Gabrielle Civil

My performance art work arrives at the intersection of installation, conceptual art, and poetry. I find or create environments, enter them, and make things happen—with objects, language, landscape, often other people, and always, always my body. Performance art solved a series of problems for me, or rather the main problem of being an over-achieving, under-desired, smart, plump, black girl in America who craved glamour and creation. I started making performance art to cultivate and manifest my presence in the world. From my physical body has burgeoned a black feminist body of art.

My work as an artist draws from my experiences as a black diasporic subject, an African-Haitian- American. Catalyzed by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, my Fugue trilogy specifically tackled diaspora grief and loss. How to reckon with a tragedy both mine and not mine? What rituals of return could become resources? Starting with 500 pounds of dirt, 4 suitcases and a shovel, this work morphed into an activation of mirrors and cash register rolls in the Atlantic Ocean, then finally harnessed a 100- foot red extension cord in Montreal. Activating these materials with my body allowed me to conjure trade routes, migration. and bloodlines. In performance, I move (through) my body into the world.

My project “In & Out of Place: Making Black Feminist Performance Art in Mexico” also engaged this concern. If much of my work had been grounded in the (often unspoken) inherent social significance of my body, what would happen when those meanings were radically different? The performances developed over my 2008-2009 Fulbright year marked a crucial turning point. When I asked the spectators of BRUSH, if they had good hair, none of them shared my cultural context. The dissonance between my presumptions and their cultural specificity taught me an important artistic lesson. It also raised compelling possibilities.

Long inviting (or provoking) participation, my work is now especially engaged in spectator reversal and audience response. Two current performance series, Q & A and Say My Name (an action for 270 abducted Nigerian girls), shift agency directly from my body into the audience. In Q & A, a starting projection of past performance slides signals the “performance” of the work and the “audience Q & A” becomes the performance. As we ask and answer each other’s questions, authority and vulnerability slip and slide through our bodies.

In Say My Name, I call roll of the Chibok schoolgirls snatched by Boko Haram, dropping their names on the floor when the girls don’t appear. Instructed to do “whatever they feel moved to do” during this action, the audience has to negotiate the pressure of the performance moment. Again, they can choose to cease being just spectators. Or can they? How will their bodies respond? What can art do? What can any of us? These deep questions of witness and agency fuel my work. This score has also been recently activated in Lagos, Nigeria, leading to poignant community conversation.

While my work stakes a claim in western performance art history (the so-called “dematerialization of the object”), it especially calls on the eternal root work of black diasporic tradition (let’s call it “the materialization of the spirit”). Whether manipulating a hundred de-accessioned library books to create healing circles in . . . hewn and forged . . . or dancing with mariachis in Mexico to celebrate Obama, I embody performance art as a means for spirt work and transformation.

The aim of my work is to open up space.