Last Yearz Interesting Negro/Jamila Johnson-Small
Last Yearz Interesting Negro/Jamila Johnson-Small makes shows that work with in-between spaces, syncopation, trance states, internal narratives, intensities, overwhelm, electronic music, and small dances to affect/disrupt/deflect/distort/reflect gaze(s) directed towards their body, and to cope with Being. Resultant choreographies are stage/dreamspace/battleground, working through questions of presence, visibility, responsibility and pleasure, building atmospheric landscapes through the live unfolding of the tensions between things that produce meaning.
Last Yearz Interesting Negro/Jamila Johnson-Small is an artist, dancer and choreographer born and based in London. Trained in ballet and contemporary dance at the London Contemporary Dance School, Johnson-Small’s practice now incorporates video and installation and includes multiple long term collaborations with other artists, including Project O with Alexandrina Hemsley.
Johnson-Small’s work considers the immediacy of the gaze and puts forward the idea that looking creates meaning. They focus on steering or directing this gaze, rather than evading it and their interest in grappling with an invasive gaze can be traced back to the intense scrutiny that dancers’ bodies are placed under during formal training. Arms, hips and legs. The back arched and the torsos twisted. This fetish of the body, a scopophilic pleasure in looking at how impressively a dancer moves, is mapped onto the social constructs that dictate how each body moves through the world. Johnson-Small navigates the overlap between cultural signifiers and what a specific body, on a musculoskeletal level, is prepared to do and questions what effect it has on how the body moves.
What does it mean for an audience to enjoy the physical qualities of a dancer, when that dancer has been subjected to an all-consuming pressure to signify, and is valued on their phenotypical traits? For example, how would any particular performance be shaped, not only by formal training, but also by the ways in which a dancer who is a black woman has been seen, every moment in their life leading up to the performance, as black and female? It is from these questions that Johnson-Small frequently works.
The materiality of the costumes and props that they use tend to elicit a heightened level of awareness of the body’s presence and movement through space. Slick PVC creaks and squelches. Puffy nylon whispers and swishes. This sonic detritus could serve to reverberate the body’s movement as well as destabilise the usefulness of looking.
Johnson-Small often looks to incorporate ‘things I don’t know how to do’(1) into their performances, such as singing, and tries to access movements that they might make if they had never had any formal dance training. That this is as rigorous a pursuit as the academic traditions they look to de-prioritise suggests an art practice with an aesthetic agenda in opposition to established, classist notions about taste, judgement and artistic genius. Johnson-Small could easily be contextualised within an art historical precedent of performers and artists looking to de-skill their rigorous formal training.
Johnson-Small’s alias – Last Yearz Interesting Negro – is a sarcastic reprise of a scene in Julian Schnabel’s biopic Basquiat (1996) that reflects on the tendency for white cultural workers’ (gallerists, curators, critics) to display fleeting excitement over a particular black artist, only to lose that interest in place of the next hot trend. The alias reflects on being gazed upon, too, if not for more than a moment.
(1) Quote taken from a conversation with the artist on 27 March 2018