MJ Harper’s performance piece at London’s Koko will close Frieze Week in style

Artist MJ Harper will premiere ‘Arias for a New World’ at Koko in London this Sunday, 15 October 2023

black and white portrait of MJ Harper
MJ Harper
(Image credit: Acne paper/©️Nikolai von Bismarck 2023)

Artist MJ Harper has been conceiving Arias for a New World for some years now, and during that time they have developed a performance piece that will premiere at Koko this Sunday, 15 October, in London, marking the end of Frieze London 2023. Previous iterations of the performance have been performed at the Serpentine in collaboration with Grace Wales Bonner and the V&A – invited by Tim Walker – but this version, styled by Katy England with Dior, is the culmination of years of work brought together in one, ambitious work of art. 

‘I basically asked myself, all right… If Eartha Kitt and Pina Bausch were still alive and they were my age and had an iPhone, what would the work look like?’ said MJ Harper over video chat as they took a break for rehearsal. ‘That was a base layer and then on top of it, I thought, and then what if they were working with modalities that Wayne McGregor used, and William Forsythe used and so I just basically became obsessed and started approaching the platform, in this sort of very academic and cerebral way.’

Bringing in their Jamaican American heritage, and building on their love of the work of favourite artists – from the iconic gay activist Derek Jarman, to the legendary dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch and the Black Hollywood glamour of Eartha Kitt – Harper is now seeking to channel their inspirations into something entirely new. 

MJ Harper on ‘Arias for a New World’

MJ Harper on stage

MJ Harper

(Image credit: Burak Isseven)

Harper moved to Berlin from London after an injury meant they had to cease dancing with the Wayne McGregor company, and took a job at Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich under Barry Kosky. This led to joining Komische Oper in Berlin, a change of pace and direction that meant they had the space to expand on their personal practice. 

‘On lunch break, I would sneak away and make things in the studio, or I would stay a little bit later and then from what I would make in the studio, I would put that together into little solos. Eventually, this thing started to kind of develop where I just created this character that I thought was really interesting and then I realised that it was basically a portrait of the experience of my mum and I immigrating to the States.’

Arias for a New World has been scored by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz and will be accompanied by him and composer Thomas Moked Blum, while being shot by filmmaker Matt Lambert. Exploring themes of eroticism, ritual, personal history, gesture, elegance and religion, Harper is truly trying to do something creatively new, something groundbreaking. This quest takes in their identity as being Jamaican and American, a childhood spent being raised by a single mother, and being an artist concerned with the avant-garde. Harper is looking to something fresh and boundary-pushing. 

‘It's sexy, it's like it's a fever dream, but to this day, I don't really know how to describe it. I think what's been really fun has been that from every iteration that I've done, the consensus from people [is that] they actually don't know what they've experienced.’

MJ Harper performs Arias for a New World at Koko on 15 October, tickets can be found here

Amah-Rose Abrams is a British writer, editor and broadcaster covering arts and culture based in London. In her decade plus career she has covered and broken arts stories all over the world and has interviewed artists including Marina Abramovic, Nan Goldin, Ai Weiwei, Lubaina Himid and Herzog & de Meuron. She has also worked in content strategy and production.