It is a rainy April evening in 2019 when I arrive at Project Row Houses, in the Historic Third Ward of Houston, for an art event. Call me a snob, but I’ve come to meet the artist Okwui Okpokwasili, who in this case has collaborated with Peter Born. Okpokwasili has recently been named a MacArthur Fellow and I was excited to see someone like that in my city. I have no idea that an event like this will not be possible in a year. In 2020, we will be cautioned against indoor gatherings and when we are sociable in the open air, it will be with facemasks on and yards between us.
I know very little about the event itself.
I do know that the title of the installation, Sitting on a Man’s Head, refers to a form of female civil resistance in Southeastern Nigeria. As a student of African literature and cultural studies, I’ve read a lot about it.
The protest can take many forms, but the most well-known articulation is often referred to as the 1929 “Women’s War.” The women themselves were unarmed, though the British soldiers were not. Working through loosely connected economic and cultural groups, the women organized a protest in the commercial center of Aba in Nigeria. Their goal was to publicly protest the economic exploitation of a British Empire that levied exorbitant taxes on the women. Many brought their children, because they were not only farmers, and traders and artisans, but mothers — and because they believed that public censure of power was dignified and worthy of civil address. When the British fired on them, the women were shocked. The things that happen with bullets happened then.
Though the names of each murdered woman and child was not recorded, that piece of history has filtered through art, literature, and the “social sciences.” Besides this, my grandmother was born in a prosperous village nearly 55 miles away from Aba. 55 miles was a long distance in the 1920s, but her age group was named after the “war.”
However, this background knowledge doesn’t tell me about the art event at Project Row Houses.
The other bits of information are from a confounding online description. It describes the event as an “Installation/Performance” and “public song,” which may be used to “imagin[e] new possibilities of communal relations.” I have no idea what any of that means.
Yet here I am, with a friend in tow.
Outside, we are welcomed and asked to sign in. The number of participants is limited due to space, but they assure us that no one will be hurried, and lead us inside where informal guides wait. Our guide explains that the event involves a group of people moving and speaking simultaneously. This does not mean that people are moving in sync or vocalizing the same way. Instead, people are moving in the same general direction, though some use dance movements while others walk or pause for periods of time. The vocalizations are not the same. Some are sung, some spoken, some whispered or hummed. Other participants may be silent. The guide further explains: some of the participants are trained dancers and vocalists, but many are not. Like the rest, we are invited to join the performance. Finally, we’re asked if there is anything that we would like to share for the performance. Whether it is a triviality, a worry, or a gratitude — whatever we share will be incorporated in the vocalizations. Because I am a bit confused and a bit overwhelmed, I say something about a book I’ve read.
After this, we are led outdoors, where the installation/performance is underway. Because it’s raining, a tarp has been placed on the ground. The guides nod politely and move into the group. Despite the careful explanations, I am disappointed by what I see. I will not be watching Okpokwasili dance dramatically while beautifully-voiced beings accompany her from a side stage. Instead, we see exactly what the guides described: a group of individuals, moving in one direction and saying different things. It appears just that simple. After about a minute, my friend and I move to the rear of the group and begin to walk in the same direction.
I try to move my body with a rhythmic grace, the way I imagine Okpokwasili would, though I don’t see her. But at some point — between moving up and down the tarp, between shifting away from the rain when it starts to drive at a slant — I stop thinking about how my body should be moving. I just move. I stop thinking about how my voice should sound. I sound or I’m silent. I’m there. I hear the vocalists. I enjoy their instruments. Some are humming. Some chanting. I hear a male tenor sing: “The pain. The pain.” It is a poignant note.
I don’t know how long we participate. Rather than feeling like a “long time” passed, it feels like time stopped entirely, though it has been less than 45 minutes. At a certain point, the participants’ gazes meet, and we walk toward the house. Inside I meet Okpokwasili, who is laughing and friendly and open to taking a photograph.
My friend and I move on with our evening. When I tell her about the only words I heard, the only words I can remember — “the pain”—she offers a clarification: The vocalist was her greeter. When prompted to share, she told him about her recent foot pain. This is a simple explanation. I should have stopped thinking about the vocal then. But it became a whole song. And the performance — it became the theme of 2020.
I heard the vocalist throughout 2020. “The pain.” The words are elegiac, calling us to mourn, to lament the way we live.
A few weeks into January 2020, I learned about a “novel coronavirus.”
On June 2, I joined 600,000 people who marched through Houston in honor of George Floyd. We chanted as we marched. “Say Her Name.” “Black Lives Matter.” Some rode horseback. Some pushed strollers. Some stopped and stood still, witnessing. Some distributed water and facemasks.
The election came. “The pain.” The bills came. “The pain.”
In 2020, the pain was so great — some days it was a struggle to resist total despair. I chose to rely on people. To find them on the phone, or online, or six feet away. I chose communion with them and creation with them.
In an interview with Aubrey F. Burghardt, Okpokwasili says, “Shared practice is not always performance.” She adds: “There is something about insisting on your presence and remaining [which] sometimes feels like an act of resistance.”
I suspect that 2020 —as ugly and hard-nosed as it was — may push past its call for “communal relations” and actually see us put it into longterm daily practice. I suspect that speaking and walking, silence and standing still, phone-banking, voting, protesting in song, dancing at the polls, resistance — this is the “public song.” It is not art, but I suspect it might be beautiful. I suspect that even if I forget the names of some and remember the names of others, it might be what sustains us.
Maurine Ogbaa is a Ph.D. Candidate in English Literature at the University of Houston. Previously, she earned an MFA, and she writes and publishes short fiction.