Performa 17 Spotlights New Experimental Cross-Boundary Works by African Artists and Writers
Performa, the internationally acclaimed organization dedicated to live performance across disciplines, announces AFROGLOSSIA and a South African Pavilion Without Walls. Both will feature in Performa 17, the seventh edition of the Performa Biennial, to take place November 1–19, 2017, at locations throughout New York City.
These two platforms expand upon Performa’s long history of commissioning, presenting, and contextualizing new multidisciplinary performance by African artists, since the very first biennial in 2005. Performa Institute programs have also delved into the influence of African aesthetics and their circulation in international art movements in public programs such as “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” in 2010, which looked at contemporary performance in Africa, as well as conferences on the biennial’s historical anchors, including “Get Ready for the Marvelous 1932-2013” with its focus on Surrealism in 2013, and “Paradiso: Performing the Renaissance” with presentations that explored the African presence in Renaissance Europe in 2015. These investigations sought to understand and document the historical precedence of interdisciplinary art in Africa and to provide a unique lens into the ways contemporary art has developed across the continent and beyond.
“AFROGLOSSIA and the South African Pavilion Without Walls, two programs focused on Africa for the Performa 17 Biennial, explore a broad swathe of work by 15 artists living in or originating from five different African countries,” says RoseLee Goldberg, Founding Director and Chief Curator of Performa, and lead curator of the South African Pavilion Without Walls. “The work of each of these artists is powerful and deeply moving in its highly individualized iconography and fluid use of live media to express complex political, social and aesthetic developments. Whether visual artist, photographer, poet or musician, each artist shows an absolute ease in applying any number of media to express bold ideas. It is this feature that is the connecting thread between the artists and that underlines the idea of art itself in countries where community, ceremony, ritual and politics are communicated through live performance with an intensity of image-making, song, music, dance, spoken word and poetry that all hold equal value as cultural markers in civic life.”
Coined by Performa Curator Adrienne Edwards, AFROGLOSSIA is a neologism that riffs on the term polyglossia, defined as the coexistence of multiple languages in one area. The “afro” prefix references the incredible complexity, heterogeneity and multiplicity that is Africa. The AFROGLOSSIA program for Performa 17 highlights a range of artistic voices and coalesces diverse perspectives from various regions of the African continent into a single program platform, allowing viewers to experience distinct approaches to experimental interdisciplinary art and ideas being put forth by artists from Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Morocco and South Africa. Questions about what is radical, how the conditions of everyday life inform artistic choices, and what constitutes experimentation in cross-boundary performance all emerge as important animating forces in the program’s commissions and projects. Each AFROGLOSSIA commission represents points of convergence where each artist engages a specific set of social, historical, political and economic scenarios and experiences in their own distinct forms. Intermingling fiction, poetry, essays, film, performance, painting, music, video and photography, the program provides a means through which we can contemplate the intersection of radical art and radical politics as articulated by artists from Africa and its diaspora.
“Through my discussions with the artists and my travels in their countries over the past two years—and given the current political climate here in the United States as well as in Africa—it became clear that the power of voice, the resonant ways an individual can speak to the concerns and realities of the collective, was important for this project. The fact that these voices are often challenging, even opaque, obscure and defiant, made them an especially compelling focus, reflective of the artists’ creative lives and values. The vast majority of the artists participating in AFROGLOSSIA were born in the 1970s and came of age in the aftermath of various independence movements. Their experiments with cross-boundary art making and the distinct ethical dimension they bring to their work are natural and logical expressions of their tendency for radical rule-bending,” says Adrienne Edwards, curator of AFROGLOSSIA.
AFROGLOSSIA commissions and projects include:
For her first live performance, the French-Moroccan artist Yto Barrada will present Young Africans. Melding archival research, historical maps, Berber textile manufacturing, film, personal diaries and family photographs, Barrada’s Peforma commission takes as its point of departure her mother’s 1966 visit to the United States under the auspices of Operation Crossroads Africa, during which she became involved with Pan-African revolutionary and socialist movements of the time. Using film, sculpture, song and spoken word, Barrada explores the mythologies and folktales from her mother’s journey in order to contemplate the social, historical and political complexities of her own relationship to her Moroccan identity, which she reveals through deeply personal stories and objects.
Prompted by recent instances of violence against Black African migrants in Morocco, Omar Berrada and M. NourbeSe Philip present an epic-length poem that investigates histories of trans-Saharan encounters using a variety of sources, including administrative documents, travel narratives and musical forms. Over centuries of commercial, spiritual and scholarly exchange, there were times when the Sahara looked more like a bridge than a barrier, a place where cultures met and created new, creolized forms of life. What has happened since? It is a story with a tangled timeline, a tale of silences and unspoken pasts irrupting into the present. Today’s migrants are placing their feet in the forgotten tracks of earlier travelers, tradesmen and the enslaved to reawaken long-forgotten voices. Philip and Berrada, in a polylingual performance accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Amino Belyamani, summon the layered histories and composite identities that make up the dream of a Black Morocco.
