In a performance I attended in March 2019, “A Black Woman’s Art Show and … A White Man’s Exhibition” I was asked to mash myself together with a group of mostly strangers as Ms. Evans circled us with a rope pulling us into an even tighter phalanx. As we hesitated to move toward each other, she repeated herself, loudly, which made us scurry into place. She said that when she’s performing she tends to get bossy, just to keep the energy flowing and the piece moving forward. That performance ended with the now-tight-knit group, on her instructions, hoisting Ms. Evans’s body above us, moving her back and forth, and then marching with her held aloft out of the gallery and onto the sidewalk. She knew what she was doing. We had to be a cohesive a group to pull off that final gesture. And only later I realized that this was, in its simplest terms, about raising a black woman up — such easy, unpretentious nobility seen in a typically male, sports-oriented gesture.
The limiting factor of physically strenuous performance art (such as Pope.L’ s famous “Crawl” pieces) is that it easily falls into spectacle, which washes away the nuanced meanings of the work. “At a certain point you’re just drinking your own poison,” she said. “You’re trying to make people know that you’re in pain, but there’s a point where you’re just hurting yourself and the people who are going to get it already got it.” One way to avoid making the work a pageant of pain is to share the labor with audience members. “Come on, squish together!” she said. As participants shared the labor for a moment, our relationships to each other subtly transformed from simply being spectators. We all became engaged in trying to hold Ms. Evans’s body and keep her safe above our heads.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about hierarchies,” Ms. Evans said. “The director of the gallery is standing next to the student. Everyone’s mixing together, and I do think that there is something to these collective actions.”
The artist has discovered through physical work a way to cut through class, sexuality, race, gender, ethnicity and geography, and create a space for agency. “Especially for the femme-presenting people in the audience, I was like, ‘People don’t expect you to ask for what you need, and I’m here screaming for it in front of you. Take that with you, remember that, because sometimes you need to demand what you need.’”
It is both a beautiful and disruptive thing to ask for what you need — to demand it; it means placing your body at risk. Ms. Evans is already there, in that place of risk, waiting for her audience to arrive and start doing the work with her.