Tschabalala Self’s Debut Performance Is a Powerful Extension of Her Painting Practice

Tschabalala Self, performance view, from left to right, of Vuyolwethu Sotashe, April Webb, Alexis Lombre, and Mary Akpa in Sounding Board, 2021, at the Performa 2021 Biennial. Photo by Paula Court. Courtesy of the artist and Performa.

Sounding Board, Tschabalala Self’s first foray into performance art at the 2021 Performa Biennial, begins with light and color. The work debuted this past weekend in the inviting amphitheater at Harlem’s Jackie Robinson Park. There, the work’s stage was collaged with whimsical furniture arrangements that played with foreshortening, oversized drooping flowers, and painted set pieces that recalled the artist’s mixed-media figurative paintings.

This move to performance has allowed Self to expand her continued exploration of how bodies are perceived, extending beyond two-dimensional forms to the three- and four-dimensional realms of movement and behavior, illustrating the nuances of how we read each other.

Tschabalala Self, performance view, from left to right, of Cj Hart and Imani Love in Sounding Board, 2021 at the Performa 2021 Biennial. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk. Courtesy of the artist and Performa.

In Self’s usual canvas-based practice, exaggerated lips, shoulders, and hips expand to bulbous forms. These figures, which Self calls “avatars,” become racialized and gendered through the viewer’s subjectivity and the crafted expectations of what it means to look Black, female, femme, or even human. Spanning the foreign and the familiar, these warped bodies rendered in paint and fabric are subject to our own impressions of who or what they represent.

Sounding Board took a similar approach. Unnamed, unplaced, and ungendered except through costuming, the performance’s four actors—Hunter Bryant, Alexis Cofield, Cj Hart, and Imani Love—played living avatars who recited their lines as couples. The script, a dialogue written by Self, has two characters, A and B, with each actor playing each part in turns, readjusting as the lights change color.

These avatars asked for time and space, pleaded for love and visibility, but ultimately never shared the context of their fraught conversation. In one moment, they acknowledged a stage and an audience, but it was unclear if they were referring to the stage they stood on and the audience watching or something else. The avatars were both of this world and of another, teetering between realms as actors looked forward to the audience or off into unnamed space.

Tschabalala Self, performance view, from left to right, of Cj Hart and Imani Love in Sounding Board, 2021, at the Performa 2021 Biennial. Photo by Paula Court. Courtesy of the artist and Performa.

By the third time lines were repeated, the performance’s pattern clicked. Checkered set pieces and costumes echoed the performance itself—seemingly opposing components locked into one another to form something cohesive. The content of the conversation became secondary to how the words were delivered, and as A-B switched from femme-masc to masc-femme and back again, the reception of each smirk, yell, plea, and point was colored by who delivered the line. Self was playing with us. She knew that we might bristle at a masculine avatar jeering at his unnamed lover as he calls her small-minded, but cheer as his feminine counterpart gives the same insult with a grin.

The final performance of the exchange featured both couples simultaneously in opposite arrangements—one in femme-masc, the other in masc-femme. The mismatched overlap emphasized the artist’s trick, demonstrating that any cues picked up on earlier in the performance had been distorted by our impression of who is speaking. The motivation or identity of the characters was irrelevant because we, as watchers, have understood them based on our own biases.

Tschabalala Self, performance view, from left to right, of Hunter Bryant, Alexis Cofield, Cj Hart, and Imani Love in Sounding Board, 2021, at the Performa 2021 Biennial. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk. Courtesy of the artist and Performa.

But perhaps the most compelling part of the performance was the Boney M cover band, whose members—Mary Akpa, Ahmad Johnson, Alexis Lombre, Mathis Picard, Vuyolwethu Sotashe, and April May Webb—were awe-inspiring. Performing a song with the change of each act, the ease and lure of the 1970s Euro-Caribbean vocal group’s music stood in sharp contrast to the contention on stage. After the final act, they broke into a rendition of the hit single “My Cherie Amour,” which is itself a cover of a Stevie Wonder classic. The mood shifted almost immediately as the group soulfully intoned about unrequited love. The music was so enchanting that even the characters, ranting moments before, ended the performance wrapped in the song and each other’s arms.

This warmth felt by the end can only be compared to that of the custom UGG boots worn by each performer—a subtle but effective brand collaboration with the artist that left me wondering, “Where can I get a pair?”

Visually beautiful, conceptually engaging, and punctuated with spirit, Sounding Board is a good omen for how Self might continue to work beyond the canvas.

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