Aisha Cousins Creates a Performance Experience

Aisha Cousins jumping rope with braided hair for Diva Dutch.
Aisha Cousins is a Brooklyn-based performance artist whose work is unique in the sense that it creates community. As an artist who is "committed to reaching audiences that do not normally feel comfortable in museums or galleries." You're more likely to see her work on the streets of Brooklyn or Harlem or in a local business than in a gallery space. And the best part about Aisha's performance work is that anybody can join in. In fact, that's what enriches the experience. In the following interview, she talks about her most recent projects.

Please tell me about your Diva Dutch performance piece (braiding long extensions into womens' hair and inviting people to jump rope with it). What was your initial inspiration for the piece, and how has it evolved since it first started? Where have you performed Diva Dutch? Did people receive it differently based on what location you were in?
Diva Dutch started as a sort of rites-of-passage for my 30th birthday. I had been trying to make myself over -wearing high heels, makeup, etc.- so that I looked more "womanly" because I was tired of being mistaken for a teenager. I can't wear heels though, and I'm not big on makeup. It was torture. Finally I said "Look, I'm turning 30. All my older female friends say the great thing about the 30's is you stop worrying what other people think of you and start living for yourself. I should just embrace whatever it is that actually makes me a woman and be happy." For me, the best thing about being an adult is having the freedom and the resources to do all the things people wouldn't let you do as a kid, so I kind of ran with that and Diva Dutch was born.

Braiding hair for a Diva Dutch performance
Diva Dutch performance in Brooklyn
Since then, Diva Dutch has changed a good deal in purpose and meaning. When I first performed it on my stoop in BedStuy, I was in a neighborhood I grew up in, so it felt like that action of jumping rope, and also the hair braiding, resonated across space and time. As I jumped, I couldn't help but picture the other black women, who like me had once been little girls and jumped rope in front of their houses all along the block... and throughout the neighborhood. And I pictured all the little black girls before and after us. It seemed like something we had in common -the grandmoms, the aunties, the big sisters, the daughters, and the granddaughters. The same was true for the hairbraiding. We were very purposefully passing these acts of joyfulness and beauty on to each new generation.

Diva Dutch performance at Corridor Gallery in Brooklyn
I was intrigued by the idea that these aesthetic practices were connecting black women in my neighborhood across time and space. As a result, I started making versions of Diva Dutch where two black women were literally connected to each other by their jump ropes/braids. Then I tried to perform the piece in other black neighborhoods -in London and in Paris to see if it resonated the same way with black women there. The rope jumping culture is very different there, but one thing I found interesting was the hair braiding supply shops were exactly alike... It's interesting because using that fake synthetic hair in braids is a fairly new aesthetic. In the 1980's, it was uncommon to see a black woman with synthetic braids, but in Brooklyn the word "braids" is now synonymous with synthetic hair. So it was interesting to watch these black women: each in different parts of the globe, developing decidedly different beliefs about beauty, but all incorporating the idea that "synthetic braids are more beautiful than natural braids" into their new belief systems.
People's reactions vary. The sister who did the first braid gave me a hard time at first, for wanting it so long. But once it was braided, she got really into it and took a long time smoothing down all the stray hairs etc. Then she gave me her card and said "People are going to ask you where you got this done. When they do, you tell them to come to me." That's one of my favorite things about the piece. At some point, whether they love the piece or hate it, people's ideas about beauty automatically kick in. I like the way that doing it over and over creates this living documentary about what black women believe a "good" braid is.

What inspired the From Here I Saw What Happened and I Could Not Understand aka the Obama Skirt Project? What was it like to wear President Obama's face on your body for a year? What kind of reactions did you get from people throughout the year?

Obama's presidential victory left me pretty disoriented. I was one of those people who just knew Americans weren't mature enough to elect a candidate based on merit, without regard to his/her race. I saw Obama speak in Philadelphia just before the election. He was amazing, but the speech by the white union leader who introduced him drove home just how much growing up we have to when it comes to race relations in this country. The intro speech, in short, was: "You're getting laid off in droves with no hope in sight. Your adult sons and daughters are moving back home cause the old jobs are disappearing. And you can't afford to send your grandchildren to college, so they can qualify for the new jobs. And Bush hasn't delivered on his promises. We have waited and waited and it is time to admit that he isn't going to deliver. We have no other choice. I know we were all hung up on race, but that was... well, that was last month." I thought he was going to say "our parents generation" or "back in the 80's" or even "4 years ago." When he said "last month," his words and the crowd's response showed me just how deeply prejudice was ingrained in those peoples' hearts and I knew that even if they said they'd vote for Obama at the rally, when they got into those election booths they were voting for McCain.

