Grisáceo | Act 3 of 5, Peer Review by Callie Garp | FabulouslyFeminst.com
November 21, 2014
Early mornings are one of the greatest challenges a student in graduate school can face. The battle to get all the way from your warm, comfortable bed to the classroom at 9AM can sometimes feel as desperate and dire as a climb up a very steep hill, or mountain, or occasionally Mount Kilamonjaro. But, here we are, a troupe of performance students, standing in the long hallway outside of B209 – the performance room. We chat and drink our coffee, checking our phones for text messages and emails. The humming noise of chatter drifts upwards from the lounge below. Somewhere a door opens and slams shut.
And then, the door to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts performance room opens, and closes behind us. The room is wearing a thick cloak of black velvet curtains. It is quiet and the lighting is dim. There is a low metal stool, a metal tray and some twenty feet away, a small white canister. A few seconds later, Bryana Siobhan enters the room from the opposite corner, carrying a lit candle in her hands.
Siobhan is a short and petite black woman. Her shoulder length hair has been straightened, a section of bangs secured off her forehead with a bobby pin. She is wearing a long black dress with a wide hood that is cocooning her face. We stand in the shadows around Siobhan and watch her, as she sets her candle down before the tray filled with an opaque, milky white liquid.
Siobhan’s work over the past few years has taken a piercing examination of her identity as a person of African and Latin descent. She uses her own body to pull her audiences along with her, often through different polarized spaces of identity. Siobhan’s practice has considered the role of institutions, personal and social politics through the lens of Black American, Afro-Cuban and Indigenous American experiences. Systems of oppression are ever present, from the weight of bound bags around her body (Azul Negro), to shifting loops of twine carefully keeping her in place between two trees (Steady).
Siobhan slowly dips her feet in the white paint, crinkling her toes in and out. She picks up the candle, and begins to walk diagonally through the room, towards the canister. She leaves a slipping, sliding trail of white footprints behind her. Reaching the end, she exchanges her candles for the canister, and washes her feet with the murky dark grey contents. She then walks back towards her stool, dripping and pouring the charcoal water over her white footprints. More often than not, the spattering stream misses their impression on the floor.
We’ve settled into the motion of the traveling between spaces; the back and forth feels ritualistic and calm. Once she reaches the other end, she pours the remaining contents of the jug into the white paint, kerplunking the sediment at the bottom.
She rests on her knees for a moment. We can hear traffic outside the window. She removes her hood and runs her hands through her hair. Then, after the briefest pause, Siobhan bends forward to rub her hair in the wet mess pooling on the floor. Almost immediately, her hair begins to curl up around her face. She crawls forward, sometimes on her hands and knees, sometimes on her elbows and toes as she works her body down the line, smearing, wiping, spreading.
This gesture is painful, sometimes humiliating to watch. We stand as onlookers a full level above her while she cleans the floor with her head. I feel compelled to lower myself, to at least share some parallel to the artist’s vision and experience. Perhaps this is a desire to empathize or perhaps a desire to not be firmly implicated in the role of the external system driving the work.
A long line of water had snuck away from Siobhan’s path and is snaking towards us. Her gaze reaches upwards, briefly towards our faces and then settles on the task before her. She wipes up the remaining track of water.
Returning to the candle, Siobhan extinguishes the flame with a squeeze of water from her hair, and leaves us alone in the room to take in the wake of her performance.
Watching helplessly during this task places the viewer in a role of passive observer or witness, taking in the suffering for purposes of education or entertainment. However, it also places the often erased struggle of socially polarized aspects of marginalized identity in the subject line, where it should be.