House of Leaves

Keioui Keijaun Thomas’s song of survival

Keioui Keijaun Thomas, Come Hell or High Femmes: Act 2 | The Last Trans Femmes on Earth: Dripping Doll Energy, 2022. Performance view, Perrotin, New York, January 25, 2022. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

SMELLS LIKE CLUB. Or the emptiness before—air conditioning, fog machine, coat check. It’s been a while since I’ve been to anything, hiding from Ms. Omicron. At Perrotin, filing into Keioui Keijaun Thomas’s performance, my walk involuntarily saunters as the music transitions from soft nature murmurs to something more rhythmic. The club kids are here but we’re sitting, masked and muzzled. Enough Telfar bags to reskin a vegan cow. It’s 7 p.m. in New York. Definitely not club time, let alone dinnertime. We’re seated around a ring of paper bags, restaurant checks, dead leaves, and latex gloves. In the center, yard waste bags surround a pedestal with plastic buckets. The text on the bags has been amended to say “Body Bags.” But I only notice this after the performance, after the party, because right now the blue light in the room is so low that I can’t make out any details, and I can’t find a seat.

I am writing to you from the future. The year is 2666, Thomas whispers in Come Hell or High Femmes: Act 2 | The Last Trans Femmes on Earth: Dripping Doll Energy, 2022, a video version of the performance to come included in “Late Night Enterprise,” an ongoing group show at Perrotin that also features work by Breyer P-Orridge, Caitlin Cherry, and Betty Tomkins. Thomas’s projects take multiple forms, often beginning with text, then translated to film, and then to bodies who perform in galleries and music venues, such as the upstate techno festival Sustain Release or Brooklyn’s Dweller. In the video, the prequel to last year’s I Looked Up at the Sky and I, Imagined All of the Stars Were My Sisters, she imagines a postapocalyptic world where only Black trans femme people are left. Purple mountains, green grass, orange soil—such elemental landscapes serve as backdrops for Thomas’s luxurious poses (shades of Solange, a little fashion). She writhes over a soundtrack of her own poetry. Sometimes I feel that the ocean is the closest living relative I know, like a Black auntie.

She arrives. Light R&B piano morphs into a louche jazz trumpet solo. She is barefoot, wearing a black corset and thong, a veil of streamers over her face, and pieces of plastic taut around her arms and legs. A canvas bag sits atop her head. She parts a sea of Bushwick queers, comes to settle in front of the central altar, and from the bag starts to remove a dress, a weave, and a cape. Blue lights turn red. Nina Simone’s voice blends with Thomas’s: Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze / Black femmes are the original medicine. She staggers and wobbles, as if stunned by her own words, and when the beat comes in—Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves”—she gets in people’s faces. Angrier. They try to keep us down, she growls. People nod. It’s always for the girls, the dolls, she yells as she works into a floor routine. We are our sisters’ fucking keepers. I got you boo. Music is an integral aspect of Thomas’s work, and she mixes her performances’ soundtracks from a variety of trap, rap, and pop, as well as her own original music. As she circles the ring, she uses a pair of scissors to cut the plastic from her body—a furious, messianic striptease.

Keioui Keijaun Thomas, Come Hell or High Femmes: Act 2 | The Last Trans Femmes on Earth: Dripping Doll Energy, 2022. Performance view, Perrotin, New York, January 25, 2022. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

The spiritual undertones of Thomas’s performance mingle the language of personal healing with the demands of ecological responsibility. Horoscopes to preserve the world. Self-care for Mother Nature. This rhetoric can have a trendy, commercial sheen, but Thomas suffuses it with a tender ferocity, especially when she connects the concerns of individual identity (“Black,” “trans,” “femme”) to a collective project of planetary survival. For example, in Thomas’s exhibition at Participant Inc. last summer, “Hands Up, Ass Out,” she convened seven years of formally promiscuous work exploring the brutal histories behind everyday things like flour, coffee, and sugar. For Hair Line Towers: Hang Me Out to Dry, 2016–18/2021, the artist assembled brown paper bags, plastic buckets, Yaki hair braids, and red nail polish into precarious towers that, equal parts glam and sinister, draw out the horrific toll on humanity and nature inflicted by the slave trade. Revisited in the performance, the dead foliage and yard bags pose uneasy connections between Black death and environmental catastrophe.

Surrounded by “body bags,” Thomas sits on the altar and starts to pour the water from the buckets over herself. She echoes her own words from her soundtrack: It is unbelievable and thinkable. It is so black it is blue. It is so queer it is detached. She twirls around the space, pausing to slip on a gauzy blue dress. There’s another bucket, one full of glitter this time. The lights turn amber as Thomas walks out of the ring and addresses her fellow Black femmes in the audience, one by one, mouthing the magisterial lyrics to Tobe Nwigwe’s “Make It Home” directly to them: I pray you catch a wave that doesn’t subside . . . May your streets be paved in gold. Eye contact for her real audience.

Thomas returns to the altar. She peels off the last strip of plastic from her waist and raises her arms. As the music subsides, she removes the last garment and she is nude. In the final seconds, she has returned to her body, the body which she has, in interviews, called “a new language.” She stalks away and the performance ends, the lights go on, the music dies, and the club kids rise to give a standing ovation on the dance floor.