Author Archive | Kendra Kimbrough Barnes

In Conversation: Afrofuturism with Raissa Simpson

Dancer in white tunic, arm and leg lifted

PUSH Dance Company / photos by Matt Haber

Raissa Simpson is a socially conscious artist that holds community building at the core of her repertoire. Witnesses of her work have seen in-depth studies of topics ranging from Judgment in Milliseconds (2008), a dance about the misperceived perceptions of kinky hair to the Point Shipyard Project (2014) a brilliant work with youth of San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood; it is clear that her work challenges the norm. Her new work, a trilogy entitled Mothership, has been categorized under the term of Afrofuturism. Mothership II, the second installment of the trilogy, will premiere September 22-24 as part of PUSHfest at ODC Theater.

As an artist and long time choreographer for The Kendra Kimbrough Dance Ensemble and co-founder/director of the Black Choreographers Festival, I have frequently been asked the question “What is Black Dance?” This is not a question I like and have yet to see or hear “What is White Dance?” There have been many conversations with fellow choreographers to ponder how does one “correctly” answer this question and why is there the need to consistently ask that question. Choreographers create work that is based in their experiences, that comes from the fiber of their beings. Whether a work has a particular culturally specific theme, it still comes from a cultural place of who “we” are as black people.

Afrofuturism (noun) “is a movement in literature, music, art, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of black history and culture.”

This movement is creating nurturing spaces to empower, talk about the grief, the beauty, and the struggle within the communities we are vested in, and to work together through challenges that are specifically calling to our resilience and resistance in America.

As a choreographer and director, Raissa has continued to respond to the call of digging deeper and doing more to create platforms for other socially aware artists that desire an outlet for their work. In 2014 she answered by starting PUSHfest. Within the myriad of ways to describe PUSHfest, in particular for those artists who participate, it is a cross-genre dance festival where artists come together to network and share ideas around dance-making.

I am thrilled to share a recent conversation with Raissa that provides a glimpse into the festival and her work.
Kendra Kimbrough Barnes: What was the motivation behind starting PUSHfest?

Raissa Simpson: During my career as an artist, I underwent a process of collaborating with different dance groups to form home seasons. What I learned is that I present a lot of dance and care deeply about giving artists opportunities to perform. The festival seemed like a natural step to help fulfill my Company’s core values. The other part of my motivation to form PUSHfest was to bridge the gap between emerging and midcareer artists. I find my work being labeled mid-career to be a little nebulous. I’m not exactly young enough to be considered emerging and not old enough to be established.

KKB: Tell me a little bit about Mothership I

RS: Like an intriguing Sci-Fi novel, Mothership is a trilogy of works that challenges cultural traditions and identities through the lens of Afrofuturism—an artistic movement that emerged in the mid-1990s and drew heavily on composer musicians like Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic. Afrofuturism re-imagines and reclaims the past, present, and future for Black lives. Afrofuturism often uses the framework of science fiction, speculative history, and Black diasporic mythologies as tools for reinterpreting cultural narratives to open spaces for Black experiences to thrive. My inspirations include Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migrations and Black Lives Matter, but the undertones of the work question America’s Founding Fathers and the future of Black lives.

Silhuette of 4 dancers against white background.

PUSH Dance Company / photos by Matt Haber

KKB: And Mothership II?

RS: The second series is adapted from a 2016 process I started to bring in more intercultural dialogue during the creation period and look at how my multicultural dance interfaces with topics of African American culture. With Mothership II, I grapple with the relationship between cultural identity for marginalized communities of color and the complex contradictions of an American national identity by creating spaces to imagine pasts, presents, and futures for people of color. The audience will see elements of indigenous slave cultures juxtaposed with African astronomy and outer space.

“Mothership” has different meanings. In relation to my work it can mean how African peoples were captured and shipped off to the New World or the distant alien ship come to invade the planet. The underlying question is that if Black people were once considered human or only three-fifths a person, maybe we are actually aliens? Or “mothership” symbolizes all the questions of whether or not Black people will be in space. I’m a sci-fi and Star Trek fan, but the representation for people of color in movies about the future can feel abysmal at times.

KKB: Why is it important to do work around racial identity?

