Ayana Evans: Confrontational Catsuits And The Politics Of Performance Art

Whether stalking MoMA in a neon catsuit to lay bare the fetishistic gaze of the other, jumping for hours in heels to comment upon enduring the trials of womanhood, or carrying strangers on her back in a testament to female friendship, every piece that performance artist Ayana Evans creates is both personal and political. An artist unafraid to embrace and address all her labels and hypenated identities, Evans first came onto our radar when we shared a panel with her as part of Milk & Night’s Pervasive Feminisms exhibition in March. Moved by her churchside performance of “Operation Catsuit,” we invited her to perform the piece at Slutist’s first exhibition, Witch Slut Are You? where she debuted yet another new aspect of her repertoire. We spoke with this Chicago-born and bred artist about “Operation Catsuit,” traversing the fashion, art, and performance art worlds (she also designs handbags), her artistic influences, her take on racism in the curatorial process, and more.

You have your MFA in painting, how did that inform or influence your work as a performance artist?

My very honest answer is, I don’t know. But I really was interested in performance art. Three or four years ago I just started looking for it. I wanted to see it in person. Maybe it was sparked because I went to see Marina Abramovic at MoMA — I ran up the stairs, waited all day, got to sit in front of her. I was the last person that day, so I literally [waited] for hours. But I didn’t want to do it, I just wanted to see it.

Then I went to Fountain Art Fair, and met Hector Canonge from Grace Exhibition Space — they’re hardcore — and he was there manning their space, and said he was curating shows every Tuesday and I should come. So I went to Bushwick, by myself, because none of my friends were gonna go. The first night I met this girl, Leili Huzaibah, who walked up to me said, “Who are you?” Basically she could tell I was new. Apparently I had dressed up a little too much and I looked like a fashion person. She said, “Yeah I could tell you were in fashion.” She was right, but I thought I came looking like an artist, but she got fashion from me. She was really nice, and when I said I was interested in performance art, she told me where to go and it was a gateway. She became my partner in going to see performance. She became a guide. If you talk to her, she can reference a show that happened in the early ‘90s that’s dance that reminds her of something she’s seeing right now. It’s a whole other level of knowing your shit.

She’s a performer also?

No, she doesn’t perform. She is, in her own words, a super fan. She knows everybody, she knows the crowd, but she’s not a performer and she doesn’t want to be. She does curate now and help guide other artists unofficially, but she is actually shy about this.

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So when did you transition from watching to doing? What was your first piece?

“Operation Catsuit.” But that was supposed to be an experiment.

What inspired “Operation Catsuit” the first time?

I was sitting with my friends at the Soho Grand and we started to talk about how nice it would be if we could wear whatever we wanted. And then it kinda went to, “It’d be nice if we could dress like sluts,” and then we were like, “Well what is a slut?” Well, sluts are badass but some people hate them. But the stuff “sluts” wear is really comfortable. Like to not have on a bra and your nipples are kinda skimming…but a lot of people are offended by that. So from there, I was talking to another friend and he said you should dress up and video it. Then another friend mentioned a woman with a clothing line called Butch Diva. I saw her designs were these bodysuits that are bright, and maybe a leg is showing, and there’s all this lace down the side. They are just awesome and really comfortable. I was like, “That’s it! I should wear that.”

I found it ironic that these catsuits actually cover a lot of your body yet people think they’re risque. If I had no shape it wouldn’t be sexy at all.

So I borrowed the thing and decided to wear it to MoMA because I felt like there was a difference between how the art world thought of a woman in something bright and tight and how the fashion world would. If you did that at a fashion party, chances are you’d get celebrated — a lot of fashion people just respect that you took a risk. Then I thought maybe nothing will happen because it’s New York, and people have seen everything. So I wore it, and my friend came to film behind me, and the reactions were so crazy that I had to keep doing it.

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What were some of the reactions?

People were taking pictures of my butt throughout most of the video. But it’s not men, it’s women. It’s white women taking pictures of my butt. These are middle aged, you-should-know-better aged women. They were far enough behind me that I was absolutely oblivious, though. So I walk through [the museum] for like an hour, then I went to the bathroom and my friend follows me and I apologize because nothing is happening. She says, “No, I’m getting great stuff!” She’s far enough back and she’s not black, so nobody thinks there’s a connection. I notice if I go with a black person, people assume we know each other. If I go with any other race they don’t assume we know each other.

