March 1st, 2018
niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa in conversation with Damien Davis
Last month, I met with niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa at the NYU Steinhardt Art Department, where they had led a performance workshop for artist Lyle Ashton Harris' class the day before. There, we discussed Black Power Naps, a part of their new ongoing multimedia collaborative project, Constellation, which centers their individual practices to converge on ideas of "pleasure as power and self-care as warfare." Along the way we talked about rest, joy and embracing Black existence as a radical act.
Damien Davis: How you both doing?
niv Acosta: Good.
DD: You guys just got back from—
DD: Where you two were working on your new project.
nA: In Spanish it's Siestas Negras; in English it's Black Power Naps.
Fannie Sosa: "Black Power Naps" is something that you coined in 2016 in Berlin, right? You were doing a performace workshop with all Black folks and were joking about taking power naps as a way to empower ourselves in a radical way. Then you came with the concept that became Black Power Naps. When you told me I was like, "whoa, that's crucial." We had been talking about doing a project about non-work and being exploited, as we are all the time. The division of labor as an independent Black, femme, gender non-conforming, trans artist is insane. We are running small businesses, but we're only paid for the work that can be quantified by the white institution, and you are only paid if you show up. We are only meaningful as long as we remain productive. All of these things that we have been talking about in terms of the economics of sex and (re)production, even my writing a guide called The White Institutions Guide for Welcoming Artists of Color and Their Audiences, are based on acknowledging rest and reparation as integral for working with, or more importantly welcoming, Black artists. It was within the cooking fire that we wanted to do something about rest. We had the opportunity to do Black Power Naps after artist and activist Yos Pinha introduced us to a curator of color in Madrid, Manuela Villa Acosta. To give context, Fortress Europe doesn't often have funding for what we are trying to do. The vibe is colonial, mild-mannered benevolence with an undertone of looming extractivism, especially with things that have to do with anti-racism.
nA: Even the feminism is like—
FS: —it's wack, it's white. The idea behind Black Power Naps was to work on an installation that could serve as an anti-colonial classroom, as well be a multi-functional space of rest. It's linked to conversations we've had about museums being a cemetery for us, that feeling of death and not rejuvenation, not restoration.
nA: I think it's important to say that this project is coming out of a real need for Black people to find rest, even in activist conversations. Any asks for reparations need to include energetic repair. It's like we are dealing with ancestral inheritances of Black unrest, fatigue in this life and the fatigue in other lives...
DD: …compounded over time.
nA: Our bodies hold that. It is scientifically proven that our muscles keep that information. Through working with Sosa, having conversations about our inheritances, our genetic inheritances and ancestral knowledges, we came around to being like, "okay, well, there's got to be at least some data about how rest is impacting Black people." There is this entire documentary series on PBS called Unnatural Causes on racial and socioeconomic inequalities in people's health. Basically when people think about rest, they think about this thing that we all do, that everyone sleeps.
FS: Yeah, to survive, you have to sleep.
nA: Yet, rest is only afforded to certain people. There are studies that show that, in the aggregate, white people have better rest than Black people, racialized people, migrants, indigenous people. That not only strikes me in my own work as an activist dealing with structural race, which is a holistic view of the oppressions that we deal with so we're thinking about racism on a structural or institutional level, but then we have to think about how these institutions work together to create the life that we see. That always interacts with policy; it interacts with what politicians are saying in the courtroom, what bills go to what table. It's always in the hands of a small group of white people. So, it's having that holistic view and being able to apply that to just being. Sleep is an institution in which we are literally poorer; there are disparities in rest, disparities in access to rest...
FS: And various types of rest…
nA: …play, pleasure, other ways to find rest. Exercise, or healthy eating, those are all types of rest.
FS: That's where the whole thing came together. I've been working with pleasure as something that is in a deficit. A lot of Black art that we see out there is still based on the body in pain, and that's fair, but also, there's a story here that is not being told. If we're still here, clearly people were also having pleasurable interactions and surviving somehow through being able to transform all this pain right? "Who gets to rest" is a way to look at inequalities in society. Pleasure is another one. Who gets to have an orgasm? Who gets to be in the sun and have their serotonin pump up? Who gets to do all of these things that enmesh our understanding that rest is not just sleeping and pleasure is not just sexual? It's a spectrum of downtime, really. Pleasure intersects with rest; they both have to do with assurances of safety at some level.
nA: It also interacts with political structures as it's something that is entirely anti-capitalist. You cannot economize sleep, it's antithetical. With Black Power Naps, we're not going to ticket an event for Black people and make them pay to come into a room...