RS: While working with a group of Black mothers this year on a separate project, I found it was almost impossible for us to conceive and discuss the future while we were focused on moments of survival. Whereas I’ve approached my dances in a survivalist form, this new work allows me to imagine marginalized bodies beyond the boundaries of this world. How we persevere is dependent upon having the capacity to use our imaginations.

KKB: Would you categorize your work as Afrofuturism?

RS: Afrofuturism is an essentially optimistic perspective and examining the optimism in my work is a new concept for me. However, any movement including Afrofuturism is a way to make the Africanist aesthetic in my work present. I present my works through the lens of a mixed race woman of African and Asian descent. It’s important for me to acknowledge this background and how it positions me in an ongoing conversation on Afrofuturistic themes and beliefs.

As noted in my inspirations to make the work, I am taking something already done and expanding upon it. Artists as far back as the 1970s like Sun Ra had been exploring these themes, which I think right now it is beginning to be acknowledged. George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic released an album called, The Mothership Connection in 1975. A subculture of artists like myself or those working in the AfroPunk movement are all being inspired right now. Is it new? No, but the Afrofuturism that we’re seeing today isn’t the same as the 70s or 90s, it’s something new.

SPEAK By Kendra Kimbrough Barnes

I am both inspired by and gracious for the opportunity to be a Winter Artist in Residence at CounterPULSE. I have been creating work for over 13 years and realize, that just as in life, there is never a time that an artist does not need support. The moment I stepped into the studio for my first rehearsal I knew I was standing on fertile ground that would help nurture and hone my creativity while working on this piece.

What happens when one begins to re-trace his/her steps home and gets lost? One may randomly begin to point in various directions muttering “home is that way, right?” When I first heard this question, it struck me deep—to the core. I realized I had never had this experience of not knowing which direction would lead me back home. An immediate fear came over me as I empathized with this person. The more I thought about it, the more I made associations with the metaphor and how loaded the word home is for people. So I decided to begin by chronicling the innocence, genius, tragedy and rebirth of an imaginative boy. This is the story of Eli, the boy with magical powers. Unbeknownst to him, he gains strength in these powers by playing with a soccer ball. As he grows older, he turns to a life headed for ultimate destruction. It is not long before his mind ponders different ideas of home, retracing steps, questioning what is home, recalling his upbringing, deciding which direction to go.

There is so much to talk about around this topic of imprisonment and home and I find myself challenged to stay true to what I want to say and not focus on what I think others are expecting me to say. What I love about being able to do this investigation at CounterPULSE is that it allows me to challenge myself but not be confined by site-specific work. Immediately I began a whole new approach to how I was creating. Knowing that I have the support needed to bring things that will embellish my piece, I am inspired to try new set-design and multi-media concepts. I am very excited to be working with dancer/architect Shelley Davis to help frame the work and give the audience an immediate experience from the moment they walk through the door. Ears will be adorned by the magical sounds of “The Sounds of Boon” and Delina Brooks, who will create an original sound score for this piece as an important part of accurately telling the story. As we begin collaborating we keep in mind that we are aiming to touch people’s lives by sharing intimate feelings through musical and choreographic creations.

Excerpt of Text from Home is That Way?

“Not knowing what to say is a hard place to be. Not knowing what to do is even harder, in my opinion. One thing I can’t imagine is how it feels to actually be incarcerated and quite frankly I never want to know. But what I do know is how it feels to be a person on the outside that worries loves and cares for someone behind bars. What I tend to think about is the core of that person, the good that exudes from that person and I question–what happened? What led to the moment in time that was the marker for error?–the moment that said “wrong way” but all alarms were ignored. I also know the humiliation felt when visiting my loved one as officers mundanely go through bureaucratic procedures with a smug look of no concern on their faces, thinking less of me as a person for visiting someone who is locked up. Do they know who I am? Do they know that is my brother? My flesh and blood?! Painful admissions–painful acknowledgements–painful realizations–pain period. Where does the pain go and where does it come from? Underneath the layers of protection must have been a solid core of pain–that is my resolve. Seeing that pain is uncomfortable but necessary–now what do I do with it?”

44 Gough St, Suite 201
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 920-9181 phone
(415) 920-9173 fax