Photo representations of the realities I live off and onstage is apparently striking chords for some, so I wanted to post my recent chest-feeding & semi-nude performance shots side-by-side for perpetuity here, and explain why:
Exposing my breasts onstage during “Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine” is not arbitrary. An aspect of Joséphine Baker that remains powerful for me was her exploration of liberation in every respect; and exposing her naked body was one tool she used to do so. Of course, because of the culture she traversed—much centered in patriarchy and misogyny— exploitation and objectification were unavoidable. We may never know how much agency Baker had over what she did onstage early in her career, but I do know that she was a human being/artist who made intentional choices throughout her life.
Sharing “Perle Noire” enables me to embody all of these themes and more. (Parenthood included!)
In 2016, when I performed the piece at the Ojai Festival, it was without a bra.
In 2019 when I performed this work at The Met Museum as a part of my residency with MetLiveArts I chose to expose exactly what I wanted when I wanted during the deconstructed Charleston — an improvisatory dance performed in silence.
(Shoutout to Zack Winokur for bringing the brilliance of designer Carlos Soto into my midsts. When I commissioned Carlos for this project, he heard my desires, and with a genuinely collaborative spirit, conceptualized the costume.)
This year, I felt so comfortable (in no spall part to the team at the Dutch National Opera)
that I decided to not cover up after the dance and sing the final 30 minute musical number that expansively addresses the exploitation of B/black people over centuries. (“Perle Noire” now closes with a sung statement of revolution that was originated by enslaved people, and it gives us a chance to voice the “fight for liberty.”)
Last week while we performed “Perle Noire: Meditations for Joséphine” in Amsterdam at the Opera Forward Festival — the first and hopefully not last time this work will be on an operatic stage — I stood with my colleagues to thank members of the audience for attending, and also chose to step forward and bow without a cover-up, because these moments together are opportunities for us all to receive each other in our current states.
But I wouldn’t feel at ease to do any of this if it weren’t for reflecting and processing the history of experiences that came before me, and the need to honor the real life experience I very much enjoy right now.
In summation, these photos may be provocative, but they are not nip slips. After giving birth just over 4 months ago, I am glad to be able to chest-feed this glorious person, to have this child with me everywhere I go, and celebrate it.
If an individual makes the choice to be exposed, it doesn’t have to be fetishized; it can very simply be respected.