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They Shoot Horses

by Jennie Klein

They Shoot Horses: Ayana (Yana) Evans’ Stay With Me

Ayana Evans RP15 photo Michael Lee Bridges

In 2004, British artist Phil Collins advertised for, auditioned, and subsequently paid two groups of youths in Ramallah to dance for approximately eight hours. They Shoot Horses, named after Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, about a dance marathon in the United States during the great depression. The implication of the novel, and the film adaptation by director Sidney Pollack, was that the people who entered the dance marathon were treated worse than animals, but endured the competition in order to earn money. The Ramallah teenagers who dance in Collins’ double channel video are likewise doing this to earn money, although in this case what is striking about these Muslim teenagers is the degree to which they emulate western culture –they dance, often exuberantly, to western pop music from the sixties to the eighties—and the way in which they are typical teenagers, alternately enthusiastic and bored, frenetic and exhausted. What is striking about They Shoot Horses is the way that Collins managed to say a great deal about U.S. Imperialism, global politics, youth culture, and identity simply by showing a group of teens at a dance marathon.

Ayana Evans’ performance Stay with Me is also a dance marathon. And like They Shoot Horses, the performance raises issues around class, race, gender and identity through the medium of dance. For three hours Evans dances in in a space wall papered with silver foil and silver and rainbow colored foil party streamers that cried out for a disco strobe ball. Garbed in a blue, form-fitting dress with a sheer, ankle length skirt and strapping high-heeled sandals, Evans proceeded to kick and do jumping jacks for three hours, with periodic breaks to refresh her lipstick and secure her chandelier earrings. Through out the performance, which took place in the window of Defibrillator Gallery, a bevy of Evans’s relatives and friends cheered her efforts on, counting down the minutes, yelling encouragement, and chatting with the artist in between jumping jacks and high kicks. By the end of the performance, audience members had joined in, cheering and applauding.

According to Evans, Stay with Me is an oblique reference to her relationships with me, with the title saying it all. Of course, one look at Evans, all dolled up in the window of Defibrillator, and the only thing that comes to mind is why would she even have to ask that question. Evans has the kind of body that has been the subject of rap and hip hop songs for the past twenty years, beginning with Sir Mix A Lot’s 1992 Baby Got Back and celebrated most recently by Jason Derulo/Snoop Dog in Wiggle from 2014. As Nicki Minaj raps in Anaconda, which riffs on Baby Got Back.

Yeah, he love this fat ass
Yeah, this one is for my bitches with a fat ass in the fucking club
I said, where my fat ass big bitches in the club?
Fuck the skinny bitches, fuck the skinny bitches in the club
I wanna see all the big fat ass bitches in the motherfucking club
Fuck you if you skinny bitches, what?

In the past, Evans has certainly used her body to pose questions about the ideological construction of white femininity. For her ongoing piece Operation Catsuit (2012–), Evans wears a yellow and black tiger striped cat suit to museums and art openings while secretly videotaping people’s reactions to her presentation of black female identity. Not surprisingly, most of the art crowd were simultaneously uncomfortable with and fascinated by Evans’ latter day Hottentot Venus. Thus in the context of Rapid Pulse Performance Festival, Evans’ Stay With Me also becomes a kind of performance of black femininity, a performance that took on even more valence in light of the recent revelations concerning Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane branch of the NAACP and adjunct professor of African American studies who was recently revealed to be white.

Evans’s piece is also about endurance, and perseverance. Unlike Collins’ They Shoot Horses, Stay With Me takes place in real time with a “live” dancer who is also the artist. Evans’s make up, elaborately coiffed hair, glittery environment and interactive performance style initially obfuscates the fact that this piece, like so many at Rapid Pulse, is about human endurance. Like Collins’ “actors,” Evans is not trained as a dancer. As the performance continues, she struggles to do her high kicks and jumping jacks, becoming progressively more and more exhausted. As with Operation Catsuit, Evans inserts a performing body, and a performed identity, that is at odds with the seriousness of contemporary endurance performance. Evans interacts with the audience, which initially appears to be a break from traditional endurance art, which is based upon the stoicism and corporeal sacrifice of Christian saints and Hindu Holy men. Of course, as anyone knows who has tried to run and talk at the same time, Evans’ interactions with the audience make the piece even more strenuous for her than if she were to eschew interaction and participation.

Evans’ work raises interesting questions about the presentation and performance of identity, and the continuing silo in what is ostensibly a global and multicultural art world. Evans’ work suggests that this is not entirely the case. Through her work Evans challenges all of us to consider who does and does not belong.

RP15 performance photo by Michael Lee Bridges
Jennie Klein is an associate professor of art history and critical theory at Ohio University. She writes on feminist art, art and the maternal, feminist performance, and performance art and its histories. She is the editor of Letters from Linda M Montano, (Routledge 2005), The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art (Demeter Press, 2011) and Histories of Live Art (Palgrave 2012).
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