‘I Could Integrate Both Worlds’: How Black Lives Matter Cofounder Patrisse Cullors Uses Dance to Bridge Art and Activism
At Frieze Los Angeles last week, the artist had to cater to new audiences.
“You know,” said artist and activist Patrisse Cullors, standing on the backlot of Paramount Pictures Studios in Los Angeles during the Frieze art fair last week, “the electric slide is for every family party, every family gathering. And I’ve done the electric slide with black folks all throughout the country, and in London and Australia. We all know—when someone starts it, we all start together, and that kind of symbiosis is so beautiful.”
Moments later, she was leading a group of fair-goers, some of whom were slightly confused, through the dance, and not everyone knew what to do. At the start of each daily session, Cullors would announce that this was a performance called Fuck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free. Wearing bluetooth headphones and listening to a live mix by DJ Nameless, who was there on the last two days of the fair, some attendees stumbled along until they learned the moves, while others just wore the headphones and watched.
It’s hard to disrupt the aspirationally commercial, class-conscious energy of an art fair. Just yards away from the dancers was RuinArt Champagne’s well-appointed pop-up bar. Cullors, however, had the advantage of at least being away from the main Frieze tent, and her dance unfolded on a wide street free of cars, amidst a movie studio backlot built to look like New York City. Her gesture, while carefully planned, was very simple, and required only that people wanted to let loose for a little while.
Cullors, who cofounded the Black Lives Matter movement with activists Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, was best known for her activism before she entered the University of Southern California’s MFA program in 2017 and began performing and exhibiting more widely. She first performed Fuck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free in August 2019 in the parking lot behind the ltd gallery in Los Angeles.
At the time, she had sculpture and video in a three-person exhibition at the gallery tiled “Economies.” (“Oh not to think about money!” the press release read. “The glow of billionaires, misty skin clear eyes […] what immunity has been granted beyond […] the law.”) At the time, pictures of children in cages at the border were circulating in the media and Cullors remembered “looking at those images and just feeling helpless. I wanted to do something that brought us together.”
She called up Shirley Morales, ltd’s founder, with an idea for a participatory performance: dancing against white supremacy. “I think part of the efficacy of a government that makes people feel helpless, is that people then don’t feel like they can act,” she explained. On the invitation she circulated on social media, Cullors wrote: “From police brutality to mass shootings, our collective psyche is stressed and worn,” adding that dancing could “help regenerate our serotonin levels.” She expected 10 or 15 friends to come dance with her; over 200 people eventually arrived, and did the electric slide for two hours.
Morales, whose gallery often shows emerging artists, proposed Fuck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free to Rita Gonzalez and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, the curators of Frieze Projects in Los Angeles.
Gonzalez, head of the contemporary art department at LACMA, initially hesitated when Frieze LA director Bettina Korek asked her to curate for the fair, worried that doing so could be a conflict of interest. But she agreed to curate alongside Rivas, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum, allowing the colleagues to extend their past collaborations. (In 2017, they organized “A Universal History of Infamy,” which surveyed the diversity and complexity of current work by Latinx and Latin American artists while demonstrating the absurdity of telling one marketable story about these artists’ works.)
At Frieze, they wanted to give platforms to artists who might not otherwise be at the fair. “We were feeling empowered—which is something we typically don’t have—to say, we want to make this choice, these are the artists that we would like to see,” Gonzalez said.
They situated Cullors’s performance in front of a series of colorful backdrops the artist Gary Simmons made in 1993, inspired by his research into African American filmmakers. Among the most arresting is Roots (1993), painted to resemble the Ethopian flag, except the Lion of Judah carries the Statue of Liberty’s torch in place of his usual scepter.
“But it’s not cheap to be here,” Cullors pointed out, alluding to the exorbitant fees charged to visitors (general admission on Saturday or Sunday was $125; tickets to view the special programs only—meaning, tickets to see artworks exclusively outside the main tent—were $60 on Friday and $25 over the weekend). “It’s really for the folks who are here,” she added. “I’m identifying with a completely different audience than I would in the activist space.”
This is something she has been thinking about lately: how to negotiate different audiences and platforms. On February 5, at The Broad, she performed Allegories of Flight, in which she wore a shimmering bronze-colored jumpsuit and large wings made from found fabric. She led her audience on a procession from the museum to a grassy plaza beside it, where a sound installation explained Measure R, a state ballot initiative that calls on California to “to develop a plan designed to reduce jail population and incarceration.”
At Frieze, the wings Cullors wore were installed at the entrance of a small shop in a faux backlot brownstone, and “Yes on R” t-shirts made in collaboration with the South Central shop Kutula were available for sale.
“I’m trying to have a bigger conversation about social conditions, and sometimes I’m having that conversation in a really pensive, sort of introspective kind of performance,” Cullors said. “And then sometimes it’s really extroverted—like, let’s get up and dance together.”
She points out that Fuck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free works well in large part because it is not for or about Frieze: infectiously energetic images from the ltd gallery performance are currently on two billboards on Sunset Boulevard, thanks to the City of West Hollywood’s Arts Division.
“I feel like I get the most impact out of my work when it’s not just sort of a one off performance, when multiple people across LA city are involved in the process,” the artist said. “I could integrate both worlds, my art world and my protest world.”
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