Nigerian-born writer, art historian and photographer Teju Cole will present Black Paper, a visceral photographic response to his experiences following the 2016 election. This continuously evolving, large-scale work explores the buried feelings and haunted spaces the artist confronts during mental and physical strolls. The result is a powerful, multipart multimedia performance that interrogates dreams, shadows, legibility and premonition with critical rigor and novelistic intensity.
As part of a Performa Institute residency and experiment, Kwani Trust, a Nairobi-based literary network, will present Everyone is Radicalizing, an experimental subversion of the printed book carried out by the writers and editors of the Kwani Trust. The project includes photography, oral history and film, as well as a series of public programs at the Performa Hub. Everyone is Radicalizing focuses on aspects of radicalization across East Africa with focus on the Kenyan Coast and North Eastern Kenya as nexus of cultures, religions and politics. The project uniquely amplifies the area’s historical and cultural context by taking a broad, exploratory look at phenomena often described in monolithic terms, such as terror, insecurity, violent extremism and radicalization.
For their Performa 17 commission, Ethiopian-born American artist Julie Mehretu and American jazz musician Jason Moran have been collaborating to create an experience that contemplates mourning and abstraction in response to the current political landscape. During this time, Moran has written a score, influenced by New Orleans jazz funeral processions, as a sonic counterpart to Mehretu’s monumental paintings and unique style of mark-making. Mehretu’s works, made in the wake of the recent American election, are frenetic yet contemplative, as her gestures become characters in their collaborative performance.
Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu returns to Performa through a new commission, Banana Stroke, which builds on a recent shift in her practice towards fermenting, dying, or saturating with dirt the paper materials she uses in her collage paintings, and then deploying them in site-specific action painting. For the Biennial, Mutu uses this dynamic, vibrant approach to realize a live multimedia performance that animates ideas she has long explored in her art, ranging from international political events to the daily uncertainty faced by women in Kenya. Drawing links between New York City, where she is based, and Nairobi, where she has recently opened a new studio, Mutu will present a personal and poetic performance that delves into these two urban centers she calls home.
For her Performa Commission and first major solo presentation at an institution in New York, South African artist Tracey Rose will present The Tracey Rose Show in collaboration with Performa17 and AFROGLOSSIA presents: The Good Ship Jesus vs The Black Star Line hitching a ride with Die Alibama [working title], a multi-part durational performance. For its first part, Rose will create field recordings and video footage of a series of satellite performances carried out and captured around New York City. Immersed in various landscapes throughout the city—from Central Park, to Lower Manhattan, to Times Square—Rose’s collaborators reenact selections of her previous performances, and pay homage to key figures who have influenced her art and this commission, including Vito Acconci, Lorraine O’Grady, and Adrian Piper. The second part explores the idea of battle as an epic journey, referencing the first British slave ship to the Americas, and the shipping line started by Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, pointing to the complexity of relations and intricacies of identity between those stolen or sent away from Africa, and those who remained. During the Biennial, Rose’s collaborators will continually develop and rehearse their script while on set, the precision and detail of the content changing, evolving, and sometimes falling apart over time. Each day of the program, rehearsal will culminate with a performance at dusk, the time between light and dark serving as a poetic reference to the subversive binaries at play in the work.
Co-presented with Anthology Film Archives, AFROGLOSSIA’s commissions will be contextualized by a special four-day film program comprising moving image works that influenced the participating artists’ commissions or their overall practice.
South African Pavilion Without Walls
South Africa has long been an area of deep fascination for Performa. Since the first Biennial in 2005, the organization has brought artists and groups such as Bernie Searle, Candice Breitz, Athi-Patra Ruga, Robin Rhode, William Kentridge and Chimurenga to share their singular vision with New York audiences. The South African Pavilion Without Walls at Performa 17 lets the Institute take a deeper look at the country in order to conduct an in-depth investigation into the artistic practices developing in the post-apartheid era, which represents one of the most dynamic and vigorous spaces of artistic practice in a state of constant invention. During the eighties and nineties, artists from different generations simultaneously shifted away from and expanded modes of production that were informed by resistance culture and modern and contemporary western art as they adapted to emerging global changes. For South African artists, art and politics are not separate spheres of practice but complex systems in which they play important cultural and intellectual roles. Performance, in particular, has emerged as a flexible vehicle for these artists living under politically repressed regimes because it is able to speak across the multitude of cultures, languages, tribes, identities, songs and landscapes of South Africa and beyond. Bringing together artists who have developed deeply personal and individual vocabularies in the post-apartheid culture, Performa 17 aims to elucidate the complex strategies and conceptual frameworks defined by the contradiction, disparity, and skepticism generated in the midst and wake of dramatic political shifts, and to reveal their relevance to the global conversation.
