The Mask of Sorrow: Anohni as the Veiled Grim Reaper

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Anohni’s performance at the Park Avenue Armory for the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York last night (and again, tonight) was not billed with an opening act, though that might have been misleading. For after the lights in the massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall were dimmed and the space was flooded with the sounds of distorted waves, Naomi Campbell appeared onscreen, in footage that looked to be an extension of her “Drone Bomb Me” shoot with NABIL, dancing, crying, beckoning with a stance at once vulnerable and daunting. The film rarely seemed to cut, but rather zoomed in near-single-take slow-mo onto Campbell’s face — clad in a gothic Statue of Liberty headpiece that, if considering the scathing criticism of America within Anohni’s album Hopelessness, seemed as symbolically weighted as a crown of thorns. It turned out we’d become quite acquainted with her face — and that it’d be a gatekeeper for a squad of other women’s faces — some known for former collaborations with Anohni, some not — though we’d see very little of Anohni herself.

Once she appeared (alongside the dressed-down Oneohtrix Point Never and Christopher Elms, both in opposite margins of the stage) after 20 minutes of pure slo-mo Campbell, Anohni performed the entire show behind a black veil within a hooded white shroud. As such, you could of course never see her mouth moving, and at each interval, when Anohni would try to adjust her earpiece from under the veil, people in the audience would titter that maybe now she’d take it off. In the vein of her good friend/collaborator Björk’s recent performances from her Vulnicura tour — and of course the perennially wig-obscured Sia — Anohni provided no such connection.

But the reasons for and impact of veiled performance, and the separation of body and voice, amongst these particularly powerful vocalists, is expressly varied — though for each the constraint also seems emotionally and/or politically unfettering. Sia does so with the notion that her voice is enough to create beguiling pop, and that she can keep the rest of her guarded from media scrutiny. Björk, in a tour she ultimately cancelled seemingly because it saw her, night by night, reliving the step-by-step deterioration of her long-time partnership with Matthew Barney, would appear almost always beneath a magic-marine-creature headpiece by Maiko Takeda.

There was strength in setting out exactly the ways she would and would not bare her soul and her history: her voice would do it — her voice is, after all, her art — but her face would not. For Anohni, the veiling of her face is largely political, especially as a gesture of self-erasure in the interest of creating something of a female super-collective to deliver her messages against patriarchal capitalism and ecological destruction. There’s a simultaneous potency and fallaciousness to such a means of asserting multiplicity through one voice.

At one point during the aforementioned, interminable Campbell intro, I turned to a friend and said, “is this a little mean?” I liked that it was; the album’s power is its colonization of hedonism — set as it is to dance music — with dire, unshakeable and, as such, heavy-handed messages. The act of subjecting impatient pop concert attendees to a gesture toward durational performance art seemed well within that vocabulary. It set us up for the durational obfuscation the face that actually made this music.

Similarly, the audience never actually got the cathartic experience of connecting to a singer — especially a singer whose chillingly emotive voice can so easily feel like a vessel towards catharsis. Never showing her face allowed Anohni to make the performance orbit the global issues of the songs, in which she — as well as the women on the screen — were just an implied handful of many intoning, impacted voices. It’s telling that the only times we did see Anohni’s face delivering her own words were not in person, but with her own image cast on the screen behind her.

In an interview I did with her in 2014 — when as far as the media knew, she still went by Antony Hegarty and made music under the name Antony and the Johnsons — Anohni asked, “Am I supposed to be creating pop music to provide fodder for, or a soundtrack to, people’s romantic lives? To help people believe in perfect love or whatever?” She followed that rhetorical question with this observation:

People are used to relying on my voice as a comforting voice, and I think that I’ve been using my singing voice and increasingly the imagery around my work in more challenging ways in the last few years.

This Hopelessness performance is clearly the visual manifestation of that approach. When Anohni hits a high note on “4 Degrees,” you want to respond with pop-empowered applause, but there’s obvious cognitive dissonance to clapping to burning mammals “lying, crying in the fields” or to dancing to the “American dream” when the “American dream” is “execution.” And from beneath her veil, she dished out her most accessible and infectiously danceable songs, putting the listener in the odd position of being manipulated into dancing and then feeling like so doing is an act of complicity in capitalism’s employment of pop as its army of distraction. The music is complicity while the lyrics are protest, and the two aim to induce in the listener the experience of complacently lounging within a plush, gilded web as its predatory arachnid owner nears.

