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In the classic art-historical telling, performance art was birthed around 1910 in Italy by a group of men who incited audience riots with ideological and aesthetic provocations at their Futurist serata, or evenings. Fast-forward to the 1950s, and body-based art emerges as one of several tactics to dematerialize the art object and resist easy commodification of one’s artistic endeavors—a concern primarily for those testing the boundaries of, rather than fighting for access to, the art world and its market. Only with this traditional narrative in mind can one fully appreciate the audacity of Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance, by Uri McMillan, an associate professor of humanities at University of California Los Angeles. Refusing to add black women performers to a canonical construction that would already assume their supplementarity, McMillan insists on reconceiving this entire history with their practices at the center. In so doing, he challenges many of the tenets of what we might imagine as the efficacy of performance art, and addresses ideological blind spots that the white, avant-garde genealogies of the past have generated and maintained. In fact, he stretches the category of performance art to its near-breaking point, forcing readers to work through their own attachments to notions of agency, artistry, autonomy, and subjectivity in evaluating performances provoked by the facts of life under chattel slavery. This drags into the light what the “universalist” Euro-American performance-art lineage obscures—the racial and gender privilege that must accompany imagining bodies as somehow less amenable to capitalist commodification.
Instead, McMillan’s study dares us to discern the roots of feminist art and performance in the pre–Civil War conditions in which black women’s bodies were literal commodities, their subjectivity denied in a market that traded them as objects with sexual, reproductive, and economic value. He posits that strategic performances of objecthood through “avatar production” (10) uniquely developed by black female subjects counterintuitively open “a way toward agency rather than its antithesis.” This approach “rescrambl[es] the dichotomy between objectified bodies or embodied subjects by reimagining objecthood as a performance-based method that disrupts presumptive knowledges of black subjectivity” (9).
McMillan starts his history where presumptive knowledge is scarce and suspect, tracing the bleak ephemeral trail of Joice Heth, an enslaved, immobile black woman whom P. T. Barnum presented throughout the 1830s as a 161-year-old who had been George Washington’s nursemaid. McMillan identifies the confluence of mid-nineteenth-century scientism, freak show spectacles, and a “cultural nostalgia . . . rooted in racial dominance” (29), which he terms mammy memory, that made this artifice both possible and popular—so popular in fact that when Joice Heth was laid to rest (after a final command performance—a public autopsy), new figurations, such as “Joice Heth’s grandmother” and “Mother Boston,” spontaneously appeared. McMillan argues that Heth’s purportedly ancient nurturing body served to authenticate a naturalized racial subservience at the heart of the nation’s founding myth. After considering her performance through the lens of disability studies and in relation to rumors she was but an automaton—another way of denying her humanity—McMillan concludes by reflecting on a reported instance when the coerced subject behind this constructed avatar broke character. In this “sonic of dissent”—Heth damns her audience to the devil, refutes knowledge of Washington, and demands a drink—the author wants to see hints of agency but also rebukes an overinvestment in finding evidence of such. Quoting Saidiya Hartman, he encourages “rethinking the relation of performance and agency” (60) within a context in which performance under duress was necessary for survival, and consent and free will were historically constrained.
Moving forward to 1848, we encounter Ellen Craft, who with her husband, William, orchestrated a brilliant escape from their respective plantation-prisons. Deftly deploying her light skin—itself evidence of generations of sexual objectification and the absurdity of the one-drop rule—Ellen daringly traveled north from Georgia by ship and train as a disabled white gentlemen with William as “his” black manservant. Ellen Craft’s quotidian daily acts as the white Mr. William Johnson constituted a layered performance combining racial passing, gender-bending, class crossing, and, crucially, the adoption of aliments—an arm in a sling, a poultice held to the face—to mask illiteracy and minimize verbal interactions. Aligning this “prosthetic performance” with Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, McMillan considers the way these props function as “actuants,” forcing hotel managers and ticket agents to act on behalf of the mysterious Mr. Johnson. Successfully achieving freedom, the couple continued to perform on the abolitionist circuit. This included participating in a coordinated interracial perambulation around London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Intended to incite American attendees, who alone would be enraged by them, the Crafts’ actions presage the supposedly radical provocations of the Futurists sixty years later. McMillan draws enticing connections between these actions and those of his next subject, Adrian Piper, who also deployed her racially ambiguous body as a disruptive agent in street performance. The way avatars appear across media, shifting from live performances to images and textual enactments, is further explored via the frontispiece engraving of Craft as Johnson in the published account of her and her husband’s escape, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.