FS: …and sleep.
nA: So talking to white institutions about hosting this sort of work is this whole rigmarole of convincing them that anti-capitalism is the next wave, and that institutions shouldn't need all the money-we as Black people need money while we are still having to navigate white systems. There are a mountain of things that you say can say no to when you say "yes, let some Black people rest here for free," things like no more exploitation, no more free labor.
DD: It gets me thinking about anti-capitalism, but also an embracing of alternative forms of currency, with rest as a form of currency. You guys talked a little bit about pleasure, but I'm really interested in this idea of joy. I was hoping that you two could talk more about restoration and sleep as a mechanism for embracing joy or generating joy, and that maybe being a form of...I don't want to use the word resistance, since I feel like it's overused…
nA: …a form of existence?
DD: Yes, joy as exsistence. I love that!
FS: I wonder, what does it mean to resist? By resisting you're also enabling a lot of things. It's been aspirational for me to stop resisting and to start existing, to not always be working and instead just be with the flow. In my work, I've tried to create context for that to happen, whether it's on a micro level working with kids, working their imagination, working their ability to write or see other futures, but also from the design of my performances, or even what I wear, the ways that I feel like there is an embodied practice for me of appealing to, or reclaiming, or summoning joy, and I feel like it's so interlinked for me with how I've survived and how my Blackness has survived.
For example, I imagine drums. They were not only a reminder of the base and of the motherland, but also that somebody's out there-sonic preparation for something that's going to involve movement and that's already an introduction of joy, right? I'm kind of trying to be like the drums in different ways. Something's cooking here that you can come to, and it will be delicious. That's what I'm trying to do with Black Power Naps. It can only be a starting point, because obviously we're not going to change anything in the art world with one art installation.
nA: We could.
DD: You never know.
FS: It's like igniting fires with sparks.
nA: I feel like joy is an inextricable aspect of rest, especially for Black people. I feel like it's really important not to monumentalize but think about what is in us. I think about what it feels like to be together with other Black people and not in the white gaze. That to me is joy, it's a feeling of hearing your home note, the homing beacon. Obviously skinfolk is not always kinfolk, but we are so isolated from each other on so many levels, and for so many reasons, rest being one of them. I find that the lack of rest that plagues New York City is a direct intrusion into joy, how this city maintains its grasp on people and destroys their souls. I grew up here so I feel like I can say this: there's so much beauty in New York City, but at the same time, this capitalist inertia literally tramps on ancestral burial grounds. There are slaves buried underneath us, there are indigenous people buried underneath us, and we have to regard that energetic exchange. Black people feel it. That's what we feel when we step into institutions where blood money is being traded around us and we are being packaged and sold as Black cultural producers, right?
FS: It's a scam, too, what we're trying to do. It's like oh, you want to commodify us? All right, well let's go to your institution and take a nap.
nA: Exactly. Blac Chyna subjectivity all the way. Truly though, I've been reaching for this project my entire career. The clapback is deep, and you can't even detect it. Honestly, I have feelings about making this a public thing. Do I actually want institutions to know? It's really about accepting that there's nothing here for me, there's nothing here for us, so let's make the best out of it. There's money sometimes, there's "exposure" whatever that is, and there's other things. Obviously, the best part is inciting joy with the work that we do. That's what I do this for. I literally don't do it for any other reason, and that's the thing that happens for a fleeting moment, during the opening, during the performance, or maybe somebody sends you an email a few months later saying that it changed their life. That's why I do this. It's a part of my character, but it's also an inner working of my practice. Black Power Naps is literally all I want to do right now. Do Black Power Naps and get a salary for that. That'd be great. We haven't even begun to touch on the mental challenge of talking to white institution leaders about this project. I wish so much that every single conversation that we had was on video, like five different angles and really good sound recording, because it's like a reality TV show.
FS: It really is.
nA: The shit people say in these meetings. It gives me a lot of anxiety. Black Power Naps is an extension of the enchantment that I would like to see returned to us. It's tied to joy, like you said. It's enchantment, joy, empowerment, relaxation...
FS: …thriving, existing.
nA: Thriving and existing-simply existing-bending time to find those moments. That's what the white institution helps us do, that bending of time, because that's what white people do, they actually create it. We knock on their door and are like "hey, can you just bend this moment so we can have it forever?" There are potential futures in that.
DD: That seems to be the thing right now, reclaiming time.
nA: Absolutely. I've been talking about Black Power Naps for years now. This is a project I've been pitching to institutions for a long time. It's really intense to see the germination of the conversation and when it becomes a mainstream thing. This is obviously going to get a lot more support than I will probably ever get in my lifetime, and this is what we have to contend with as gender nonconforming, trans, Black, Caribbean descent migrant folks in the world. For me, the reparation that I'm asking for through this project is deeply tied to what I know is missing from myself, what I know is missing from my family, what I know is missing for my community. I'm always thinking about them. I can't be in here and not be fucking Robin Hood-ing this shit—
FS: —Robin Hood is a bad term.
