Artful Embodiment: Genealogies of the Impossible

From Art Journal 77, no. 3 (Fall 2018)

Uri McMillan. Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. New York: New York University Press, 2015. 282 pp., 36 b/w ills. $29 paper

Malik Gaines. Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible. New York: New York University Press, 2017. 232 pp., 24 b/w ills. $28 paper

Performance art, at its historical and conceptual core, is about the body.1 An artist’s body, in particular. It is about exploring (and exploding), through physical enactment, the limits of subjectivity and the possibilities of objecthood. In recent years, the annals of performance art have received groundbreaking contributions from artists, scholars, and curators alike.2 Two exciting scholarly additions are those of Uri McMillan, an associate professor of English and African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Malik Gaines, a performance artist and associate professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. These studies are situated at the intersections of performance studies, feminist discourse, queer theory, and sexuality studies, and pursue ontologies of blackness. Both books are part of NYU Press’s Sexual Cultures series, founded in 1998 by José Esteban Muñoz and Ann Pellegrini, which has “sought to expand the potential of queer theory.”3

Interdisciplinary scholars focused on blackness and performance, such as Daphne Brooks, Nicole Fleetwood, Christina Sharpe, Jayna Brown, Stephanie Leigh Batiste, Fred Moten, Tavia Nyong’o, and E. Patrick Johnson, have paved the way for the analyses found in both new studies. McMillan contributes to and expands this work by debunking two standard art-world-specific assumptions: “the perceived incommensurability of ‘black’ and ‘avant-garde,’ and the marginalization of black female artists within our conceptions of feminist art” (McMillan, 3). McMillan’s analyis also contests the gendered exclusion of performance-based works by early black art historians and connoisseurs. Compatibly, Gaines’s work expands the field by building on Muñoz’s early explorations of performers working outside the cultural and political mainstream, subverting categories of race and sex that functioned as constraints on their bodily movements.4 Stewarding readers through thrilling and challenging thinking, McMillan and Gaines study artists who define and defy what is possible in performance.

The book first published, McMillan’s Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Performance (2015), “challenges the assumptions underlying what and whose work has traditionally counted as ‘performance art'” (McMillan, 3–4). The book considers the boundaries of the textual canon of performance studies and reads the daring enactments of historical and contemporary black actors, women in particular, as they perform objecthood through the use of avatars. For McMillan, avatars function as artistic mediums, and these mediums are mobilized specifically through avatar production, an analytic the author develops “for understanding the cogent and brave performances of alterity” the women in his study enact. Furthermore, “Avatars, as alternate beings given humanlike agency, are akin to the second selves the black women performers in this book create, inhabit, and perform” (McMillan, 12).

Exploring the avatar production of nineteenth-century enslaved actors such as Joice Heth, an “ancient negress” (chapter 1), and the runaway couple Ellen and William Craft (chapter 2), alongside those of the contemporary artists Adrian Piper (chapter 3) and Howardena Pindell (chapter 4), the author traces “artful performances of objecthood.” McMillan boldly reimagines objecthood in all its historical complexity, as a performance-based method. This notably ambitious task is not without its risks, but fortunately for readers, McMillan masterfully navigates both the opportunities and limitations of such a scholarly endeavor, providing fresh theoretical insight and novel language for discussing a broad range of performers and their enactments.

McMillan presents several new terms that amplify his discussion of avatars and avatar production. For example, performing objecthood is the central process by which an actor becomes an object, “an adroit method of circumventing prescribed limitations on black women in the public sphere while staging art and alterity in unforeseen places” (McMillan, 7). Another is mammy memory, a concept McMillan develops in his first chapter, “Mammy Memory: The Curious Case of Joice Heth, the Ancient Negress.” Heth, an elderly black woman whose actual name remains unknown, was plucked in the 1830s from the plantation where she was enslaved to live out the remainder of her life as a freak show curiosity for the business tycoon P. T. Barnum until her death in 1841 and subsequent public dissection. It was mammy memory, according to McMillan, that enabled Barnum’s hoax of billing Heth as over a century old. The phenomenon “describe[s] how Joice Heth’s impersonations as George Washington’s feeble nursemaid indexes the very real historical practice of black wet nurses caring for white infants” (McMillan, 14). At the same time, mammy memory represents an affective charge behind American longing—”The evocative abilities of [Heth’s fictitious] role underscore the potent sentimental link between childhood, race, and nostalgia” (McMillan, 26).

