Interview by Intissare Aamri // Oct. 30, 2020
Black masculinity is influenced by a long colonial history of slavery, racism and oppression and is, in addition, situated at the complex intersection of masculine privilege and historically devalued Blackness. But what is it like to be a queer Black man in an oblivious world? German cinematographer Jasco Viefhues has been exploring Black masculinity from a queer perspective over recent years and his theatre debut, ‘Complex of Tensions’ at Ballhaus Naunynstraße, is based on a collection of interviews with queer Black men living in Berlin. The two emerging protagonists—Aloysius Itoka and Ronni Maciel—hold the stage with their vivid memories and selection of vignettes, shattering stigmas and stereotypes in an passionate choreography, accompanied by a single cellist, Eurico Ferreira Mathias. We spoke to Viefhues about his turn from cinema to stage direction, and why it’s important to focus on queer Black masculinity today.
Intissare Aamri: In 2019, your documentary film ‘Rettet das Feuer’ about German photographer Jürgen Baldiga and his journey through the AIDS crisis in the 90s was premiered at the Filmfest München. Can you tell us about your transition from film director to theatre dramaturge with your first stage script ‘Complex of Tensions’?
Jasco Viefhues: In my experience as a filmmaker, including working with actors and using various methods of acting practices, I tend to use the same approaches. Especially when it comes to documentary filmmaking and documentary theatre-making. I am interested in networking and collaboration. I will meet my protagonists and listen to them, maybe ask questions that lead them into their memory space, to discover and/or preserve their personal way of remembrance. It is comparable to the oral history method. That said, there is only a difference in the end product but not in the way I am working.
IA: At a time when society is slowly embracing the critical discourse around history and religion’s impact on stereotypical male gender roles, why do you think there is still a lack of representation of Black male queerness in contemporary art?
JV: That is a complex question and, especially in the German context, colonial history comes into play in the construction of race and gender. Black masculine individuals in recent times are still facing the same issues, like racial exclusion, and at the same time phenomenons like branding and hyper-sexualization. This imagery and the ideas behind it are still rooted in biases that we bring forth. In my opinion, participation is more encouraged if Black bodies are supposed to take part in the capitalist system as consumers. Black bodies are still a commodity, which is still being traded and disenfranchised by white people. They still use the Black male body to brand their products: to make Black people consume themselves, if you will.
IA: ‘Complex of Tensions’ explores the question of how memories and queer history are preserved. Aloysius Itoka often recites: ‘I can remember, I can still remember’. How important is it for you to have this connection with the past?
JV: To have a connection with the past, history or one’s ancestors means to be in contact with oneself. At the same time, memories or remembering something is a process, which means they are changing in shape and color throughout time. You learn and change and they change as well, your perspective alters and that can open up new modes of remembrance. You put on a new pair of glasses and suddenly you can see. Especially in the Afro diasporic context, that is a process itself, the ability to remember the future is key. We have to create new forms of narration for stories and realities that are matching our experiences, such as deportation, racism and methods for overcoming this ongoing trauma. Trauma that is also a historical and generational one that was planted in Black bodies over centuries.
IA: Can you unpack this powerful line from the performance for us: “you either choose to live in a lie, or to live in the truth, but you don’t choose to be queer”?
JV: This line implies that being queer is not a choice. It is a natural given fact and it is real. Heteronormative society is still questioning and undermining queerness and gender fluidity. For me, personally, as a Black, queer, light-skinned German trans* man, it is only one part of my identity-puzzle that needs to be addressed in order to see the bigger picture of intertwinement of all those aspects, which makes it complicated to situate ourselves in this society.
IA: Ronni Maciel is a renowned dancer and choreographer. On the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse stage, he uses his body as a tool to narrate how skin becomes part of your costume, how memories shape the movement and how stigmas are physically carried, reaching a deep climax that slowly transforms into liberation. How did the choreography factor into your process for ‘Complex of Tensions’?
JV: At the beginning of this project I was dealing with the question of language: there is the spoken word, of course, but there is also body language. The body, the Black male body in particular, carries a history of violence and degradation over generations. You could say it is a body archive that I wanted to be visualized on stage. It is an archive that can bridge the past, present and future. The experiment was to access these layers and tell its stories from the bones, the skin, the flesh and sweat. Ronni Marciel’s performance deals with the white outside gaze, its projections, its impact on the Black body and then overcomes the traumatic experience by getting in touch or connecting with the knowledge and the power of an ancestral cosmos.
IA: Black masculinity is an extremely stigmatized social construct. Your piece is an awakening, a much-needed and urgent intervention in these times. How did the process of creating the performance influence you?
JV: The process of working on this kind of piece is maybe more important than the end product, for me. The collaboration of Black queer men at a theatre like Ballhaus Naunynstraße—which is focused on BPOC artists—is revolutionary in my opinion. The experience of being given space to work is a game-changer, unique in Germany, in fact. I learned that this was only the beginning of a long process for me as an artist. It felt like only a tiny little bit was said about Black masculinity and that there are many more things to be discussed in future projects. It is always a journey and it is always also part of my research and political empowerment. You need to know your own history in order to create visions for a future society, to heal and to open up a discourse about us queer BPOC people in the African diaspora in Germany. It also created a resonance space for other people and I hope one that will actually hold and carry the conversation beyond the performance piece.