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At the Performa Biennial in New York, African Artists Will Take Center Stage

A Performa premiere in 2009 of William Kentridge’s I Am Not Me, the Horse Is Not Mine.

PAULA COURT/COURTESY PERFORMA

Performa, the biennial for performance art of myriad kinds in New York, will showcase two new programming platforms within its run this November: a “South African Pavilion Without Walls” and “Afroglossia,” a series of commissions featuring artists from Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco, and South Africa. The combination of the two will make up the majority of this year’s Performa 17, which will be dispersed across various venues and locations in New York City from November 1 through 19.

The pavilion will be organized largely by RoseLee Goldberg, the founding director of Performa and a native of South Africa. “Afroglossia” will be organized by Adrienne Edwards, a Performa curator since 2010 and, as of last year, also a curator at large for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

The two correlating platforms owe in part to travels Goldberg and Edwards made over the past two years to Africa to talk to artists working there. (A fellowship grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and supplemental funds from the Ford Foundation made that research possible.)

Zanele Muholi’s Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016.

© ZANELE MUHOLI/COURTESY STEVENSON, CAPE TOWN/JOHANNESBERG AND YANCEY RICHARDSON, NEW YORK

“My interest in performance takes me back to growing up in South Africa, where there wasn’t a big separation [between artistic disciplines],” Goldberg told ARTnews. “You weren’t going to painting shows or sculpture shows—rather, there was this idea of different ceremonies, different rituals, and different ways of articulating aesthetics that played out live. Performance was a natural way to approach different subject matter.”

The “Pavilion Without Walls” concept has been integral to the past two editions of Performa, now in its seventh incarnation since its inaugural edition in 2005. The first such pavilion, in 2013, was devoted to Norway, and the second, in 2015, was focused on Australia. This year’s pavilion, Goldberg and Edwards were both quick to note, is the first devoted to a country from the Global South.

“It coalesces around a kind of vitality that cannot depend upon certain funding streams to enable such a commitment,” said Edwards, who attributed the possibility of this year’s pavilion to an increase in private funds. “There’s such a depth of work happening in South Africa that deserves a spotlight, and there are intersecting connections between [the pavilion and “Afroglossia”] and what’s important to the artists in the program.”

Projects commissioned for the pavilion include installations of large-scale photographs by Zanele Muholi, a theatrical piece for sound-inclined sculptures by Kemang Wa Lehulere, a work enlisting “toweringly high chairs” and sewing machines by Nicholas Hlobo, a choreographed procession through city streets by Mohau Modisakeng, and a new “lecture performance” by William Kentridge that addresses Kurt Schwitters’s sound-poem The Ursonate (1922–32). The Kentridge work directly engages Performa 17’s previously announced historical theme: the legacy of Dada.

Tracey Rose’s Die Wit Man, 2015.

SVEN LAURENT/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND DAN GUNN, BERLIN

Sharing certain cross-currents but drawing on artists from wider environs, the “Afroglossia” platform will draw on what a Performa statement describes as “questions about what is radical, how the conditions of everyday life inform artistic choices, and what constitutes experimentation in cross-boundary performance.” Artists involved include Yto Barrada, creating her first live performance, with film, sculpture, song, and spoken word; Omar Berrada and M. NourbeSe Philip, presenting an epic-length poem to be accompanied by the musician Amino Belyamani; Teju Cole, with a multimedia photographic response to the 2016 U.S. election; and Kwani Trust, a literary network from Nairobi that will present a piece focused on the Swahili Coast. Other projects include a big collaboration between Julie Mehretu and jazz musician Jason Moran as well as performance works by Wangechi Mutu and Tracey Rose.

In advance of the programming, Edwards traveled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, and Senegal, spending two to three weeks in each. “There’s something overwhelming about taking on a continent,” the curator said. “There’s an impossibility there that also felt like an invitation to think about how it could be approached. In different places, I went in with one specific idea and came out with something very different, so I felt the need to focus on artistic voices and how an individual could see their particular experience and their context in relation to history. There’s a kind of autobiographical voice that comes across in all these different projects.”

For each piece, Edwards worked with artists to draw out new or expanded notions of performance in relation to their specialties in different media, as is the Performa custom. “The way these commissions get built, they become containers for an entire way that an artist is working,” Edwards said. “They are something the viewer can enter.”

“Many artists work across different disciplines,” Goldberg added, “and you couldn’t possibly contain that in an exhibition. But the context of Performa allows us to think of work in many dimensions and use those dimensions to express layered takes on culture, society, and politics. That’s what I have known from so many African artists: fluid movement between performance and making objects—or drawings, films, photography—and being in public.”

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