>>The author’s Witness was a stripped down, self-composed and directed performance featuring new arrangements of her latest two albums
We have mounted an escalator in a circular, inclined and perforated white tube. In doing so, we had entered a parallel reality – one where everything we knew was suspended to accommodate another way of being. Engulfed in a sea of people wearing different shades of black, we were in the lobby 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 her multidisciplinary approach in presenting dialogue centered on darkness. Interactive digital files that explore black femininity, “Seventy States » (Tate Museum, 2017), to pieces combining sculpture and performance, Metatrony (Metatron’s Cube, 2018), her works challenge standards of beauty, the lack of representation of black art and bodies in historically white spaces.
Without major installation like his 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 being delivered. It invokes the spirit of Knowles’ Guggenheim performance piece, An ode to (2017), where his music was reimagined as a multi-sensory experience. Every element, including the lyrics, dictates the point: “inclusion is not enough”. To ensure that every attendee is on the same page to get the message, all distractions are removed, which means no professional cameras or flash photography. She only asks that we come dressed in black.
“It became our alternative church, a place of black spirituality” – Mia Harrison
Once the hall was completely filled, a short but high-pitched whistle pierced the chatter of the crowd, bringing a sweet silence to rest over every section of the concert hall. The brief silence gave way to applause at the first sight of the performers. Two black women in fuchsia satin dresses slipped onto the stage in a crescent shape. Their presence captured attention without requiring affirmation, setting the tone, not just for the band and the all-black dancers (also wearing fuchsia when they entered the stage), but for the evening as a whole. And then Solange came and started singing.
“You can work through me. You can say what you need in my mind.
Heads tilted back, the trumpeters sank into the moonrock textured ceiling, dropping sound onto the audience like black molasses – preparing us for what was to come. >>Witness was a new arrangement of tracks from Knowles’ most recent albums, 2016 A seat at the table and 2019 When I come back home. Each song has undergone a deconstruction where the social constraints of the time have been completely dissolved. Distorted pitches and altered tempos echoed the tones of Alice Coltrane or Albert Ayler of Afro-Futurist-Jazz, encouraging audiences to connect with them in a different way – instead of listening to the music, we felt it. From the sound reverberating in the seats to the dimming and brightening of the lights, we were inside the living cells of the music. We were witnessing something beyond just a concert or a visual album. We were witnessing a live transmission from the higher octaves of black consciousness – an energetic homecoming.
“Takin’ on the, takin’ on the light.”
No one was looking through the LCD screens. They were mesmerized by the movements: heads fell in staccato, their hair followed – a ritual where the resonance of music could be traced throughout their bodies. Several sharp, angular extensions of the arms and legs were encountered with smooth transitions into carefree swings. Even when she hit the ground and threw her legs in the air, there was a freedom and not a fight against the blank stare. And yes, she twerked, and we clapped louder than space had ever heard. It became our alternative church, a place of black spirituality.
All the performers looked radiant, the music was brilliant, and while me and other black folx rocked and sang mesmerized by the beauty of >>Witness, the remaining 80% of the audience, who happened to be white, were paralyzed in their seats. Which got me to thinking: why have this show here? Answer: black foxes have historically been excluded from “cultural” institutions. B: These institutions have prescribed ways of acting and existing in space that usually include passive viewing. And then something beautiful happened.
“All my niggas all over the world. I made this song to make it all your turn.
Every black person in the audience activated: we stood up, we sang, we recognized each other, we witnessed, we celebrated. And then we got up from our seats and freed ourselves from our sections and moved to an endless aisle where we hugged, praised, shouted and twerked. It was our moment to occupy the space. Together. Was this show a plan to build new seats at the table – a way to reclaim, redefine, or change a narrative via occupying on your own terms? A way to heal the history of these spaces, our tangled histories. 400 years after the first slave ship struck the Carolinas, 400 years, and we celebrate the lives that were taken but not from collective memory. “For us, this shit is for us.