These Artists Want Black People to Sleep
In "Black Power Naps," Afro-Latinx artists Fannie Sosa and niv Acosta create a series of "devices" that invite Black people to rest and heal. Broadly has partnered with the artists on a magazine about sleep equity, rejuvenation, and resilience.
Model Charlyn Griffith inside "Black Power Naps." Photos by Avi Avion. Artistic direction by niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa. Photo editing by Alyza Enriquez.
As we brace for 2019 and stack up our resolutions, Broadly is focusing on finding motivation for the hard tasks that await us—like getting out of bed. So, throughout January, we're rolling out Getting Out of Bed, a series of stories about all things related to rest and resilience. Read more here.
When we think about sleep, we don’t often consider questions of equity. We don’t often ask: Who has the luxury to nap? Who has the time to get a rejuvenating, full-night’s sleep? Who moves through the world with ease; and who, at the end of the day, is left feeling utterly exhausted?
With their ongoing project, Black Power Naps—which debuted with a 2018 exhibition at Matadero Madrid and is exhibiting at Performance Space New York throughout January—Afro-Latinx artists niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa propose an interactive, artistic response to those questions. Grounded in research on the “racial sleep gap” (the finding that Black Americans receive significantly less sleep on average than white Americans), the history of slaves being controlled via sleep deprivation, and alternative healing methods, the artists present a series of interactive installations that invite Black people to rest and restore themselves.
Broadly partnered with Acosta and Sosa to create an issue of Black Power Naps Magazine, which is aimed at interrogating the equity of sleep and promoting rest and leisure for people of color—particularly, Black, indigenous, and migrant people, as well as queer and trans people of color. The print magazine will be available at Performance Space New York throughout the run of Black Power Naps, and all the content also live online here.
Below, we spoke to Sosa and Acosta about what inspired the project, how their installations function, and how to make art that centers Black bodies within historically white institutions.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BROADLY: How did you start developing Black Power Naps together?
FANNIE SOSA: Out of conversations, trying to understand what was happening to each other. We started participating in each other's performance work, and then we started trying to teach together. We were part of that art circuit in Europe where you go to some city, you do a workshop or two, or a talk. It's super exhausting; we're still part of it. Very soon, we understood that we wanted to create something that didn't ignore our reality—one of exhaustion.
We're both very solution-based and nerdy, so we had always dreamt of building devices and technology. We'd get stoned and just dream about, "You know, if I had a bed that could vibrate this way, I would probably be doing better in the morning." And just really researching a lot about sound and sleep technology and trying to find solutions, basically.
What were some of the factors that you both identified as to why you were both feeling so exhausted?
SOSA: Nobody wants to be in service to the vision of a Black femme. Nobody believes that it is a successful enterprise; nobody believes that it's going to pay their bills. Nobody believes that it's going to grow and thrive and be liberatory and beautiful...And so I think we were both dealing with that in micro and macro ways, and we still deal with that, but at least now we can see it and affirm each other that it's happening, that we're not crazy. But the exhaustion is due to all of the structural difficulties that arise from you being seen as a non-viable reality.
We have a vision—we’re visionaries—and we need to be heard and people need to execute our vision with their teams. But there’s questions of authority. Like, if we’re the head of tech guys, we have to justify why we're asking for something more than a white man would have to. And so everything is three times the work. It's like, I want the lights like this because I want Black skin to be lit in a certain way… it’s always making sense, explaining, justifying.
When did this idea of bringing the sleep gap and tying that to slavery and reparations come into the framework of the project?
NIV ACOSTA: I've been doing research and creating a structural race analysis in the cultural institutions landscape, looking at how structures are in place to take away our rest. Thinking about reparations never felt totally holistic because a lot of the discourse that I've read is geared towards getting economic reparations, and it's so much bigger than that, right? Because it is structural, because everything structural. We need to be asking for economic reparations, but we also need to be asking for energetic reparations, and that means abolishing structures that benefit off of our lack of sleep. We're looking at an economy, a moment, where Black folks, indigenous folks, brown folks, migrant folks, are dealing with a sleeplessness, a restlessness that is connected to productivity, capitalism, a production-based society.
SOSA: That is connected to the lack of belief that I was just talking about. Like, people just simply do not believe that a Black-owned business is going to be a successful enterprise. So, the Black business owner has to work twice as hard. This whole thing of being “woke” and hustling—all of that is really heavy on Black folks, because we do have to be twice as good.
ACOSTA: Yes, and that creates this zombie state that so many people of color are in—a zombie state that is induced by the capitalist republic, is deeply driven on our lack of sleep.
SOSA: I have a lot to say about that, and I think it deserves to take a moment there because I think it's really useful to really go there and imagine this zombie mythology that is an Afro Caribbean mythology. We're talking about people that were enslaved and put in quarters with no privacy at all for a lifetime. You didn't have a room, you didn't have a bed, you had nothing. You were sleeping with 30, 40, 50 people. You're regulated to sleep about five hours a night and be woken up violently with dogs, with noise, with light, and then put to work in the field for 16, 17, 18 hours.