And I was wrong. And that was cool, but completely disorienting. I felt like someone had demolished every landmark in my neighborhood, and then told me to find my way home. Like that moment at sea when the coast disappears and all you have is water on every side and no idea which way is home. I didn't know what to do. Every rule of human behavior that I had ever taken for granted seemed... precarious. The people around me had transformed suddenly despite their most basic instincts, perhaps despite their very nature. It felt like watching the sun rise twice in one day, or the rivers pick themselves up out of their beds and flow, in an orderly fashion, along the city streets. It was beautiful... but very, very uncomfortable as I hadn't the slightest clue as to what would happen next.

I can't remember how long I felt that way, but I remember the day I saw the Obama fabric in Harlem. The memory of these two women I had seen in Senegal, years ago, just kind of washed over me. It was so long ago, I had completely forgotten, but when I saw the fabric with that brown face smiling at me from inside a cameo portrait oval, the memory came back. I was 15 years old, visiting a black country for the first time when I saw those two women. I had wished, more than anything, that I could be like them and have a skirt with my black president on it, smiling at the world from a cameo portrait oval. Something about it seemed so secondary... There was no question, in their hearts or in their minds, about whether they would ever see a black person become president. Their only concern was WHICH black person would become president. The fact that a black person could attain the highest position in the country was secondary. Just a dusty old afterthought, way back there on the path of life, dragging miles behind them with other silly questions like "Does gravity really exist?" and "Is the earth really round?" A fleeting idea, barely worth a second thought. I saw them, leaving the thought behind. And I tried to leave it behind me too, but I couldn't shake it. Couldn't wrap my head around a world where black folks got treated equally. I was an American and a world governed by prejudice was all I had ever known. All I could do was watch them and wish.

When I saw that fabric I stopped feeling scared for a second. I felt like those women were waving at me. Saying "Hey you wished for it. And here it is." I felt like they were giving me a compass, to help me find my bearings so to speak. Didn't feel less unsure about the world around me. But I felt certain that I wasn't the first black woman to the world transform itself around her. And I felt like if I got the fabric and made a skirt out of it, and wore it for awhile, I could "fake it till I made it" Until I finally understood what I had wished to understand back when I was 15. After I got the first skirt made the project started to have other meanings. But that was the reason I started it. The wish I made when I was 15 and those two women from Senegal. In Dakar to be precise.
It wasn't at all like I thought it would be. And it's hard to condense a year into a few sentences. But the skirt(s) helped. They kept me grounded. Hopeful. Thankful. I've been documenting parts of the year by writing short performance art scores. The one I'm working on this summer is called the Soulville Census. There's another I was fortunate to have Alicia Moran Hall and Sharina Sharpe perform last February called the National Anthem. You can view it here:

What do you think Nina Simone would say about President Obama? Tell us about Happy Black President's Day Nina Simone! and how that came together? Have you gotten any response from the White House? I try not to imagine what Nina would say. I am firmly opposed to putting words in black women's mouths. People do that to us so often. One of my guiding principles is to create platforms where black women can speak for themselves -in ways that make people of all backgrounds want to listen.

If you check out the score on my website, you'll see the score is set up so that participants can't say what their aunties or grandmas would think of Obama. The score is set up so that we tell President Obama about their lives, their actions, their accomplishments, the things they've said to us in the past. But there's no room for filling in what they -or Nina Simone- would have said. It was meant to underscore the fact that they are not here and to emphasize that there are generations of people who spent their entire lives carving out enough space for Obama to be president. It was meant to make him remember them and to be conscious of his responsibility to them. He is their president just as much as he is ours (us being the living). I think he was very conscious of that going in. But he has so many distractions, so many petty, but real and imposing obstacles now, that I wanted to make something to remind him. It seemed like a good gift to give Nina for her birthday.

Handmade greeting card that was sent to the White House in honor of President's Day and Nina Simone's birthday
I'm a big fan of Nina Simone's birthday. I think it's a black woman's holiday if there ever was one. Maybe a black American woman's holiday. The way she lived her life embodies so many of the things we admire most about ourselves. People don't always appreciate some of those traits in us, but somehow, with Nina they could see them. Celebrating her is like celebrating each other, our mothers, big sisters, grandmothers and aunties. It demonstrates to our daughters the kind of women we want them to be. No word from the white house yet. But you never know. They may grace me with a form letter "Thank you for your heartfelt letter. Sincerely, President Obama" just yet. What inspired Brer Rabbit Day? Tell us about the event and the cards you made. Do folktales, fantasy and legend play a role in much of your work?
Brer Rabbit Day has been my favorite fictitious holiday for 2 or 3 years now. I think I got the idea from an Easter rabbit sculpture I saw at a Marshalls store. But I could have had it before that. It just seemed perfectly logical. What other reason would black people give to explain the origin of all of those rabbits? That idea of Soul City, the autonomous black city in Toure's book Soul City definitely guides the projects I've come up with since reading it. I was working on a series of Artifacts from Soulville.
Flier for a Brer Rabbit Day event

For more on Aisha and her work, visit her website