Walker curator on 'Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art'

MARY ABBE | Updated 7/24/2014

Fionn Meade talks about the Walker’s new show of black performance art.

Walker Art Center’s new curator Fionn Meade explains the new show “Radical Presence.”
Bruce Bisping

Fionn Meade moved to Minnesota from New York City two months ago to take a new curatorial post at Walker Art Center. His first task was to oversee the installation of “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art,” a show that opens this week. Intense, black-clad and arty, he recently took a break to chat about the show.


Q: “Radical Presence” spans half a century, from 1962 to now, with more than 100 photos, videos, sculptures, performance documentation and other material. What are some highlights?

A: The subtitle is an important entry point because it looks at black performance in the context of contemporary art. Many of the artists have film, video or visual art practices, but all do performance knowing that it’s going to happen in an exhibition.

People will encounter a lot of live performances, especially over the opening weekend. William Pope.L’s “Costume Made of Nothing” is a 90-minute performance that will be done 13 times during the show, so you’ll catch it if you’re in the gallery at that time. He’s working with a local performer, Brian J. Evans, whose long poses and choreographed gestures become something beyond a sculpture. And Satch Hoyt’s piece, “Say It Loud,” is a staircase that viewers can climb. It’s surrounded by books dealing with cultural studies, black consciousness, the civil rights movement, the history of slavery and its economic impact. At the top of the staircase is a microphone into which viewers are encouraged to complete the phrase from James Brown’s song, “Say it Loud — I’m ( -------) and I’m Proud.” That’s a very participatory piece.


Q: From its start in the “happenings” of the 1960s, performance art seems to have been mostly a white behavior. Were black artists there all along, or is this something new?

A: Benjamin Patterson was a central figure in Fluxus, and his 1962 work “Pond” goes back the furthest. He’s a very important and somewhat under-recognized artist who will give a lecture here on Oct. 9.

Lorraine O’Grady created a beauty-queen character, Mlle. Bourgeoise Noire, and from 1980 to ’83 she attended gallery and museum openings in that persona. When a friend told her that performance art doesn’t have anything to do with black people, she created big gold frames and took them to an African American Day parade in Harlem and had photos taken of people — policemen, kids, families — in the frames. Called “Art Is … ,” the photo project breaks down the idea that avant-garde art can’t relate to ordinary people.


Q: The show is called “Radical Presence,” but what makes it radical?

A: Black performance has to do with the presentation of the black body, being both the performer and to some degree the observed. There is a lot of use of the personal in the show. It’s very intergenerational. It’s influenced by the civil rights movement, entertainment and minstrel shows, hip-hop and jazz, dada and the Fluxus movement. It brings the work of these artists squarely into a central conversation of contemporary art today; it’s meant to open up conversations and be responded to.


Radical Presence

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue., Wed., Fri., Sat., Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu. Ends Jan. 4.

Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

Tickets: $14, free 5-9 p.m. Thu. and first Saturdays. 612-375-7600 or www.walkerart.org.