- Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance by Uri McMillan
Enter Joice Heth: an elderly black slave “discovered” in Kentucky in the 1830s and displayed by P.T. Barnum as the sensational 161-year-old nursemaid of the young George Washington. What if, Uri McMillan asks in Embodied Avatars, we were to reclaim Heth as a “performance artist”? McMillan’s gambit initiates a provocative new genealogy of performance art. Though the category of performance art was inaugurated in the 1970s, largely by and for white men, and later expanded by feminist scholarship, largely to accommodate white women, McMillan stretches its contours to reveal fresh lines of inquiry. Rather than throwing out this contested designation, he retains it “precisely to apply pressure on the assumed meanings of the term. How do we know what we know about performance art, particularly in who makes it and what counts as such?” (4).
The four chapters of Embodied Avatars are divided between the 19th and 20th centuries in America: the first and second take up antebellum forms (and exigencies) of “artful embodiment” (51) through case studies of Heth and Ellen Craft (also a slave, who escaped to freedom in 1848 by impersonating an aged white man); the third and fourth focus on performances by the artists Adrian Piper and Howardena Pindell in the 1970s and ’80s. The genealogical arc of the book is informed by Coco Fusco’s “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” which appeared in TDR in 1994. Critiquing the primitivism intrinsic to the European avantgarde, Fusco compellingly argues that performance art did not originate with Futurist and Dadaist antics — as RoseLee Goldberg (1979) influentially argued at the close of the 1970s, when “performance art” was effectively codified — but with 19th-century exhibitions of non-Western people in aesthetic, scientific, and entertainment contexts. Fusco’s attention to the way in which performance art, thus conceived, is inseparable from power structures even as it has always promiscuously traversed disciplinary boundaries undergirds McMillan’s study of black feminist art and performance, which begins with one such historical platform: the freak show spectacle of Heth.
Drawing on the groundbreaking scholarship of Daphne Brooks, Saidiya Hartman, and Tavia Nyong’o, McMillan establishes two components integral to performances of black women on the 19th-century stage that probe the limits of intention, embodiment, identity, and agency often associated with performance art as it has been mapped as a predominantly white pursuit. The first is “objecthood”: a counter-practice to racial and sexual objectification in which the performer transforms her body into an art object. Heth, who was blind and disabled by a stroke (as well as by Barnum, who extracted her teeth to make her appear older) is the limit case here, as McMillan considers how she might have animated her otherwise disturbingly inert status. The second, related to this refashioning of the self into artistic material, is what McMillan calls “avatar production”: the crafting of “second selves” that mess with assigned roles and “subvert the taken-for-granted rules for properly embodying a black female body” (12). If the study of performance has often been predicated on its essential disappearance, McMillan finesses performance scholarship as an agent of reappearance as he captures acts lost to history in a web of “objecthood, black performance art, and avatar production as a set of interlaced analytics” (198).
Following his illuminating account of Heth’s mobilization of her “ancient negress” avatar between “beloved object of affection” (the archetypal black nurse) and “embodiment of racial monstrosity” (28), McMillan develops the concepts of objecthood and avatar production as strategies that blur survival mode and aesthetic risk in seemingly disparate contexts. He dwells in the 19th century in a chapter devoted to Craft’s “passing performances” and creative use of [End Page 165] prosthesis before devoting the second half of the book to the 1970s — when, as McMillan notes, performance self-consciously emerged as an experimental art form — to detect the overlooked role of objecthood...