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In Conversation with Jamal Gerald: the performance artist with a vision to create a provocative, sensory performance piece for Transform 21-22

Photo credit: The Other Richard.

Leeds-based performance artist Jamal Gerald makes ground-breaking art and is unapologetic about it. As part of Transform 21-22, Jamal developed JUMBIE – an interdisciplinary performance created by a Black queer ensemble.

Earlier this month, I visited Jamal at the Centre for Live Art Yorkshire. I’d met Jamal a few times before, usually at a friend’s place or in a club space, so I was eager to speak to him in a space that lends itself to his artistry. When I met up with him, he was just doing a run-through of his show from behind a curtain and all I could hear was pounding music which only got me more excited to talk to him about his show which was unfortunately cancelled due to illness and injury.  

“I make things that piss people off but usually it’s for the greater good,” Jamal laughs off when asked about his creative practice. “I started as a spoken word artist but then during my time at Leeds Beckett University, I studied performance which was more focused on live art and contemporary performance practice. So, it was quite a push away from traditional theatre.”   

Jamal’s relationship with Transform has also blossomed over the last few years from starting as a volunteer back in 2014 to now being one of their commissioned artists. “Amy Letman [Creative Director of Transform] used to work at the Playhouse when I was volunteering. We built a relationship through that. I started doing more things with Transform and did some performances here and there until I got commissioned by them to make my show Idol in 2019. That’s how I got involved – through Amy getting to know me as an artist.”  

Photo Credit: Idol, Jamal Gerald, Transform 19. JMA Photography.

As someone who is of colour and very in touch with my heritage, I’m interested in cultural practices that date before colonialism specifically when it comes to music and dance, and so, I was happy to listen to Jamal speak about the history and tradition behind the Jumbie dance of Montserrat – the inspiration for his piece JUMBIE. “The Jumbie dance was a trance ritual for divining and curing sickness. It was a way of redressing social injustice, solving personal problems, and for the living to connect with ancestral kin.  

“It died out due to the impact of colonialism and the church deeming it demonic, so I’m resurrecting it from a contemporary queer perspective. The dance died out in the 1980s. There’s only one book. There’s no footage of it online anywhere. I’ve had to interview elderly Montserratian people to learn about it which has been tough but it’s great interpreting what people say and how that can be created into performance.”  

Jamal’s idea for the piece stemmed from an accumulation of all he’s learnt of the Jumbie dance and his years of research around it which was sparked from the first time he visited Montserrat in 2019. “The Jumbie dance was a chaotic thing, but the chaos was normalised, and I wanted to focus on Black queer joy within the work. The work itself defies Western ways of performance and storytelling because the Jumbie dance wasn’t a Western thing.  

“I wanted to explore that which has been difficult because I’m used to telling stories, but I didn’t want to do that with this piece of work. It didn’t feel like that was the right approach. I felt like I wouldn’t be doing the Jumbie dance justice if I didn’t do it in the way I felt was right.”  

Performer William ‘Willy Kinny’ O’Garro has been involved in the Jumbie dance and gave Jamal some advice: “he told me to do it my way. You don’t just look at someone else and copy them, you let the music and spirit [the Jumbie] take over you, so I wanted to keep that in mind. It’s about freedom of movement, and going where the spirit takes you.”  

Photo credit: The Other Richard.

Key to Jamal’s vision for JUMBIE was a Black queer perspective of the Jumbie dance. He wanted to draw parallels between the dance and queerness with the example of how whipping is a form of healing or punishment within the tradition of the dance but is also deep-rooted in queer subcultures. Jamal mentioned that he wanted audience members to leave thinking ‘WTF’ just happened because that has been his reaction to the stories he’s heard about the dance and its ritualistic and healing effects on people.   

Whatever Jamal has planned for JUMBIE in the future, it aims to take up space in a very white-centred world within creative fields. Jamal explains how him being Black and queer is important as “there hasn’t been enough space for Black queer people in the North to do ambitious things.” 

It’s also important to Jamal to highlight Northern talent as he believes there are amazing artists outside of London and in Leeds. However, his work isn’t solely to decolonise. “It goes beyond that because I’m over trying to save the world. I want to try and make things that make me happy. I’m bored of educating people because I feel like I’ve done enough of that. Someone else can decolonise.  

“But I do feel like this work is me doing some form of decolonising because me being me and me making the work I make is a huge middle finger to white supremacy. This work is already a dig at the Westernised Christian church because it tried so hard to demonise the Jumbie dance and me resurrecting it is defiance.”  

Photo Credit: Idol, Jamal Gerald, Transform 19. JMA Photography.

He talks about the platform and opportunity Transform has given him and how it has helped him grow as an artist. “They’ve given me the chance to do what I want and be ambitious with it. They were like ‘here’s some money, go and make something!’ And I feel like a lot of theatres, organisations, and festivals can learn a lot from Transform. They’re willing to take a risk just so a Black queer artist can do whatever he wants.”  

Jamal, like many other QTIPOC (Queer Trans Intersex People of Colour) artists in the city, is making waves with his work. It is revolutionary, inspiring, provocative and a reflection of our identities. It truly was a pleasure speaking to him and learning from him about his work and the nuances of his artistry. I hope that Jamal is able to revive JUMBIE in the future as it would be an absolutely inspiring piece of work but for now, I’ll wait with bated breath for what comes next.  

Transform 21-22 will run until 9th April 2022 so be sure to take a look at their programme here. For more on Jamal’s work, follow his Instagram or check out his website.