Alexandrina Helmsley is one half of dance duo Project O and an Associate Artist at The Yard Theatre. Alongside Dan Hutton and Yard producer Ashleigh Wheeler, she programmed the open call-out artists for NOW 17 festival. Alexandrina initially performed in NOW 14 as an open call-out artist and was invited to return for NOW 15 as a mentoring artist. Here Alexandrina speaks with Vanessa Macaulay about her work, her process and what drove her to create How to Come Out Black. 

What led you to make this particular work?

The work began from a confusion I felt by the assumptions that my body seemed to portray. When I enter a space, my blackness enters with me, whether I like it or not. So it was kind of my way of responding to that and my way of opening up a discussion to see whether I could almost out-fetish the fetish that I feel my body portrays. Within this work I wanted to explore the visible black female body and the assumption of her presence. If the black female body doesn’t appear as expected, what happens to its visibility? and also what happens in spaces of hyper visibility? These are all questions that I can began playing with in the studio. I was also heavily influenced by a number of things happening on social media at the time. The role of the internet has given rise to a thriving amateur community of creators which can be seen in the surge of make up tutorials or just tutorials in general that can be found. Videos uploaded on the social media platform YouTube are are easily accessible and facilitate a space for transformations in the privacy of your own bedroom, all of which were catalysts for this piece. This formed the idea of construction and polluting the image of the black body through my own constructions.

For me, the humour and horror of expectations placed on the black female body run alongside humorous and horrific experiences I have had as a woman of colour. I think of the humour as a private sensation that I share cautiously with friends and relatives who also experience being non-white. Laughing out loud can be a space of relief, of sharing and of being recognised. I hardly ever laugh about my experiences in public…Too often the recounting of racist experiences is met with defensiveness which in itself tenses and makes the retelling more horrific and over-exposing! I’m really interested that within How To Come Out As Black, you are holding both experiences and making them public. Could you say more about that and also, how you are moving between these states/compositions?

Yes, as I said, I think it’s necessary for me to create a space in which I could facilitate this kind of discussion for my own experience as a way of dealing with it. I intentionally removed the situation from a personal realm to address a more universal idea. I created the performance so that it plays with and confronts points of familiarity, then isolates the audience into rethinking the idea of race, gender and sexuality. The ways in which my body, real or performed, is already coded makes this treatment comfortable – funny-  for audience members. However through polluting that image, I wanted to transform the familiarity of sexualizing and feminizing my body into one of deep discomfort and confusion. I think also I employ humour as a way for me to be able to flesh out these often painful and just upsetting ideas. I move between the two states by adding points of failure, I don’t quite achieve the perfect hip hop honey.

How would you describe the live performance landscape you work within/around?

I come from a dance and theatre background so the movement of the body  has always been the starting point for me. During this project I believe my work and practice has been consolidated to focus on the politics of black identity and how this is etched onto our bodies, lives and spaces. I work with film, text, objects and movement in order to explore these ideas.

Why do you think stereotypes persist?.. (Big question!)

In general, repetition. Cultural stereotypes are reiterated and can be tracked throughout history. The story of Sarah Baartman and the spectacle of her body in the 19th Century can be identified in the spectacle of the black body in music videos in the 21st Century; it’s repeated in a contemporary context. The black female body is bound up in a web of assumptions and expectations, this difference – sexual and racial – has been imprinted in the anatomy of the Other. I think Western society has a tendency to play along with the stereotypes because its easier than imagining or reinterpreting an alternative; everything else that could go against what we already know is quite often disregarded. So, all the messy stuff in between becomes marginalised and problematic.