© Ligia Lewis

It is an unusual occasion to present, for public consumption, a conversation with your sister about A plot / A scandal that happens to be a solo. Or rather, a non-solo, as she describes it. Which, you think, is evident in how the poetics of her work emerge on stage and in the way she talks about that, which and those, who inform the work – the people, ideas, art, events, the spirit(s) that are always there beside her in the work. In a way, you’ve been in dialogue personally, artistically, and intellectually your entire life. That is, you are sisters that throughout several phases of your lives have been privy to the inquiries that drive each other’s work. In what unfolds below, in the context of these pages, is an elucidation of some of those inquiries touched upon in her creation, A plot / A scandal, her latest solo/non-solo.

Sarah Lewis-Cappellari: When thinking about your artistic practice, especially in your most recent work, I have discussed with you before this sort of dark and thrilling metaphor that jumps into my mind: of you as the grim reaper who, by artistically deadening anti-black logics (i.e. sense-abilities of racial mattering, where those marked as black become the visual markers by which a hierarchy of being/mattering is grounded, naturalised and (re)produced), makes way for alternative harvests. Now, with this new creation, is your plot/scandal, as a self-portrait, another attempt to overthrow/kill such logics? Is the motivation behind the plot a way of tackling reductive notions of identity that sustain a subjugating mark of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.?

Ligia Lewis: How to use identity, then, outside the Western conception of self? Western conceptions of identity overthink the self. Because there is a matrix of power that figures blackness, otherness, nativeness, non-whiteness through reduction or lack. Still Not Still plays with power quite explicitly, in a grotesque manner, as a fundamentally hu-Man (European, racialised white, heteronormative, cis-male, all-knowing, universal) trait that exhausts itself. By exposing how it operates so deliberately, nonsensically, without rhyme or reason, I am trying to find a way out of its claws. With this work I’m trying to plot myself, with all my nuanced, desiring, fictive and imaginative capacities, while resisting a self-portrait that explains or reduces the complexity and multiple historical narratives merging to form identities. These identities have to be named in order for certain political work to be done. I understand identity, then, as a political positioning that helps guide a series of practices. This guides my orientation within performance and the seeing place of the theatre. I map a practice shaped by my inspirations, my love of theatre and the imagination it invites, and what I feel I’m up against every time I enter the theatrical frame.

SLC: Something that struck me, when you were talking about images and stories the other day, is when you talked about creating resonant images, in the context of the multiple histories/stories that bring about how one experiences the world. By using this musical metaphor to talk about visuality, you’re already sensorially orienting us towards something else. It’s not a visually reductive practice you’re bringing us towards: you bring us towards that which resonates, that echoes, that can’t be reduced, can’t be captured, right? So, I think this idea of resonant images, and how you frame that with this idea of identity as a political positioning, is really interesting.

LL: I love this idea of a sounding image, an image that evokes the multiple registers in which it could be perceived. I work with multiple logics of the sensorium, producing a kind of chaos from which dissonance can emerge, while allowing silent moments to speak.

SLC: There are many ways you approach the deep/dark matters of mattering in your work. For example, you use quite a bit of humour, or »fuckery«, haha, as you like to call it. Perhaps as a strategy of calling out the absurdity of daily practices of domination/subjugation, the absurdity of that political architecture? What do you find generative, or productive, about humour? What does it open for you? Where does it permit you to go?

LL: Comedy is the flipside of tragedy. Working at its best, comedy is suggestive of the limits of representability by way of a kind of flattening of things. What may seem otherwise profound or untenable through humour becomes blunt and straightforward. What happens when this bluntness, this straightforwardness, is uttered as the thing no one wants to say but needs to be said? What happens if through humour we can see how violence is not far away from us but is in fact rehearsed in mundane and everyday ways, often through minor acts? So, I guess this is why the use of humour is so important to me, because it cannot entirely do the work of translation. Humour instead points to the impossibility of a translation, while nestling closely to its counterpart and companion, tragedy.

