In this interview, Ayana Evans discusses being the artist and the art.
Right now, what stage in your career would you say you are?
I'm emerging. But the whole “what stage are you at?” [question] is always relative, right? Some people are called emerging because they don't have gallery representation; others are called that because they are young. I [saw] an art meme on [Facebook] recently where “emerging” was defined as an exhibiting artist who has no money. Sometimes I think that is super accurate because the grants and residencies that are earmarked for emerging artists usually go to the people who are on the cusp of leaving the category.
When I left college, I truly felt like, “And now what?”, which resulted in me sitting on my mother’s couch for several months. Did you feel that?
Noooo...I felt like I couldn't waste the money and loans my parents had spent on Brown. I had to figure something out before graduation. This was pressure I put on myself, not pressure that my parents applied. I didn't want to disappoint them. I had dropped my major in international relations on the commerce track senior year and only earned a visual arts degree instead of the double major in art and business, so I did not feel I could do nothing after having taken that gamble.
With the encouragement and support of one of my professors/mentors, I decided to go for my master’s immediately following undergrad. She explained that if I had a master’s I could exhibit and teach pretty easily. That sounded like a good plan to me, so I went to grad school to earn an MFA in painting. I had no interest in performing then. I got a grant the spring that I graduated to do research for an art project that involved studying my southern roots and allotted me enough money to work as an intern at Leo Castelli Gallery in Soho. I slept on a [friend’s] couch in Harlem that summer and helped her and her roommate out with rent. I also partied a lot. I love to dance, so I hit the clubs and worked at Castelli. It was a great experience. I felt sure I had picked the right career. [Castelli] died not long after I started grad school that fall. That seemed such a sad occurrence to me that I still don't talk about that internship much.
You went to Temple University in Pennsylvania and Brown University in Rhode Island. Do you just really like winter? Did you think about those communities that you’d be in when you applied to those schools? I went to New York for my undergrad because I wanted to be immersed in an arts culture that I didn’t have in Long Island. I then went to grad school in Savannah because I wanted a break from the culture in New York that had begun to feel overwhelming.
I HATE the winter, but I'm from Chicago, so I know how to navigate the cold. Like anyone, I picked schools that had the major I wanted and seemed to have a student body that I fit [in] with. My guidance counselor, Mrs. Brown, pushed me to go to an Ivy League school. I wanted to go to Kent State for undergrad because I had a cousin playing football there and aunts who lived nearby. I thought I would have fun hanging with my cousin and eating home cooking with my aunts. Plus, Kent had a fashion and business program and that was exactly what I wanted to study at the time. Also, Kent didn't cost too much, so I thought it was a perfect fit.
Mrs. Brown pushed me to go on trips to visit Brown and Dartmouth. Brown's campus was—and still is—beautiful, and as a Brown student [I] could take classes at RISD, while double majoring in international relations. When I visited Brown I really liked the students I met, and the parties were great that weekend. I also had a friend in high school who wanted to go to Brown. In fact, she told me about Brown! I didn't even know Brown existed before we started discussing possible schools. I even told the person who interviewed me for Brown that I hoped my friend got in too and that she was a great candidate! Looking back now, that doesn't seem appropriate, but I wanted at least one friend at school and I also wanted to go away. I thought if I asked for it, [then it] would happen.
My friend was rejected from Brown, but she got into Yale, so it all worked out. Unfortunately, we didn't stay in touch. With Tyler [at Temple], I was most concerned about who the chair of the department was and [whether I] would like the faculty. The chair at that time was Stanley Whitney. He was black and had a dry sense of humor. I liked him immediately AND, most importantly, he said he could find a fellowship to cover most of my grad school costs if I went there. The Tyler School of Art at Temple was one of the top eight schools for painting at the time—I don't know what it is now— so I was happy to go there. I also had family in Philly. I was mature enough by then that parties didn't factor into my decision.
Then you moved to New York. How was it to navigate that arts community?
*cue the laugh track* It was hard, but eventually, I found the community I fit in with.
What does that mean, to find a community that you fit in with?
For me, a community I fit in with just means a group of people I [can] trust and share a similar approach to art making with. People that I vibe well with. We can discuss art and hang out together casually. These are people I like collaborating with, can organize shows with, and I value their opinions of my work. Not everyone in the art world will be easy to work with, understand what you do as an artist, or even care about you as a person; I found a group of people who do.
