Citation for Okwui Okpokwasili
Okwui Okpokwasili. Choreographer. Performer. Collaborator. Genre-buster.
The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, born and raised in the Bronx, you have created gorgeous, complex, hypnotically experimental works of dance, theater, movement and sound — total experiences that reach across psychic and geographical borders and transport us without ever leaving the room.
You do so neither broadly nor didactically, but at a precise and, at the same time, ambiguous, slant — breaking down the barrier between performer and audience to help us reveal buried truths.
“I want people to know that when they encounter my work that they should be comfortable with doubt and some confusion,” you’ve said.
That doubt and confusion might generate a sense or memory of turbulent female adolescence, as they do in “Bronx Gothic,” your astounding one-woman show that the New Yorker’s Hilton Als called “a tour de force on the order of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,” and which became the subject of a major documentary film. “I was inspired,” you said, “to think about how young women, particularly young women in inner cities, grow up and discover themselves as sexual beings.”
Or the doubt and confusion might spark the imaginations of all the girls who saw “Adaku’s Revolt,” one of several projects you’ve collaborated on with your husband, Peter Born, about a Black girl who challenges enforced beauty standards by refusing to straighten or change her natural hair.
Or, as in “Poor People’s TV Room,” that doubt and confusion might summon up the ghosts of African women whose agency and resistance have been historically and culturally subsumed into victim narratives. By, “exploring the collectivity of a multigenerational group of brown women,” you attune us to the forces of past women’s lives that reside within us.
Anti-colonial women’s protest movements in Africa also inspired your most recent work, a 30-performer practice and installation piece called “Sitting on a Man’s Head.” Though its debut was cut short by COVID-19, its themes of connection, redemption, and restoration have become more urgent than ever.
Dance Magazine could not have been more prescient when, in 2019, they called you “just the kind of artist we need today.” The MacArthur Foundation also knew what they were doing when they honored you with a prestigious 2018 Genius Grant, one of just 25 given that year.
Fortunately, just before the COVID shutdown, you had also just released your first album of songs, day pulls down the sky, a glorious way for us to stay connected to your art until we can see you again on stage and screen.
You’ve said that “the thing you love is going into a space where the audience and I can be deeply entangled with each other,” and that you’re “hoping to never, ever be satisfied, or finished, or done.” We hope the same.
Okwui Okpokwasili, for entangling us with you and your incomparable talent, uncompromising vision, and deeply human artistry, it is my great pleasure to present you with a 2021 Barnard Medal of Distinction.