Confronting Past, Present, and Future

Nora Chipaumire’s #PUNK

By Diana Hubbell

On a Thursday night in a sold-out black box theater in Midtown, a crowd — predominantly white twenty- and thirtysomethings — has crawled up onto the stage and is clapping at a fever pace. At the center of the ring are two dancers, one hanging from the stage’s balcony, his dreads dangling as he sways from side to side. The other, Nora Chipaumire, straddles a mic, her shirt pulled up to reveal a translucent bra and bulging muscles. Eyes wide, she pivots and points her finger directly at a woman in the audience.

Confrontation moments define Nora Chipaumire’s #PUNK. photo: © Foto Robisco

“They said, ‘You, black nigger! Go back to Africa!’” she roars. The woman shrinks. A snowy-haired man and woman on the balcony stare, mouths agape. The clapping stops and the grinding electronic soundtrack in the background heads toward crescendo. “And I said, ‘Cocksucker, motherfucker, watch me! Watch me go back to Africa! And when I get there, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna give a damn about the past! I’m gonna fuck real hard with the present!’ At this Chipaumire thrusts her pelvis toward the microphone and grinds against the stand. “And I’m gonna have a go at the future!”

Confrontational moments like this define Chipaumire’s visceral, kinetic, ultimately exultant piece, which assaults preconceived notions of gender, race, sexuality, and religion with all the subtlety of an uppercut to the jaw. Through the sheer physicality, the jarring movements, and athleticism of her performance, she commands the room’s rapt attention to her black, female body that refuses to conform to anyone’s expectations but her own. During the performance, she struts the stage and pounds her chest in a near parody of conventional masculinity, hurls the word “Africa” like a blessing and a curse, and calls out the names of religious figures like Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad. Chipaumire has addressed such themes before, playing with the conventions of gender and what it means to be African in performances from her early days with Urban Bush Women to last year’s Portrait of Myself as my Father.

Ostensibly, tonight’s performance is an ode to Patti Smith. It’s the first piece of a triptych entitled, #PUNK 100% POP*NIGGA, the following two sections of which pay tribute to Grace Jones and Rit Nzelu. Yet #PUNK is both visually and sonically far more aggressive than Smith’s lyrical creations. This is a work designed to induce discomfort, one in which the central figure grunts, thrashes, curses, and seems to pivot with little warning. Spectators reel as Chipaumire comes within inches of their faces and shouts, “I smash your brain!” Even the vocabulary of movement on which she draws — a series of jerking, twisting, tightly controlled maneuvers that send sweat running down her temples in rivulets — mimics the posturing of a fighter ready to rumble.

Chipaumire draws on a broad range of cultural references that she holds together through a framework of repetition. Several stock phrases — ”London Bridge is falling down!” “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an introduction!” — are repeated over and over until they take on new meaning. Chipaumire threads them through the piece to give it structure. Each corresponds to a set of movements, be it the thunderous stomping of “King Kong Jesus!” or the mocking screech and frantic steps of “God save the Queen!” Chipaumire seems less concerned with mimicking Smith than with channeling an abstracted vision of punk itself, a medium designed to set fists and feet in motion. Punk can be many things, but it is neither static nor soothing, a fact that is central to Chipaumire’s reinterpretation of it.

From the moment Chipaumire first says, “This is an introduction!” she demands that the audience clap, stomp, participate. Before long, palms are sore, but pulses are running high, not least because of Chipaumire’s tendency to put spectators on the spot. As a Zimbabwe-born woman who has lived much of her life in New York, Chipaumire seems accustomed to being the outsider, the other. Over the 80-minute event, three individuals in the audience momentarily take on this role, as she singles them out and orders them to go back to Africa. She initiates this ritual the same way each time, describing how, “One day I was walking down…” and names the great, cosmopolitan boulevards of the world, where the eyes of strangers tend to bore down on an unknown African woman. In this moment, Chipaumire becomes the faceless bourgeoisie of High Street, Main Street, the Champs-Élysées and the audience steps into her shoes.

By the end, though, both the performers and a sizable segment of the viewers are smiling as the collective energy and mood rises. The show culminates in a mosh pit, with the dancers slamming into any crowd members brave enough to take a hit. After Chipaumire bellows for the third and final time, “Watch me go back to Africa!” she sounds triumphant. She is, after all, a Zimbabwean and an American, both hyper-masculine in her swagger and feminine in her frilly bra, who dares to give a damn about the past and have a go at the future. She’s also a fearless performer willing to confront all of these elements on stage, straining and sweating and screaming with the raw catharsis of punk.