracious and humble … sweet, sassy and a bit goofy”, in Hands Performance (2023), Being (The Digital Griot) is commanding and sultry. To fully engage, the viewer has to slow down, feel the bounce and listen most earnestly with their eyes.

“Baby, the hands are handing.” reverbs across Being’s chosen stage, a minimalist space station floating outside and above the earth. Using “Hand Performance”, one of five elements of Voguing (the others are “Catwalk”, “Duckwalk”, “Floor Performance”, and “Spins and Dips”), Being performs their feelings and fantasy through dance, lip-sync, and modelling.

The rise of drag competitions in 1980s New York known as “balls” transitioned from elaborate pageantry to “vogue” battles. In these spaces, Black and Latino voguers would compete for trophies and the reputation of their “Houses” – groups that were part competitive affiliation, part surrogate family. Black Queer ball culture, still prominent as a subculture, has also come into the mainstream eye through TV, film and music.

In Being’s physical makeup, you can see influences of Baroque but most emphasised is mid-century African masks and sculptures, which uses its own kind of technology. Limber and assured in their body, like all great Vogue performers, Being both epitomises and satirises gender constructs, occupations, and social classes.

Being is dexterous. Their arms and hands are the primary body parts used to tell a tale. With speed and precision, far stretches and contortions create geometric forms, sharp lines, circular movements and angles. Wrists flex, limp and flair to create smaller narratives.

By making Black Deaf and Hard of Hearing both the subject and primary audience, Newsome reinstills pride and dignity in the face of social isolation in the material world. Otherwise riddled by racism, classism, homoantagonism and audism, Black Queer deaf people form a very unique culture worth privileging and protecting.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), prohibited Black membership for 40 years until 1965, a year after the Civil Rights Act. The Black Deaf community had little to no communication access with their national civil rights organisations and their leaders, the concerns of the Black Deaf community were not the macro or micro focus of national civil rights organisations at that time such as NAACP and SCLC. No longer segregated by race, still often than not, Black deaf people are taught in mainstream school rather than specialised programs for the deaf. In 1981, a small self-initiated committee organised the Eastern Regional Black Deaf Conference at Howard University in Washington, DC which eventually led to the founding of National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA) that now boasts 30 chapters across the USA and special events like the Miss Black Deaf America Pageant.

Newsome’s poetry is a central ingredient, making the written and spoken word a central medium, and was translated into a movement dataset for Being to inhabit and embody the distinctive Black and Queer aspects of sign language. Hands Performance as inhabited through Being, is a resistant demonstration and embodied aesthetic protest to white cis-heteronormativity. Newsome is astute that gender variance is not the end of the world but the abolition of a worldview. With sculpture, photography, collage, performance, music, and software engineering in his arsenal, Newsome is able to culturally mediate his positionality and in a way that emboldens his community and simultaneously recognise others. Newsome’s text reminds us that “We are the engineers of ourselves. Quantum mechanics with the tools of our ancestors on the shelves.”

What we know intuitively: the self identity, life experiences, and personal values of the interpreter will inevitably influence the way they perceive and relay other’s communication. No communication can be neutral and the bridges we construct through translation will not be foolproof. There is a finesse interpretation that is executed specifically through the hands. It’s how the signer processes and conveys the message and how they translate — not just the wording but the meaning behind it, the tone, cadence, and their ultimate effect.

People who use Black American Sign Language (BASL) tend to exercise more facial expressions and use more space with their signing. BASL users typically use two hands for signs where ASL users would only use one. Additionally, BASL places signs on the forehead, compared to ASL which places signs on the body.

Place four fingers in a saluting position across your forehead and swipe your brow for — Black — drag your two thumbs up like a roar from the chest for — life— ending with your two fists gripped at the base of your chin for — cherish. This is how most Black signers communicate “Black Lives Matter”. For some, the sign ‘important’ is more a concept but the sign that uses the hands on the chin [“cherish”] includes necessary emotional context for everyone.

Rianna Jade Parker is a critic, curator, historian and artist based in South London and Kingston. She is a Contributing Editor of Frieze magazine and co-curated War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle for Truths and Rights at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Her first book A Brief History of Black British Art was published by Tate in 2021.

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