CHEEKY LaSHAE–who variously resembles topiary with human legs and a glittery, personified monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey–is more than the theatrical alter ego of Brooklyn-based artist Kenya (Robinson). Anyone interested can transform into this character by donning face-obscuring costumes, made from elaborately decorated cardboard boxes, at a series of Brooklyn-based performance events called KARAOKE UNIVERSAL. Soon, (Robinson) hopes, KARAOKE UNIVERSAL will have a global audience, and CHEEKY will have a whole swath of acolytes.
(Robinson’s) emphasis on audience participation stems from her belief that everyone, even the spotlight-phobic, is a performer. “Whether you’re performing femininity, masculinity, shyness, or extroversion, all of our movements in a social space are performative in nature, whether you’re a performance artist or not,” (Robinson), a former fashion designer, says. Probably, those who perform shyness or introversion or limited patience for art school-y antics won’t be convinced to try on the costume, but maybe some will like to watch.
With this project, (Robinson) expands on the well-worn concept of the artist’s alter-ego. Unlike many famous artist alter egos (Grayson Perry’s Claire; Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton), CHEEKY LaSHAE’s identity is subject to the whims of audience members who assume it. “CHEEKY is a host. We all get an opportunity to become a parasite of CHEEKY,” (Robinson) says, careful not to use gender-specific pronouns. “Recently, I learned that CHEEKY speaks Spanish and French, dances en pointe, and sings an Evening Raga.” Artists like Claudia Bitran, Kuldeep Singh, and Jessica Gallucci have all performed in the CHEEKY costume. So far, KARAOKE UNIVERSAL themes have included CHEEKY LaSHAE: Sack of Stars; CHEEKY LaSHAE + the Cashmere Bouquet; CHEEKY LaSHAE + the Red Bath Mat, CHEEKY LaSHAE Presents KevinYoungMoney, and CHEEKY at Upper Field. Each event is inspired by the idea of karaoke night and usually looks like an open mic on acid.
The character was born while (Robinson) was pursuing an MFA at Yale and started obscuring her identity in her performance work. “When I would perform in a black female body, people would get caught up in that–having a black female body burdens a historical context that I want to reframe,” (Robinson) says. “First, I was hiding myself in these white paint suits I got from Home Depot. Then, white women started acting as proxies for me in these performances, and I was able to eavesdrop on conversations about the work because I wasn’t in the work. I liked where that was going.” After grad school, the CHEEKY LaSHAE concept evolved. Now, her costume designs are influenced by puppetry, drag queens, films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the model-making kits (Robinson) was obsessed with as a kid.
(Robinson) hopes for nothing less than for CHEEKY LaSHAE to go global, if not “universal,” whatever that may mean. “I want to make these kits that I could ship around the world with visual instruction–you could put together your own costume and host a karaoke night as CHEEKY LaSHAE,” she says. (Robinson) is also designing a 14-week online course in Karaoke Universal, in which participants would “contribute to the continuing narrative of Karaoke Universal” and “create an artistic manifestation of CHEEKY LaSHAE as a final project.” She’s experimenting with projection mapping onto CHEEKY LaSHAE’s costume during performances. Those who could use more games of dress-up, hiding in cardboard boxes, and karaoke in their lives can check out the next KARAOKE UNIVERSAL event by checking CHEEKY’s event updates on Instagram.
Kenya (Robinson’s) work is currently up in a group show, PUSSY DON’T FAIL ME NOW, at Cindy Rucker Gallery, until August 14th. CHEEKY LaSHAE will also be hosting its first annual Whine Tasting with sommelier Judia Elmore Black of Enjoie (dates TBA via Instagram).
[H/T The Creators Project]