'It hasn't left me': How Black Lives Matter used performance to create unforgettable 2016 moments

On a warm summer night in July, artist Tanya Lucia Bernard stood in the middle of the cavernous galleries at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary and softly sang a refrain from a civil rights anthem: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

As she sang, fellow artist Patrisse Cullors read the names of African Americans shot by police, including Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both whom had been killed in the days prior.

Afterward, the pair exchanged a series of poetic questions.

“Tanya, what does black sound like to you?” Cullors asked.

“Black sounds like raindrops,” Bernard responded. “It sounds like trumpets and drums. It sounds like green grass. Yes, green grass has a sound.”

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Cullors is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter; Bernard, the network’s art and culture director. The event was part ritual, part town hall, part work of performance art — and a stirring piece of activism.

“It stayed with me for months and months,” says MOCA chief curator Helen Molesworth, who helped arrange the event and wrote about it for Artforum. “It hasn’t left me.”

In its short, three-year lifespan, Black Lives Matter has helped transform small gestures into indelible political acts: There have been choreographed die-ins at crowded train stations and piano concerts. This summer, a single human chain, fists raised, blocked traffic on the 405 Freeway as an act of protest.

And there is “Hands up, don’t shoot!” — the plaintive pose of surrender that emerged in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson — which has become a national symbol of police shootings. It is now so ingrained in the popular consciousness that it has made its way into art and onto red carpets and, quite famously, the video for Beyoncé’s “Formation.”

Molesworth likens Black Lives Matter’s tactics to Act Up, the AIDS advocacy organization, founded in the 1980s, which was known for its operatic acts of protest. (Members of the group once created a concentration-camp-themed float for New York’s gay pride parade as a way of making a statement about government inaction on AIDS. On another occasion, they dumped human ashes on the White House lawn.)

“They are both organizations that include the participation of a lot of artists,” she says. “And they understand that to occupy the public space isn’t to only occupy the street — it’s to occupy the Internet, the meme, the hashtag. Act Up street activism was designed to be caught on a camera. Black Lives Matter has understood how to be received on the Internet, on social media.”

And it has done so through physical actions that play with performance, with theatricality and rite.

In early September, a group called Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter staged a daylong intervention and performance at the New Museum in New York City as part of a project orchestrated by installation artist Simone Leigh, who was then the museum’s artist in residence.

The piece included a public prayer, titled “A Litany,” composed of bits speech from victims of police violence, and a procession that featured women carrying banners that bore the words “joy” and “grief.” The performance offered the memorable sight of clutches of black women, all dressed in red, parading around the streets of Lower Manhattan.

Nina Angela Mercer, a Bronx-based writer and performer who helped stage the event, says that performance connects quite viscerally with the political issues at hand.

“The idea of people linking arms and closing up the subway train in Oakland in response to the shooting of Oscar Grant, or using bodies to shut down a bridge — it’s directly connected to dealing with state violence in our lives,” she says. “It’s the body being violated, so using the body as part of the movement, I think it’s a direct response to that.”

These gestures have emerged as Black Lives Matter’s most profound political art — more so than any graphic or poster.

“Performance allows for a level of direct interaction that two-dimensional work does not,” says Naima Keith, deputy director at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. “You are directly dealing with the public. You are getting feedback. It forces people, for lack of a better word, to see and interact with the black body in a way that is very powerful. It’s a way of claiming space.”

And it has trickled down to even the smallest, most mundane acts. Over the summer, some activists were using the name “Black Lives Matter” when placing their orders at coffeehouses, requiring baristas to shout the phrase out in public settings.

“Giving your name to the Starbucks guy,” Molesworth says, “that’s an understanding that small gestures accrue over time.”

Those gestures, large and small, are now shifting the nature of the cultural discourse as some museums offer themselves as sites of protest-performance.

“One of the things that really strikes me about American art is that it’s often overwhelmed with this coy, joking, ironic tone,” Leigh says. “There has been a disgust at work that speaks of community — until very recently.”

That is changing. And will likely continue to change. Performance and protest have a long-running bond. Expect it grow deeper over the coming four years.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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