Damali Abrams - Power and performance art
She is a feminist, a self-professed “pop culture critic” and “glitter priestess”. Like so many other artists, Damali Abrams uses her own lived experiences, good and bad, as catalysts for her own bodies of work. And although using “self” as the source as well as the vehicle for communicating with the public is hardly new, her work is quite different because it continuously blurs lines that have traditionally been shrouded in obscurity. Performance art might seem like an alien concept to most Guyanese but for this New York-based Guyanese artist living in such a dynamic art hub, it is anything but.
Despite having been practiced since the 1960s, performance art, because of its very nature, continues to be problematic should one attempt to establish its fluid parameters. The purpose of performance art (not to be confused with the performing arts) has always been to use the human body to challenge and completely dismantle the conventions of traditional art forms. It is experimental, unrehearsed, interactive and very often physically or emotionally intense for the performer and/or the viewer. While there are core ideas within the art form that link each artist’s work, there is no definitive checklist that dictates whether or not a work of art should be considered a performance piece. But in 2016, the same could also be said for almost every other art form. Rabbit hole alert!
In her artist statement Abrams says, “My work is a commentary on, as well as my contribution to, contemporary culture. Responding to the dearth of images of Black women that I find relatable in mainstream art and media, the work performs as my surrogate; the art performs me. […] I make no distinction between art and life. Using myself as a medium, I have an insatiable need to document the moment through blogging, webcam, video diaries and journaling. Personal narrative is a point of departure to addressing larger sociopolitical concerns and the fact that identity is inherently performative.”
Since 1990, at the age of 10, Abrams has been writing in her journals, thoroughly documenting all the happenings in her life including her natural hair woes, long-term goals of health and happiness, body image issues, future travel destinations and even her decision to become a Knicks cheerleader when she got older. After accumulating twenty years of journal entries it only seemed natural that she compile that material and use it as the infrastructure for an even more challenging body of work. Abrams made the decision publish those entries and later render them into performance and video adaptations.
A quick perusal of her social media accounts, particularly her Tumblr page (damaliabrams.tumblr.com) and Wordpress blog (damaliabrams.wordpress.com), will reveal a lot of bold and visual stimulating material including a few short videos from her series titled Autobiography of a Year. In this body of work Abrams recorded herself every day for a year, often dressed in costumes (some less outlandish than others) with personas to match. Her recital of journal entries from the 90s gives the viewer a brief glimpse into the life of an intelligent and very self aware teenager experiencing the angst that is often associated with those years. Those video-based performances are as raw and emotional as they are witty and eclectic. There is something very personal and vulnerable about the artist opening the pages of her journals and sharing intimate moments with complete strangers. The power that is unveiled as a result resonates throughout her video works and draws viewers in to her world. It is that ebb and flow of power between performer and viewer as she channels and confronts her own emotional responses to past experiences, that is truly stirring.
I recently sat down with Abrams to discuss her some of the concepts that inform her works as a performance artist and her experiences trying to sustain her art practice.
How did you decide to venture into performance art?
“At first I was making a lot of collages. I was really into collage and mixed media. It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I started to experiment with video and performance. But before that my background was in Dance. I’ve always been a performer from the time I was a little girl. It was through undergrad that I studied Dance. Then I started to bring all of these ideas together when I started grad school.”
How have you as the artist and person at the center of those experiences responded to the re-reading of your own words in your journals?
“A part of it is very painful and almost like reopening old wounds. I’m still not comfortable watching it. But it has been a big part of my healing process. It’s not something I would necessarily do right now. Once I realized I had 20 years of writing I was like ‘I should try to get this published.’ That was my initial thought and then I started to type it up. I realized I still had real reactions to things that happened in 1992 and I thought this is crazy. I also realized that I was still working through issues that I had started dealing with in my adolescence, like my insecurities. Then I thought to myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ The worst thing that could happen is I could stand in front of a room and read these in front of people. So that’s what I decided to do. Audiences were very supportive. I even did a collaboration with Sam Vernon because she had similar journal entries. We wound up doing a collaboration together even though she was like maybe 8 to 10 years younger than me, and she was brought up in a different place, and had a different background. But there were so many similarities. That was very comforting as well, realizing that I just wasn’t this crazy person by myself in the world.”