It’s no coincidence that the costume worn by the deliverer of these sweet melodies of destruction was essentially a grim reaper outfit — that veil stretched beneath the shroud-like costume. And because there wasn’t much to watch with that somewhat amorphous costume — Anohni also contained her movement, and her programmers were glued to their laptops — the audience was meant to look up to the lip-syncing women. And every time we looked up, we’d see the woebegone but persevering faces of crying women — predominantly women of color, with the exception of Anohni and longtime collaborators Kembra Pfahler and Joanna Constantine. (Among the women onscreen were Dr. Julia Yasuda, a mentor of Anohni’s, conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady, actress April Matthis, dancer Sangeera Yesley, and a number of less Google-able performers.)

Like the album itself, the projections created a potent dissonance through the pairing of functionally clunky politicism and rapturous music. But it also had an odder — and seemingly less intentional — ventriloquistic effect. It’s similar to Sia’s work with proxy performers, but the effect seems more intended for Sia, given the donning of the singer’s instantly recognizable wig by her proxies.

In Anohni’s case, as these women lip-sync and cry to her music, we get the sense that she has compiled an intersectional solution to Taylor Swift’s famous pop feminist #squad — here, the group of women with a message (or Anohni’s message) are not all wildly famous and influential and rich. However, there’s a distinct sense of the staged-ness of the women’s emotions as they mouth the pain of Anohni’s words onto their faces — there are moments in the Campbell video, especially, in which she begins to look like she’s wondering when the dancing and crying will be done. But, for the most part, each of the women asserts themselves individually in the ways emotion impacts them physically, and it’s for this that the relationship doesn’t appear too much like the hidden Anohni hired a series of women of color to act purely as simulacra.

The fact that Anohni ultimately puppeteers herself in such a way — with her own face appearing vastly across the screen (on “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” perhaps because of the “I” that pervades the song) — again indicates a desire to decentralize herself, to place herself as another among many other women enraged (but some likely hired to act enraged) at the state of the world. It’s an intriguing gesture of the somewhat oppositional notions of self-erasure and self-universalizing, albeit one that’s also inevitably stymied by the paradox of people attending the show because it’s a show by a particular, somewhat iconic musician.

Anohni’s Turning employed similar imagery – with both trans and cis-women placed atop a spinning platform and embodying a potter’s wheel symbol of being spun into a female essence, a notion Anohni upholds in interviews regarding her eco/trans/future feminist ideals of matriarchal government. That performance — in which the singer was not masked, but in which attention was similarly drawn from her towards other women simply existing onstage — seemed more sharply on-point about the interplay between objectification and empowerment, with the audience having to address their own notions of objectified femininity while the women onstage spun in a seeming re-appropriation of the spectacles with which womanhood is so often displayed.

Anohni has spoken of shying away from personal/identity politics on the new album (with the exception of a pervasive disdain for patriarchy — as on dissonant companion pieces “Obama” and “Violent Men”), saying in Vice:

As long as we’re talking about shootings and identity politics, no one’s going to talk about bankers and wealth and you know, the hoarding of wealth by an ever-smaller group of people. And that’s really the conversation we should be having. I think in a way the American system likes to keep us busy, likes the working and middle-classes to be busy talking amongst themselves about interpersonal issues between working and middle-classes.

But seeing the ways this veiled act evolves from Anohni’s past work focusing more specifically on trans-femininity (especially insomuch the women onscreen here largely seemed cis) is also important. When Anohni first declared the name she prefers last year, she referred to it as a “spirit name.” Thus far, the imagery we’ve seen of Anohni as a performer has consistently been either some form of obfuscated or disembodied, as though a continuation of this iteration of self as pervasive spirit. While the cover of The Crying Light featured legendary Butoh performer Kazuo Ohno and the cover of I Am a Bird Now featured Candy Darling, Hopelessness’ cover is a photo of Anohni herself, taken by Inez & Vinoodh in 2006, but now it’s superimposed with the face of model Liya Kebede.

It therefore seems Anohni is suggesting that now that she’s covered the ground of asserting what she wants to be called — and the pronouns she prefers — in the media, she’s comfortable employing an aesthetic of self-erasure to turn the focus away from herself the politics society has placed on her body. She said (in another Vice interview, actually):

When people perceive my music through their perception of my physical body, it often really contains people’s ability to open their minds to it, because they hear it through the local identity politic of my body. With the live show, I’m finding ways to open that up, to create an amorphous feminine oracle that will deliver the work.

As such, she’s aimed to voice the collective as opposed to the personal, disappearing beneath a grim reaper-like shroud to let her voice animate the experiences of various women — herself included — at the mercy of a dying world, onscreen. It bears both the potent ideas, semi-potent executions, and inherent fallacies of the power play of physically being one very powerful voice while attempting to be multiple.