Black performance art energizes the Walker

Tonight marks the opening of “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” at the Walker Art Center, and the museum is calling it a groundbreaking survey of the last 50 years.

Curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver with the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Walker has added works from its own permanent collection to the exhibition, which runs through the end of the year.

It includes the work of Dread Scott, who writes about his “I Am Not a Man” performance in Harlem.

Performance Still, “I Am Not a Man” by Dread Scott, 2009

Scott writes:

Making reference to the 1968 Memphis Sanitation workers strike where the iconic “I Am a Man” sign originated, the performance inverted the sign’s statement, pointing to the importance of the Civil Rights protests as well as to their limitations.

Along with this historic resonance, the performance simultaneously addressed our era—racism is foundational to America and has not abated.

Despite assertions that America has entered a post-racial period, reality contradicts this: 1 in 9 young Black men are in prison; predatory lending policies have caused the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history; Henry Louis Gates gets arrested “breaking into” his own home; etc. I Am Not a Man resides in the uncomfortable space between a race-free fantasy world and the lived experience of millions.

Oliver says she was inspired to assemble the exhibition after working on a retrospective of the art of Benjamin Patterson.

“When I came across Patterson’s work, I wasn’t really thinking about performance work,” said Oliver. “That set off a ten year odyssey to construct this exhibition. A lot of the work was oral history, talking to artists who led me to other artists. Strangely enough these artists were hiding in plain sight. They’ve always been here, they’ve just never been presented or recorded in this way.”

The galleries are filled with both documentation of performance pieces — photographs and films — as well as sculptures and other physical artifacts. But this exhibition is not just about events gone by. Tonight’s opening will kick off with several performance pieces, and artists will animate the galleries several times throughout the show’s run.

The works highlight the legacy of older performance artists such as Patterson, Terry Adkins and David Hammons, and the influences they’ve had on younger generations.

Lorraine O’Grady created the persona “Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire” and used the character to protest a lack of black artists in a New Museum exhibition. Her dress is made of layers of white gloves. Photo courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York

“Radical Presence” includes more than 100 works by 36 artists, and themes emerge among them.

“The schism of the binary between black and white is a recurring theme,” said Oliver. “And the pushing away from those binaries into other areas is another theme. Guerrilla actions, the idea of the spectacle in the streets, audience participation – all of these things get teased out over generations.”

While documentation of performance art in the 60s and 70s was usually of a more journalistic nature, Oliver says people are now looking at the documentation as its own sort of art object.

She says it’s important that the Walker Art Center is presenting the exhibition.

“Within the contemporary art landscape the Walker has always presented itself as the zenith of progressive thinking and scholarly practices,” said Oliver. “It really is an honor to have this show presented here. It says that these artists are undeniably a part of the performance art dialogue.”

Maren Hassinger (second from right) leads artists in a performance of “Women’s Work” at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston. Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center

Artist Maren Hassinger is in town for the opening weekend of the exhibition; she’ll be performing “Women’s Work” on Saturday at 4 p.m.

Hassinger says the exhibition offers incredibly interesting ideas for everyone, regardless of where they come from.

“Some people are black, and some people are white; the fact that they are divided is unfortunate,” said Hassinger. “I would hope in the future that we should have more quality and more diversity in our shows. This show is in the vanguard, and the next step is to take the black and white out of it.”

Minneapolis artist Beverly Cottman will be joining Hassinger in her performance of “Women’s Work.” She found “Radical Presence” eye-opening.

“This is a show where I am not at all ashamed to say, most of these artists I was not even aware of,” said Cottman. “And I was also not aware that this movement from the visual arts, putting performance art in the forefront. It’s collaborative and integrative – it’s fantastic.”

Untitled (RSVP) by Senga Nengudi, 2013 Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center

A performance artist herself, Cottman says she doesn’t separate her performance work from her visual work, but understands that audiences often expect things to be broken out into categories. She said seeing photographs and films of performances presented as art in their own right was inspiring, and made her think more about how she documents her own work.

But Cottman longs for a day when such an exhibition wouldn’t need the label “radical.”

“I would like to feel that my presence as an African-American artist is not so radical,” said Cottman. “It’s a big deal because I’m doing great creative work, but it’s not a big deal because I’m black. This show is probably a step toward that.”