My background is in photography and I know that there are photo festivals, portfolio reviews, workshops, residencies, and other initiatives built around that medium to aid a photographer in [developing] their craft and strengthening their network. I’m curious what performance art has.
The same thing. It's funny to me that people often talk to me about performance art like it's this strange other form, almost like it sits outside of regular art practices. There are performance art festivals, workshops, and residencies. And I find that most residency programs are interdisciplinary and include performance artists. Skowhegan, Vermont Studio Center, LMCC, Recess, Studio Museum in Harlem, etc. all include performance artists in the types of artists [they] support. If you go to school for performance art, you will have portfolio reviews or final crits just as anyone else would. In New York there is also a strong underground performance art scene, which is starting to be less underground as performance becomes more trendy with larger institutions, and [as] performance stars like Marina Abramovic become more recognizable/sellable.
The underground scene is where one can perform in group or solo shows, experiment with the body and viewer, observe other performances, and gain critical feedback.
What does that mean to be “sellable” as a performance artist? What are you selling?
Generally speaking, you are selling yourself, ephemera from your performances, and images of your work. If a museum commissions you to perform, they are expecting you to draw both press and an audience. By sellable, I literally mean you have the ability [to] sell museum tickets.
Did you visit “The Artist is Present” when it was at MoMA or watch the documentary on Netflix? Watch it and take note of how many people came to see the performance artist, Marina Abramovic. The museum profited from that. She is sellable. I went to that show and [sat] in front of her. A special ticket in addition to the general admission ticket had to be purchased for this. Ultimately, she is sellable in the same way a celebrity is sellable. People who are fans of certain performance artists will pay to see/support them in the same way a musician's show would be supported.
I want to touch on how you choose your audience. Your work is rather physical; it’s very much about the body, and really your body as a black woman. As your identity, and by extension your experiences, navigates your work, does it also navigate the opportunities you seek? Have doors opened for you or closed to you because of your content?
As far as choosing my audience goes, I try to make my work as accessible as possible. I perform outside just as much as I perform in galleries and museum spaces. I post to YouTube and try to document as much of the work as possible. This puts the performances in front of many eyes, not just "art world" viewers. Although, don't get me wrong, I do want the art world to see my work. I simply want other communities to see it as well. I have no interest in having my work sequestered.
I don't think my content is a barrier. I think my content is my strength. Sure, there are spaces that don't show black bodies or don't show women artists. Those spaces will not want to show my work, but I don't feel like I need those spaces to become successful. I also know that if my star rises high enough in the art world, even traditionally racist spaces will want to show my work.
In general, I find that the use of abstraction in my work alienates people more than anything else. I find that people have an easier time digesting abstract paintings than they do abstract actions. I always include abstraction in my performances. Sometimes people love it, [and] at other times [it] repulses them.
Are there things you look for when applying to residencies or other opportunities, or do you cast a wide net and see what you catch?
You have to think about where you are applying. Every opportunity doesn't fit with your artist practice. To cast a wide net with looking at where you fit with an organization is lazy and desperate. I don't think it works.
As a performer, [my] body is my tool; my body is my work. If I put my work somewhere where it will be mistreated, I am literally placing my body in a space where it will be mistreated. From that perspective, I always consider where I am showing and how my work (i.e. my body) will be treated/received.
I look for opportunities that leave space for experimentation. That is important to me right now. I also look for financial support for the projects that I have in mind. A lot of what I do does not require income to make, but working for free becomes draining over time and is not sustainable long term.
[You touched on this a bit already, but] still thinking about audience, does the space matter to you? Could you hold a performance on the street or in a grocery store, or would you rather a museum or gallery?
I do hold performances in all of those places. I want people who don't go to galleries to see my work and I want people who do go to galleries to see my work, so I will always perform both inside and outside of the gallery. To me, art is everywhere and in everything. It is a lived experience. Doing something in a gallery is not what makes it art. I like for the boundaries between life and art to be blurry. That is not accomplished if [the] art [is] only seen at a museum or gallery.
Last December, you did an interview with Gallery Gurls—which asked a lot of questions that I was going to, so thanks for that—where you mentioned that you quit art for six years. My first question is what were you doing, and my second is why come back to this?
I quit and ran my own handbag line, YANA Handbags, for eight years. You can still see the site. I came back to art because I love it. It had frustrated me to no end career-wise, but I couldn't quit it forever. I missed it too much.
