Photographs of Ni’Ja Whitson seem to capture a flash of hair, a bit of cheek, an outstretched arm: Ni’Ja’s a dancer and choreographer, so that makes sense, but the images also show an intense focus on the work—not on the camera. Ni’Ja explains, “I am furiously, fiercely committed to a creative practice that is unabashed and uncompromising, that is a contribution to liberation, that is an unapologetic offering of all of the Black Queer magic I can manifest.” (YAAAS.) In addition to touring A Meditation on Tongues, which premiered this year at American Realness, Ni’Ja is a second year artist-in-residence at BAX/Brooklyn Arts exchange and is working on a book and performance project called Time Trickle ‘Cross You (The Hunted).
What is your choreographing process like? What does a day look like? A week?
My creative process is all-encompassing, it takes place inside of and outside of the studio, it is a spiritual engagement that requires a great deal of my waking hours, and when I am most engaged, my dream space as well. I write, read, dream voraciously. I pour over music and media, search for the political and spiritual threads, principles, histories, mythologies through which the work is grounded. And because I work interdisciplinarily, my process shifts in response to the calling of the material. My focus is mining as deeply as I can so that I am made available to what a project wants to become. I ask questions relentlessly (in many forms) so that eventually I am left with something unrecognizable, inspired, raw.
How will your approach to dance/writing/choreographing change this year, if at all?
I couldn’t begin to fully articulate how my approach to making will change this year, as I strive to be challenged by my work and to be required to discover new methodologies with which to manifest my ideas and inspirations in the process of making. What I do know is that I am furiously, fiercely committed to a creative practice that is unabashed and uncompromising, that is a contribution to liberation, that is an unapologetic offering of all of the Black Queer magic I can manifest.
What aspect of your work do you find the most fulfilling?
My creative projects, although not autobiographical, do always call me to excavate, heal, transform, challenge some aspect of my life in order to step into the work. My ancestral, cultural, and spiritual cosmologies are key to the research process and how I learn what a work means/offer. The personal deepening in these spaces, is profoundly fulfilling. Because I collaborate with a range of artists, makers, communities in the process of creating a work and sharing its offerings in workshop form, dialogue, strategy/technology toward healing and freedom, I am also fulfilled by the intersections of communities with whom I get to share and learn.
What aspects are most challenging? How do you see these things changing or improving?
The presidential election has lit many fires that I hope do not quiet until all the embers of oppression are extinguished. Artists have a responsibility to ignite, incite, and dream in these times, to fiercely vision and create, to write, to dance, to drum, to construct our free next. I hope that practitioners do not falter in these dangerous times. I hope there continue to be resources to support this dreaming, yet I know, that artists and our work are not bound by institutions or a marketplace. I hope we are steadfast in the midst of threats to our humanities, democracies, tribes, funding sources, lands, planet.
What part of your work from this past year has been most satisfying?
I premiered A Meditation on Tongues this year, an evening-length piece performed by myself and The NWA Project collaborator/ace, Kirsten Flores-Davis, which culminated a 3-year creative process in making an interdisciplinary live adaptation of Marlon T. Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989). This past summer, through the generosity of an incredible friend/comrade and grant funds, I concluded research at Stanford University in Riggs’ archives. I also spent significant time with two artists, Blackberri and Alan Miller who were a part of the film and political movement from which the film was created. In our solo time together they shared with me stories of their lives, took me to the clubs of their youth, gifted the publications created to document their existence, saluted their shrines. We laughed and cried over tea, pancakes, and cookies. We gave thanks to each other for living, and art-ing. They grounded and encouraged the work forward. Their love and alliance has been invaluable.
Who would you nominate for this list?
niv Acosta, Tara Aisha Willis, Zavé Martohardjono, Mariana Valencia.
Are you working on a new book/dance/larger project you’d like to share?
In addition to touring A Meditation on Tongues I am working on a new book and performance project entitled Time Trickle ‘Cross You (The Hunted).
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.
Photo by Maggie Shannon