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Tracey Rose / Interview Devin Hentz

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue

« My telekinetic connection to the ancestors is rusty, but I have visions, not ideas. I can see the realized piece, but it’s the details that are hard. I wanted to use a Zebra, and I asked myself why a Zebra? I researched and found out Zebras live in harems. I was like perfect! Initially I wanted a cat and a roster, you know like a pussy and a cock, but I was like how do I code this, so the cat became a tiger, a very maternal animal. There’s lots of coded sexual metaphors, like the figure rimming the ice rink and singing Kate Bush or the figure that’s wearing a suit with « MONEY » on the front and « LUBRICATES » on the back. It’s kind of like the money shot in porn. »

– Tracey Rose 

Tracey Rose, courtesy of the artist

Tracey Rose is a South African multidisciplinary artist primarily working through performance, both live and for the camera, as well as through installations. Once referred to as the “​wild child of contemporary art”1, ​her performance work invites the audience to look on into worlds that feel like moving paintings in which characters are interacting with each other and sometimes in isolations from the others. Her works take a humorous approach to very serious topics such as gender stereotypes, diasporan connections to the continent and the histories of the trade of African people into slavery. Originally from Durban, Rose is now based in Johannesburg as a lecturer at her alma mater, ​University of the Witwatersrand​, a role she finds relief in as it a way to transmit the knowledge of a nearly 23 years career as an artist. Rose’s inclusion in the South African Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale will be the the third time the artist has presented at the biennale. The first time, the ​49th Venice Biennale (​2001), commissioned by Harald Szeemann she presented​ Ciao Bella​, a 16 minutes three-channel video in which she replicates Da Vinci’s Last Supper, but in Rose’s version, the twelve disciples, some fictional characters and others based on real women – all played by the artist herself, represent different stereotypes placed on to women. She went on to exhibit in the first African Pavilion during the ​52nd ​Venice Biennale (2007) curated by Simon Njami and Fernando Alvim titled ​CHECKLIST LUANDA POP. There she showed ​The Wailers,​ a silent 16mm film which depicts young Hasidic jewish men playing basketball underwater. In our conversation, Rose talks about her latest performance during the 14th Sharjah Biennale (2019), her role as an educator, and her plans for the 58th Venice Biennale.

On ​Any Way the Wind Blows​ (2019) 14th Sharjah Biennale Any Way the Wind Blows (2019) is a commissioned performative installation that examines the history of the East African and Indian Ocean slave trade and the Atlantic slave trade..”

Devin Hentz:​ Was it on purpose that your venue for Performa (2017) in NYC at the Black Lady Theater andthe Sharjah Ladies Club ice rink were both spaces dedicated for women?

Tracey Rose:​ I didn’t notice that! I just though what’s the most impossible thing you can do in the desert – ice skate. It also works as a good metaphor for the sea – solid water. The boat is like a spaceship making its way through space.

How did you cast the performers? I asked for eight performers, expecting maybe only 4-6. I was expecting women with different body types, instead I got seven Russians and one Belarussian woman! I was asking myself, ‘How do I conceptually justify this?” Thankfully, my gallerist Dan (Dan Gunn) said to me, “You’ve got eight white women, what are you going to do with them?” Sometimes I need those basic reminders. The performers weren’t actresses. They didn’t want to speak, only pose. I decided to let them play Russian princess. They’re were all dolled up.

I’m interested in the use of words in your performances. What were the performances shouting to the audience, and why did you choose a Kate Bush song? The performers were shouting the names of African Tribes. And being on the solid water, it’s like they’re screaming like they’re lost in space or lost at sea. And for the Kate Bush Song, the lyrics “make a deal with God…” reference this omnipotent male figure. I really fucking like Kate Bush, her music resonates.

