When Holly Bass arrived in Washington D.C., in 1994, for an internship at the Wall Street Journal, she never expected to stay. Her friends had tipped her off about an open mic night in Georgetown at It’s Your Mug Café on Tuesdays, so she decided to check it out.
She approached the evening’s emcees, saying, “These two guys I met in New York told me to come here on Tuesday. I don’t know anybody.” They replied, “You know us.” It instantly felt like family, she recalled. Now, almost 30 years on, that first open mic night, in fact, proved consequential.
A master’s in journalism from Columbia University had brought Bass to D.C., but it was her bachelor’s degree in dance from Sarah Lawrence College that led her to pursue performance art. At Sarah Lawrence, she was a student of Viola Farber, an original member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. “Through Merce Cunningham, you learn about John Cage, you learn about Robert Rauschenberg, and so this really close connection between movement, music, and visual art existed,” Bass said.
Now a major figure in the D.C. art scene who was recently a finalist for the National Portrait Gallery’s 2022 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, Bass is the subject of a collaborative exhibition, with emerging performance artist Maps Glover, at the city’s Transformer gallery. In “Double Rainbow: PRISMMMs” is documentation of one particularly compelling piece the two did together. Pretending To Be Rock (2019) shows Glover as he hangs from a harness, cold water dripping down his body, while Bass is seen on all fours, candlewax dripping onto her back. A recreation of a performance piece by Sherman Fleming but with the gender roles reversed, it was hard to view but even more difficult to ignore.
With this exhibition, Bass said she wanted to create an intergenerational dialogue. A generation older than her, Fleming was an emerging artist in D.C. when Bass moved to the city; he has since moved to Philadelphia. “Sherman was definitely this up-and-coming, hot young artist in D.C. And to hear his perspective, I don’t think he felt supported by the city, which I think contributed to him leaving” she said. That was also her motivation behind collaborating with Glover, who is a generation younger than Bass and whom she called an “incredibly talented young artist,” adding “I worry about the younger generation being able to find affordable housing and artists spaces in D.C.”
An important part of why she does her work is because she wants artists to stay in D.C. Over the past three decades, Bass has witnessed the district’s change from a predominantly Black city to one with a more diverse ethnic landscape. The one thing that has remained constant, however, is D.C.’s invisibility in the larger artistic scene. “I feel like D.C. has incredible artists, but we don’t always get the same shine that other places do,” she said of the city that produced the Washington Color School, among whose most famous exponents, include Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam, who have both only received mainstream attention in the past decade. She added, “The Harlem Renaissance actually started in D.C. It was a new Negro Renaissance, and D.C. was one of the hubs of that renaissance.”
As with her collaborative work, Bass’s solo work has been influential in expanding how performance art is seen within the wider art world. Her performance–cum–portrait American Woman (2021) is a video work, showing Bass, seen from head to toe, in a pristine white space, wearing a red jumpsuit with a gold belt and open-toe high heels painted with the American flag. When it was exhibited as part of last year’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, the video monitor was bordered with a highly baroque gold frame, a nod to the history of portraiture.
Won in 2016 by Amy Sherald, the Outwin is among the country’s most important competitions dedicated solely to supporting innovations within the field of portrait, though the National Portrait Gallery, which administers it, didn’t accept photographic entries until just a few years ago. Bass was motivated to enter the 2022 competition because of another D.C. artist, Sheldon Scott, who was a finalist with a video portrait in 2019.
Bass sees American Woman as an important step in the evolution—and expansion—of the definition of portraiture. “I see the work as representing a kind of persona that is Black women—personified or not personified. Black women are embodied through this one figure,” she said.
Over the course of her performance in front of the camera, Bass uses a chiffon American flag scarf to transform herself into different women from across history. All the while, she moves her body dramatically to give life to the narration and music that plays in the background. “When I wrap the scarf around my head one way and we hear the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer, I’m representing that sharecropper. I’m representing my grandmother,” she explained. “When I tie it around my neck, and we hear the voice of Shirley Chisolm, I represent the political ambitions and contributions [of Black women].”
She added, “It’s not a portrait of me. I don’t see that work as a self-portrait. I really see American Woman as this broad conceptual portrait.”
As part of Simone Leigh’s American Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, Leigh and curator Rashida Bumbray invited Bass to perform American Woman as part of the exhibition’s Loophole of Retreat, a three-day gathering and symposium of Black women artists and scholars that focused on creative and intellectual labor of Black women and also included fellow artists like Firelei Báez, Ja’Tovia Gary, Grada Kilomba, Lorraine O’Grady, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Tourmaline.
Though American Woman is meant to represent a broad cross-section of Black American women, for Bass the work is a deeply personal one, inspired by her family’s own history of building wealth over the past several generations. Bass is the first person in her family who has never picked cotton. Her first solo show in 2016, “Root Work,” was a response to a story her father told her about picking cotton as a sharecropper during the Jim Crow era. From before the sun rose until after the sun set, 15-year-old Hollie Earl Bass worked at the fields, earning, at most for one day’s work, $7.50 in 1960. “All of the labor and all of the sacrifices of my parents and my parents’ parents, it’s given me the opportunity to do artistic labor and intellectual labor,” she said.