The camera is an iPhone?

Yeah it’s not really obvious. Some of the others have been, though.

And after the first time you saw the playback that’s when you decided to keep doing it?

Yeah it’s just for me though. I put it on YouTube. But I hadn’t been making art for six years.

So this brought you back?

Yeah, but that wasn’t the intention. It was for fun, for me. It was to be comfortable, to do what you want, to say fuck it to everyone. I really do think women should be able to wear whatever they want. It didn’t come from, “This is gonna make me an artist” or something.

Every time you perform the piece is it mostly white women who are objectifying you?

Well, in that space there really weren’t any black women there. One time I did it at the Brooklyn Museum, and it wasn’t that black women objectified me, it was that black women got angry with me. The funny thing is, the group looked familiar to me. I think I actually had been at a dinner party with them once. They were nice to me under those circumstances, but in the video, they were like, “What the hell is this woman doing?” It was all, “Nuh uh, did you let a hooker in here?” and that type of reaction.

When you’re performing what is your mindset?

I’m just calm, kind of blank, because if I’m not I ruin the performance. Otherwise you get angry, you curse someone out, you’ll be looking over your shoulder, and look for someone to be mean to you — which is usually when it happens.

Do you have a pre-show ritual that helps you get into the right head space?

I usually watch Oprah, I watch OWN — Super Soul Sunday. Not that it even relates, but it calms me down, helps me focus.

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At the Slutist exhibition in May, “Witch Slut Are You?” you had a sign that read, “I’m here looking for a husband.” Had you done that before?

I’ve never done messages and notes before. That’s the beginning of a new piece. I was kind of testing it out. I realized when I posted it on Instagram that certain people were like, “Girl, I know how you feel.” I don’t want to insult people with this piece, but I realize it could be taken the wrong way.

There’s always the, “You’re looking for attention” comment when I wear that outfit. You never say that to a dude, like “Oh, you’re just looking for attention,” but they always say it to women. If someone is mad that I’m “looking for attention,” they’ll probably also say I’m looking for a dude, too.

What have some of your other recent performance pieces been?

One is durational and it’s called, “Stay With Me.” I did three hours of jumping jacks, in heels and a gown with my hair up. I put party favors and an installation behind me. My dress was cobalt blue, all lace, and sheer from the thighs down. The idea is that I don’t think anyone is going to stay with me, but some people do. Some people stay the whole time. It’s supposed to have layers: you work hard as a woman, you do all this stuff in heels. It’s also a commentary on exercise, endurance, what does it mean to break down and care so much about appearances. But it’s also a metaphor for my love life. I felt like i was jumping through a lot of hoops for dudes.

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Your “I Carry You, You Carry Me” from Bushwick Open Studios this year sounds similar as far as delving into the burdens women bear.

Yeah, that’s about friendship too, friends carrying each other. They drop each other too; one friend dropped me! I still have a few scares from that.

I saw that and wondered if you worked out for months to carry all those people…

Now I have a trainer. The first time I did jumping jacks it was two hours in Newark. Then in Chicago I did three hours because I had been working with a trainer. In Chicago — I’m from there — my parents were there, my high school friends were there, a little girl came and did the jumping jacks with me, it was a very communal experience. I was talking the whole time, introducing people, like “This is my cousin.”

When I perform I’m not a persona, I perform as myself. A lot of performance artists have personas, though. When you see them away from their work they are totally different.

Who are some of your artistic role models?

Lorraine O’Grady, I really like her work. Renee Cox, Louise Bourgeois. I love her career. I love Bourgeois’s sculptures, but I love her career more. She used to allow students come to her studio space. When I was in grad school, you could literally get on a bus, come to New York, and have a critique with her. She had this open door policy and I think that’s amazing at age 80, and when one is so established.

I like William H. Johnson — I don’t think most people ever see that connection — but the colors of his work, he’ll always be one of my favorites. The way he paints is great, but it’s the colors. That’s constant. His painting style changed, but his colors were always perfect in my opinion, so bright, so vibrant.

I have a lot of pop culture influence too, like Madonna, Beyonce, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Grace Jones — there are a lot of women.

End of Run to Your Friend Until You Cant Anymore Photo by David LaGaccia

Do you identify as a feminist? Would you label your work feminist performance art?

