The auteur’s >>Witness was a stripped-down, self-composed and directed performance showcasing new arrangements from her last two albums
We ascended up an escalator into a circular, slanted, and perforated white tube. In doing so, we had entered into a parallel reality – one where everything we knew was suspended in order to welcome a different way of being. Swallowed by a sea of people wearing garments in various shades of black, we were inside the foyer of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie to experience the final night of Solange Knowles’ self-composed and directed performance, >>Witness.
Solange’s creative universe is known for its multidisciplinary approach to presenting dialogues that centre blackness. From interactive digital dossiers that explore black womynhood, “Seventy States” (Tate Museum, 2017), to pieces that blend sculpture and performance, Metatronia (Metatron’s Cube, 2018), her works challenge the standards of beauty, lack of representation of black art, and bodies in historically white spaces.
Without a major installation like her previous works >>Witness was a stripped-down performance that stays true to Solange’s minimalist aesthetic – where the “Bare Maximum” is celebrated, allowing you to focus more on the message that’s being delivered. It invokes the spirit of Knowles’ Guggenheim performance piece, An Ode To (2017), where her music was reimaged as a multi-sensory experience. Each element, including the lyrics, drive the point: “inclusion is not enough”. To make sure that every attendee is on the same page to receive the message, all distractions are removed, which meant no professional cameras and no flash photography. She only asks that we come wearing all black.
“This became our alternative church, a place of black spirituality” – Mia Harrison
Once the room was entirely filled, a short but sharp whistle cut through the chatter of the crowd, causing a soft silence to rest above each section of the concert hall. The brief quiet gave way to clapping hands at the first-sighting of performers. Two black women wearing fuchsia-coloured satin gowns glided on to the crescent-shaped stage. Their presence commanded attention without requiring affirmation, setting the tone, not only for the all-black band and dancers (also wearing fuchsia as they entered the scene) but the evening as a whole. And then, Solange came and began to sing.
“You can work through me. You can say what you need in my mind.”
With their heads tilted back, the trumpeters belted into the lunar-rock textured ceiling, causing the sound to pour down onto the audience like blackstrap molasses – attuning us for what was to come. >>Witness was a new arrangement of tracks from Knowles’ most recent albums, 2016’s A Seat at the Table and 2019’s When I Get Home. Each song underwent a deconstruction where the social constraints of the time were completely dissolved. Distorted pitches and altered tempos echoed the tones of Afro-Futurist-Jazz’s Alice Coltrane or Albert Ayler, encouraging the audience to connect with it in a different way – instead of listening to the music, we were sensing it. From the reverberation of sound in the seats to the dimming and brightening of lights, we were inside the living cells of the music. We were witnessing something beyond a simple concert or visual album. We were witnessing a live transmission of the higher octaves of black consciousness – an energetic homecoming.
“Takin’ on the, takin’ on the light.”
No one watched through LCD screens. They were mesmerised by the movements: heads dropped in staccato, their hair followed – a ritual where the resonance of the music could be traced throughout their whole body. Several sharp and angular extensions of the arms, and legs were met with smooth transitions into carefree sways. Even when she was beating the ground and kicking her legs in the air, there was a freedom from and not a fight against the white gaze. And yes, she twerked, and we clapped louder than the space had ever heard. This became our alternative church, a place of black spirituality.
All the performers looked radiant, the music was brilliant, and while I and other black folx swayed and sung along entranced by the beauty of >>Witness, the remaining 80 per cent of the audience, which happened to be white, was paralysed in their seats. Which led me to think: why have this show here? Answer: black folx have historically been excluded from ‘cultural’ institutions. B: These institutions have prescribed ways of how to act and exist in the space that usually includes passive viewing. And then something beautiful happened.
“All my niggas in the whole wide world. Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn.”
Every black person in the audience activated: we stood up, we sang along, we recognised each other, witnessed each other, celebrated each other. And then we rose up from our seats and freed ourselves from our sections and moved to a numberless aisle where we hugged, praised, shouted, and twerked. This was our time to occupy the space. Together. Was this show a blueprint for building new seats at the table – a way to reclaim, redefine or change a narrative via an occupation on your own terms? A means to heal the history of these spaces, our entangled histories. 400 years after the first slave ship hit the Carolines, 400 years, and we celebrate the lives who were washed away from but not from collective memory. “For us, this shit is for us.”