McMillan’s second chapter explores the passing and prosthetic performances of the fugitive slave Ellen Craft, whose devious impersonation of a disabled white slave owner enabled her to escape to the North with her husband. McMillan’s prosthetic performance captures instances in which performances of objecthood rely on collaborations with inanimate props transformed into active agents through their contact with the artist’s body, such as Craft’s gentleman’s attire, arm sling, and the poultices that covered her face. As in chapter 1, the author presents disability as an integral strategy of avatar production, an important intervention that has broader implications for the study of art and performance. Craft’s avatar amplified quotidian enactments such as walking, reading, and writing, and McMillan elevates these to the status of performance art.

McMillan’s third and fourth chapters engage the contemporary art practices of Piper and Pindell. Under examination are Piper’s self-alienation strategies in the early 1970s, and Pindell’s activism and black feminist critique in the early 1980s. Chapter 3, “Plastic Possibilities: Adrian Piper’s Adamant Self-Alienation,” traces the artist’s nimble movements between Minimalism, conceptualism, and performance, by focusing on precursors to her renowned Mythic Being Series: the voluntarily self-alienating and self-objectifying public performances of Aretha Franklin Catalyst (1972), for which Piper would dance silently in the streets while singing Franklin’s “Respect” to herself, and Spector Series (1973), in which the artist used impersonation and disguise in order to become a “ghostly spectator,” an “object among other objects” (Piper quoted in McMillan, 126). Both performances, along with Mythic Being Series, assert the peculiarly staged public actions of Piper as objet d’art. Moreover, “through her brainy deployment of objecthood and avatar production, Piper superseded the limits of her body and converted herself into art and representation.” Through her performances, the artist “became a catalytic agent, a ghostly spectator, a mysterious avatar, a staged absence.” Significantly for Piper, and other artists across both studies, “alienation has its uses” (all McMillan, 151).

The only performance work by the abstract artist Pindell, Free, White, and 21, is the primary subject of McMillan’s fourth chapter, which is dedicated to historicizing the twelve-minute video and its controversial content. According to the author, “Pindell’s artistic and activist acts” shed light on her “ferocious commitment to exposing racial inequalities” in the art world, which “is partly to blame for Pindell’s relative obscurity and, arguably, alarming erasure” (McMillan, 155). In Free, White, and 21 the artist dons a variety of costumes, portraying several versions of herself and an anonymous “White Woman” who belittles and negates the stories of racism and sexism the multiple selves recount over the course of the video. The piece draws attention to Pindell’s intersectional exclusion from the art world, through memory and social confrontation, and how this exclusion was exacerbated by white feminists’ refusal to acknowledge race and class privilege.

What is striking about McMillan’s approach to performance art scholarship is his satisfyingly dense and interdisciplinary analytic tool kit. Despite the exclusion of performers in McMillan’s study from early histories of American art, few would challenge Piper’s and Pindell’s prominent place in McMillan’s text. However, figures such as Heth, the Crafts, and two performers discussed in the book’s concluding section, the pop star Nicki Minaj and the internet sensation Kismet Nuñez, radically reorient readers, challenge art historical sensibilities, and disturb histories and theories of personhood, objecthood, and subjectivity. Perhaps the most ambitious and complicated of these challenges is found in McMillan’s discussion of Heth. For McMillan, Heth’s character and her public display illustrate “that black performers, and disabled performers, could indeed perceive, witness, and even speak back, in the midst of their objectification,” an important argument that comes at the chapter’s close (McMillan, 60). The author references a single recorded instance of Heth speaking out of turn, giving her audience a brief glimpse of what lay beyond Barnum’s carefully staged spectacle. Inspired by this moment of recalcitrance, Heth’s “irate and profane aside,” a “sound and embodied form of knowledge,” McMillan gives readers the term sonic of dissent (McMillan, 58).

Despite efforts made to restore agency to Heth, however, the analysis skirts the violence and torture she sustained over years in captivity, which presents a challenge to the book’s feminist framework. Discussions of the cosmetic extraction of her teeth, the grueling days she spent under visual and physical scrutiny, and the disabilities she exhibited upon Barnum’s “discovery” of her are all uncomfortably brief. Readers are presented with another challenge when McMillan theorizes Heth’s blindness and paralysis as artful embodiment, rather than by discussing the age-specific or captivity-resultant limitations that both inspired and guaranteed her exploitation. McMillan troubles these realities in short bursts at the chapter’s close; the wait, however, is an unpleasant one. Describing his own tenacity, McMillan writes, “I am cognizant that my own biased desire to locate scintillas of Heth’s subversion from the paucity of information that has survived may situate resistance where there is in fact none at all” (McMillan, 62). For McMillan and this reader, Heth’s is an impossible performance, one that conjures fantasies of agency and resistance yet remains embedded in the violence of captivity and exploitation that framed her compulsory performances.

