artist statement & bio
The social currents that have shaped my biracial heritage are the building blocks of my performances. By adopting antipodal personae that are altogether autobiographical, I animate the ambivalent relationships between racial and ethnic groups. I embody a cast of characters that represent a cross-section of races, ethnicities, genders, and cultures. My menagerie of personifications embraces the complexity of my own identity. My characters stage interactive encounters and reimagine cultural narratives. Performance is the only means by which to spotlight the fertile points of contact between socially divergent groups.
Quadroon is a performance and video installation in which I portray four characters that are autobiographical. I perform as a New York Jewish bubbie, followed by a monologue as my black grandmother from the South. My personification of a teenager who seeks to “pass” as Greek segues into my performance as a butch lesbian who brags about the success of her meal plan service, which is funded by fraudulent food stamps. The biases that stereotype these four identities are rendered impotent as one character transfigures into the other, while bearing my resemblance. The term “quadroon”, once used to racially classify mixed race African-Americans, is a foil. Quadroon demolishes the notion that phenotype, race, ethnicity and gender are easily united.
In the video, Early Bird, as Dew Drop Lady, I wear a “schmatah” and housedress, the cultural signifiers of my Jewish grandmother, thus fitting easily within a community of Jewish senior citizens. We communicate in an oral vernacular that includes conversation about food and retirement. In the midst of our like-minded dialogue, I inform the seniors that although my mother is Jewish, my father is Black. Exclamations are made: But your features...your features are so beautiful! Based on the tenets of Jewish tradition, I am advised to “go according to the mother.”
Performing as Dew Drop Lady in Early Bird gives evidence to a particular bite of insularity and racism in a sector of the Jewish community. In Nominee, I create a hiring including black art world notables and politicos, and my Jewish grandparents, vocalize their myriad positions about my suitability for a job. They duel over their suspicions about my black legitimacy and my allegiance to the race. As the characters state their viewpoints about my hire, there is a realization that each one’s principles differs vastly from the other members of their cohort. Each committee member has different ideas about what it means to be black. Their arguments envelop issues pertaining to tokenism, skin color, using the N-word, and patriarchal privilege thus revealing the intricate complexity of black identity.
In After Before the Revolution, I also re-shaped a cross-racial dialogue by embodying Eleanor Antin’s fictive black ballerina (Eleanora Antinova), as well as members of the Black Panther Party. Antin’s appropriation of blackness in Before the Revolution from 1979 was, and still is, controversial. My blackness and Jewishness enables me to make a more accurate portrayal of Antin (who was Jewish) as well as Antinova. Her original cast, which included life-size puppets of Sergei Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky, become animated puppets of Huey Newton and Stokeley Carmichael in my production. Because the performance was staged at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I replaced the revolutionary Rite of Spring with a rousing of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. Despite the differences in these productions, Sergei Diaghilev and Stokeley Carmichael offer Antin and I the same counsel. Whether Jewish or black, they say that we will never be able to perform as a bona fide ballerina. Audiences would see us only as “blackface[s] in a snow bank.” In spite of their ideological distinctions, Sergei Diaghilev and Stokeley Carmichael’s warning is frighteningly like-minded. Although Antin’s work was performed nearly 50 years ago, the challenges she posed to her audience about race, revolution, highbrow culture, and the authority of Modernism, are still palpable concerns.
Through dancing, I embody my Jewish grandfather who was a ballroom dance teacher. As “Uncle Bob”, I don an ill-fitting tuxedo, carry a turntable, and lead Conga Lines throughout art spaces and street festivals. Bob is the maestro of escapist revelry, and his dance steps emerge from Arthur Murray’s colonialist convictions about the “simple Natives” mastery of the Conga Line in the eponymous manual, How to Become a Good Dancer. In addition to trailing Murray’s footsteps, Bob strives for a middle-class impeccability that misses the mark. His toupee teeters from his head, and the sugary sustenance of the lower classes – chocolate and antacid tablets - spill from his hands and pockets, and render a sticky dance floor.
Exposing what lies beneath the sugarcoated mask my grandfather wore to “pass” into white America guided my research into other ways that Jews obscured their differences and ethnicity. I was stunned by the blackface mask worn in the early 20th century by Jewish minstrel performers. Was this harsh image a parody of my own biracial mask as a black and Jewish performer?
In Routine, I enacted a comedian that was once familiar to the stages of New York’s “Borscht Belt” region. In between delivering a barrage of conventionally sexist and self-deprecating jokes, I plunged my face and body into a 25-gallon tub of borscht. The image of my crimson face emerging from the tub was as arresting as the blackface worn by Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and others. The beet-based soup, a staple of Jews who frequented the Catskills’ colonies, became the material that accumulated and built a new mask. Rather than masquerading as a black minstrel, I used the crimson-colored borscht to assert a more truthful legacy – one that cannot be erased; one that is instead located in my African-American and Jewish body.
Unlike the minstrel’s climactic “reveal” of light skin, my beet face did not culminate in a disclosure of Caucasia; it instead signaled a new hybridity --- one that manifests on the stages of The Uncle Bob Variety Shows. Since 2008, I have been hosting lineups of “extraordinary everybodys” in an appropriated talk-show format. Guests have included a diverse and divergent cast of family members, artists, beat boxers, dog trainers, curators, children, scholars, social workers, tap dancers, activists, equestrians, yoga instructors, the cartographer of the first-ever NYC Public Toilet Map, and Uncle Bob (my grandfather) himself. As guests on the show demonstrate their skills and avocations, they participate in improvisatory conversations with other guests and me. The environment may evoke Uncle Bob’s escapist aesthetic of champagne flutes and holiday decorations, however, on The Uncle Bob Variety Show, my guests and I are not aspiring to conventional standards. Our “extraordinariness” resides in asserting our eccentricities and de-ghettoizing our identities.
I have exhibited my work throughout New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and for international audiences. Some of the spaces I've performed at include Detroit Institute of the Arts, Jewish Museum, Bronx Museum of the Arts, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Queens Museum, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Roger Smith Hotel, The Kitchen, Dixon Place, ABC No Rio, 848 Community Space, and WOW Café Theater. My work has been supported by the New York Foundation of the Arts, Franklin Furnace, Urban Artist Initiative, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and College Art Association.
all rights reserved © Copyright Danielle Abrams