FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique — After witnessing a week of exuberant and enigmatic performances at the first International Festival of Performance Art (FIAP), mounted by Artincidence, I thought most of them could be understood in terms of one of two categories: work or ritual. Sometimes they were both. But most of the time they diverged, with one key difference: either the artists gave themselves particular tasks to accomplish or puzzles to solve, or they used an emotional script or set choreography to guide their actions.
To illustrate this difference, consider a statue of Joséphine de Beauharnais, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte and first empress of France, located in the park across the street from my hotel in Fort-de-France. Because Joséphine influenced Napoleon to bring back the practice of slavery within the French Caribbean, some native islanders cut off the statue’s head about 20 years ago (which is still missing), spilled red paint on her neck, and roughly chiseled her name off the base of the statue, looking to erase her pernicious memory. One type of performance artist would have precisely taken those actions, asserting their agency against the statue; the other type might’ve lead a candlelit procession, with a performer standing in for Joséphine and ritually dying. This is not to say that one form of performance is better or more compelling than the other — rather, the distinction clarifies how performance can construct meaning for the viewer.
Ayana Evans, for example, presented pieces that were both made by her own labor and specifically about a kind of feminine labor. In “Jumping Backwards” (2017), the first of two pieces she performed wearing her signature neon, tiger-print cat suit and black pumps with heels, she tried to fashion jump ropes out of a string of Christmas lights and invited audience members to both turn the ropes and jump. The ceiling was too low, so these actions proved abortive, though their potential for play was apparent. Her second piece, “Sparkles” (2017), involved laying down on a red plastic tarp to make an ersatz carpet she encouraged people to walk on, then peeling off her cat suit down to her underwear and then washing herself with a sponge dipped into a bowl of water mixed with Palmolive soap. Each piece by Evans references the various exercises and preparations some women go through to control their own bodies and make them more attractive.
In a different example of performance as work or labor, Nancy Gewolb, in “Alzheimer” (2017), was brought out on stage wrapped in a cocoon of pink fabric, of which she slowly and deliberately cut her way out with a knife. I could see her pause at times with the effort to get out of that mummified fate. Jill McDermid also employed a knife in her performance. In between intermittently beating on a drum in time with a musician seated on the stage with her, she sandwiched a large American flag in the ceiling pipes above her and carefully cut the flag into strips. It left that symbol of this nation in tatters — an accurate representation of what this country feels like for many in the artist community. Seeing this kind of labor had the effect of making me aware of this individual as a volitional vehicle of agency: one who sees the world and can act on it.
On the other end of the spectrum were performers who interpreted historical or personal events, and this work was generally more abstract and impressionistic. Audrey Phibel’s visually stunning procession down the street wearing thigh-high boots, fishnet stockings, a black jacket, and a feathered headdress while handing out of flowers and balloons felt both funereal and celebratory. His “Time is Love” (2017) was mostly about presentation, about costuming and pomp and circumstance that moved beyond mere theatricality to a shared impulse to celebrate and revere those who are just outside of the norm.
Hector Canonge’s half-naked obeisance to his ancestors, gods, or ideals in his piece “Tropicalismus” (2017) demonstrated the power of the penitential ritual. He evoked the sense of how we are often made prostrate before an idea of equality — spelling out the French word “égalité” in flower petals on the floor — while the fulfillment of the idea nevertheless eludes us. Lastly, seeking to come into dialogue with Martinique’s local history, Nyugen Smith in his “Untitled” (2017) seemed to play out of the role of colonizer. Accompanied by students from the local art school who sang and wailed the folk songs indigenous to Martinique, he loudly demanded a coffee and gazed at his own reflection in the mirror — ever the narcissist treating the native people around him as props existing only in his own drama.
As a teacher’s assistant for the artist and curator Deborah Oliver for her performance studies classes at UC Irvine, I recall her emphasizing the need for performance artists to give themselves tasks to accomplish, particular chores to complete (such as washing oneself from head to toe) so that they didn’t fall into the pit of acting. So I’ve learned to value labor, the physical missions that impel one to cut the head off an offending public symbol or display the interiority of one’s feelings about one’s country. But after seeing the performances at this festival, I saw other conduits to meaning — how ritual and quotidian acts can be made larger and more significant when staged. In the end, I was shown how performance artists place unique trust in the moment, and have the ability to enter that moment and stay with it. They make discoveries as they place their bodies in dialogue with their surroundings; as the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, they “learn by going where to go.”
The first edition of the International Festival of Performance Art (FIAP) was held at the Hôtel L’Impératrice (15 Rue De La Liberté, Fort-de-France, Martinique) April 17–April 23.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by the International Festival of Performance Art.