Exploring Black Women's Sexuality and BDSM in NYC's Oldest Dungeon

The one-night-only art installation and performance "Sexual Fragments Absent" transformed Manhattan's oldest dungeon with emoji videos, disturbingly beautiful sculptures, and interactive play performances.

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May 5 2017, 1:05pm

Photos by Birdie Piccininni

On a monitor high above the space glowing with red light, a woman cuts her tights open to reveal her shaved pussy. She inserts an internal condom, then a speculum—the metal's glint exaggerated by sparkling gifs that dance playfully on the surface of the screen—and slowly begins to crank it open. You can see her stomach ripple as she breathes deeply, taking the extension, which surely must be painful; what appears in the open gap of the speculum is an uncertain space, a void. After a moment, she folds a series of dollar bills and puts them in the space that she's created, then, removing the wad of dollar bills, she shows them to the viewer. On the screen, words flash: "I'VE MADE THIS SPACE FOR YOU." Heart emojis spiral on vertical axes and give off sparkles. I watch the video through one time, then again, even though I don't really want to, clutching at my stomach and feeling slightly sick.

"Did that hurt?" I ask the artist, Shawné Michaelain Holloway, now seated next to me at the bar. The same video is playing on a monitor behind the counter, and I'm having trouble looking at it, but I also can't bring myself to look away.

"Ugh, yes," she says, laughing at my horrified expression.

Read more: Inside a BDSM Dungeon with a Hillary Dom and a Guilty, Diaper-Clad Trump Voter

The video is one of three featured in Sexual Fragments Absent, a one-night-only art event performed and installed at Paddles, Manhattan's oldest dungeon. Along with Holloway—whose work deals with networks and browsers—the artists Doreen Garner, known for her visceral, disturbingly beautiful sculptures made of silicone and glass, and Tiona McClodden, whose work deals with BDSM and its psychological dynamics, had sculptures and video pieces throughout the basement space. Together, the three artists presented a body of work, curated by School of Visual Arts curatorial practice grad Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, that engaged the complicated dynamics of black women's sexuality and bodies within the context of BDSM.

It's an audacious conceit for an art show, and ultimately, a rewarding one. Paddles, a notably white, gay, and male play space, seems an odd choice for a culminating curatorial exhibit. Yet the space was changed by the presence of the work—the night of the show hosted a majority queer, femme, black, and otherwise diverse audience; perhaps the most diverse crowd Paddles has ever seen—and its setting as a dungeon, as a place specifically for BDSM play, was integral to the context of the exhibit itself. "I think of feminism as waves that don't take a physical form," said Onyewuenyi, referring not to historical movements but to the overlapping social, economic, and other dynamics that influence political perspectives in popular culture. "What if they took physical form? BDSM is a site where there's a collapsing of waves."

Guests watch Holloway's video. Photos by Birdie Piccininni

Sex isn't necessarily violence, but it can be. In our intimate moments, dynamics of structural power, pleasure, and pain are very often intertwined. And, as Onyewuenyi suggested, it's at sites like Paddles and during BDSM scenes where these dynamics seem to collapse. What would seem painful in daily life becomes acceptable and pleasurable in a play space. Preexisting dynamics—like that of the patriarchy or of racism—can shift in meaning entirely, not disappearing, necessarily, but taking a different shape.

Many themes influenced the show, but I was struck by one statement of Onyewuenyi's in particular. "I was thinking about this line from Hilton Als," he said. "'How do you get people to forget their own history? When I'm in love, I forget,'" he paraphrased.

In some ways, the night was about reclaiming a history that has already existed. Throughout the dungeon's space were historical images from Dark Connections, a black BDSM resource, selected by McClodden. I spoke with her about the images and her work—but only after borrowing some red lipstick from Holloway.

