A new and compelling wave of PoC artists have been coming through on the cabaret scene of late. They are challenging some and comforting others, and they’re making people sit up and take notice. One of those is Travis Alabanza – who has supported Mykki Blanco and is a resident artist at the Tate. This week, Jason Reid chats to them about being a black, transfemme performance artist in 2017.
For those who have never seen you perform, how would you describe your performance style?
I’d say I’m pretty theatrical. My work is rooted in poetry and lyrics, but I create live soundtracks, soundscapes, electronic voice editing and projection in a lot of my work. It’s hard to define, as currently my work is being shown in various spaces (queer clubs, cabaret scenes, galleries, poetry books) but I guess in short – it’s always a performance.
And a typical show?
Expect: physical and emotional mess. Tidying up. Mess again. Campness that then cuts you. Guilt for feeling the campness. A lot of emotions. A cute dress.
You use ‘confrontational art’ to convey your experiences of being black and trans. Can you elaborate on this and how effective it is?
I think naturally as a black and trans body on the stage, I will always be confronting something. In a white supremacist [art]world, I wonder if my art/body can never be seen as an intervention? I’m not about making art that allows for passive listening; if I’m in a white/cis space I want to create a piece that affects and confronts the audience, as much as their existence confronts mine. In terms of it being successful? It’s hard to tell. I know my work has created strong reactions and emotions in people, inspired them to donate to an organisation or check in on their trans friend, but obviously art is complicated and oppression is multifaceted.
What do you want your audience to question the most?
It really depends on who my audience is. I performed a few months back to a room full of black trans people and I didn’t want them to question anything – I just wanted them to see me, and each other, and to hold ourselves. It was a beautiful gig because a 16 year old snuck in to tell me that they found my work online and realised they were trans. I didn’t need them to question anything: just to be. I guess with a general audience I want them to question their specific role in the oppression of myself and others. I want them to hold themselves accountable for the interpersonal ways they could be showing up more for black, trans and femme lives.
How much of your art is derived from your own personal life experiences?
At the moment, in some way, all of it.
How do you feel when you’re expressing those feelings onstage? Is it cathartic?
I think it depends. It used to always be cathartic – it was my therapy! I think now that I’m performing and working a lot, sometimes six days a week, that catharsis isn’t always present. Also, not every space I perform in is safe for me. I’m often misgendered before I go on stage, or touched without my consent, so it’s hard to bear yourself in that environment and feel cathartic. I always do feel a release though, of some sort, whether it be rage, or sadness, or something.
In your opinion, are PoC artists well represented on the London scene?
In short: no. But I also want to note that there is a huge wave of queer PoC artists such as Karnage, Jacob V Joyce, FKA, The Pheonix, Rebekah Ubunutu and Sadie Sinner. They are all coming up together, making it often feel like even if the wider scene is not representing us – we are out here doing it ourselves. How to improve? Give us our own spaces. Fund us. Support our nights. When I hosted Bar Wotever at the RVT in January, I booked a whole month of PoC artists and the nights were busy and full of diversity.
Finally, away from all the craziness of life in 2017, what would a perfect world look like to you?
Lots of cats. All girls bands that previously split up would harmoniously get back together. Black lives would universally matter.
• Travis’ new solo show Burgerz debuts at The Hackney Showroom on 27th March. For more info and tickets, head to hackneyshowroom.com