On October 28, some 20 people watched Barbadian artist Sheena Rose’s debut as a performance artist. The attendees responded to an invitation posted by the artist on Facebook some weeks before.
The event, it had said, would take place at a private house, and only registered guests would be permitted entry upon payment of a nominal fee. It was stated that the performance would be unsuited for children, but the (adult) attendees were advised to bring paper and pens to draw on.
Makeshift curtains were being put up and drinks arranged in the adjacent patio, when the guests – mainly artists, students and art-teachers – seated themselves in rows of plastic-chairs in the drawing room of the older, unoccupied Barbadian villa. A segment of the room was left open for the performance and contained only an armchair, facing the audience.
Interrupting her preparations, Rose invited the newly arrived to help themselves to the refreshments. The room was half full (but several more were yet to come) when she called everyone to attention. She was wearing jeans, shirt, boots and a large, bulging headpiece wrapped in a scarf.
Then the performance started.
She enters the space, paces around a bit, pauses, then cries out: “Hey, what a nice space! I am an artist too. I am from Barbados. Where? Barbados, the Caribbean. What do you mean? Colour? Colour?”
She positions herself in front of the chair at the centre of the room, unbuttons her shirt, hesitates, then takes it off. Bra, pants, watch, panties, glasses and boots follow, the artist pausing briefly before removing each item. At last she unwraps the scarf around the headgear, and reveals a ‘crown’ of red roses.
What follows is a monologue (at times performed as dialogues), in which the artist alternately poses as herself and others, sometimes addressing the audience, sometimes herself or invisible opponents. Once undressed she asks, defiantly, ‘You think I am going to talk about Africa? Colour? Race? Identity? Sexuality? Beauty? Hair?”, all the while moving through various postures recalling our repertoire of black women and nudes in painting.
The performance then morphs through different scenarios, which seem only loosely connected, but touch on virginity, improper (male) propositions, female degradation, racism and rape in rapid succession. At a particular moment, the artist’s facial expression suddenly tightens and her voice grows louder, insistent, angry. Coming towards the audience, singling out and pointing at a few individuals, she shouts “You see – people like you! People like you!”, with increasing pitch escalating towards hysteria.
Then she grimaces, perhaps involuntarily, tears well up in her eyes and stream down her face. Without interruption, she wipes her face and continues the act. The sole appointed photographer clicks away and the audience busily scribbles on their paper. No one is drawing.
Somewhat later, now appearing to “play” herself as artist, she objects to someone having addressed her as “Ras!”: you call me Rose, model or artist, she says, but not “Ras”. She moves on to talk of a ladybird and resolves to call it “nothing”.
Pretending to have lost it, she starts searching for it on the floor, among the audience’s feet. Suddenly finding it on her head, she declares – with the willful, theatrical repetitiveness of the insane – that there (in her head) is nothing at all: no ideas, passion, feeling, identity etc.
She turns towards a small table in the corner and on it places two bottles, a salt and pepper-shaker and a pitcher pulled out from behind the chair, as if preparing for a meal or a ritual. As she takes the roses out of her crown and places them in the pitcher, one by one, the monologue returns to the beginning: “Hey, this is a nice space… I am an artist too. Thank you”.
To date, Sheena Rose’s work has been most effective, when it has directed us towards the intersection between the private and the public or the small mysteries of ordinary life. The performance did both and more.
Deftly preempting and mocking our expectations, Rose held the audience spellbound, as she meandered in and out of uncertain roles, one of which ostensibly represented the artist as “herself”. The issues put forth (though denounced at the beginning) – sexuality, race and identity – were thus at all times collapsed with the personal, and the performance in its entirety projected a form of controlled, surrealist madness, always sewing doubt as to what was performance and what wasn’t: at different times, for example, the artist posed as a virgin and a rape-victim.
It was, however, neither nudity, nor feigned madness, but Rose’s determination to own up to personal and artistic anxieties (not the least about staying in the spotlight), which gave the event a fatalistic edge, if also a certain character of transaction: the artist claimed virginity, but gave herself – with abandon – to the performance and (symbolically) to the viewers, who were rendered complicit by the small fee and thus co-opted onto a level of intimacy guaranteed to make her journey ours.
The act of undressing was therefore more meaningfully related to the artist’s identity as a public person than to the theme of sexuality. In one gesture – by showing that we never truly can undress ourselves – it attempted to de-mystify nudity and to re-mystify the artist. The question most successfully supported by the undressing was indeed what it really means to be “exposed”.
While the term “performance” (to an irritating extent) has become the keyword in all identity-discourse, it does have particular resonance here, and not just in relation to the act itself, for the event rested, not the least, on the artist making a point of her own ‘performed’ identity: much of Rose’s art (especially the earliest animations and the ‘Town’-series) has been centred on herself and her immediate environment.
However, as the public gaze has shifted towards the person behind – or, perhaps more to the point: in front of – the art, Rose herself appears to have become the message. The resulting “three Roses” – the portrayed, the performed and the “real” – unsettles (in a manner quite familiar to art-history, but perhaps not to Barbados) the relationship between the artist and the work: can they ever coincide, can they ever be separated – can the artwork even be replaced by the artist?
On this occasion, however – by emphatically dissolving the boundary between art and artist, but doing so “on stage” – Rose rendered these questions redundant. And by choosing to perform her own ambiguity instead of her own ‘becoming’, she did indeed become identical to her public role: an artist.