Monday, February 2, 2009

Aisha Cousins, Double Dutch Diva

Take a group of Black women, over 20 feet of hair extensions, and a double dutch game like no other, and you have the vision of prolific young artist Aisha Cousins. The Brooklyn-based artist calls her performance piece Diva Dutch, and it involves jumping rope, double dutch style--only instead of jumprope, the participant is jumping with two very long, thick braids made from synthetic hair, attached to the heads of two Black women. The result is visually stunning, and a testament to our collective girlhood memories as African Americans. Who doesn't remember sitting at the feet of their mother/grandmother/aunt/girlfriend and having their hair freshly oiled and braided? Or joining in a neighborhood game of double dutch (or if you were shy like me, standing on the side in complete awe just
wishing you could do that!) Diva Dutch is a sweet reminder about how much fun it is to be a Black girl, something we can lose sight of in a sea of sad statistics and news stories. Of her work, Cousins writes,
Diva Dutch is a piece about black aesthetics. And when I say black I mean female, cuz I'm black and I'm female and my black is just as black as everybody else's. It's about celebrating our aesthetics. Period. It's for us. But the hip thing is that a crash course in what black women think is beautiful about themselves is good for everybody else. It tells you more about us than the user-friendly edited version. And this is good because we live here and you live with us and it's time you get to know us. (Cuz guess what: We know a lot about you.)

The most important aspect of diva dutch, for me, really is looking at black women through black women's eyes. Simple. Logical. But rarely done. Mainly because our eyes are filtered through the eyes of others. As a subculture in the U.S. we have learned to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Constantly explaining. It's one of the differences, I'm betting, between African-Americans and our counterparts in Africa and the Caribbean. We have been taught to see ourselves through someone else's vision. And as black women we are taught to explain ourselves, because the feminine is never normal. Not neutral. One can't assume that everyone can relate. This constant explaining is not only stressful it's restricting. One of the internal restrictions laid on during slavery, that we haven't ever managed to fully shake.

I was able to view and participate in the piece first hand during Aisha's late summer performance outside the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn. The braiding took most of the day and by nightfall, those of us who had gathered at the museum headed over to nearby outdoor eatery Habana Cuba where a lot of folks were gathered to watch a screening of Prince's 80s masterpiece, Purple Rain. It felt like some kind of crazy Playa Holiday or something: Prince music wafting through the streets of Fort Greene on a summer night, and on the corner folks are jumping double dutch with...giant hair extensions? It was quite a sight, it was almost magical. Lots of people had the Diva Dutch experience that night and took turns jumping, myself included.

It's amazing when an artist has such a clarity of vision that anyone who happens upon her work becomes caught up in the rapture of it. Aisha Cousins is just such an artist. She not only creates work, she masterfully crafts unforgettable multisensory experiences that are extremely engaging. And part of her wisdom is knowing when to step back and simply let her art unfold. I was truly inspired by this piece, and I can't wait to see what's next from this talented artist.

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