“This is a manifesto” is a refrain Nora Chipaumire recites multiple times at both the beginning and end of her performance piece, “Portrait of Myself as My Father,” which she brings to Uppercut Boxing Gym in northeast Minneapolis this weekend, presented by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Ostensibly about her father, whom Chipaumire hadn’t seen since she was 5 and who died when she was 13, the work is a kind of treatise on the figure of the African man, both historically and in our contemporary world.
Born in what is now Zimbabwe, Chipaumire, currently based in Brooklyn, throws a wide critical slap toward centuries of oppression that men of African descent have endured through history. The figure of her father, who is given a tour de force performance by Senegalese dancer Pape Ibrahima Ndiaye, is presented as a tragic figure, exploited for his sexuality and strength, demonized and terrorized within the span of the 90-minute performance.
Chipaumire acts as ring announcer, coach, slave master and nurturer in her father’s journey. Her facade unflappable, she is the antagonist to her father’s central role. She is aided by performer Shamar Watt, who manipulates the work lights around the stage and also gets subjugated by Chipaumire as the piece progresses.
As the audience is led into the boxing ring area, Chipaumire boasts a wide stance and flexes her muscles. She wears shoulder pads and swimming goggles swept over her shaved head, and presents as masculine. She leers and gets into audience members’ personal space, toying with the notion of black masculinity as something to be feared.
With its anti-colonialist point of view and culture-mash costume design, there are echoes of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s “Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West” in Chipaumire’s portrait. Like that famous 1992 performance piece, which presented Gómez-Peña and Fusco inside a cage, Chipaumire’s boxing ring encloses the performers in a cage as well.
The audience is positioned as voyeurs, watching the black male body dance for its entertainment. The movement, which comes in fits and starts, doesn’t satisfy or entertain. Whether he’s grinning or growling, promenading his godlike physique or crawling on the ground, Ndiaye appears to be coerced into the movements. Chipaumire’s sprinkled use of slow motion adds to this feeling, by seeming to draw out time.
Meanwhile, both father and daughter are bound with long white elastic straps, which attach to the boxing ring, each other, and to the ceiling above them. The straps become a kind of spider web, entrapping both characters in the narrative.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.