FS: Because for me Robin Hood-ing is a bad aspect of what you're describing, when you're constantly not thinking of yourself, but thinking of other folks and forgetting about the fact that you need to have your cup filled first. Also it's a white mythology.
DD: It also goes back to how that Black people are constantly asked to consider everyone in the room but themselves.
nA: So true. That's a whole other level that I feel like I'm contending with, probably for the first time in my career. I'm not even joking. Just this last trip to Spain has been about learning my worth, deeper and deeper. Thank god for getting older, right?
FS: That goes to how self-care is often about disappointing people, actually. I feel like self-care is thought to consist of bubble baths, chocolate, and a face mask, but actual self-care is about being able to say, "you know what, I won't be able to do that. I'm sorry I said that I would, but I'm not."
DD: Or even just ...
FS: …disappointing oneself. For me, we've been doing so many things, and I was supposed to have a call and I forgot. I was getting stressed about it, because I feel like we're taught all the time that if you're not able to deliver what you said you would, then that's really messed up and it will be with you for a long time—
nA: —and you'll feel the echoes of it at all times.
FS: I'm learning is to say, "I'm sorry, I couldn't. I was exhausted." It's also not quantifying exhaustion as dark circles or lack of sleep. Exhaustion is on so many levels. That needs to be factored into the conversations we have. We're just coming from a white institution where we asked for time to recover after the performance happened, as something that needed to be budgeted in and paid for. I come with exhaustion to your white institution and I will need to be paid to rest after this. Quantifying and qualifying all of these different levels of energy, learning your worth, and being able to say that I will need time to recover.
DD: It's also about refusing to put yourself in situations where you will be made to feel uncomfortable. I find myself thinking about that a lot. There are constantly forces at play that are trying to put us in uncomfortable situations.
nA: It's so true.
DD: Just to watch you squirm, and to see how you react.
FS: To break you, little by little, like the tide.
nA: So true.
FS: That happens within the white institution, but it's not the only place where it happens. It's really difficult to create a barrier to not let that put you down. It's hard to understand that it's also the effect of white supremacy among us.
DD: There's also this slippage, where people of color can find themselves in situations where they're propping up or reinforcing those structures.
nA: Having to, or willingly doing it?
DD: Willingly doing it, maybe. I feel like deconstructing that is maybe beyond the scope of this conversation, but it is something that I find myself thinking about and feeling really paranoid about, like when other people of color operate as agents to do you harm.
FS: We see that all the time, because me being ethnically brown, ambiguous and light-skinned, there's all kinds of weird ways that it comes between us. In some moments, I'm the commodified one, and I'm the one that has access and proximity for obvious reasons, but there's some other moments where you're the highly-fetishized prize and you're the one with proximity because commodification is so twisted.
nA: Just basically checking in and being like, "you're not buying it, right? Because I'm not buying it. We're still on the same page? Okay, great." That shit is really intense, because it is only created to pit us against each other. We experience it on a very micro level and on a macro level in the structures we interact with, and in these small conversations we have with people who are trying to quantify our worth for us.
FS: They install a hierarchy between us, and often, it has so much to do with our gender representation on that day. If you're wearing baggy clothes and I'm in high heels, they will literally treat me as your assistant, or the contrary happens, where they treat me as if I was the head of the operation, and like niv is the help. That just breaks a lot of bridges. We have to continuously be like, "rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel."
nA: I think at the end of the day, like I was saying earlier, we're still living off of the inertia of the slave-master mentality. But that is literally only a small part to the story in this history of oppression, you know? It has plot holes. I'm not trying to be all kumbaya about it.
FS: "Kumbaya" is a Gullah song, by the way. Isn't that crazy? In Sudamérica, "Kumbaya" is this song associated with white hippies, but it's true origins are all about a really Black, deeply Black resistance, from the Gullah folks that live off the coast of Georgia.
nA: That's awesome. It's wild, I learn more about Black people and Black people in America outside of the States. I've learned more about American imperialism, but also the ways that Black American identity is packaged and sold. The tier that you're describing is this house negro, field negro kind of dynamic where there are people who are sitting in the seats having their egos stroked while also throwing people under the bus. The macro version of that is being Black American is the standard that people should be striving for in their Blackness, so basically it defines Blackness globally.