Gaines’s text takes on the impossible through a different approach entirely. Where McMillan offers new theoretical tools to engage his additions to the American performance art canon, Gaines gives readers a historical look at a group of diverse and international characters who brush up against and often challenge the liberal politics of their time. Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible underscores the radical potential of performance as the author “pursues the possibility that performances of blackness have been capable, sometimes, provisionally, and contingently, of amending dominant discourses that manage representation and constrain the lives they organize (Gaines, 1). The book’s four chapters focus on the work of the American singer and pianist Nina Simone, the plays of the Ghanaian writers Efua Sutherland and Ama Ata Aidoo, performances of the Afro-German actor Günther Kaufmann, and the activities of Sylvester, a member of San Francisco’s Cockettes troupe. Gaines studies these artists’ performance work against three interwoven registers, each of which engages a history of political radicalism—blackness, the period of the 1960s, and the race-space-time continuum of transnational mobility in the African diaspora. Gaines emphasizes that through “text, image, voice, and action,” radical performances make their mark on the field of representation, strategies artists in both studies rely on.

Chapter 1, “Nina Simone’s Quadruple Consciousness,” is one of the gems in Gaines’s study. The author takes on the American singer’s dynamic performance oeuvre in the transformative wake of Daphne Brooks’s writing on Simone’s “triple play” performances.5 Gaines analyzes Simone’s mesmerizing vocal performances against the textual grain of two principal theoretical contributions of the twentieth century, W. E. B. DuBois’s “double consciousness,” and Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect.”6 Specifically, the author analyzes Simone’s performance of Four Women, a blues groove with brief narratives of women characterized by historical archetypes of African American femininity (Gaines, 36). Dubbing Simone’s performance strategy quadruple consciousness, Gaines charts how Simone draws on this hyperbolic term, “transforming the displacing alienations of marginality into a set of unreconciled positions from which to perform.” To this end, “Simone outperforms the oppositional structure of Du Bois’s divided self” (Gaines, 22). It is a move that motivates Gaines’s interrogation of Du Bois’s binary structure, questioning whether a double consciousness is sufficient to capture the multiplicitous positionalities within any black experience.

As demonstrated in McMillan and Gaines’ books, the black expressive milieu often serves as a site from which various and shifting positionalities are sources of provisional power. Such is the case with Simone’s performance methodology, which created “a way to act in excess of the permanent exclusion experienced in any one location” (Gaines, 22). Gaines also examines Simone’s performance of “Mississippi Goddam,” a protest anthem forcefully performed in the devastating aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963. The upbeat show-style tune, combined with Simone’s lyrics and theatrical presentation, distances while making familiar (Gaines, 30). Here, Gaines argues that despite the Brechtian tools deployed in her performance projects, the artist’s “sensibility veers further into cathartic drama than Brecht would likely accept, excavating a black dramatic strain within the oppositionality of epic theatre” (Gaines, 32). Through an analysis of Simone’s performance of “Pirate Jenny,” an arrangement of a song from Brecht and Kurt Weill’s jazzy Threepenny Opera, Gaines gives readers affect effects, a term that suggests that in the “context of black embodiment, thinking and feeling are as inseparable as politics and aesthetics” (Gaines, 34). He makes clear that in comparing African American expressive strategies to a Brechtian program, “the role of alienation must be reevaluated, not simply as a performance technique, but in relationship to its location at the source of African American identity.” Simone’s performative blackness “destabilizes the rational terms that constitute power, but also complicates the terms under which Du Bois, Brecht, and the enlightened left operate” (Gaines, 23).

Gaines’s second chapter, “Efua Sutherland, Ama Ata Aidoo, the State, and the Stage,” is less about performance acts, and instead explores the ways in which the Ghanaian playwright, director, and cultural diplomat Sutherland led the charge in the state-mandated call for original Ghanaian creative production in the early 1960s. Sutherland, known as the mother of Ghana’s National Theater Movement, produced plays that responded to a then-pervasive notion of an “African Personality,” which sourced materials of African modernity to create works that were distinctly Ghanaian and distinctly African. Gaines’s reading of the related “Black Personality” and its emergence vis-à-vis imperialist alienation complements McMillan’s empowered reading of the alienated subjects in his text. In Gaines’s case, it is through alienation born of colonial domination and violence that a particularly Black or African Personality can emerge (Gaines, 61). The chapter inspires curiosity about Sutherland’s own performances astride the complex arenas of state and creative work, as well as the coordinates of her political positionality on the outskirts of the Left. Finally, less than one third of the chapter is dedicated to Ama Ata Aidoo’s work, a distribution that nods to a fruitful starting point for deeper future engagement.

