An article by Elena Goukassian for DCist.
Saturday afternoon, a colorfully dressed woman will lead a parade of musicians and spectators through the National Portrait Gallery. It’s not a continuation of last weekend’s Funk Parade, but the final program in the gallery’s inaugural season of performance art events.
Cuban-American performance artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons and her husband, Boston-based saxophonist and composer Neil Leonard, are bringing “Identified” to the Gallery this weekend. It’s the latest performance piece from a woman who in 2013 performed at the Guggenheim, dressed as the Guggenheim.
The National Portrait Gallery launched the series, “Identify: Performance Art as Portraiture” last October with local performance artist Wilmer Wilson IV, who addressed race by methodically covering his black body with teeth whitening strips. Other artists in the series have conjured up memories of the Portrait Gallery building’s past as a Civil War hospital, and brought historical and contemporary Native American and women’s issues to light through their performances.
The museum’s historical collections are largely composed of 18th and 19th century portraits of white men. The “Identify” program hopes to correct this institutional oversight by means of living portraiture. “The U.S. has had a huge impact on global culture. Many people (even Americans) who couldn’t name all 44 U.S. presidents, could likely name 44 important U.S. artists,” Leonard notes. ”The series highlights the importance of the American people.” “Performance art is an old art form,” Campos-Pons adds, “but it’s new in the conversation of contemporary art.”
Campos-Pons and Leonard created a site-specific piece for this occasion. “Identified” consists of a 45-minute procession through the galleries, beginning in the courtyard, weaving its way to Abraham Lincoln’s official presidential portrait and ending in front of the museum. “The procession will be like a moving target,” Campos-Pons explains, “exploring how what happens now may have an umbilical cord traced back to historical moments.” This history is reflected by the paintings on the gallery walls and by the building itself, which has housed the U.S. Patent Office, the Civil Service Commission, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a Civil War military barracks and hospital where Clara Barton and Walt Whitman volunteered. “The only reason to look at the past is to illuminate something in the present,” Campos-Pons says.
As for the music, Leonard tells us that two dozen musicians will be playing in different parts of the gallery. These include a jazz band from the Duke Ellington School, an Afro-Cuban folklore group, and even Grammy-winning jazz trumpet player Terence Blanchard.
“Part of the performance is bringing people together and putting a spotlight on them,” Leonard says. “We think of the performance as one continuous piece, kind of like an opera, with an array of stages to address the collection and architecture.” Leonard and Campos-Pons specifically chose a handful of “moments in the music of the Americas,” with different tempos, rhythms, and timings to go with the various architectural spaces. “It’s an incredible privilege to have the opportunity to work in such a space and build on its language and imagery,” Campos-Pons says.
Campos-Pons wasn’t always a performer. She started out as a painter and sculptor. “When I first started doing public performances in the 1990s, I wanted to express something I couldn’t express in my paintings and sculpture. I wanted to put my body in a particular space in a particular moment.”
Putting her body on view inevitably comes with a certain vulnerability. Her goal for every performance is to have “all the people there weave together with one energy, which is always a challenge.” How does she know if a performance has been successful? “When it ends, if the audience remembers just one element, remembers the feeling they had in that space,” she says, then it’s all been worthwhile.