A history of race in dance and photography: the Unity Project

Time for the last image of our Unity project. As I explained in this blog last week friday, I recently collaborated with my friend and colleague Sara Westmaas and two amazing dancers. Together we created a series of 8 images in my studio. We have decided to call this project ‘the Unity Project’.

Sara and I have worked together before. Every now and then we get together to do something fun and creative. This time she had arranged for 2 dancers to come to my studio. Both of us were very busy, so we did not have a concept in mind yet. That’s not always a recipe for success… so when they came and introduced themselves, they asked: ‘so: what are we going to do?’ Sara and I looked at each other and wondered ourselves: yes: what ARE we going to do.

And then I noticed something. We had a white and a black dancer. We had a white and a black photographer. And my studio has a large white wall — and a large black wall. And that is when this concept was born.

In the images of this project we want to tell you the story of race. The story of white and black people. Today, we are showing you the first image. The next image will appear in this blog in two days.

Image #1: oppression

OK, let’s take it from the top. Here are the images in succession, each with a brief description. Click on the images to see them larger.

We regret to say it, but the history of race in our world starts with oppression: white people oppressing people of color. Rising above, and using all the force they have, with all the pride and arrogance of religion and technological advantage, and beating into submission people of color. We asked Joe and Daniel to act this out in one dance move. See Giovanni bring down the hammer of white supremacy and Daniel beaten senseless.

Today  (May 5th) is Liberation Day in Holland. We celebrate the end of the war, the demise of fascism, and liberty from German oppression. But the reality is that even now in our world (and even in this country), white people enjoy lots of freedom, while many people with dark skin suffer from oppression: economic oppression, political oppression, sexual oppression.

Image #2: Rising up

White arrogance may have ruled the day for a season, but eventually people of color come to understand there is no valid reason for this. Whether in the townships of Johannesburg, on the bridges of Alabama, or in the streets of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, people of color are rising up, as Daniel is portraying here. Unfortunately, again and again white people have no desire to let go of their privileged position and power, and so they respond to this growing self-awareness with rejection and aggression — as Giovanni illustrates in his move.

I love how how Daniel ’emerges’ here. At some point people of color will need to protest, and this will come out in the next image. But here he is simply saying ‘look at me – accept me’.

Image #3: Protest

By now you are seeing the ‘rhythm’ of these photo’s: the black and white backgrounds keep changing sides — as do the dancers. In this picture Daniel, our black dancer, is rising up in protest. Our white dancer, Giovanni, hasn’t given his plea for consideration the time of day. The oppression continues. There is no choice, but to protest. Not to protest would be an act of self-hatred. Without protest there will be no equality. And so Daniel rises up, lounges forward, and raises his fist (a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement). He lounges forward. For the first time we see Giovanni in retreat. The rejection is still there (the left hand), and Giovanni’s right hand is lifted high, ready to strike Daniel — but he is in retreat.

It appears to us black and white are in a perpetual dance. In these images we are acting out this story — which can be observed over and over again. I love how the two bodies are positioned in a symmetrical fashion.

Image 4: Consideration

This image and the next may be the most controversial of this series. I have called this image ‘consideration’. It is a call to my fellow white people to simply consider what our colored fellow-men are saying to us. To hear their story, to sit still and just to listen.

What I observe so often is that as soon as colored people state their claim, white people are on the defensive. There is immediate rejection. ‘No, it’s not true’, and ‘you overstate’ and ‘well, that was a long time ago’. We can’t seem to stop, sit and listen.

Which is why in this picture Giovanni has adopted the pose of the thinker (ref. Rodin). And Daniel is explaining and showing himself. We made sure Daniel’s pose was not one of humility or weakness. There is strength in his pose. But it also isn’t the protest of the last image.

Image 5: Recognition

This image is about the recognition that needs to happen on the part of white people that evil was perpetrated on people of color — and continues to be perpetrated. In this image Giovanni’s stance acts out remorse — heart-wrenching remorse.

It seems to me this is the part we most miss. We can barely bring ourselves to say sorry. We fear that as soon as we say our behavior was (is) wrong a debt is created. And so we just want to move on. ‘We need to be future-focused, not dwell on the past’.

I do not think it works that way. I have come to believe we cannot move on unless we deal with the past. Unless we learn to condemn our own behaviour, and recognise there is a debt.

I said these images might be controversial… I can only hope that when we recognise the evil of our behaviour, we meet a generous and open stance as the one Daniel is adopting here.

Image# 6: Unity

Sara and I, along with Daniel and Giovanni, believe that we can live together. That a society in which people of different races live together — dance together, even fly together, is possible. But we cannot ignore our history. We have to work through it.

Today, as I write this, it is 130 years ago that Brazil abolished slavery. Sara is from Brazil, and this date is dear to her. Slavery was introduced to Brazil by the Dutch. You will not miss the significance of a Dutch and a Brazilian photographer working together on such a project together.

We hope this series of images speaks to you. That it gives you joy and inspires you. Most of all, we hope it helps us look at each other, embrace our story, work through it, and then dance together.

About the images

We want to thank our two dancers for participating with us. This project was a true team effort. We discussed all the poses together, seeking how to best tell the story we wanted to tell. The images of Giovanni Adriano Princic, our white dancer from Italy, were all shot by Sara. I shot the images of Daniel Robert Silva, our dancer from Brazil. Both dance with the Dutch National Ballet (Het Nationale Ballet). The post-processing was done by Rogier. We selected the images together, so this really was a team-effort.

Our dancers:

The Photographers:

Check out Sara’s photography here. Sara has blogged about this project here.

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