The title of Gaines’s third chapter, “The Radical Ambivalence of Günther Kaufmann,” is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than an examination of performances of Kaufmann, a black German actor in postwar West Germany, the chapter is actually a brilliant, albeit misleading, analysis of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s deployment of Kaufmann’s black body. Kaufmann’s presence served a myriad of artistic and political purposes in the works of the white West German playwright, theater director, and filmmaker. Regarding “radical ambivalence,” Gaines describes Fassbinder’s use of leftist strategies, texts, and tropes, which are then subverted through his unruly uses of camp, revealing the limitations of 1960s Marxist analysis and actions. “This radical ambivalence is animated by the scenario of difference that is at the heart of each of Fassbinder’s narratives; his characters reside at a nexus of gender, sexuality, and race that distorts the dynamic of class oppression” (Gaines, 96). Ultimately, Gaines’s analysis focuses on Fassbinder’s ambivalence toward race (and sex) in his work, presenting Kaufmann as an accessory. Kaufmann’s voice and embodied presence exist at the margins of this chapter, as he does in Fassbinder’s films. While the actor is used to interrogate the racial politics of Fassbinder, a project Gaines masters, the chapter’s rich commentary is ripe for further exploration into performance tactics, contributions, and conflicts driven by Kaufmann himself.

The promise of the title of Gaines’s book is delivered most satisfyingly in the final chapter, where he traces the unruly performances of a San Francisco-based troupe and their most visible black member, Sylvester. The Cockettes were a community of countercultural performers active between 1969 and 1972, producing campy performances for the stage, short films, and impromptu enactments across the public and private lives of the group’s members. According to Gaines, “Sylvester drew on conventions of black American performance, and their transnational discursive sphere, while pursuing a self-styled individualhood” (Gaines, 136). This enabled the performer to outmaneuver the disciplining structures of gender, race, and sexuality through artful performances on stage, on screen, and in everyday life. Like McMillan’s avatars and “through the radical expressivity of costume, Sylvester, like [Josephine] Baker, like [Billie] Holiday, like [Nina] Simone, constructs a persona.” Furthermore, for Gaines, “While the gendered, black person has difficulty assuming the position of a subject with agency, the diva persona assumes provisional power through this radical expressivity” (Gaines, 173, emphases in original). Significantly, rather than merely constructing a gender, Sylvester’s drag performances constructed an entire lifeworld.

“I’ve been performing my whole life!” This mantra was a reoccurring lyric intoned by opera singer Alicia Hall Moran in fitful bursts in Breakdown, a performance piece by the sculptor and video artist Simone Leigh (McMillan, 197). It is also a poetic speech act that aptly signifies both books under review and this moment in the field of performance. McMillan’s Embodied Avatars concludes by bringing Leigh and Minaj into critical dialogue, focusing on the ways in which both participate in digital media’s unruly oscillation between complex terrains of the visual and the real. Faithfully pursuing two questions throughout—what counts as performance art and who counts as a performance artist—McMillan’s text and Moran’s performance forcefully underscore, as does Gaines’s final chapter, the fact that in black performance and performances of blackness, art and life are inextricably linked. These authors have produced two novel studies that challenge the ways scholars think and write histories of art and histories of performance. Each a delight to read.

Stephanie Sparling Williams is a visiting scholar in art history at Phillips Andover and an assistant curator at the Addison Gallery of American Art. Her scholarly work is invested in modern and contemporary art histories, with a particular focus on the direct address, performance, conceptual, and feminist art-making practices of women-identified artists of color. Other research interests include auto-ethnographic approaches to visual studies, critical theory, institutional critique, and phenomenology.

  1. See Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); Jones, Performing the Body/Performing the Text (London: Routledge, 1999); and The Artist Body, ed. Jones and Tracey Warr (London: Phaidon, 2000).
  2. Some important contributions include, but are not limited to: performances by Carrie Mae Weems, Ron Athey, Coco Fusco, Vaginal Davis, Kalup Linzy, and, starting in 2016 and continuing today, the collective actions of Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter (BWA for BLM); works included in the Brooklyn Museum’s We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965–1985 (2017), the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Fictions (2017), the New Museum’s dizzying array of recent performance-based exhibitions, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, William Pope.L: Trinket; scholarly works such as Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival, and the Grotesque Body (London: I. B. Tauris, 2017), Dominic Johnson, The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art (London: Palgrace Macmillan, 2015), and Diana Taylor, Performance (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
  3. See “Sexual Cultures,” at, as of August 2, 2018.
  4. See José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
  5. Daphne A. Brooks, “Nina Simone’s Triple Play,” Callaloo 34, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 176–97.
  6. See W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903); and Bertolt Brecht, “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964).