Performance Art in Addis
Performance art is an essentially contested concept: any single definition of it implies the recognition of rival uses.
Like concepts regarding “democracy” or “art”, it implies productive disagreement with itself. Performance may be either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated, spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. Now, this art form is on its way to becoming popular in Ethiopia, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
Many spectators who are used to mainstream media know the grandmother of performance art, Serbian Marina Abramovic, and her recent collaboration with the renowned rapper Jay-Z in a video entitled Picasso Baby.
Inspired by one of her projects, “The artist is present”, where the artist sits immobile and silent in a museum for three months, 736 hours and 30 minutes. Spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.
By far this is not her most bizarre performance art piece. The artist has tested the most visceral experiences of art. She has volunteered her body for a self-designed study on torture. In her famous 1974 installation, “Rhythm 0”, she laid out 72 items on a table and invited the audience to use them on her body in any way they want.
Among the objects were a feather, a rose, a braided whip, scissors, a nail, a scalpel and a gun with a single bullet. After six hours of passive acceptance to participants’ cutting her clothes, trying to mutilate her in increasing acts of cruelty, an audience member reached for the gun and shot her. Her blood spilling, the performance came to an end. She was quoted saying, “If you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.”
Many other performance artists, like Abramovic, also pushed the limit; they were subjected to pain and torture; they were shot, burned, disfigured, and mutilated; they even ate parts of themselves. The Guardian’s list of the most shocking performance art works includes the Russian artist Petr Pavlensky, who nailed his scrotum to the cobblestone in Red Square to challenge “totalitarianism”. Another gruesome performance art piece was by Japanese artist Mao Sugiyama, who, in 2012, had his genitals surgically removed to raise awareness of sexual rights and after keeping them in the fridge for a while, he cooked them and served his friends.
Looking at these gruesome deeds, one might raise the question of what performance art is. In the 21st century, experts say performance art is an essentially contested concept. There is no rule or guideline, but often challenge the audience to think in new and unconventional ways while breaking conventions of traditional arts. The performers use their body, space, and time and interact with the audience. Co-signing with post-modernism concepts, it challenges the orthodox art forms and cultural norms. The performance art borrows from music, theatre, fine arts, and any form of art to take it one step further by taking its art directly to a public forum. In this instance it eliminates the need for galleries and agents, and rather makes the audience the commentators of the art.
This performance art is also becoming common among the contemporary artists of Ethiopia.
Recently around the Kazanchis area, a woman, attired in white leggings and white top, stood in the middle of the demolished area. In the middle of the ruin, she stood still for a couple of minutes, surrounded by the attentive neighborhood community. Minutes passed while, in the meantime, the eagerness of the crowd increased as they tried to understand why she was standing so still. After some time, she started urinating where she stood with her clothes on. The public’s reaction was mixed; they were overwhelmed about what to do next. While the conversations continued in the background, the artist continued to urinate for almost half an hour.
This was a performance art piece by the artist and an instructor at the Ale School of Fine Arts, Martha Haile. According to the artist, this art piece was motivated by the chaotic happenings of the world. Especially the triggering moment was watching, in different media, Ethiopian migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, being brutally beheaded by Islamic State in Libya and being targets in the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Interpreting these terrifying things was not difficult.
“Little children, when they get terrified, cannot control their pee. But growing up, we hide our fears, emotions and learn to control our pee,” Martha says. “But when the terrifying moments come again we lose control of how we manage our fear. And many people who reach the edge actually relieve themselves of pee.”
According to her, this is also how the body responds to terrible situations. Living in this day and age, Martha feels as if she is living on the apocalyptic edge. While trying to interpret this into an art form, she found the traditional medium was too limiting for her and so she actually chose to use her body as a medium.
Her first thought was to do it in a studio and share the end product on video.
After a trial and error process, to get the best result, she decided to pee.
“For me, personally, looking at the beheading and the burning of people put me in shock and I wanted to pee. This gave me an idea on how to express [my art],” Martha says.
Many of the materials she used in her performance were representations, including the white attire, which represents peace.
“Our peace is taken every day,” Martha says.
When the day came, it was not easy. Martha struggled to do it in front of the audience. Despite a couple of liters of water and beer, the audience’s gaze made her self-conscious and she could not pee for a while. Finally, it was happening to the backing sounds of the audience’s murmurs.
“I was contemplating the horrific stories I heard and I was retreating into myself. I did not want to interact with the audience,” Martha says.
One of the funny moments was after the performance. She saw a man she knows.
“He saw my face and my wet pants and could not connect that. So with a very confused feeling, he left without greeting me,” Martha says.
The feedback was better in her previous performances because this time, she actually heard insults and arguments.
“I guess there is a beating you have to be ready to accept,” says Martha.
During this performance she felt the audience might attack her but luckily she was safe.
Making her body an art form is very powerful and she embraces the challenges and the risks related to using the body.
The other shocking performance art piece she did was in collaboration with a German artist entitled “you cannot eat money,” in which she ate a 100 birr note. They came up with the concept from a Native American saying, “when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.”
The video shows how she struggled to eat money by using water. They screened the video in Janmeda and it shocked many people.
Many describe Ethiopian art as detached from the society and elitist. But the bold artists who are doing performance art are bridging the existence gap and engaging the community in the art process. Few artists are breaking what is taboo, questioning the norm and culture and doing what is unthinkable.
A couple of years ago, related to the city renewal projects, many were told to exhume the bodies of their loved ones from the Yoseph Church cemetery and bury them elsewhere. This was unfortunate for many who had to see the corpses of their beloved ones. One contemporary artist’s mother was buried there. Losing her mother at a young age, Helen Zeru, did not visit the graveyard frequently. But at that point, she had to face her worst fears. Fifteen years after her mother’s death, she went to the graveyard accompanied by her aunt.