SLC: As we have been reading together and discussing different textual/artistic references, one I thought we could riff on a bit is Saidiya Hartman’s »The Plot of Her Undoing«.(1) You play with notions of the plot in multiple registers. The plot, in Hartman’s text, is the materialisation of a terrifying fiction that overthrows multiple ways of being/feeling/knowing for one designed by those who would like to establish themselves as the rightful rulers of all forms of being/feeling/knowing. A fiction that on a material and symbolic register is designed to inflict total violence to extract total value. Some of the examples Hartman gives us are the manifold ways in which the plot begins with the belief of flesh as property. It begins with the belief that »she« is the missing link between animals and humans; it begins with all of the ways the black(ened) and gendered »she« must signify the lowest, least sentient form of being human. After meditating on an endless litany of the horrific ways in which the plot of her undoing has been realised, she discusses what the undoing of that plot, of that realised, brutalising fiction might entail. Two aspects or strategies of the undoing she mentions are that the undoing of the plot proceeds by stealth, and that it is not for entertainment. And then I thought about your plot, which is very public. It is a plot designed for public viewing, which perhaps gets to the scandal of it? And so, I was wondering, what about that publicness is important to your plot, or how are you thinking about that act of display?


LL: Right. I sympathise with Hartman’s articulation of how an undoing of the plot of a raced »Her« might require an exorcism of sorts that could only happen discreetly because racial violence has been so violent in its spectacularisation, in its publicness, in the ease in which it is displayed. So, everything about race on this level, on the level of seeing and being seen, has a tinge of violence to it within a racial matrix, which is the one we presently live in. And this does require a type of seeing, or rather a witnessing of how it operates. Hartman’s plot makes me think of Gil Scott-Heron’s beautiful song/meditation The Revolution Will Not Be Televised because it can’t be. I work critically from the body. I dance around things. In this piece I want to dance around that spirit, that desire, by touching the contours of it, and dreaming it into being. What plots have to be undone in order for other more capacious plots to form? Taking this metaphor of a plot, understood for me as a story that needs to be told, I will be undoing and redoing a plot to create a fiction, a story that holds me, including where I am going conceptually. This piece departs from the western portion of the island of Hispaniola, otherwise known as Ayiti, where we’re from. This place is a site of and for all sorts of undoing. As I am touched by this place, I am a product of its commitment to Western humanism. As the modern-day Dominican Republic continues its investment in whiteness, the richest stories of our ancestors, black and indigenous people, have been and continue to be ghosted, rendered irrelevant, unreal, or mythical, because these stories bare the potential of undoing Europe’s plot of creating the world in its image.
I guess what I am working towards in general is creating fictions that are fearless and that aren’t afraid of transgression, as naive as that sounds. This work doesn’t take transgression as something that needs to be enacted, performed, or even promised. Instead, it suggests that transgression is already here, has already been plotted, and continues to be plotted, despite all odds.

SLC: And that transgression can be considered scandalous. To transgress publicly – the unveiling of the plot – is what creates the conditions of possibility for a scandal. That’s also what I think I was sort of gesturing at by bringing up the publicness of your plot, because plots are always informed by desires/fantasies that might appear to be shrouded in secrecy, though some of those desires and fantasies literally inform the ways in which we move through the world. What role does desire/fantasy play in this creation?

LL: The fantasy of creating a work where my body can find rest, away from the exhaustive labour of explaining or translating. There is a history of abjection and violence that is inevitably carried in my body. Might my counter frame, a black frame, suggest that the scandal is here? Acknowledging this allows me to experiment in ways that might transgress the cruel measurements mapped by an ethnic Western European gaze which considers itself universal. Pleasure might come from this potential of tracing another mark outside this gaze, which can’t be defined categorically, transparently, lucidly. This creation flirts with scandal, not for its salacious appeal, but for its potential to push up against society’s limits. And I’m experimenting here, playing with performative codes and mannerisms that comedically reveal some of »civil« society’s indecencies. But my plot doesn’t end where civil society sees itself. It ends elsewhere, with a call for something else, an invocation towards another kind of plot, in a space I don’t want to name. I trust it will be felt.

SARAH M. LEWIS-CAPPELLARI, is an Afro-Dominican-American cultural producer and currently a PhD candidate in Theater and Performance Studies and a Eugene V. Cota-Robles fellow at UCLA. Her current doctoral research explores the material and symbolic resonance of sugar, refined from cane, to interrogate how this »tastemaker« has fed the racial imagination. For our catalogue she spoke to her sister, the choreogapher and performer LIGIA LEWIS, who is going to present a work at the Ruhrtriennale for the first time, the solo A PLOT / A SCANDAL.

(1) 1 Saidiya Hartman, »The Plot of Her Undoing«, Feminist Art Coalition, 3 November 2019, https://feministartcoalition.org/essays-list/saidiya-hartman.