DD: Yeah, that was the real head trip when I went to Italy for the first time, experiencing the country as a dark-skinned person, seeing and experiencing the treatment that a typical African person would receive. Until they realized I'm American…
DD: …and then the whole thing switches, and I'm the best thing since sliced bread.
FS: You feel that! Sorry, I'm getting goosebumps, because you see that all the time in Barcelona. If you would approach folks speaking Dominican Spanish...
nA: They're straight up act like you are the scum of the earth.
FS: They're clutching their purse. But when you say "hi" or "hello," they're like "Oh my god, you're so nice!"
nA: They're fawning over me, "Let me pay attention to you, oh my god, you're dressed so cool, wow!"
FS: "Who are you, what are you?"
nA: "Do you sing hip-hop? Do you twerk? Do you vogue?" I'm like "yes, all of the above, but shut the fuck up." It still serves to only oppress other kinds of Black people, right? That's the part that's so intense to me.
FS: It's levels. There's a lot of pain.
nA: Defining rest across international lines is a whole other thing. We're talking about people who are trans, disabled, who have children, who are seeking asylum, and who are running away from death threats in their home country, people coming from concentration camps and deportation centers. We thought we had it bad here, but I've just been like "whoa, no." That's not to say we should ever be comparing oppression, because it's not really the oppression Olympics..
FS: …but there is a dominant narrative that racial tension in the USA is worse that in other parts of the world, you know. The struggle here is barely visible, but it is more visible than anywhere else. Black trans women in Brazil are killed at a...
nA: …daily rate.
FS: But how many hashtags have we seen of Black trans women who were killed in Brazil? How many hashtags do we know of the numerous movements to counter police brutality in Brazil? We don't, you know. It's not Black Americans' fault, but there is a weaponization of Black American culture that serves to flatten Black folks on a global level. It's a very difficult conversation.
DD: That's a whole other level.
nA: So controversial.
FS: With colorism, I have a position that is not the same one as a darker-skinned, Black Latin American person, but I still feel compelled to name it. It definitely is a weapon, you know? Pop culture is Black American culture, and that is what is being exported and weaponized.
DD: Where can we find the next Black Power Naps?
nA: In Spain, in Madrid at Matedero Madrid, the exhibition will have a private opening June 12th and a public opening on Juneteenth (June 19th) and is open from mid-June to mid-July.
FS: The key moment though is [Gay] Pride. Mainstream Pride in Spain is at the end of June and beginning of July. The big parade is on July 7th, and we're going to be hosting the first ever Black Pride in Spain.
nA: Black Gay Pride.
FS: It's a big deal, and it's kind of intense too given the current atmosphere. We're actually kind of having to be like okay, let's think that ahead, in case we will need security.
nA: Yeah, like our last trip to Spain.
FS: We've gotten beaten up already. Spain is one of the poorest countries in Europe, but it's also the gateway, because Africa is very near, and all the suramericanos are coming through Spain, because that's the point of reference, so they are really closing ranks...it's really tense right now. There was an attack in Barcelona when we were there. That has really made it difficult for us to just walk in the street, to be completely honest. Then add transphobia to that.
nA: Police presence and all of that stuff is hiked up. I mean, I've known Spain to not really be about police, and so it's kind of the opposite now. It's really intense vibes, white people are really suspicious of anybody that's not white, basically. They're just like, "get them out of my country." These people are shell-shocked. They literally live in caves, I swear to God.
FS: That cave realness gene is hella strong there, girl.
nA: It's super strong, girl. It's like, 20 percent in Spain. Yeah.
Fannie Sosa is an afro-descendant activist, artist and curandera. Sosa's work is built around pleasurable resistance, afro-diasporic futurity, intersectional femme-inism and anti-colonial sexualities, and its been featured at the Tate Modern, the Broad Museum, Wiener Festwochen festival, Nitéroi's MAC, Syracuse University, and Impulstanz among others. Fannie Sosa currently lives and works between Europe and South America.
niv Acosta is a dance artist, educator, Black Dominican, transexual, queer native New Yorker. His work aims to address modern concepts around race and performance. Acosta's work has been presented at the New Museum, The Center for Performance Research, and the Museum of Modern Art. niv Acosta currently lives and works in New York City.
Damien Davis (b. 1984) is a Brooklyn-based artist. His practice explores historical representations of Blackness through design and digital modes of production. His recent solo presentations include Study Sessions, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; White Room, METHOD Gallery, Seattle, WA (2017); MoMA PopRally Presents Arty Gras, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (2017) and OBJECT | AFFECTION, Black Ball Projects, Brooklyn, NY (2016); Davis holds a B.F.A in Studio Art and an M.A in Visual Arts Administration from New York University.