The digging started and it was not easy. “It was an everyday struggle,” Helen says.
She started to document the exhuming process. While seeing the collected bones of her late mother was difficult, Helen transformed the horrifying experience into several art pieces. The first part was a documentary of the whole journey up to the final burial destination in Debredamo.
The second part was an art performance where she uses her fragmented childhood memories of her mother. In her performance, she moves around in her mother’s grave, wrapped linen like a mummy. She moves around the grave, which is encircled with red umbrellas.
The red umbrellas are not merely there. Rather, that is the last image that she saw of her mother.
“Before she passed away, she came back from the hospital and she was holding a red umbrella,” Helen said. In a way, the performance was also somehow therapeutic for her.
“This was an opening of the long-gone past. With my mother’s grave opening, there were so many openings. When she passed away, I was a child and it was also somehow an emotional closure,” Helen says.
“Who makes a decision regarding this? Who has a say in this?” Helen asks.
She showed her art piece in Modern Art Museum Gebrekirstos Desta Center in a project called “Fana Wogi.” In this exhibition she displayed a video installation and performance that touched many people.
“There were people who were crying and who were shocked to see it,” Helen says.
It was not only her project that elicited such a reaction, but also that of one of the other contemporary artists, Mihret Kebede, who created paintings using her menstrual blood. Questioning the idea of fertility, she put out a bowl which she filled with soil, eggs, and 40 pieces of artwork painted with her blood. She took two years to finish this project. The menstrual blood, which is associated with impurity, curses, and bizarreness, is considered to be unnecessary [in a strong contrast to societal touting of female fertility].
“If that is the case,” Mihret asks, “what is the process of fertility?”
For Mihret and Helen, the traditional 2D performances are too conservative and too distant from ordinary people while performance art is liberating in expressing the art they envision. Apart from that, using one’s body implies the presence of the artist, which is important for Helen and Mihret.
“In your performance art, there is a presence of physical artist and there is DNA,” Helen says.
Performance art traces its history from rituals in ancient cultures. In the 1960s, a new art form termed “the Happening” allows artists to experiment with the body, motion, recorded sounds, written and spoken texts and smells became popular. In this instance the spectators were part of the art form. In Ethiopia also, Mihret, Helen and Martha believe performance art is not new but a common phenomenon with a continuum of ancient and religious rituals, vibrant street life and urban interaction. But when it comes to post-modern performance art, they say the community’s response is unpredictable. For instance, Mihret’s menstrual blood paintings and Helen’s graveyard performance offended some.
“There was a possibility that people wanted to sue us,” Helen says.
Unexpectedly, many people were able to participate in Mihret’s performance of exchanging a new shoelace with their respective old ones. Her performance art piece was a representation of the transformation of Addis. She asked strangers to exchange her new shoelaces with their old ones. Mihret says the feedback from the people was varied. There were those who resisted, those who willingly exchanged, those who thought it was black magic, and those who wanted to keep both shoelaces.
The old shoelace represents her identity and with regard to the change, she says, “I wanted to know how people would react in the meantime and how they perceive change.”
Helen says the feedback is unpredictable. In some instances some of the projects are too scary for Ethiopians and, fearful of doing it in Addis, Helen performed in Berlin instead. She covered her whole body in linen and held on to a red umbrella. Since there was no identity revelation, many people talked to her in different languages. She just walked on the street and on the train while people spoke to her in Arabic and German.
“Berlin is a city where there are many performances, but I still attracted many people’s attention,” Helen says.
This piece was also a continuation of her late mother’s representation. When she graduated from university, she saw a woman dressed in white and holding a red umbrella. It shocked her and she later transformed herself into an art piece.
The other piece, which she had done in Kampala, fueled unwanted attention from the community.
Helen expressed migration through a big tree. In the video, she tirelessly digs out the tree for hours. She took the tree to a different place after covering the empty space with salt so it cannot regrow.
“When people migrate, who is going to replace their space? The tree was a representation of that,” Helen says.
After she left, the community sued the chief who allowed her to do the art because people thought it was black magic.
“It is really difficult to understand the responses of the people. It is so unpredictable,” Helen says.
One thing she says is the performance art piece elicits different reactions from place to place. But she is more worried about the creative process than in how people react to it.
With performance art, the decision maker is the artist, but the ones who finish it is the audience.
“You cannot control how it is finished; the audience decides where it goes. That is why it becomes unpredictable,” Helen says.
For Mihret, performance art became a critical new voice and why contemporary artists are now using this medium. In an international Wax and Gold workshop held in 2013 which focused on artistic freedom and censorship, around 20 artists from Ethiopia and abroad performed provocative ideas.
One of the pieces was by Darios Hailemichael who made seats from plastic water-bottles, which are beautiful but are not functional to sit on; the chairs represented the parliament chairs, which are also not functional. The other artists also expressed ideas such as censorship in the media, the country’s nostalgia about the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and condominium commotion.
Tesfaye Bekele depicted the housing commotion by building a model house out of cardboard. His art piece showed the condominium scheme that was introduced by the government of Ethiopia. Many bought the model cardboard condos on the street. An old woman, who had kept her money wrapped in her handkerchief, bought the house, saying, “Let me at least buy this one.”
Though many use performance arts to socially and politically provoke the society, there are also some that go to the extreme of being fatal, asking the question of where the limit is. One such performance was that of the Dutch artist, Bas Jan Ader, who, in 1975, decided to cross the Atlantic. His unmanned boat was found 150 miles off the coast of Ireland. Despite this, Mihret, Helen and Martha believe there is no limit to art.