Commissions and projects in the South African Pavilion Without Walls include:
Zanele Muholi is a Cape Town-based photographer and “visual activist” best known for her ongoing portrait series Faces and Phases, begun in 2006 and now totaling over 250 black and white portraits depicting LGBT life in South Africa. For her Performa 17 commission, Muholi will create a series of public, interactive installations featuring large-scale photographs, many of which are part of her new archive documenting the faces of friends and communities in her birthplace of Durban. Situated in the streets and public spaces of New York, these forceful black and white portraits of faces will confront viewers in direct yet intimate acts of engagement. During her multipart commission, Muholi will travel across New York’s five boroughs, meeting with LGBT youth of color and other groups, stretching her project beyond the gallery walls and into the very fabric of the city.
For his Performa 17 commission, Kemang Wa Lehulere will present a dynamic sound installation that he and his collaborators have built in a large warehouse studio in Cape Town. Wa Lehulere is known for his poetic drawings, sculptures, and narrative installations featuring wall text, old school desks and chalkboards. This performance continues his artistic exploration of the blurred lines between the individual and the collective in South African life. Wa Lehulere will work with theater director Chuma Sopotela to activate his new sculptures: “machines” that become amplified instruments that can be played by musicians and performers. The sonic performance installation further draws from new artistic research on astronomy, originally sparked by the film “Cosmic Africa” (2003) and the work of African astronomer Thebe Medupe.
Johannesburg-based artist Nicholas Hlobo’s Performa 17 commission expands on an earlier performance installation, umBhovuzo: The Parable of the Sower (2016), an elegant and sensual work involving four men seated atop toweringly high chairs at equally high tables mounted with Singer sewing machines. Representing a cherished “altarpiece” of productivity and potential income in the makeshift squatter homes of apartheid-era townships, as well as the labor and repression symbolized by the American-manufactured sewing machine, the performers sew endless bolts of cotton and raw silk into long tails that pile up on the floor surrounding them. The meditative, durational piece is a striking exploration of domesticity and gender, and of the continuing effects of colonialism on the workforce of South African men and women.
Acclaimed artist William Kentridge will explore Performa 17’s ‘history anchor’ investigating the 100th anniversary of Dada with a new performance based on the seminal sound poem The Ursonate (1922-1932) by Kurt Schwitters, that came to represent the pinnacle of the movement’s experimentation and existentialism. Kentridge’s new lecture performance follows his successful first commission for Performa 09, I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine (2009), which marked the first personal appearance by the artist in one of his performances. This commission will include a new film made especially for the New York performance, as well as live accompaniment by musicians performing on stage with the artist. The performance will be presented at The Half Church in Harlem.
For Mohau Modisakeng’s Performa project, the Soweto-born artist will lead a procession that will travel through the streets of New York City, stopping at historically significant landmarks along the route throughout Harlem and uptown Manhattan, and ending in Times Square. Engaged in a loosely choreographed dance composed of walking, running, jumping, falling, leaning and sitting, the performers will move through public space carrying their personal possessions, baggage, and furniture, drawing parallels between the historical displacement of South Africans subject to racial segregation and forced removals, and the displacement associated with today’s global mass migrations.
Founded in 2004 by art historian and curator RoseLee Goldberg, Performa is the leading organization dedicated to exploring the critical role of live performance in the history of 20th century art and to encouraging new directions in performance for the 21st century. Since launching New York’s first performance biennial, Performa 05, in 2005, the organization has solidified its identity as a commissioning and producing entity. As a “museum without walls,” Performa contributes important art historical heft to the field by showing the development of live art in all its forms from many different cultural perspectives, reaching back to the Renaissance. The Performa Biennial is celebrated worldwide as the first biennial to give special attention to this remarkable history. The Biennial transforms the city of New York into the “world capital of artists’ performance” every other November, attracting a national and international audience of more than 200,000 and garnering more than five million website hits during its three-week run. In the last decade, Performa has presented nearly 600 performances, worked with more than 700 artists, and toured commissioned performances in nearly 20 countries around the world.
The Performa curatorial team is led by Chief Curator RoseLee Goldberg, and includes Performa curators Adrienne Edwards and Charles Aubin, with contributions from Performa Consortium curators. The Performa program is produced by Esa Nickle.
For more on Performa and its programs, including its Biennial, please visit www.performa-arts.org.