Interview by Alison Hugill; Monday, Jun. 22, 2015
Argentinian and Black-Brazilian artist, healer, and researcher Fannie Sosa has been traveling the world, both online and off, with her politically-informed and informative “twerkshops.” Sosa is well-versed in the history of twerking, and similar diasporic practices, as loci of resistance, remembrance, and pleasure. Through her artistic and academic work she has brought together theories of race and gender with indigenous healing practices and contemporary movement and dance. Berlin Art Link spoke to her from her home in Brazil.
Alison Hugill: Tell us about your twerkshops and instructional videos: what is the political dimension you bring to this popular dance move?
Fannie Sosa: The twerkshops are all about knowledge sharing. One of my big statements at the moment is stop privatizing knowledge! In Spanish knowledge is saber and power is poder – so it’s saber sin poder. If you look at the way we learn, all the educational steps we go through, we’re always sitting down in ranks, and we have a teacher who is facing us in a powerful bodily position. The idea with the twerkshops is to dismantle those ranks and reinstate circle learning. The idea of the circle comes back a lot for me. The circles of women, of bodies, of women of colour: these are the things that white supremacy wants to annihilate the most. They want to break those circles.
Think of the image of the circle of witches. Twerking comes from neolithic sexual dances, celebratory ritual dances done in circles. In the circle, the energy that we share is very organically redistributed. There’s no hierarchy of bodies. Eventually, patriarchy broke those circles and broke them open towards the male gaze. As they were turned into a line towards the male gaze, those dances lost their healing properties.
AH: This connection between open knowledge sharing and early witches’ circles reminds me of Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch, on capitalist enclosures and the politics of the commons.
FS: I am researching this a lot. When we were hunter-gatherers, we had a relationship to the land that was one of adaptation and there was no private property. In Saharasia, 15,000 year ago, as a species we suffered major neurological rewiring, where we felt punished by the gods – the goddess – and we thought we were doing something wrong. The concept of original sin. We were living in this fertile land, the region of Saharasia, and we started to work the land. That’s when agriculture was born. With agriculture came private property, and we took on a dominant relation to nature. That’s when all the Abrahamic religions were born, with the punishing father God in the sky.
In the twerkshops we talk about the history of God, of theology, about the origins of Abrahamic religions. We speak about the muscle of the soul, the psoas, a really deep tissue muscle, the first we develop. It’s the muscle that unites the legs to the spine and therefore to the brain. It’s the muscle that makes us stand up. It’s also very linked to orgasm.
I don’t pontificate in twerkshops, I’m not there to give a conference. I ask people why they are there, what question they want to explore. Then we start weaving all of these knowledges that revolve around philosophy, religion, spirituality.
AH: So it’s a cathartic experience for people who attend.
FS: Of course. Any holistic medicine will tell you that when you move the fat in your body you are moving your emotions: they are linked. As gendered human beings, we are told not to have fat on our bodies. If we have fat, we’re told to hide it or to tone it. To accept that you have fat in your body, that it’s visible and that you feel hot, goes deep into a lot of gendered ideas about what beauty is and what femininity is, what respectability is.
The politics I try to transmit with the twerkshops are ‘pum pum politics’: the pum pum is the ass but also the pelvic floor. We have hierarchized our bodies and we have lied to ourselves, making the center of gravity the second center, and making our brain – our ego body – the main center of our bodies. Online, we only exist through the mental and the ego self. The twerkshops reconnect us with the center of gravity, our first brain. We have neurons in our wombs and for a moment, we get to taste what it feels like to have our center there.
We’re decolonizing our bodies. The pleasure politics are also very important: being a pleasurable, fun body of colour is a political stance. We live in a system that wants these bodies dead, in pain, invisible. So pleasure is power, in a non-hierarchical way. This organic power is one of the most subversive and awesome political stances. It’s very much aimed towards the political transformation of public spaces: this is a tool to gather our sisters and brothers, to get talking and moving our asses.
AH: Maybe twerking is the key to unlocking the commons.
FS: It is. It’s a common that we remember, like a crazy embedded physical commons. If you look at kids, they have an incredibly mobile spine. It’s only around the age of 5, when they are told to go to school and to sit their ass down, that the spine starts to get rigid.
Twerking is definitely about remembering our capacity to thrive, which is very linked to our orgasm and to our spine’s mobility.
AH: In your video ‘Cosmic Ass’ you talk about twerking as both sexual and a way to resist sexual oppression. In the video you show how to literally flip it around, both the situation and your body, to reclaim your own space. How has twerking historically been a form of reclamation and how can it be now?
FS: All diasporic practices are built and developed to heal. That’s why they’re so appropriated, because they move people. If you think about blues, hip hop, soul, capoeira – any diasporic practice you can think of – they are born in adversity and they are there to heal people and to take them to another level of consciousness. Twerking is a diasporic practice that is there to reclaim spaces. It comes from the bounce culture in New Orleans. It started with mothers teaching it to their daughters. Everybody was coming out to say: we’re still having a good time. We will thrive.
It’s interesting to reconnect with the original configuration in which twerking was born. It was not at all a dance that was done for the male gaze. If you go back to the neolithical dances, they were done to count time. They were cyclical. They were fertility dances in the sense of conception but also contraception. Twerking is abortive and contraceptive. They were done as a way to keep us healthy. It was all about reclaiming and resisting. Sometimes it’s nice to get out of resisting as well, and back to just existing. But that will be another time: we’re still caught in resisting and remembering.
