The Role of Performance Art and Transitionalism in African Art

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Words: 1764 |

Pages: 3|

9 min read

Published: Sep 12, 2018

Words: 1764|Pages: 3|9 min read

Published: Sep 12, 2018

Transnationalism and performance art are currently phenomena that have a major holding and influence on art in the contemporary era. The notions of transnationalism and performance art have an integral role in regards with both the content of individual works produced, along with the rationale behind why they were created. The concept of transnationalism used in the context of art conventionally refers to the phenomena of how ideas/information, people, and goods flux from one location towards another. It is with this definition, that it can be observed how vastly different elements of distinct cultures can make it into the same work of art and have the ability to interact and exhibit fluidity. While as, the notion of performance art is primarily associated with the viewing of an artist’s body as the medium which is significant because the actions that the artist performs is what is considered to be the art. According to Moma Learning (1952), performance art typically consists of the “four elements of time, space, the performer’s body, and a relationship between audience and performer”. Additionally, performance art is interdisciplinary, meaning it employs another aspect of visual art such as props or video. According to The Art Story, the purpose of performance art in association with contemporary African art is to allow for artists to challenge the other visual art forms when they deem them to be too conservative for their intention. Turning to performance art allows for the artists to both find new audiences as well as test out new ideas. All of the aforementioned intuition can be further exhibited through the artworks created by the artists: Wangechi Mutu, Samuel Fosso, Yinka Shonibare, and Tracey Rose.

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Artwork A is a collage created by Wangechi Mutu in 2017 and is titled, Ndoro Na Miti (Mud and Trees). This piece reflects upon the strength of women and their connectedness with the Earth. Her project is supposed to challenge the specific manners in which the majority of women are represented. Wangechi Mutu states that “[women] are in charge of the destiny of the Earth”(Whitewall 2017). Seeing as how the role in which women play and the current issue of climate change both impact the lives of all individuals in the world, this artwork envelops a multitude of sizable matters. It may not be explicitly apparent that Ndoro Na Miti has elements of transnationalism, however by taking into consideration the concepts and the features that the artwork touches on, the trans- nationalistic elements may then be observed. It is fundamentally due to the political issues associated with women and the climate that are apparent in both Kenya and where she currently resides, in New York. An additional piece of work created by the artist Wangechi Mutu is Artwork E which was created in 2017 and is titled Water Woman. Water Woman is a large bronze-cast that is set gazing towards the east and overlooking the lagoon located in Austin, Texas. The bronze cast is intended to depict an nqwa which is a mythological sea nymph popularly brought up and acknowledged in East African folklore. Wangechi Mutu’s art appears to reflect upon her childhood spent in Africa as well as her artistic education obtained in the West. It is with this that a sense of transnationalism in Wangechi Mutu’s art may be acknowledged and observed. Specifically, it is the manner in which the East African myth is the center of focus of the bronze-cast. The fact that an African myth is the center of a piece of art in a different location than where the myth originates further reflects upon the notion of transnationalism and the role it plays in unifying and integrating the cultures. Wangechi Mutu’s art primarily reflects upon the female identity as well as representation and it is supplemented and enhanced by the discussion of African ideals.

Artwork B was created by Samuel Fosso and is titled, The Chief: He Who Sold Africa to the Colonialists (Self-Portrait as an African Chief). This piece is a conceptually political self-portrait of the artist sitting in a chair being engulfed in vast amounts of jewelry and symbolic patterned cloth. This photograph is intended to serve as a parody of the Chief who sold Africa to the colonists and that is primarily illustrated and conveyed through the overabundance of materials and items within the photograph. Additionally, Samuel Fosso is posing with a prop of flowers and a bag and is bearing a pair of unique glasses. His art could be considered to be performance art primarily because of how in each of his self-portraits, Samuel Fosso can be identified as the center of focus as he plays a different individual and due to the inclusion of props. By turning the camera on himself and allowing himself to be the center focus of the piece he provides his contemporary audience with the opportunity to observe and acknowledge the artist’s intention. An additional piece of work created by the artist Samuel Fosso is Artwork F which is a photograph created in 1998 and is titled, Liberated American Woman/A Self-portrait. This photograph features Samuel Fosso dressed in women’s heels, makeup, and jewelry, and a western hat, all while being engulfed in a plethora of various textiles and patterns. In this photograph, which may also be considered as a piece of performance art. It appears that Samuel Fosso’s intention in this piece was to refashion the textiles in a rebellious manner in order to illuminate upon the concept of freedom. The juxtaposition also comes into play when taking into consideration that Samuel Fosso is dressed in colorful “authentic African” textiles while posing as an American woman. This piece holds in front and center the archetype of a bourgeois woman and is primarily associated with the overarching desire and demand for freedom and independence. Interestingly enough, this piece was created before Samuel Fosso’s first visit to the United States. This further exemplifies the concept of performance art by using his body and surrounding to frame his message of freedom and the characteristics of middle class American life for women in terms of the materialistic value as well as conventional attitudes.

