Performance artist and playwright Keith Antar Mason had his turn in the limelight in the early 1990s when he and his theatrical company, The Hittite Empire, were commissioned to perform 49 Blues Songs to a Jealous Vampire at Lincoln Center. The two-hour performance, described by New York Times critic Stephen Holden as “an interlocking series of incendiary riffs on racial oppression,” was inspired by the systemic and institutionalized repression of black men in American culture.
Mason was born and raised in St. Louis, where entrenched segregation and what he calls “racial tyranny” bred in him a deep, abiding anger towards white America.
Much like the conversation we ran earlier with bell hooks, this BOMB magazine interview between Mason and Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco, conducted in Los Angeles in 1994 (after the L.A. riots, right before OJ Simpson’s famous car chase), offers us a look at the intense anger and indignation felt by so many African Americans during this particularly tense moment in the American history.
In this interview, you will also notice further similarities between Mason and some of the other artists featured in the BOMB The Root series. Long before Yinka Shonibare screened his subversive version of Swan Lake outside the Royal Opera House in London, Mason and his collaborators were taking their performance pieces to the streets, alleys and basketball courts. But before Mason ever thought to set out from St. Louis for Los Angeles, Charles White and Kerry James Marshall were building up a thriving L.A. black arts community.
These common threads remind us of the significant tradition of African-American art and agitation and the importance of keeping these artists’ stories alive.
Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 48, Summer 1994
Coco Fusco: Keith, what does it feel like to be perceived as the Ice Cube of performance art?
Keith Antar Mason: People who view me as the Ice Cube of performance art are usually white art curators, who are trying to make a connection, be hip, fit in, trying to have some kind of multicultural dialogue with me, so they come up with these high-pitch…ideas.
CF: I don’t see why there’s such a big need to separate what an African American male performance artist might do from what a rapper might do.
KAM: Performance art is a matter of convenience for me. How can I go to people in the African American community and say that I’m really a myth maker, and that I’m attempting to create ritual games to enliven us spiritually, to provide us with an inner life? When I was 17 years old, I used to hang out with my friends. We were not a gang. We were five black guys getting together, talking about art. Believe it or not, and nobody would ever believe it, we all had aspirations to be artists, but we didn’t have any black male mentors.
CF: Was this in the ‘70s? (Yeah.) What about the whole black arts movement that was flourishing at the time?
KAM: We were in St. Louis; they were afraid that there really might be a black movement there, so it got even more repressive.
CF: Were there Afro-American studies?
KAM: None of that. St. Louis is the third-ranked most segregated city in the United States. The anger that a lot of people feel in my work comes from that racial tyranny that I experienced in St. Louis. When I came to L.A., people didn’t understand that intensity.
CF: You say that when you came here, you were perceived as being very angry. Coming from New York, I see West Coast performance as coming much more from the gut, being much more about anger, and other emotions, more about a sense of one’s emotional, psychic, spiritual self than East Coast performance art, which is cerebral and slick.
KAM: I moved here in ‘85. In ‘87, I began to meet the people who were still doing the Sex, God, and Politics festival at Highways—the place where I live. We did a group evening called Hot and Sticky. It became the personal commitment to see how far we could really push things.
CF: What can you do in performance that you couldn’t do, let’s say, in theater?
KAM: I did regional theater. It did not satisfy me. I left the world of talking to a room full of people who are all mannered and sitting in chairs. Now we perform on basketball courts, and in alleyways. The media won’t come to these events. They only go to those places where they feel safe.
CF: But you’re testing your material.
KAM: Exactly. Let’s take it to an alleyway and see what the real response is.
CF: Do you announce your performances when you do them on the courts? (Yeah.) How do you spread the word?
KAM: We tell them that we’re coming. Sometimes community groups call and ask for us, like right now, Oakwood has a black community and a Latino community and 10 years ago they were in a gang war, which is emerging again, but it’s been agitated by the police. And so people from that neighborhood called us to ask if we can come back to the Oakwood school and perform in the schoolyard, for the kids. We’re gonna do it. And I’ll send the word out to the L.A. Times, but I know for a fact that nobody’s going to respond until I’m at the Mark Taper Forum. Then they will say what a wonderful thing we’re doing, but the wonderful thing has already happened.
Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 48, Summer 1994.
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