Rashaad Newsome, a New York-based multidisciplinary artist, says if Andy Warhol were alive today, they probably would have collaborated, given both artists’ work with queer people of color.
“Since the beginning of my career I have always worked with queer people of color,” Newsome says. “It’s sort of an organic relationship for me to do something within these walls.”
Newsome’s long-running work, “Shade Compositions,” presented by the Andy Warhol Museum, makes its Pittsburgh premiere Dec. 12 at the Carnegie Music Hall, combining live voice, video and audio to explore social power structures and agency. Newsome has also brought the work to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Kitchen in New York City and the Glassbox Gallery in Paris, France.
“Shade Compositions” has four main elements: the ensemble of locally cast self-identifying black female and femme performers; video; audio; and hacked video game controllers.
Over the course of the performance, the ensemble introduces staple gestures of the “Black Vernacular” — a variety of English natively spoken by most working and middle-class African Americans, particularly in urban communities. Newsome records these gestures — which include teeth sucking, finger snap, sighs, lip rolls and local gestures wherever “Shade Compositions” is performed.
Newsome then becomes the conductor, creating a multisensory improvised vocal orchestra. A reprogrammed Nintendo Wii controller becomes his baton: an upward motion fades a gesture in, a downward motion fades it out and the press of a button cues a video. The lip rolls turn into 808 drums, and teeth sucking becomes the chick of a hi-hat.
The experience also has a scientific element to it. Newsome uses Maximus P, a visual programming language for music and media, to create the software that makes “Shade Compositions” happen.
Newsome says that, when asked to perform the work again, he thinks about what he can introduce to enhance the experience, like adding another Nintendo Wii system or screen. According to Newsome, this — along with the people and the technology — keep the work fresh despite performing it for almost a decade.
“Everytime I do ‘Shade Compositions,’ it’s like doing it for the first time because I’m working with a whole new cast [and] I usually update the programming. There’s sort of like the pressure or uncertainty of how the program that you built is going to work in real time, and then there’s also this sort of pressure of working with a whole new group of people,” he says. “It’s like an experiment.”
“Shade Compositions” is performed in conjunction with Devan Shimoyama’s “Cry, Baby,” which opened at the Warhol Museum in October. Jessica Beck, the Milton Fine curator of art, who curated the exhibition and organized its programming, says that the decision to include “Shade Compositions” came out of an early conversation with Shimoyama, who presented work across from Newsome in 2016. According to Beck, Shimoyama thought Newsome would be a good addition to the program.
“I wrote to Rashaad and did some research about his performance work and we agreed that ‘Shade Compositions’ would be a really great complementary program to the ‘Cry, Baby’ exhibition,” Beck says, adding that both works speak to themes of joy, beauty, agency and love and celebration of black culture.
“Shade Compositions” is free and will be performed in Carnegie Music Hall, which seats about 2,000 people, making it accessible for those in the community to engage with it. But, with Newsome’s local casting, the community is involved on a new level.
“My hope with the programming has always been that it would bring the exhibition to life outside of the walls of the gallery and within the Pittsburgh community,” she says. “And that seems to have been what’s already been happening.”