Artwork C was created by Yinka Shonibare in 2013 and is titled, Scramble for Africa. The title is intended to allude to the Berlin conference of 1874 in which Africa was divided between the European countries. Yinka Shonibare purposefully utilizes headless mannequins surrounding a large table with the map of Africa pictured upon it to illustrate the concept of colonialism as well as transnationalism. Scramble for Africa incorporates the global trade item of textiles, which cloth the headless mannequins. Additionally, the headless mannequins are included in order to provide and bring up the overarching question of identity as well as identity politics. These textiles are specifically referred to as Vlisco which are created by the Dutch originally for the Indonesians, however the textiles were more accepted in Africa. The textiles eventually effectively became signifiers of African identity during the disassociation of colonial rule. The majority of people do not know or acknowledge the history behind these “authentic African” textiles. Therefore it appears that these textiles are included in order to allow the viewers of the artwork to take into consideration the overarching themes of authenticity as well as identity. The transnationalism associated with the clothes and textiles similarly echoes that of Yinka Shonibare’s history. He was born in London, raised in Nigeria, and now currently resides in London. It is with this that he has the ability to allow for his artwork to reflect upon various cultures and personal identities that he possesses due to living in contrasting environments. An additional piece of work created by the artist Yinka Shonibare is Artwork G which was created in 2001 and is titled, Leisure Lady (with ocelots). This piece features a life size headless mannequin guiding three leashed ocelots. There is a common misconception associated with the identity of culture of individuals who reside in Africa that Yinka Shonibare attempts to address. This issue is mainly the result of an inaccurate reflection of the continent via the media. It appears that Yinka Shonibare is addressing this issue through the inclusion of the ocelots and by intentionally naming the work Leisure Lady. It is with this title that the underlying satirical assertion that the woman is casually spending her leisure time walking the ocelots which is atypical of what constitutes leisure time for the average individual who resides in Africa. It is with these installations that Shonibare demonstrate the notions the role of identity as well as authenticity play in contemporary African art.

Artwork D was created by Tracey Rose in 2004 and is titled Lucie’s Fur (The Prelude). In this performance art piece, her body is at the center of the work. Lucie’s fur is an example of performance art that specifically focuses on gender roles, religion, and racial bias. In order to tackle this plethora of complex subject matter, it is straightforward to see to why performance art was utilized to address these issues. Performance art in this specific case allows for Tracey Rose to find a new audience and convey these overarching themes in a new manner.

An additional piece of work created by the artist Tracey Rose where she is also at the center of the work is Artwork H which was created in 1997 and is titled, Span II. This performance art piece is intended to address the idea of ownership in a both literal as well as figurative manner. Additionally it intends to address the concept of reclaiming in a sense what belongs to individuals such as human rights as well as what they can do with their own physical bodies. In this piece Tracey Rose is sitting down on a television set that is displaying a nude classical art image. Rose is sitting upon the television with her head shaved and hair surrounding her. This piece is experimental and demonstrates the manner in which performance art has the capability of drawing in new audiences and presenting ideas in new fashions.

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These eight images all further the notion that transnationalism and performance art are currently phenomena that have a major holding and influence on art in the contemporary era. It is through the intentional inclusion of props, poses, textiles, and other key elements that allow for the complex artworks to frame these intricate and global concepts and issues. Therefore, the reality that these artists were capable of inducing such a profound impact through their artwork demonstrates the importance as well as effectiveness of performance art and the conjoinment of various independent cultures through transnationalism.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Role of Performance Art and Transitionalism in African Art. (2018, May 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
“The Role of Performance Art and Transitionalism in African Art.” GradesFixer, 19 May 2018,
The Role of Performance Art and Transitionalism in African Art. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].
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