I guess it’s to be expected that at the benefit gala for Performa, the performance art biennale founded by RoseLee Goldberg in 2004, you can be having a chat with the artistic director of the last Venice Biennale when, suddenly, a performance knocks right into you—the performance being, in this case, Over the Rainbow, a Performa commission by South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga that at that moment consisted of a jazz band procession wailing away as they marched right into our conversation. The Venice Biennale director was Okwui Enwezor.
“RoseLee has done extraordinary ambitious and brave work in creating this platform,” said Enwezor, who was being honored at the benefit. “As you very well know, RoseLee, with her socialization of performance, she’s been a pioneer. Finally, performance has become part of a staple of what institutions are trying to do, in terms of live art. And so it’s a great honor, because it’s coming from an institution that I greatly admire.”
And then the jazz band ran into us.
The collision was pretty much par for the course during the gala, which generally knows how to let loose way better than most of the other annuals benefits held during the charity ball season. Long picnic tables had been lined through the Altman Building, with metal folding chairs crammed beside them, creating a potluck feel rather than the sterilized ambience of the more haughty, stuffy shindigs. For dinner, there was actual food: because the gala (which was sallied with the moniker “Beloved Country”) honored artists and culture of South Africa (Ruga’s home country, as well as Goldberg’s) there was platter after platter of that country’s staples—no dainty little salads here.
(Adding to the tribute to South African was the fact that I was seated next to Candice Breitz—the artist who, alongside Mohau Modisakeng, will represent that country at the 2017 Venice Biennale. That bit of news was announced today, so it’s too bad they didn’t let that bit of information slip last night. We could have, like, talked about her plans for the pavilion. We did talk about how good the nearly raw seared steak was, though.)
Adding to the raucous vibe of the affair was the fact that the band played on throughout the night, with band leader Ruga operating like the Paul Shaffer to Goldberg’s David Letterman—the horn section would bang out boisterous introductory flourishes before the Performa founder came up to introduce the next speaker.
After hearing from the collector Richard Chang and artist Steve McQueen (via video), Goldberg came up to introduce the night’s honoree.
“Okwui, he’s done such an incredible thing for African artists,” she said. “Tonight we’re honoring the king of curators.”
The man of the hour gave a long speech, discussing not really Performa, really, or performance art, but more his role in redefining Africa in the eyes of the global curatorial circuit—which he, more than anyone, has a right to do. He also talked about coming to New York from Nigeria (he still has an apartment here, in Fort Green, despite working in Munich as the director of the Haus der Kunst), which he called “not an individual journey, but a collective journey.”
“When you look at the Metropolitan Museum here in New York, it reaffirms the fact of the reason why I started, as it is not a museum of art, but a museum of the human imagination,” he said. “And I was first and foremost interested in human imagination.”
This was a benefit dinner, which means plenty of speechifying and roll-calling donors, though after the program went on for a bit of time, there was some restlessness that ran through the crowd. Of course it’s important to discuss upcoming Performa commissions and their political implications while everyone is in the same room, but perhaps attendees just wanted to get to the continuation of Ruga’s performance, and then the after party—which featured a raging dance floor and a furious mini-set by what must be Cape Town’s all-time greatest female rapper, Dope Saint Jude.
“I’d like to hold you hostage for a few more minutes,” Goldberg said, quieting the hopped-up crowd. “This is unusual for us, having all these speakers. You come to a gala to have fun—but with the election a week away, we have to talk about these things.”
Ah, right, the election. And with that, the bubble of gala season burst, and the real world intervened again.