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Queer performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko in Miami Shores to revisit the American black male

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Performance artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko has based his new work, Black Male Revisited: Revenge of the New Negro, on an exhibit from his youth nearly 20 years ago at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

“In 1994, we’re situated in the backlash of the Rodney King situation in L.A. We have O.J. Simpson, we have the Million Man March. We have the aftermath of the AIDS pandemic,” says Kosoko, who performs beginning Friday at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores, part of the Sandbox series co-sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “All of these important issues are happening. … Really interesting moments in cultural history. And really affecting the way black men are seen, specifically in this country.”

Kosoko identifies as queer. Miami Theater Company chose him to perform “because his project adds multiple dimensions to challenging dialogues about race, gender, and sexuality,” says Stephanie Ansin, MTC’s founder and artistic director.

This five-show engagement marks the first time Kosoko, a 2011 fellow at the DeVos Institute of Art Management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has appeared in Florida.

The Miami Shores performance features a symbolic scarecrow image of Trayvon Martin.

“I don’t want to call him literally a scarecrow, but I guess he is. He’s a fallen soldier in a way, at least how he’s positioned in this installation,” says Kosoko, a Nigerian-American artist who grew up in Detroit and Mississippi.

After Kosoko got the South Florida booking, he decided to include a representation of Trayvon, the unarmed black Miami Gardens teen shot to death in 2012 in Sanford, Fla.

“His experience was already so deeply embedded, not just in my consciousness but the American consciousness. He was literally a martyr for any number of wounded black men, children, that happen every day in this country,” says Kosoko, 31.

Kosoko begins the one-hour-long Black Male Revisited with a tour of the performance space. Throughout the show, he is chained to a basketball.

“Much of my mission creatively is to create space for the contemporization of history. It feels so important for me to have this sense of advocacy embedded in my work,” he says. “So much of this show there is a sense of re-branding, taking a lot of old stereotypical tropes and rethinking them and how we view these ideas in the contemporary moment.”

Kosoko says “this work is really looking at my own trajectory over the past 10 years and really putting into focus key moments, key performances that have really resonated with me. I’ve mashed them all up together.”

Black Male Revisited is scripted, but no two performances will be exactly alike.

“You choose your mission with each piece. I certainly have a lot of text that hint at LGBT and queer issues,” he says. “The costumes that I wear are very over the top, flamboyant and fun.”

Kosoko describes himself as “a dork.”

“I’m always reading. I’m deeply engaged with history,” he says. His artistic influences include 1920s writer-philosopher Alain Leroy Locke and Thelma Golden, current director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Last week, Kosoko performed during one of the big Miami art fairs. The experience devastated him.

“Being the only black performance artist in the fair, I cried. I took a moment and called a couple of friends to really mourn this situation because this is 2013. This is one of the most famous art moments in the world that happens annually and yet there is still so little representation of any kind of diversity, to be completely honest,” he says. “I know there are some folks who are advocating to see more black work, more Latino work, more artists of color, more feminist work, more queer work, whatever.

“But more of it needs to be situated in this fair. I felt his huge — I don’t want to say burden — but I felt this huge weight because I felt, ‘Here I am having to represent the entirety of this complex situation and there are so many different perspectives.’

“Right now we have this whole radical presence, black performance in contemporary art has taken over New York City right now. On any given night, I feel like I can experience black culture, black performance art, conversation, visual art,” he says. “I’m coming from this very diverse and multilayered experience and I’m engaging with a lot of different kinds of work and artists and then to come here and not really see that … I’m sorry, it was a great experience but I was very disappointed. I was very sad. It was really emotional for me.”

IF YOU GO

Black Male Revisited will be performed 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Dec. 20 and 21, and 3 p.m. Dec. 22 at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores. Tickets $15 and $20. Seating is limited and this production contains nudity and sexual themes. www.mtcmiami.org or 305-751-9550.

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