I first saw kai lumumba barrow in the lobby of the Hilton Atlanta during the convening of the 2018 National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA). She was introduced to me as a founding member of the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, and as an artist that would be leading a performance the following day. I watched quietly as she gathered her cast and they made their exit from the hotel. There was a militant whimsy to the way she moved through space. I would soon come to experience that militant whimsy in the form of an immersive performance that challenged the audience to enter not only the space and content of the story but to enter into the break, the breach, between ‘sense’ and liberation.
As part of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Critical Resistance (CR) and the 25th anniversary of Southern LGBTQ political advocacy organization Southerners on New Ground (SONG), gallery of the streets, "an evolving network of artists, activists, scholars and organizers" convened by kai lumumba barrow, presented "[B]reach: adventures in heterotopia, a postmodern abolitionist global funk visual opera.” This one-time, site specific happening offered a prologue to the longer work which is sketched into three parts.
Whatever we were here to experience was beyond all of our control. And that was the magic of it. The “abolitionist global funk visual opera” as I experienced it harnessed the inspirational chaos of free jazz.
barrow has a long history of work with CR and SONG and other global efforts against the prison industrial complex. Her creative work through gallery of the streets makes a critical Black feminist intervention in space. Aiming to "engage everyday space as a site of resistance" with a distinct commitment to the space of the US South and the ways Black Southern understandings of struggle, freedom and play might point us towards a truer practice of revolution. At the 20th anniversary celebration of Critical Resistance held in Oakland last December, Angela Davis moderated a panel during which SONG Co-Director Mary Hooks shared a story about how being sent to kai lumumba barrow’s North Carolina home with a group of young organizers early in her career at SONG challenged her, and all the impassioned organizers present, to think differently about the true breadth of the work. It’s fitting then that [B]reach was presented not only in commemoration of the anniversary but as an extension of SONG ATL’s weekend-long Black Organizing Intensive that directly preceded it.
As a participant in both the Black Organizing Intensive and the NWSA conference, I experienced [B]reach as it is described in the project abstract, as an “‘underground railroad,’ mapping networks and hubs, codes and symbols, individuals and groups who share vision, experience, and context.” The works heavy theoretical underpinning is tied directly to its commitment to political education and making visible the extraordinary conditions of Black life in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. Which is to say, in this work theory does not show up as a barrier to accessibility. barrow and her co-conductor, the film artist jazz franklin, skillfully weave together the works of theorists like Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, Joy James and Michel Foucault through radical acts of deconstruction that break theory down to its Blackest, most fugitive expressions.
Within [B]reach, Foucault’s concept of the ‘heterotopia’ which I (even as a doctoral student) had never engaged before becomes the “common non-sense” of understanding, in your body, the ways folks sharing laughter on the Underground Railroad to free-territory or the crew of Comb’hee women marooned sustaining themselves and their community in South Carolina during the Civil War, must have experienced utopia.
As I watched members of SONG ATL alongside academic comrades who I had met throughout the course of the week, costume themselves in all black and become the “bevy of dissent—prisoners of empire [the thief, the cook, the hooligan and the skeptic, the reader, and professor organics];” I was instantly aware that this would not be a show I could simply sit and watch.
Entering into the reworked warehouse space, I, along with the rest of the audience, was transformed into “prisoner #25—cat of cats, nomadic outlaw, and person of dissent.” The walls had become home to “the chorus of outlaws—a cacophony of living beings and ancestral muses,” sculptural works by barrow that drew from the testimonies of the enslaved to tell their own stories about freedom. Engaging these muses, I saw myself in the words of “negro gals that got mad” and told off slave traders from the auction block. In barrows’ art work, I recognized the way Black feminist historians like Saidiya Hartman offer sources that are not only valuable to the Black intellectual tradition, but that could effectively (and were always intentioned to) feed Black radical political and artistic mobilization. As I watched members of SONG ATL alongside academic comrades who I had met throughout the course of the week, costume themselves in all black and become the “bevy of dissent—prisoners of empire [the thief, the cook, the hooligan and the skeptic, the reader, and professor organics];” I was instantly aware that this would not be a show I could simply sit and watch.
DJ Trickster (played by barrow) led us on a haphazard journey through an array of tasks with no real instructions. We were led from one side of the room to the other, asked to lay down, to roll dice, to dance. Wherever we were meant to go, we never arrived. Sounds from an event happening above us kept breaking into the intimacy of our exploration. The second time the Jackson 5 made itself present, DJ Trickster called her chorus to a halt. Into this void of form came the voice of Sonia Sanchez reciting her poem “Middle Passage.” From behind a music stand to the right of the small stage, barrow danced her arms into the air as Sanchez scatted through “the coming, the packing, the crossing.” Whatever we were here to experience was beyond all of our control. And that was the magic of it. The “abolitionist global funk visual opera” as I experienced it harnessed the inspirational chaos of free jazz.
Freedom not just as a political goal or an abstract feeling, but as a mode of being in the world – a mode of refusing anti-Blackness, white supremacy, capitalism, transphobia, homophobia and all of the oppressive systems they begat, through the reclamation of space and an insistence on playful conspiracy.
In the talkback following the short performance, barrow commanded attention as she offered social, political and cultural musings informed by her lived experience as a radical Black feminist artist and long history of work as an abolitionist organizer. As an artistic little Black girl trained by hardcore revolutionaries she had to find space to be herself. She had to insist on her right to not make ‘sense’ all the time. And her work with gallery of the streets invites us all into a liberation practice that necessitates that kind of freedom. Freedom not just as a political goal or an abstract feeling, but as a mode of being in the world—a mode of refusing anti-Blackness, white supremacy, capitalism, transphobia, homophobia and all of the oppressive systems they begat, through the reclamation of space and an insistence on playful conspiracy.