AH: Do appropriations of twerking by pop stars like Miley Cyrus do harm to this history of resistance and remembering?
FS: It’s a bit paradoxical: does the internet do harm to our sense of self and agency? Yes and no. It amplifies it and also shuts it down. I don’t have a problem with videos of white people twerking, except when they are sponsored by some big corporation. Who is the money going to? Who is benefitting from this appropriation?
My twerkshops are by donation. I try to do them for free in places that need it – the people who need it the most are the ones who can’t pay for it. If your healing practice or your art is only accessible to a few than I am not for it.
AH: What else is included in your healing practice?
FS: I’m interested in menstruation. I’m really just interested in transforming pain into pleasure. Under patriarchy, femininity and fem-bodies are inherently associated with pain and I think that needs to stop. I’m not a teacher, I’m just a student who likes to share notes.
I want to transform all the things that we are told are painful, into pleasure. Orgasmic and ecstatic births are possible – just look it up on YouTube. This pathology that womanhood is painful that we learn and grow into is misinformation. I used to have period cramps, and I still do sometimes, but I’m starting to really understand what’s going on. I’ve understood that bleeding can be an amazing, pleasurable experience.
Twerking can be like meditating, in that to meditate you have to forget that you are trying to get to a meditative state. You forget about the aim. Twerking is about getting rid of our inner male gaze, and turning it into a compassionate love gaze for yourself. You can really see that change in people’s bodies when they make that transition from the inner male gaze to the compassionate love gaze.
AH: You seem to have mastered that, it’s as though you don’t care what other people are thinking of you or your body.
FS: I’m trying not to care but of course I do still care. Fannie Sosa is this superhero version of me. I still think my ass looks fat or whatever. I’m not over that but I am trying to get free from it. I’m surrounded by really beautiful people, I have an amazing ‘match’ that actively tries to stop with that narrative. But it’s something that is inner, you have to feel it yourself.
AH: You’re doing a PhD on the topic of twerking at the moment: “Twerk and Torque: New strategies of subjectivity decolonization in the web 2.0 times”. As an academic researcher, how has your chosen topic been received in academia? Do you feel more connected to the online art world or gallery spaces? What are the possibilities for new forms of academic output, equally researched and informed, yet less rigidly circumscribed?
FS: This is a really good question and one I have been continually asking myself. I don’t really feel gallery spaces or online art. Those are very white spaces. I had a mini-breakdown a couple months ago because I was being contacted mainly by universities, galleries, and DIY queer festivals. I was talking to white people all the time. The questions were often the same, so I found myself repeating: “yes you can twerk if you’re white, but you need to know the history, etc.”. I got really tired of it. It was a lot of intellectual and emotional labour. It felt like forced labour in a way because it was all about me, as a brown girl, giving them validation. At some point I felt I needed to be nurtured as well. I needed to talk to people who understand, who get the emotional and soul messages behind these works.
I write really defensively, because of white supremacy. I feel like I have to justify myself, and I really don’t love doing that. I feel like my writing suffers from that. In academia, which is a very white supremacist space, it’s so hard to escape from writing defensively. I defend producing theory from a subjective point of view: I think the objective perspective is a total lie.
I sent my first serious draft to my university and I decided finally to get real. In French, you don’t say “I think” you say “We have concluded.” Who is this fucking we?
AH: The Royal We of course. French academia is one of the most hierarchical systems of education as far as I know.
FS: I decided I might even say You. “You have concluded…” I like writing in second person as well because then people are included. It’s both powerful and inclusive. What I am writing is not something I have entirely invented, I am endebted to the work of Gloria Anzaldua and Bell Hooks. And people know their work. They are my epistemological models. I think academia in the Anglo-Saxon world is a bit more open towards subjectivity than the French. I wonder why they need to make it boring in order to be serious? My work can be simple, and smart, and fun.
AH: The last question: What is feminism to you?
FS: Feminism to me is also a common. It is about us as entities: nature also has these rights. A lot of people have problems with it being called feminism and it’s true that feminism has been historically very white and very middle class, and I don’t represent that. Sometimes I call it womanism or chicanism. My idea of feminism is about connecting to fem-consciousness. That mother energy, which is not linked to heteronormative mother images but to the creative idea of producing life, is the thing that is most persecuted in this current system. Mother energy as creative energy.
AH: It seems clear to me that your idea of feminism is intersectional and not limited in this historically white academic framework.
FS: There has been criticism from some groups saying I’m not black, or I’m not from New Orleans, so why should I talk about twerking? But I am afro-descendant and I think it’s very oppressive for people to scrutinize my body and say I don’t look black enough. I don’t want to deny my lighter-skin privilege, but I am a woman of colour and an afro-descendant. I am in an embodied position that does not allow me to essentialize anything. I cannot essentialize a black woman. It doesn’t work for me to say “you’re white so you can’t twerk.” My thesis advisor here in Brazil wrote a book called “Here, Nobody is White.” Whiteness does exist in Brazil but it’s a vacuum of meaning, of history and of culture. All of us have roots, we have indigenous mothers. All of us have mothers who did twerk, and it’s our responsibility to go towards that. My idea of feminism comes from the belief and hope that we can all reunite in pleasure.
Alison Hugill has a Master’s in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London (2011). Her research focuses on marxist-feminist politics and aesthetic theories of community, communication and communism. Alison is an editor, writer and curator based in Berlin. alisonhugill.com