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‘I think that my work wants to be like singing someone a love song’ Last Yearz Interesting Negro talks to Run-Riot

Last Yearz Interesting Negro is the artist name of Jamila Johnson-Small. The most recent iteration of her work, which I had the pleasure of watching, was Oracular Practice at Siobhan Davies Studios. It was simultaneously a warm and inviting space, as it was a space that recognised precarity. Jamila, to me, has always been able to hold these kinds of spaces.

A prolific artist, who crosses multiple disciplines, Last Yearz Interesting Negro will present a new performance commission at the Barbican in November 'Heavy handed, we crush the moment', in response to the upcoming exhibition Into The Night; Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art. Ahead of this, Jamila talks about her practice to Run-Riot.

Grace: Ok, let’s start off with something simple, what is it about dance that interests you?  

Jamila: I don’t even know if I would say that I am interested in dance anymore. Dance suggests genre, form, a line around something specific... I am interested in dancing as state, as compulsion, as social activity, as excess. In that space (dancing) I can think more fully than anywhere else and I guess it’s still true to say that, there, I can feel liberated from - or relieved of - some of the everyday pressures around representation; ‘identity’, visibility, communication, 'proper-ness'. I can shift how I am seen; how I see myself; and how I relate to myself and others because of these things. To see other people dancing is the best thing - such a gift when someone allows you to see them moving through their own interior world, their thoughts, emotion, history... (I am feeling a little dreamy today!)

Grace: Maybe not a simple question then (laughs), so how might you describe your work to someone who has a limited experience of it?

Jamila: Someone told me the other day that watching me dance they couldn’t figure out my training or the things I had worked with to move the way that I move. I loved this. I want to make work that’s igniting the moment, not tying me to a place, a time, a genre, a study... an intimate spectacle. Compositions between light, space, music, scattered words and dancing. Casual and dramatic at the same time. Increasingly slow, minimal propositions for shifting landscapes that want to encourage unfixing of orientation, continually offering a different relation or frame for a (often my) dancing body, where the audience are guests and I am the host and we do a strange kind of hanging out for a while. At the moment, I think that my work wants to be like singing someone a love song.

Grace: I love that! I feel like I definitely get a sense of that from watching your work. I kind of see it as simultaneously a call to arms or a challenge and, at the same time, an intimate and collective practice, which brings people together. Is this something that resonates with you and is there a kind of ultimate aim for you as an artist?

Jamila: I am thinking about a work that never was made by myself and Mira Kautto, we used to work together under the name 'Immigrants and Animals', this work was going to be called CUNST and we described it in the writing as somewhere between a prayer and a manifesto. I don’t know about the places I could go to for non-secular social - spiritual - somatic - reflective gatherings. I want to be confronted. I want to know myself better so that I can better relate and connect to the life around (and inside of) me. I guess I try to make spaces that might facilitate this for others too. If I want for this system to break, I know that this means that I have to break open myself too.

Grace: Do you feel like this way of working is reflected in your project at the Barbican?

Jamila: I hope so!

Grace: You’re also inviting other artists to join you for this project. How would you describe the many facets of your practice (curatorial, performance, choreographic, writing etc) coming together as a whole?

Jamila: I try not to get too side-tracked by trying to describe it! I just say ‘artist’. I feel like there is so much to be getting on with and I want to use all the means that I have access to in order to be doing the things. I invite other artists to join me on projects as much as possible; I suspect I might be an obsessive collaborator and sometimes I worry that I am hiding behind all these working relationships, but I don’t spend too much time on that thought either. I love to work with people and my collaborators are all people who really push and inspire me, that I have the pleasure of getting to know quite intimately.

Grace: I really like this sense of closeness that comes with bringing artists together, that you are describing. You also wrote that this project focuses, ‘on the sensory impact of the live encounter for performers and audience alike’. How do you consider the audience in this work and what can we expect?

Jamila: This commission sort of acts as part three of a trilogy of performances I’ve called FURY, following on from Fury1 (a work with Rowdy SS) and FuryZ. So, Heavy handed, we crush the moment will be the next stage of this work where I’ve been thinking about proximity, boundaries, consent, intimacy and spectacle in performance. I’d love for people to come and spend the three hours feeling themselves, feeling their bodies, thoughts, emotions, positions. The vision I have is for it to have a tidal dramaturgy: the ways you feel yourself when the waves come in, what is left when the water slips down the body and is pulled elsewhere, leaving the skin exposed to air, a sense of constant motion, organic but mechanical. I guess it’s an environment we are trying to build, a space for more than just ‘watching’ or where watching is an expanded, multi-sensory, full body experience. Many thoughts about entanglement and complicity. But gentle.

Grace: And finally, where can we see your work and when?

Jamila: Here you go:

Last Years Interesting Negro & Rowdy SS
17 August
Arcade East
Tickets and info: www.arcade-east.com

i ride in colour and soft focus, no longer anywhere
8 November
Stratford Circus
Tickets and info: https://stratford-circus.com

Heavy handed, we crush the moment
28 November - 1 December
Tickets and info: www.barbican.org.uk

Jamila Johnson-Small

[Last Yearz Interesting Negro, 2019. All images by Katarzyna Perlak.]

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