Let’s talk about some of the Symbols in the piece. The Elephant? It was also present during THE GOOD SHIP JESUS VS THE BLACK STAR LINE HITCHING at Performa. Claire (Claire Tançons), one of the curators for the Sharjah Biennale wanted me to do something Similar to what I did at Performa. My friend, the actress Keitu Gwangwa, a ​Sangoma​(spiritual healer), played the elephant character « Ndlovukazi » at the Black Lady Theater. The Elephant in African mythologies is the matriarch of the elephant heard, and the only animal who can sit with the men. This is before the priesthood took her out and completely obliterated the place of the African Woman. As for the other animals. I have to kind of fall onto things. My telekinetic connection to the ancestors is rusty, but I have visions, not ideas. I can see the realized piece, but it’s the details that are hard. I wanted to use a Zebra, and I asked myself why a Zebra? I researched and found out Zebras live in harems. I was like perfect! Initially I wanted a cat and a roster, you know like a pussy and a cock, but I was like how do I code this, so the cat became a tiger, a very maternal animal. There’s lots of coded sexual metaphors, like the figure rimming the ice rink and singing Kate Bush or the figure that’s wearing a suit with « MONEY » on the front and « LUBRICATES » on the back. It’s kind of like the money shot in porn.

Did you have any concerns making the piece? Yeah, I was concerned about the level of censorship. The original plan was to have the performance over three days. The first day there would be an all women audience and the performers would be scantily clad in bikinis, the second day would be a co-ed audience and the performers would be more covered and the final day it would be an all male audience, and the performers would be completely covered up. But apparently, the semi-nudity was frowned upon by the women too – something about reinforcing stereotypes and also the budget wouldn’t allow for it. This performance is related to THE GOOD SHIP JESUS VS THE BLACK STAR LINE HITCHING where I was looking at the transatlantic trade of African people, but I wanted to look at the east coast trade on the Indian Ocean. This doesn’t receive as much attention. This east coast trade of African people is still related to how the Middle East and Arab countries relate to Africa today. Slavery was only outlawed in those regions in like the early 2000’s.
I couldn’t be too explicit. I have to find ways to code it – information in a particular way. I’m a mom now, I can’t be myself in danger or getting banned from foreign countries.

​I met you in Spring of 2018 when you were the artistic of RAW Material Company’s fourth RAW Academie, an eight-week residency young artistic practitioners in Dakar, Senegal. I wondered did your time at RAW impact the way you see yourself as an educator or your process of teaching? RAW was like a bootcamp! It was super concentrated! Now, I’m teaching performance to first years and it’s much gentler. My art practice is very shamanistic – and it’s like two practices that are equal weight. There’s the hyper-materialistic side,where I’m performing and the side as a healer. Space has to be made for that side. My students are very ambitious and doe-eyed. They want to push the boundaries with the bodies and ideas. It can be dangerous. I’m still trying to figure out how to heal after a performance! I’m trying to teach that to my students. The space has to be made for the healing. It’s not yet accepted in academia because of who’s in charge of theories.

Do your students challenge you? Yes! But I enjoy it. You can be so self-absorbed when you’re making your own work. I like reconstructing my environment to include other people.

Do you feel like you’re addressing the same problems as you did at the start of your practice? An artist should evolve. I’m not interested in watching the same thing over and over. I’m addressing something else now.

Tracey Rose ‘Hard Black on Cotton’, single-channel video installation. 58th Venice Biennale , South Africa : « The stronger we become ».

Could you give a hint as to what you’re planning for this year at the Biennale?​ I’m going old school. I’m going back to art. I’ve been inspired by these art nerd conversations I’ve had with some of my students. It’s all about materiality – looking at an object and seeing the layers of how it was made. If everything works out, there be portraits, going back to camera obscura….

Tracey Rose will be presenting alongside ​Dineo Seshee Bopape, and Mawande Ka Zenzile ​as part of the South African Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale under the theme of “​ The Stronger We Become”​ curated by Nkule Mabaso and Nomusa Makhubu.

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue
Devin Hentz
April 2019