That literally created people who were falling asleep while making sugar in a hot cauldron, while in the field plucking the corn; while doing these tasks, people would fall asleep because there were so tired. And so what we have is a really embodied inheritance of lack of rest and lack of sleep, and we are obviously the descendants of that.
So we have this whole analogy with zombies—folks that are literally stripped of a will, like they are robots; they can execute actions, but they don't have personhood, they don't have agency, they don't think for themselves, they are controlled. And this whole condition of lack of rest that Black folks were enslaved in was also seen as a characteristic of Afro-descendant folks. So, [that helped create the stereotype of] “Black folks are lazy, they're irresponsible, they're prone to basic instincts.” Where does that come from? It comes from that history, and it comes from [the fact that] literally any free time that Black people had, they would spend sleeping in bed.
So when we talk about rest in terms of reparations, we're not only talking about sleeping per se, we're also talking about downtime; leisure time that you don't spend sleeping, that you are able to spend cultivating yourself, imagining yourself, just existing; to basically rest up, to stop having a function in society for a bit.
The devices that you created are called “healing stations.” Can you walk me through how some of them work?
ACOSTA: Sosa has been working on their PhD, researching vibration and healing through bass. That's really intersecting with this exhibition because we're studying bass on different vibrational levels, working with subwoofers and drum shakers to vibrate surfaces and using different structures to create different effects. The “Atlantic Reconciliation Station”—which is named aptly for the reparation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and what it means to be a Black person on water—is a water bed with drum shakers and a subwoofer underneath, playing an “ohm” chant. It vibrates your body while you take a nap, and it's this super chill, really resounding feeling.
SOSA: Our bodies being 70 percent water, it not only vibrates around you, it vibrates in you, and the water is a really good conductor for that vibration. It redistributes the liquid within your body, which helps with aches.
ACOSTA: And then there's the “Polycrastination Station,” which is the central piece in the exhibition. It's a giant bed four-times the size of a full-sized mattress, and it has a hanging mirror above it, with lights on the edges. So, it encourages you to lay back, to be able to look at yourself. There are also USB ports and outlets for charging your phone or whatever you need to plug in. So, it's literally a charging station where you come lay back, look at yourself, and charge your device and charge yourself, make really beautiful selfies and charge your Instagram.
SOSA: That goes into this whole direction that we always envisioned, which is city planning. One of the things that often makes a city super hostile...as a migrant there’s been many times, in my case, where you are running out of battery and you literally have to depend on the kindness of strangers: "Hey, sorry, can I plug my thing here?" The whole city, the urban planning is literally designed to not welcome people who need a place to be and to recharge. It's all about transit, transit, transit. And so our idea at the end of the day is by being in a public institution, creating a space that is free for people to come and recharge. And, one day, hopefully, to take that to the streets and to take that to parks, to lobbies; really rethink the public space in a way that is not so phallocentric, hyper masculine, and hostile and deadly for many people.
ACOSTA: Moving on, the “Black Bean Bed” is really spectacular. It's a pit full of black beans and it can welcome up to seven people at once and submerge your whole body inside of a pit full of real, edible [uncooked] black beans. There's a lot of research about using beans to alleviate pressure and swelling. So when you put something as dry as beans and rice around a body part, it’s supposed to draw away the water retention. So, after a long day, your feet are swollen, you can literally go into the bean bed and come out feeling so much more capable of moving that part of your body. And the shape of the beans also creating an acupressure on your skin.
SOSA: And you can be having your face massaged in the beans and still be breathing. So it's this premise of being held while you're resting, and not thinking.
ACOSTA: It’s another psychosomatic treatment to your body and brain to be like, you can be submerged and not die.
How do you deliberately center Black bodies in the exhibition?
ACOSTA: So, ultimately it's an impossible goal. Come into a historically white institution and magically create the community of color that they always wanted to see, right? Or that we all want to see, ultimately.
I have my own structural race training for cultural workers and Sosa has a training for white institutions, which is, The White Institution’s Guide for Welcoming Artists of Color and Their Audiences. So, we're working closely with the institution to make sure that they do everything they can with the time that we have to make sure that our people of color are showing up...Ultimately, we teach an emotional acuity, to pay attention and have empathy for human life. That is ultimately what is so often missing from these white institutional spaces—remembering that people have bodies and that these bodies are affected by policy and daily structures and that those daily structures are often set up to disable certain people and enable others. We're teaching them to listen to us and give us the key and believe in our work.
But how can the white institution make sure that as we're creating this work, which is super anti-capitalist, we do not infiltrate it with the dominant narrative, which is totally production-based and continuously pushing for these unattainable goals. We cannot economize the sleep of Black folks, so we have to teach them how to do that, how to digress from capitalizing on the commodification of our artworks—which is a really tough task.