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I am convinced that the people who show up to Ayana Evans’s performances genuinely love and care about her. They are also protective. I was first introduced to her performance work at an exhibition at Gateway Project Spaces in Newark back in 2015. I remember watching her then, holding herself in plank position while reading a copy of O Magazine, flipping through its pages. A man stood curiously towering over her and attempted to talk to her as sweat poured from her forehead while she held her body in plank pose for an excruciating length of time. I was both appalled and amused. Years later, I’d ask her if she remembered him. “Yeah, and he didn’t even offer me any water,” she laughed. Perhaps he didn’t realize he was allowed to engage in the performance differently and was in fact part of it.
Ayana encourages and, at times, demands audience participation. As an artist, she challenges audiences not just to observe Black women’s struggles but to feel them.
Evans’s first solo exhibition, If Keisha Jumped Off a Bridge, Would You Do It Too?, opened on June 3 at Medium Tings, an apartment gallery and project space in Brooklyn founded by Stephanie Baptist. The title of the show is inspired by the things mothers tell us when they want us to calm down, or to warn us against blindly following others. Evans chooses the name Keisha to suggest she’s thinking implicitly about Black women, but all are welcome to consider the question.
Evans is formally trained as a painter, but during her studies she found herself inspired by performance artists’ work, like Lorraine O’Grady’s “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire,” Marina Abramović’s “Rhythm 0,” Adrian Piper’s “My Calling (Card),” and Linda Montano’s and Tehching Hsieh’s year-long performance, “Rope Piece.” “I still love painting, especially work by William H. Johnson and sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett, but there’s a different type of interaction I wanted to experience that I couldn’t get through painting. My love of lines and color still lives in my performance work,” Evans said.
At the opening at Medium Tings, Evans performed in her signature catsuit and heels, only this time she added a new element: a custom bikini with angry pussy cats designed by textile artist Diane Hoffman. We were instructed to follow Evans from the brownstone apartment gallery, outside to the street, led by fellow performance artist Dominique Duroseau, who served as grand marshal and field commander of the parade. Once outside, Ayana removed her catsuit, stripping down to her bikini. As the group followed, Duroseau remained in the center of the crowd carrying a portable speaker that played a talk by Uri McMillan, an assistant professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and author of Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. McMillian writes: “My focus on Black women performers, acknowledges a perhaps inconvenient but nonetheless important truth: not only have the traditional gatekeepers of the art world been biased against performance art, but the Black art community (itself subject to plenty of gatekeeping) historically has been biased against performance art as well.” These ideas inform Evans’s practice like gasoline on a fire.
She strutted down the street in red heels carrying a large, red bucket filled with ice on top of her head to the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Eastern Parkway.
“It’s one thing to pose and look cute on Instagram and put filters on your photos,” Evans said. “But reality is different. It’s hard to hold your heels with one hand, suck on some ice with other and drag a bucket down the street and look sexy in a bikini. I actually lost some weight in preparation of this performance and I still wanted to lose more but I’m sharing the bravery of truly being yourself, in a bikini, cellulite and all.”
On the corner of Nostrand Avenue, one audience member called out and asked what the ice was all about, as Evans stuck her foot in the bucket. “It’s a metaphor for cold feet,” she said. “I was scared to do this and afraid to be out here like this.” A man passing by asked Evans, “Can I get some of that ice?” She glanced at him. “Yeah, you want some of this ice with my foot in it?”
Fellow performance artist Nyugen Smith remembers a group of young men who catcalled and heckled Evans with sexual innuendo during her performance at FIAP, a festival in Martinique. “She turned around and smacked one of them with her wet catsuit and told them ‘I’m from Chicago!’” Smith recounted. “It was apparent they didn’t speak English, but they understood what she said. The audience wasn’t sure if they should step in or if it was part of the performance or not.”
“I began to get a sense early on that audiences were protective of me and sometimes judgmental or wanted to help me,” Evans said to me after the Brooklyn performance. “Some who didn’t realize it was a performance offered me advice or smiled and cheered me on.”
While Evans acknowledges that there will always be elements of danger and risk in her work, she is defiantly comfortable with reading body language and de-escalating potentially threatening scenarios on her own.
After the performance on Nostrand Ave, Ayana dragged her red bucket, perhaps also used for mopping, with one foot back to the house. Field commander Duro played music from the speakers, Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” and Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” while Evans encouraged us to dance and sing. She wanted us to take up space with her on a city block, to be joyful in spite of suffering.
Back at the brownstone she lay on the ground in front of the house. Visually, she and her neon catsuit were beautiful against the concrete surrounded by trees and nature. Inspired by a quote by Miles Davis, “Silence is sound,” Evans made room for silence without music. Here was the honoring of the body and spirit. We quietly watched as she got up and retrieved Granny Smith apples that colorfully matched her wardrobe; she lined the steps with the apples, occasionally taking a bite and then violently tossing them aside. Apples are loaded with meaning, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve. I considered how women sometimes resent domesticity, cooking, and eating healthily, struggling to be the ideal woman. These are all the societal rules Evans wishes did not exist and wants to break. She opens a way for us all to free ourselves from ideas about gendered expectations.
We made a path for her as she entered the house. She climbed the steps backwards on her hands and knees. The initial difficultly was hard to watch, as we were in her way, crowding her, as she confronted the steps as obstacle and metaphor. Endurance and female visibility are part of the process. A soothing ballad played for her in the backdrop. Her pace slowed down. At the top of the steps, Duro waited with audience members to celebrate her with illuminating sparklers. Others encouraged her, shouting and cheering, “You got this, Queen!”
Evans makes space for her vulnerability and fears, challenging us to view Black women differently, and to more deeply honor Black women’s dreams, labor, and bodies. “My interaction and participation with audience members throughout performances are designed to break traditional boundaries between viewer and performer,” Evans said. “The physical struggles in my work represent Black pain, Feminine pain, and universal/personal pains, like heartbreak.”
A closing reception and final performance for Ayana Evans’s If Keisha Jumped Off a Bridge, Would You Do It Too? at Medium Tings will be held on Sunday, June 24. For more information about location and the performance contact Medium Tings.