Each week throughout Ligia Lewis’s solo exhibition dancers gather at CARA to rehearse. study now steady excavates family history and national memory and is haunted and blessed by the specter of the artist’s great-grandmother Lolón Zapata, who, in the mid-twentieth century, resisted the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic by making space on her land for the practice of an outlawed form of folk music and dance known as palo.
Lewis’s lean exhibition, consisting of three pieces—the newly commissioned video ‘A Plot A Scandal’ (2023), another entitled ‘deader than dead’ (2020), and the titular ‘study now steady’ (2023) rehearsals—opened in late September 2023. By the time I visit, in November, the space has seen so many rehearsals there are skid marks on the walls forming a palimpsest of bodily traces though the room is, for the most part, crisp and minimal. Expansive pink walls abut blue, cushioned floors illuminated by four large windows. The audience sits on bleachers along the walls, like students in a school gym—somewhere familiar, comfortable, yet interstitial and overlooked: during my visit, Miguel Angel Guzmán wears plum-colored shorts and a gray tank, Trinity Dawn Bobo sports a fluorescent green tank with black sweatpants, and Niall Noel Jones has on a ripped tank paired with blue trackpants. The elbow pads that Guzmán and Bobo wear hint at the therapeutic measures required for extended performance sessions and foreshadow the physicality of the show.
At first, limbs are askew, intermittently rearranging as if arms and legs have fallen sleep. The audience is invited to study expressions and articulations. Movements evolve, building on a motif of controlled falling. They begin to hum, harmonising with the British vocal quartet Hilliard Ensemble’s rendition of Pérotin playing from speakers around the room. Triangulating their positions without coordinating individual gestures, Guzmán, Bobo, and Jones seem aware and yet indifferent to each other’s presence. The relationships among the performers call to mind the psychological term ‘parallel play’—when individuals, often children, play side by side without directly interacting.
The parallel arrangement feels comfortable even when the dancers make eye contact with the audience, their faces conveying exaggerated expressions of fear, inquisitiveness, and pain. But as the performance progresses, tension between spectator and performer escalates. Discomfort creeps in as the dancers intensify gestures, swing their arms with greater force against the walls, rub their skin against the windowpanes, contort into increasingly complex positions.
‘I’m stuck,’ they say in rounds. ‘Help me get unstuck.’ The music goes quiet as the performers narrate action in real-time: ‘Dropping—sliding—ouch,’ says Jones, collapsing beside me. The dancers’ pleas address no one in particular but feel nonetheless pointed and personal. ‘Someone get me out of here,’ they implore. Their mantras expose the sightlines in the room: ‘I’m tired of being seen,’ they confess. The spectator’s gaze—transactional, extractive, and reductive—metonymises broader societal neglect, while the performance’s rules of engagement seem to preclude intervention. After Bobo and Jones go limp one last time, Guzmán stacks Bobo’s body on Jones’, drags them to the centre of the floor, and lies down. Miraculously, the supine dancers begin singing in rounds. As their voices merge in unison, they slowly rise and dance out of the pink and blue room.
‘Ghosts don’t die so easily’, Lewis declares in her video ‘A Plot A Scandal’ playing at the opposite end of the exhibition space. This piece invites viewers to draw parallels between freely associated scenes, juxtaposing shots of Lewis and performance artist Corey Scott-Gilbert parodying racist tropes on a backlit stage with props like wigs, furs, skulls and spears, frolicking in colonial costumes in Rimini, Italy, with more intimate moments of Lewis, alone, dancing barefoot in a ghostly white shirtdress. Between scenes, the camera spins around the bases of Italian cypresses and the base of a nearby clock tower. The cypresses and clock tower are visually linked in this way, both resembling needles puncturing the sky above, but Lewis does not elaborate on these connections. Instead, she uses wordplay to link the English philosopher John Locke’s labour theory of property, whereby men gain rights over the ‘plots’ of land they farm and cultivate, to the free Black carpenter José Aponte, who ‘plotted’ the 1812 Aponte rebellion in Cuba. ‘You must be wondering how all these seemingly disparate parts fit together,’ the voiceover plays. ‘Well, they do, and they don’t.’
What’s most directly conveyed through Lewis’s references is history’s inability to tell a straightforward story, a narrative with a ‘plot’. We learn that in 1898, Lewis’s great-grandmother hosted palo dancing on her land in the small village of Dios Dirá, but the video does not convey many facts about Zapata’s relationship with the Afro-Dominican spiritual practice she preserved on her land. We do not know or are not privy to her origins or her fate—whether, for instance, she faced any repercussions from the government. ‘Some stories are hard to tell, particularly those of this region,’ the voiceover reminds us. Likewise, we do not glean from the video, whose score features sounds of woodwind instruments, strings, and harpsicord, the voices of a men’s choir, and ambient noise from a talking crowd, how the palo music performed on Lolón Zapata’s land sounded, or how many people gathered for the folk religious ceremonies. ‘Facts’, the performers in ‘study now steady’ sing at the end of the rehearsal, ‘are simply / perceptions and surfaces.’ In the place of facts here, we have Lewis’s lilting voice chanting Zapata’s name—’Lolón, Lolón, Lolón’—over low-angle shots of the cypresses.
Zapata’s spirit may have visited when Lewis chanted her name, and she may have been present in the exhibition space, but not to strike up a conversation. The specters of history are not our interlocutors, Lewis shows. Instead, they co-exist with performers, audience members and staff, enjoying, as it were, a parallel play with the living.
Jenny Wu is a US-based writer and independent curator. Her work can be found at jenny5.cargo.site
Ligia Lewis: the solo exhibition, study now steady, is curated by Manuela Moscoso, Executive Director and Chief Curator, the Center for Art, Research, and Alliances (CARA). 30 September, 2023–4 February, 2024