Imani Ma'at turns Playground Detroit into ritual space in new exhibit

Photography and dance exhibition gets special appearance from 'The Last Poets' in one-night performance

click to enlarge "Unmasking the Woman Warriors" Collaboration by Ifoma Stubbs and Imani Ma'at. - Courtesy of Playground Detroit
Courtesy of Playground Detroit
"Unmasking the Woman Warriors" Collaboration by Ifoma Stubbs and Imani Ma'at.

Thick drum beats fill the air as Imani Ma’at draws her ancestors out of the spirit realm and into Playground Detroit on a Friday evening.

She whirls around the room, braids whipping through the air as if she is speaking to the photos on the wall with every movement of her body. At any time, audience members are welcome to join the improvised dance to honor the Detroit-based artist’s late father.

It’s one of a four-part performance art series in Ma’at’s Playground Detroit exhibit An Unmasking of Thyself in collaboration with photographer Ifoma Stubbs. Every Friday during the exhibition, Ma’at presents a different themed performance in her journey to finding herself which she calls an “unmasking.” The evening of July 29 called “Unmasking Daddy” was dedicated to Ma’at’s deceased father, Baba Tahuti AnkhmenRa Amen.

Ma’at recently graduated from the University of Michigan with her master's in dance and choreography. She choreographed the opening dance to this year’s African World Festival and is a recipient of Playground Detroit’s 2022 Emerging Artist Fellowship supported by the Knight Foundation.

“This whole project came from my thesis of unmasking,” she explains. “What does it mean to unmask yourself and what does it mean to mask yourself especially? Why is it important to take off the mask now more than ever with what’s going on in society?”

Photos of Ma’at and her family members embellished in African tribal-style body paint captured by Stubbs cover the walls. In a way that sounds counterintuitive, obscuring the face with paint is an unmasking. It’s the exhibit's way of asking gallery goers to peel back the layers of their perceived reality and redefine themselves in their own, true image.

Ancestor altars for Tahuti are placed throughout the room, adorned with his photos, artwork, and cultural artifacts from Ma’at’s travels to Guinea in West Africa. On the Friday we attend Ma’at dances in front of her father’s altar, thanking him for his presence as he provides her protection even in the afterlife.

“When you honor your ancestors and acknowledge them, you create lessons for yourself and you create opportunities for yourself,” she says. “In my father’s last days he said to me, ‘you’re not about to be out here sad because I’m about to become an ancestor. We all have a day with destiny, right? All I’m gonna do is come back and be your guardian angel.’ And he did not lie.”

Many indigenous African traditions teach that there is no separation between us and deceased loved ones who become ancestors whose spirits walk with us after their physical bodies are gone. Increasingly, Black Americans are connecting with these original spiritual teachings, as Ma’at demonstrates in her show.

Her father was a Vietnam veteran who passed away from cancer due to Agent Orange exposure.

“My father was a warrior,” Ma'at concludes in a video compiled of memories and a massage her father recorded for her just before his death. “Although I may still grieve his death, his love continues to empower me even in the afterlife… My father drops gems for me to pick up every day. I am him and he is me. How will you honor your ancestors?”

click to enlarge Ifoma Stubbs and Imani Ma'at. - Courtesy of Playground Detroit
Courtesy of Playground Detroit
Ifoma Stubbs and Imani Ma'at.

The evening begins with pouring libations, water offered to the ancestors, as attendees say the names of their loved ones followed by “ase.” Ase (pronounced "ashay") in the Yoruba tradition means “so shall it be” and is also used as an affirmation in prayer.

But the real treat of the evening is a surprise performance by David Nelson from 1970s-era spoken word group The Last Poets. The revolutionary group of musicians and poets from East Harlem laid the groundwork for what would eventually become rap music. Many consider them the “godfathers of hip-hop.”

Controversial rhymes about Black nationalism under a self-critical lens positioned The Last Poets as the voice of the Black consciousness movement. And here Nelson stood in front of a small crowd in a nondescript Detroit gallery.

“Are you ready? Are you really, really ready?” the short, slender elder chants to the audience as he recites his poem Are you Ready. “Are you ready to kill if necessary? Are you ready to create life? Are you ready to smash white things? Are you ready to build Black things? Are you ready to call the wrath of Black Gods? Are you ready to change yourself?”

The community elder welcomes the new generation of Black consciousness as he joins Ma’at in a freeform dance. Here, everyone is free to be themselves, as long as they are ready to take off the mask and become who they really are.

An Unmasking of Thyself is on display until August 12, featuring live performances every Friday at Playground Detroit; 2845 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit; playgrounddetroit.com. Gallery hours are by appointment Thursday through Saturday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Friday performances cost $10.

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About The Author

Randiah Camille Green

After living in Japan and traveling across Asia, Randiah Camille Green realized Detroit will always be home. And when she says Detroit, she's talking about the hood, not the suburbs. She has bylines in Planet Detroit News , Bridge Detroit , BLAC magazine, and Model D . Her favorite pastimes are meditating...
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