‘Swirling in this stew’: Making art with MacArthur-winning alumna Okwui Okpokwasili

Okwui Okpokwasili performs as part of the installation “Bronx Gothic: The Oval”
Okwui Okpokwasili performs as part of the installation “Bronx Gothic: The Oval” (Photo credit: Izzy Zimmerman)

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck New York, MacArthur-winning performer and artist Okwui Okpokwasili ’96 B.A. was living in Brooklyn, debuting a new project called “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” which was inspired by one of many forms of protest practiced by Nigerian women in 1929 in defiance of colonial rule. When “Sitting on a Man’s Head,” women would gather in the courtyards of colonial officials to sing, dance, and publicly shame them. 

Okpokwasili’s project involved 30 performer “activators,” vocal chants, public song, and dance. She and partner Peter Born envisioned their piece as a shared creative practice that could lead to a new place of mutual understanding. Their last public performance was March 6. View a video excerpt of “Sitting on a Man’s Head.”

The nature of our practice is the restorative potential of being in close proximity to strangers,” Okpokwasili said. “Within the conditions of a pandemic, these practices that I believe to be restorative are now potentially lethal.”

Okwui Okpokwasili head shot
(Photo credit: Peter Born)

On Tuesday, Aug. 18 at noon, Okpokwasili will talk about her journey from experimenting at Yale to transforming the notion of dance performance in a conversation with Nadine George-Graves ’93 B.A., chair and professor of the department of dance at Ohio State University. The talk is part of a series of virtual events featuring Yale women for the 50WomenAtYale150 initiative, celebrating 50 years of coeducation and 150 years of women students at Yale. Details and registration here.

For a while during the pandemic, Okpokwasili and her family stayed with a friend in Vermont. Now they are back in their four-story Brooklyn walkup apartment where she continues to rehearse indoors, on the stoop, and even on the building’s shared roof. She’s thinking about how to make art with people she doesn’t know, and admits that she hasn’t quite figured it out.

Much of Okpokwasili’s work has focused on space, identity, and personal growth. For the artist, who has long worked to give shape to Black women’s voices, this point in time — amid news reports about how women leaders are “particularly well suited to this moment” and the Black Lives Matter marches — is one of great creative alignment.

I’m always thinking about the collaborative capacity between women,” she said. “Particularly women of color. I am always swirling in this stew: What is it to restore ourselves? What is it to make a space? To build what we don’t see? To invest in voices we don’t listen to?”

For Okpokwasili, born and raised in the Bronx to Nigerian immigrant parents, dance was a natural extension of every gathering of family and friends. At Yale, particularly the undergraduate theater program known as Yale Dramat, she found a place where she could experiment freely. “Yale is a unique place to think about how you can implement your own ideas,” she said. “There were really incredible projects and expansive ways that people were thinking about performance.”

A scene from the 2018 piece “Poor People’s TV Room” at New York Live Arts
A scene from the 2018 piece “Poor People’s TV Room” at New York Live Arts (Photo credit: Ian Douglas)

She was introduced at Yale to choreographer Ralph Lemon’s groundbreaking performance “Geography,” a work exploring what it meant to be an exiled son of Africa, which involved African dancers and an ancestral chorus. “I was amazed by it,” Okpokwasili recalled. “It was one of the best things I had ever seen.” Years later, she would work with Lemon, whom she now considers a mentor. 

It was a friend from Yale — documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi ’94 B.A., with whom Okpokwasili had done a production of “Waiting for Godot” as an undergraduate — who would later film her one-woman autobiographical show “Bronx Gothic.” The show tells the story of two 12-year-old Bronx girls through dance, drama, and song. The New Yorker’s Hilton Als called the show “a tour de force on the order of Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye.’” 

Another of Okpokwasili’s dances, “Adaku’s Revolt,” tells the story of a young Black girl revolting against beauty standards and wearing her hair naturally. In “Poor People’s TV Room,” she examines gender, culture, and identity among four African and African-American women across three generations. 

The Yale alumna has won numerous awards for her thought-provoking performances, including a Bessie Award, a Doris Duke award, an Alpert award, a United Stated Artists award, and, in 2018 — the MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the “genius” grant. 

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Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643