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Interrogations: Gender and Performativity

by Kate Sierzputowski

Saturday, June 13th’s panel on gender and performativity began with several specific questions asked by Jessica Santone (an art historian focused on contemporary performance) of the five participants (Weeks and Whitford, Ayana Evans, Vivian Chinasa Ezugha, and Mary Coble). The panel continued to circulate around several themes, yet confrontation, encounter, personalization, and non-institutional spaces were commonly visited markers within the sphere- shaped panel.

Santone began the discussion by inquiring how Chinasa Ezugha began her work with hair. Chinasa Ezugha explained the confrontation that sparked her practice’s inspiration stating, “My story with hair is a long story, but I think personally became interested in hair because of my history in growing up in Nigeria. When I was five or six we had to have all of our hair shaved off to go to school. In that particular environment it was fine, but when I came to the UK I experienced so many barriers and racism that really made me question the image I was portraying by not having any hair. My relationship to black woman was all about hair, that relationship I was forming with my peers was revolving around hair. The way that you style your hair can really change the way people look at you or speak to you.”

Santone then moved onto Mary Coble who spoke about her work in the space of locker rooms, areas of societally created sexual rules and regulations and a space she was happy to have the ability to leave after a particular piece (Fighting Cocks, 2011). For the performance she invited a stranger who was also performing a queer masculinity to have a wet towel fight with her within the locker room for a total of three hours. “It was within this room of play and after awhile it wasn’t playful…It was an interesting journey to think of this crowd mentality [around the performance] and the privilege I had to walk away from that locker room.”

Rebecca Weeks from Weeks and Whitford addressed confrontation of gender, how others bring attention to this subject instead of it being the explicit goal of each of their performances. “When we make work we don’t consider it to represent gender, but obviously we are bodies and people assign gender to those bodies… Encounter is really important because you don’t know what encounter will do, we are always on the spectrum of flux in terms of identity.”

Ayana Evans also agreed that she did not intend to make gendered work, explaining that to many, gender might not even be the most personal aspect of themselves as an individual or artist. “I have made work about blackness and gender, but I often left a lot of personal stuff out of those performances,” she explained.

This pseudo-removal of the self from gender translated into audience and artist experiences of the views of their own gender that have been transformed due to the the space of an institution. Coble related her journey of being allowed to use blood because she was not a gay male, a problem still occurring in present day institutional discussions. Giana Gambino, festival assistant director, intelligently shifted the conversation to the importance of non-institutional spaces (like that of Rapid Pulse), and how vital it is to have performance outside of the institution so we can “Say yes to it all.” This way we can view and represent all forms of bodies, gender, performance, and sexuality, and open up room for people to confront these notions and eventually accept them.

As a wrap-up Santone explained that performance is a perfect way to showcase the honesty connected to gender and sex, presenting one’s raw self to the audience.

Kate Sierzputowski is freelance writer and arts journalist based in Chicago, IL. Fascinated by artists’ studio processes, she founded the website INSIDE\WITHIN to physically explore the creative spaces of emerging and established artists. Kate regularly contributes to Colossal, Hyperallergic, Newcity, and Rabbit Hole.
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