When I returned to art, I had the attitude that I was not making art to get career success out of it or to sell anything. I just began #operationcatsuit because I wanted to do it. I put it on YouTube because I wanted to show it somewhere. I did not expect many people to look at it. Ironically, it went viral and unintentionally lead to me getting art shows.
In that same interview, you spoke on how you pushed your social media presence, applied for grants in order to pay for the work to be documented, and even created flyers to advertise the performances during your residency at El Museo del Barrio. I was really thrilled that you shared that because I feel that people think that once you get to a certain place, everything [will] be taken care of for you.
I think the opposite is true, especially today. In the ‘90s, you could get picked up by a gallery and the gallery would handle your PR and promotional materials. Now you have social media to consider, and PR takes up more avenues and time than most galleries give to up-and-coming artists, so you have to do it for yourself. Even more important to consider is that most galleries and museums do not have a strong social media department, yet social media buzz is important, and people look to outlets like Twitter and Instagram to tell them where shows are happening and what art looks like at shows they cannot attend.
The art world runs a lot like the music [industry] does today. An artist needs a strong social media buzz, some major press, and to sell independently before being signed by a major gallery, just as musicians need all of that before they are signed to major labels these days. Interpersonal relationships are still invaluable—people show [artists] who they know personally—but you can't just rely on that alone to take care of you. Doing so means you are not controlling your image, social currency, or market value.
In many ways, social media can allow you to sidestep some of the "gatekeepers" in art who may not "discover you" or let you into the art world if you don't push them to. In performance art it is crucial to stay aware of this because a lot of people in art do not understand the category well enough to explain it verbally or promote it properly, so one has to do it for his/her/themselves. What works in promoting painting does not work in promoting performance. Social media also allows the artist to connect to fans who may not go to galleries. It widens your audience. This makes [the] artwork more democratic and open to everyone.
Financial security is a real struggle for artists with physical products that they can sell. How are you supporting yourself as a performance artist?
I'm not. I work part-time for two different [nonprofit] arts organizations that put artist teachers in public schools. I just began to be paid for my performance work last year. I estimate that one third of my income comes from performance commissions. I should say that I am also starting to sell limited edition prints of my performance work and that, in the end, may make me no longer need to work a day job at all. I actually love working to show and document the ephemeral objects leftover from my performances, and the photographer/videographer collaborations that I have begun are leading to new series of works. This adds a tangible element for people to take awake from my work and allows it to live on, and it lets me sell objects in a way that I don't feel compromises my performance work.
However, NOTHING replaces the actual performance experience live. That will always be the heart of my work.
For some in the fine arts, their goal might be gallery representation [in order] to say to themselves that they have “arrived.” What’s yours?
Of course, I would want to be supported by a gallery that really understands performance art and would be willing to support my work fully—not in a half-ass kind of way where you are being pressured to make objects that have nothing to do with the performance work itself.
What are you doing next? What does the year look like for you?
I am pleased to say that the year is pretty packed! I have performances in Kansas City, Baltimore, Martinique, and Philadelphia lined up. There are some guerilla outdoor performances in DC and Boston that I am planning for now, and I leave for Canada in June to finish up the research for the Jerome Travel Grant that I was awarded. The first portion of that grant is already completed: it involved two weeks of study, interviews, performance, and conference participation in Kingston, Jamaica. Lastly, I have also been asked to participate in a couple residency programs, but neither of those is fully confirmed yet. If they work out, I will [be] fully booked from now until September, possibly October.
Among all of this, I think the biggest project that I have on deck is the “A Face in the Crowd” exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philly. For that show, I am performing for nine hours straight on May 6th all over Philadelphia, editing for eight hours straight the following day, going back to work for two days in NYC, and then coming back to Philly to host a performative Tea Party dinner [on] May 10th that will be free and open to the public. We will seat 86-100 people. I will sit at the head of the table. The edited version of the nine-hour performance will be shown at the Tea Party. You should come to this if you can, and bring friends! I want as many people as possible to come to enjoy the music, screening, and "foods of meaning," such as silver platters of fried chicken and plates of cucumber sandwiches with the crust cut off. Everyone is encouraged to "dress to kill." It should be amazing.
While her technical teaching is in painting, Ayana Evans’ artistic voice now speaks through performance. New York Magazine named her as one of ‘3 Women Changing the Art Game’ in a 2016 review of Art Basel Miami, where she performed at Satellite Art Show and Prizm. Evans has also performed in museums including The Queens Museum and El Museo del Barrio, where she also held a residency. She currently resides in New York City.