‘Initials B.B.’: Bishop Black, ‘Becoming My Body’ at Ballhaus Naunynstraße

Photo: Zé de Paiva / Ballhaus Naunynstraße, 2019.
I wrote a short text for LOLA to promote Bishop Black’s debut solo piece, Becoming My Body at Ballhaus Naunynstraße, 30–31 May, as part of its ‘Postcolonial Poly Perspectives’ Festival.
‘Bishop Black seeks decolonisation’ announces the press release for Becoming My Body, Black’s first solo performance at Ballhaus Naunynstraße as part of its Postcolonial Poly Perspectives festival. Hailing from the UK, Bishop has lived in Berlin for several years where he is much admired in its queer porn scene. Black has worked with some of the industry’s most provocative figures including Venice Biennale artist Shu Lea Cheang, directors Bruce LaBruce, Erika Lust and filmmaker and DJ, Sky Deep. His contributions to queer and alt-porn were acknowledged when he was selected for the 2017 PorYes Feminist Porn Award. Themes of sexual fluidity and race arise in Bishop’s oeuvre and Becoming My Body is poised to address these issues as an amalgamation of video, sound, dance and drag. Challenging oppressive forces determined by white Christian hegemony in Europe that are being reinforced by the New Right, Black proposes to radiate and accelerate towards an open unknown.
I attended the premier last night and after B.B.’s performance I wound up in the garden chatting with Daphne, Sheeka, Wagner and Fabian. What follows are some reflections.

Black bodies are inescapably inscribed by history, art and media representations; the trauma and abjection of slavery, idealised as athletic forms with the hyper-masculine body simultaneously perceived as a threat of potential violence. As Daphne pointed out, being conditioned as such significantly shapes and restricts the way Black men dress, act or otherwise present themselves.

For his first solo performance at Ballhaus Neunynstraße, Becoming My Body, Bishop Black compels his audience to look intently at his body. Evoking images with his use of costume, props and video, B.B. makes us aware of the references by which Black bodies are read and how we project onto or identify with these images and thus the experiences we bring to an artwork. The audience entered the theatre where B.B stood waiting. He paced around, bare-chested, humming and singing. On top of his shaved scalp was a candelabra headpiece with a clutch of lit black candles, wax dripping on to his shoulders. His waist was wrapped in a long silver cloth that trailed behind him and his feet were clod in red glitter pumps. I saw the Statue of Liberty, whereas Daphne saw a Satyr. Over the course of the piece I also saw a ceremonial leader, a man servant, a trickster, a virile stud and Black bottom amongst others. As such, Becoming My Body makes us aware of the tropes by which racialised and sexualised subjectivities are formed and also of our own racisms.

Being aware of this effect of Black performance, I focused less on the images B.B. evoked and rather on how his presence registered on my body. While B.B. moved through these forms and across the stage, I made note of how I would tense and relax. I was impressed by how he could switch and shift between different modes—camp, reverent, militant, vogue. In one sequence adopting the poise of a butler, B.B. offers a platter of fried dumplings to the audience, quickly retracting when someone reached for them. ‘You can’t have it, but I can!’, he quipped before greedily biting into one. ‘Mmmmm… it’s good’

After the performance B.B. thanked the House for enabling him to be vulnerable on stage. He said he had no secrets. I thought how being able to open up on stage—which to me sounds terrifying— must have been for him empowering, perhaps even liberating. I recently read an interview with B.B. by ‘ethical adult filmmaker’ Erika Lust in which he admits to being ‘a massive exhibitionist’. What stood out for me was B.B.’s control of his body; his ability to manipulate his representation and by extension his command of the room. Surely, that must feel good?

Familiar faces in the team that produced Becoming My Body include film director Jasco Viefhues and BDSM artist Carita Abell, and are reminders of B.B.’s presence in Berlin’s queer and sex-positive scenes. I recall having first met him at the 2017 Porn Film Festival Berlin where he was a featured artist and also co-organised a workshop for Black and People of Colour (BPOC), ‘Reclaiming my image’. Even in Berlin, with its liberal attitudes, the presence of Black male bodies in public can be confrontational. Yet, Black men are readily fetishised and consumed as objects of desire when presented on stage, on screen or otherwise framed within representational formats. Becoming My Body, and much Black performance I have experienced recently, works to manipulate these learned perceptions and the socially reinforced conditions that determine what a (male) Black body should be — and thus for some of us BPOC, challenges us about how we too could be. When B.B. held aloft a two-sided mirror with one of its faces cracked, I first thought of it as an overworked trope. Nevertheless, as an object that mediated between the performer and audience, it registered on my psyche along axes of (dis)identification, projection, self-love and hate.‘We looked long and hard in the mirror and were confronted’, said Abell after the performance.

As a respected performer in queer and porn scenes, B.B. might also appear intimidating as a figure of sexual freedom, desire and defiance, especially for those already stifled by social constraints and norms. In the garden after the performance Wagner noted the majority white audience who attended B.B.’s premier and mused if the wider Black community was ready for him. For me, Becoming My Body emphasises the need for BPOCs in Berlin to seek each other out, form friendships and support each others practices. It is crucial to advocate for the infrastructures, such as Ballhhaus Naunynstraße, that concern us and engage in the conversations about us, especially under conditions where white privilege, and indeed white supremacy, prevail.

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