Yep I would. I always tell people I embrace all my labels. So when people say I’m a black artist I’m like, “Yep.” I’m also a feminist artist, I’m an artist from Chicago, I’m a female artist. All of that’s there. Some people like to be called just an artist, but to me that’s more like erasure. I feel like it’s better if you can just deal with all the different things you are, instead of trying to erase all the categories.

Because they’re real…

Yes, and even if they’re not real, they’re so constructed in me that I can’t erase them. So I would be lying to you if I told you I didn’t have those perspectives. I’d have to erase everything that ever happened to me as a woman to say, “Oh there’s no female perspective.” That’s a lie.

I think some women only say that because they want to have the same respect as male artists.

But that’s bullshit. You should respect me for all my categories. I wouldn’t have to fight as a man to be respected for it. I shouldn’t have to erase that I’m a woman.

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How do you feel about racism in the art world? What was your take on the criticism of the Whitney Biennial last year and the sexism and racism in the curatorial choices?

So I think my answer is a little controversial. Obviously it sucks. But I also think that sometimes people get mad and say there aren’t enough artists of color, in say, the Whitney Biennial, and I always say, they’re not that many of us period! Some of it is racism, yes, but when you look at art school, how many of us are there? And that you can tie back into racism and culture but at the end of the day, if we don’t exist you can’t be mad at the curator for not picking us. There’s not enough of us to get the percentage that most people want for every biennial. I don’t want to see shitty black artists just because they’re black.

Like in college admissions, the percentage of black and latino men who are in jail make it impossible for college numbers to be what we want them to be. You can be as mad as you want at the college admission board, but their applicant pool was cut before they could even do a racist job.

When you look at the percentage of black artists who hold MFAs* and are working, while yes, racism weeds us out, we’re weeded out before we’re at the point where we’re picked for the Whitney Biennial.

There’s literally so few of us we pretty much all know each other in the US. The fact that Theaster Gates can have a Black Artist Retreat in Chicago — yeah he misses some people — but it’s crazy that he doesn’t miss as many as you would imagine. That’s not a big space [in the art world]. I couldn’t do that same retreat with white artists. People should rally for better representation in smaller shows, or even for more art exposure in all high schools, not the Biennial. The push needs to be somewhere else.

* Sidebar: I recognize that some AMAZING artists are self taught but let’s be real the Biennial is largely populated by artists who went to art school and have an MFA.

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How do you feel the performance art scene differs from the art world at large?

Because you can’t monetize performance art it’s way more underground, it’s way more “hippied out”, it’s way less hierarchical. At the end of the day, most of us are all broke — and I should note that a lot of performance artists I know don’t even want to live within a capitalist society. You collaborate, you introduce people more. Unlike in the art world at large, it doesn’t mean that person won’t be spending thousands on me if I introduce them to you. Compared with painting, it’s a different feel. You feel the competitive edge in painting. Artists don’t introduce or tell you about open calls as often, it’s survival. Money changes things. In performance art, it’s more about, “I love this craft, let’s enjoy the art.” You get a lot more art for art’s sake. And you “bring it” wanting to make the audience feel something, not based on whether it will sell.

Upcoming performances:

July 29th
Operation Catsuit at Uptown Bounce
El Museo del Bario
1230 5th Ave NYC 10029
7pm – 8:30
(Will end next door at The City Museum of New York, which co-sponsors Uptown Bounce)

Aug 16th
Queens Museum
The museum invited the performance art collective that I co-founded, Social Health Performance Club (SHPC) to respond via performance acts/video to work in the current show After Midnight. About 8 members from the group including myself will perform that night,

Sept 9th
The Gateway Project
(Em)Power Dynamics Exploring the Modes of Female Empowerment and Representation in America
Newark, NJ
Other featured artists include: Cindy Sherman, Rene Cox, Lorna Simpson, Wangechi Mutu, and Barbara Kruger

Images: Ken Warneke (“Stay With Me”) blue dress; Dasheen (Nunnie) Jordan (“Stay With Me”) pink dress; David LaGaccia (“Run To Your Friend Until You Can’t Anymore”)

2 thoughts on “Ayana Evans: Confrontational Catsuits And The Politics Of Performance Art

    1. Word play is fun, but when words play you it’s even funnier. Can’t believe we didn’t catch that one! Thanks.

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