"I wanted the space to remain a play space," said McClodden. She showed me a small card, which listed her terms of engagement: red lipstick, white nail polish, eyeliner, or fishnets. Anyone who wasn't dressed accordingly, she didn't engage with. In this performance, she sought to preserve a kind of cruising atmosphere, keeping a boundary around who she interacted with. McClodden's work directly references the materiality and haptics of BDSM. In a sculptural piece named Lost Subs, old gear from her past submissive partners was hung in the space—a replica of a harness; two actual collars worn by subs—generating an eerie, mournful energy. Behind it, as part of a series called Undergone, was an old pair of boots, worn by McClodden, filled with a bouquet of flowers and now rendered somewhere between art object and poignant re-remembered subject.

The historical images are there to explain that black BDSM has always existed, McClodden explained. "When I first saw BDSM, with the master-slave talk, I was like, no way!" But later, after seeing a black BDSM contingent march during Pride, McClodden recognized her interest in power exchange, embodied in a community familiar to her. "Well, if that's what it can do," she thought, then it was simply a matter of language—of finding the words that made sense.

"I think the show is important," Holloway agreed. Dedicating space to their work, and to including sexuality in blackness, presents a full self—one that still feels rare.

McClodden's "Lost Subs"

Garner's work deals less explicitly with BDSM, tapping into the haptic energy—a feeling, rather than anything easily expressed—that ran through the entirety of the show. Her sculptures are visceral, scaled to the size of a human body, and made to induce both attraction and repulsion. In one piece, a modified silicone body bag, lumpy with protrusions and stitched like skin, spills tubular intestines and sparkling gems onto a pristine metal table. In another, a big, meaty sculpture is suspended from the ceiling, prickling with spines that invoke both mold growth and protection.

"The vagina of this piece—"

"It has a vagina?" I asked.

Garner gently rotated the sculpture so I could see a small vulva in the lower third of the piece. "When I first made it, some guys in my studio said, 'It's so real, can we touch it?' and then they touched it without asking! So I needed to give it a way to protect itself, and I made it full of pins."

A standout of the show was Garner's Observatory, which was performed partway through the night. In art school, Garner explained, "I was the only black person in my department. In my critiques, I was trying to place myself in the position that had the most power." That position, surprisingly, was in an elevated box—an observatory—from which Garner would be looked upon, drawing from the idea of an oppositional gaze and from the story of Sarah Baartman.

Garner's "Observatory," performed by Kiyan Williams

Was that really the position of most power? I asked Garner. It seemed odd to me, that capitulating to the gaze of others truly placed someone in a position of power.

"Once you get inside and the music's playing and people are looking at you, you feel absolutely drunk with power," said Garner.

I wondered aloud if by making one's self the object, the piece showed the audience where they stood, making them uncomfortable with their own relationship to power. But Garner seemed unconvinced by my inability to escape such conventional framing. This performance, she stood outside the box, while a performer was inside the Observatory; normally, it's Garner herself inside the box. "I could see people squirm," she said.

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And why wouldn't the position from within the observatory be the site of most power? Historically, the white gaze has been harmful—but rather than reifying existing power dynamics, if BDSM can be pleasurable, why not turn the gaze against itself? Instead of subscribing to narratives of harm or self-destruction—which are still present in BDSM—Sexual Fragments Absent presented new ways of considering and expanding an understanding of black women's sexuality. Referring to her work as a webcammer, which informed the beginnings of her video art practice, Holloway said, "My body was represented in a way that felt free." What the internet offers, rather than community, is "a certain kind of embodiment of agency." In her videos, Holloway is both confrontational and submissive, sexually provocative yet covered up. Like Garner's and McClodden's, the work complicates our idea of what bodies must be—particularly the black body.

"How much has to happen until this body isn't under violence anymore?" Onyewuenyi asked rhetorically. In the wake of the most recent police killing, this time the shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, it seems ever more radical to consider such a show existed, a site of black female agency and embodiment, flourishing in a created space. Paradoxically, despite its dark underpinnings, Sexual Fragments Absent built a kind of heady, joyous sanctuary, with its own history and rules: a sanctuary that must be experienced, but maybe—as its one-night-run suggests—a place that still, under scrutiny and under threat, cannot be held for too long.