McMillan’s genealogy leaps a hundred years in a page to engage with Piper’s philosophically nuanced performative practices of the 1970s. He starts with, but then redirects attention away from, Piper’s critically acclaimed and well-documented Mythic Being series (1973–75), arguing that its interpretations have been too proscribed by Piper’s own writings framing this work in terms of race and “otherness.” Instead, McMillan delves into the private performances that led up to it, from Catalysis (1970) and Untitled for Max’s Kansas City (1970) to Aretha Franklin Catalysis (1972) and the Spectator Series (1973). Through this, we follow Piper’s methodical, ontological experimentation as she seeks ways to empty out her self-consciousness by performing her own objecthood while assimilating an outside, subjective perspective into her awareness as a performing object. In Aretha Franklin Catalysis, her reliance on black dance forms and the rhythm-and-blues anthem “Respect” to enter this mental space emphasizes the degree to which black women, from Heth and Craft to Franklin and Piper, have learned to use the “plastic possibilities” of their bodies to maneuver between positions and perspectives. This reframes Mythic Being as an extension of Piper’s earlier investigations of self-alienation via the avatar of a “third-world, working-class, overtly hostile male” (Piper, quoted in McMillan, 137).
In the final chapter, Howardena Pindell’s virtuoso video performance Free, White and 21 (1980) anchors discussion of the biographical experiences, artistic and curatorial practices, and collectivized activism that feed into and spin out from this evisceration of white feminism and art-world racism. Pindell’s video intercuts shots of the artist staring into the camera and sharing examples of overt racism from her own and her mother’s life with those of the artist impersonating a white female interlocutor, with blond wig and cat-eye glasses, who refutes each of these incidents. Between these conversational moments, Pindell is shown as a silent figure, her face wrapped in gauze or covered in sticky translucent strips. An ideal example of a single work in which multiple, slippery avatars are overlaid and undone by an artist, Free, White and 21 also foregrounds a particular type of performed objecthood, with the body serving as a sculptural surface. McMillan connects this to Pindell’s abstract painterly practice as well as broader discussions of the body as the primary canvas to which black-diasporic producers had access. In the end, the work is a fitting reminder that black female performers turning to self-objectification and shape-shifting as a strategy, and their recourse to impersonation in order to be heard, are driven by lifelong experiences of being unseen as a full subjects and dismissed in their testimony. As the sole confirmed member of the anonymous collective PESTS, Pindell also points to the potentiality of organizational avatars for launching critiques of power.
The book ends, as most genealogies do, in the present, with McMillan pointing to the disruptive power of character play in the career of pop singer Nicki Minaj and in the collaborative video work Breakdown (2011), by artists Simone Leigh, Liz Magic Laser, and opera singer Alicia Hall Moran. Younger performers such as Kismet Nuñez, Narcissister, and Janelle Monáe, who engage with digital avatars and android doubles, indicate future directions for this new narrative.
Bold as it may be, the inclusion of Heth in this lineage functions as a kind of unresolvable irritant. There is no way to comfortably assimilate her story into the clever maneuvering and tactical self-objectification that McMillan himself wants to claim for his anticipatory feminist performance artists, let alone into existing definitions of performance art. And yet, this dissonant chord remains the book’s most powerful provocation, forcing a continual testing of inherited terms and assumptions. I’m less eager to perform such mental gymnastics, however, to locate agency in the “prosthetic performance” of the sling worn by Craft. Given that women and people of color are still fighting for full bodily autonomy and agentive recognition, attending to inanimate actuants, rather than the ingenuity of the performers who deploy them, seems intellectually trendy but ethically unconvincing in this context.
Independent curator and PhD candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York