A number of themes such as Feminism, Black empowerment, spirituality and self-love are evident in your work. Talk to me about those themes.
“I am definitely influenced by Feminism, the Black Power movement, self empowerment and self improvement. I’m pulling my influences from different places, having read a lot of books and admiring a lot of different people like Malcolm X. bell hooks [bell hooks is always written in lowercase letters. Please remove this after reading] is big for me. I’ve read a lot of self-help books over the years. Figuring out a way that I can bring them together in visual art in some way is important for me. Even the work that is about me I never felt like it was just about me. I felt like someone who is very into pop culture, mass media and never really seeing images that reflected me in those spaces, media or in art. My sister always said, ‘If you don’t see images that reflect yourself, you have to create them yourself.’ And so I did that in a very literal way by putting myself in the work and writing myself into history. Otherwise I would be erased. Everybody won’t like it but maybe there’s a little girl out there somewhere like me, who couldn’t find anybody who looked like her, and who is happy to see someone like me. They walk into a museum and see a video of someone like me and that for me is huge.”
You spoke about Black representation in the media, do you feel like there has been better representation of Black characters on television?
“There are a lot more Black people on television which is great. But I still don’t feel like it reflects me, and the people that I know. So in that sense I still feel like I’m invisible. There are so many Black women who are the main characters but they still are the side hoes. It’s just depressing because I want to support these shows. There was one point where I was watching Being Mary Jane and I was watching Scandal and Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots. And it’s just like, here are all these amazing beautiful Black Women and they’re being degraded. It’s just like in the 70s with all those Blaxploitation films where it’s like you’re fighting to have more images of Black people [so they just give you stereotypical images of Black people]. It’s not just about seeing a Black face if it’s still going to be an image that [perpetuates stereotypes]. We still need a better range of the images that we are seeing. Having the Obamas in the White House is such a powerful image for little Black kids to grow up seeing.”
How has the public responded to your performance work?
“Even though it’s very common here [New York] and there are a lot of people doing video performance art, there are still people and even artists who would roll their eyes or still don’t take it seriously. I find that other artists would say, ‘Oh you’re just narcissistic.’ Maya Angelou wrote about 10 autobiographies and no one told her, ‘You’re so narcissistic!’ It’s something I find very strange but it’s not going to stop me from doing what I want to do.”
How has your experience with artist residencies been?
“Those experiences were really rewarding. It was really rewarding to meet the creatives working [in the region], share my work and see their work. It was a great experience and I’m hoping to go back to continue to build those connections. There’s something about being in a context where I make more sense and I feel like I understand more. A lot of things make more sense to me there even though I was born and raised here (New York), which to a lot of people is strange. Ideally I’d like to go back to Guyana and do things there. I feel like it makes the most sense for me to be working there. I spoke to a few people from Guyana about possibly making or showing work there but my only issue is funding. I’m constantly trying to find more funding opportunities so that I would be able to do that.”
What do you think needs to be done in order to make it easier for artists to achieve a sustainable long-term practice?
“I don’t think academia really prepares you for the real world. It prepares you to be an academic. They’re preparing you to get more education to then become an educator. But they’re not teaching you how to be an entrepreneur, which is what I think you need to do as an artist. You’re not going to look in the job section and see any vacancies for artists. There are very few opportunities for you to make a living as an artist. I would recommend always having other skills, always being able to get other jobs, get internships while you’re in school so that you’re coming out of school with work experience, which is what most jobs are looking for.”
Damali Abrams is a New York City-based multi-disciplinary artist who received her BA at New York University and her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2009 Abrams was a recipient of the A.I.R. Gallery Fellowship. Her work has been shown in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Memphis, Savannah, New Orleans, Denver, and Miami. She has shown work and facilitated workshops at BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College), SUNY Purchase, Barbados Community College, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, Hunter College School of Social Work, and Syracuse University’s 601 Tully. In 2013 Abrams attended a dual residency with Fresh Milk Barbados and Groundation Grenada. In 2014 she was a resident artist at The Center for Book Arts. She was recently granted an Apexart International Fellowship in Seoul, South Korea. Abrams was later made resident artist at LMCC’s Governors Island Process Space, and a participant in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program.
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on January 3, 2016.