Books

A Performance Artist Explores “the Vast Possibilities of Black Female Subjectivity”

In her memoir Swallow the Fish, Gabrielle Civil examines the narratives she’s ingested since childhood and by which she found herself creatively propelled.

Swallow the Fish by Gabrielle Civil (#RECURRENT design by Janice Lee, cover design by Eugene Lee. Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017)

I recently learned that a woman’s womb develops while she is a fetus, inside of her own mother’s womb. This is somewhat obvious — of course the body is shaped in utero — but it’s romantic to imagine the self as an ancestral matryoshka doll, your first “home” existing two generations before you do. One’s history can become ingrained in the body, like memory or stronger muscles. In Swallow the Fish, a memoir by performance artist and educator Gabrielle Civil published in February by Civil Coping Mechanisms (an independent publishing house that includes the Roxane Gay–founded Tiny Hardcore Press), the first chapter finds the author examining layers of her history, mostly via the narratives she’s ingested since childhood and by which she found herself creatively propelled.

From Swallow the Fish: “Yawo’s Dream” video, with Ellen Marie Hinchcliffe

Civil begins with a discussion of a children’s book, Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard, in which young heroine Nita discovers a tome of the same name. Civil interjects: “This is not a factual story from my black middle-class childhood in Detroit … I was nine or ten when I read it … and it has been my story ever since.” Most of Swallow the Fish reads like this: a collage of memories, works, and influences Civil created or took to heart, invoked for reexamination. It is, as she describes, “a metatextual mine.”

Civil has worked as both a performance artist and an educator (first at St. Catherine University, then at Antioch College, where she built and led the Performance program) for more than 16 years. Having earned a PhD in Comparative Literature, writing is, by extension, part of her practice. But the multitudinous Swallow the Fish — filled with poetic meditations, snippets of conversations, outlines of her performances, and a catalogue of each — is more an act of reflection and reclamation. In elucidating her own life, Civil pays homage to the others who have inspired her, the many wombs in which she was born. In an email to Hyperallergic, she explained,

I am haunted by Maudelle Bass, Anne Spencer, and other black women artists whose work has been lost or destroyed. Writing a book may not guarantee a different fate, but it’s a step towards preservation and archiving and taking my own work very seriously. So few maps or models existed for me when I was starting to become an artist. I wanted this book to enter that space.

In the book, she mentions Adrian Piper’s Out of Order, Out of Sight throughout, as a means of referencing all the black female artists “who made art of their lives too often ‘out of sight.’”

Swallow the Fish unfolds like a many-layered onion, pairing details of Civil’s performances with critical examinations of them. In an email to a friend, describing her piece “after Hieroglyphics,” Civil writes, “I felt like the show was terrible, like I was terrible, and who was I to think I could make performance art pieces and really it was all cut-rate and shoddy and shameful and embarrassing.” Perhaps it’s necessary to add to the canon Civil unwittingly builds — a canon of bodies, normally barred from taking up space, deeply moving into it these moments of doubt, of pain, of rewrites and retries. The path to visibly reclaiming oneself, one’s space, is tricky. For her early work, “25 Targets,” Civil shared poetry materially, placing 25 paper targets around Athens, Ohio, labeled with words she loves, like “stillness” and “gold.” She recalls, “my body, young, plump, brown … laying out the bright orange hunting targets … For some, [the targets] made more work. Too bad. A necessary lesson: I get to take up space.”

From Swallow the Fish: “Yawo’s Dream” video, with Ellen Marie Hinchcliffe

Civil performed her piece “Displays (after Venus)” at Mt. Holyoke University prior to a lecture. As she stood on a table, clothed only in her underwear, a white male instructor barked at her to “turn” and prompted different poses for three minutes. Civil had been inspired by Hottentot Venus—the “stage name” of Saartje Baartman, a young Khoikhoi woman who, in 1789, was convinced by Dr. William Dunlop to travel to London, where she (along with one or two other women) became a stage attraction, gawked at for her large buttocks. Civil questioned Baartman’s assimilation into her role as both freak show and science experiment, her authority over her body, her shame, her complicity. She remarks that one student felt uncomfortable watching “Displays,” telling Civil, “It wasn’t about you. It was thinking about it being me … how much shame I would feel.”

To be seen is to enable others to see themselves, for better or worse, and Civil is quick to invite others to share in her otherwise personal space. Swallow the Fish’s title, in fact, is drawn from a conversation with her friend, who considered swallowing a goldfish for a performance. “I wanted her, a black woman, to stare down craziness,” Civil writes. “Hell, I wanted to swallow the fish myself. To be as loose and crazy and unstoppable as those white lady performance artists like Karen Finley and Holly Hughes and Marina Abramović.”

From Swallow the Fish: “Yawo’s Dream” video, with Ellen Marie Hinchcliffe

Civil feels her friend’s dilemma as if it were her own. To perform an act of transformation is neither completely about an audience nor solely about the performer, but concerns a shared space between them. “More than asserting or informing, I want to experiment, investigate, imagine, create, and raise new possibilities for myself and others,” Civil told Hyperallergic. “The aim of my work is to open up space. I’m more interested in … exploring vast possibilities of black female subjectivity. Performance is the art of presence. It is palpable, liberating and transformative for both the artist and the audience. To this end, it also has the capacity to heal or repair a sense of isolation, anxiety, invisibility or social fear.” Opening space births the potential, then, for many others.

Swallow the Fish is now available from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

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