The Studio Museum in Harlem New York City, has always been at the cutting edge of performance art. It has also championed African-American art, in particular black performance art. One of the most controversial works that the Studio has shown is the Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art.

This was the first time that the Studio had shown a retrospective look at black visual arts and was highlighted in a very radical way. Curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, the exhibition was first shown at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston.

The Studio Museum in New York

When the exhibition opened up in New York in was in two parts, the first being at the NYU Grey Art Gallery, and the sequel was at the Studio Museum. The exhibition is comprehensive and on view are objects, photos, videos all related to black performance art over the last fifty years. There are works by thirty-six artists of African descent, both from the Caribbean and America. The exhibition shows live performances and live events.

The Body

The main focus in the exhibition is on the human body, and the show uses it as the main tool that conveys the art and messages. The artists performing in the exhibition engage their bodies with the awareness of their experience and personal space.

The main approach by the black performers is one of coolness, but a common theme among them is one of endurance, especially in every day pieces that also combine humor and suffering. The main point of the performances is to show liberation and self-determination.

Superman 51

Highlights of the exhibition include Superman 51, this is a piece that dates back to 1977 by the artist Papo Colo. This video was in response to America refusing to allow Puerto Rico statehood in 1976, and Colo can be seen running dragging behind him fifty-one wooden sticks.

Pretending to be Rock

Another stand out video is by Sherman Fleming that dates back to 1993, the artist often went under a pseudonym during the 70s & 80s called Rodforce. However, in Pretending to be Rock he performed under his own name in this graphic piece of work. The video shows the artist on his knees attempting to stand up whilst hot wax is poured on his naked back.

Not all the performances were so hardcore, and other performers took a more subtle approach tinged with irony. One such performer was David Hammonds and his piece, Bliz-aard Balls Sale. Or the humorous and engaging Eating the Wall Street Journal by Pope L. He is a highly interesting performance artist who describes himself as the friendliest black artist in America, the description is full of irony but highly accurate.

The exhibition was a landmark statement by its curator and sends a message out to the audience to resist any reductive conclusions about being black. Although some of the pieces deliberately are there to shock, in the main the show is highly enjoyable and throws light on some of the burning social commentary that was expressed over a fifty year period.