Philly performance artist continues to make pointed, powerful work
PHOTO: Marcelline: In My Own Image (Film Still) 2015
In times of white-hegemony over punk, outsider scenes, queer spaces, and art gatherings, Philadelphia’s QTPOC (Queer & Trans People of Color) radical creatives and destroyers aren’t here to comfort your colonial gaze. At one point we got tired of hearing Bikini Kill overplayed between bands, so got local DJs to spin for punk shows. Poets are standard show openers. Noise acts share bills with bands like SWARM that consist of dancers and projections made by video artists. These aren’t new alternatives to a punk show, rather the resurfacing of a culture of radical outsiders in opposition to the nostalgia drenched formulaic white-dominated punk scene. There’s fluidity to the structures of Black and Brown outsider scenes, especially among Queer and Trans folks.“Doing it Yourself” isn’t a radical idea to us, it’s always been a necessity when resources are low and passions are high. In this light, performance art is taking a leap outside artistic institutions.
Marcelline Mandeng is one Philadelphia-based artist taking such steps, performing for years at coffee shops, galleries, warehouse venues, and restaurants. She always leaves audiences deeply aware of the politics of the spaces they occupy.
SOLITARY SIREN SONG
As of October 2015, 22 murders against trans women of color have been documented this year.* The pain doesn’t end there, since often they are misgendered by mainstream media and their legal names along with private information are made public. Their death becomes a spectacle without holding room for their memories, dreams, and narratives to be contextualized. Marcelline’s “SOLITARY SIREN SONG” is a performance holding space for these 22 trans women of color.
The confrontational performance begins with a toy gun, building tension by grabbing spectators and pretending to shoot them in the face. Wearing a red jacket, and white ceramic mask with a pink trim, Marcelline travels throughout the space to the soundscape of layered gunshots and vignettes of her didactic history of trans culture. The soundscape (curated by DJ Haram) becomes harmonic as the layers of audio loops build for a few minutes. She then removes her coat and mask to symbolize of shedding skin, her ideal way of being vulnerable in that space.
Centrally located in the room is a faux animal hide made from a deconstructed tyvek suit painted in black glitter. The silhouette-like sculpture is surrounded by small candles, signalling its memorial significance. Without much prompting, spectators began to light the candles. Once all the candles were lit, the hide became a glowing aura. Marcelline then takes the hide and drags it throughout the room, symbolizing a dark shadow trans women of color share and the history that affects them all. On the edges of the hide, there are bells and as they jingle throughout the space they create a siren.
After she is done with the tyvek suit hide, she grabs a handmade rubber heart the size of a Papaya with a porous surface replicating a strawberry’s. The heart is ignited by a small light bulb inside, and she holds it above her head circling the audience once again. She chants, “THIS IS FOR MY SISTERS,” a loving affirmation. A rift is then created in the space filled with cis white men, as many do not repeat the chant. The situation asks spectators, “look at who you are surrounded by. do you actually trust these people?” If they can’t show solidarity in this performance, how can they be there for trans feminine people in everyday life?
The sound piece cuts to a recording of Marcelline repeating:
DO YOU REPRESENT ME AND HER AND HER AND HER AND HER
DO YOU STAND FOR ME AND HER AND HER AND HER AND HER
DO YOU PROTECT ME AND HER AND HER AND HER AND HER
Next, Marcelline ties a rubber band around her waist, sticking in long stem plastic flowers. Her body becomes a bouquet. A bouquet typically left at grave sites. In the final stage of the performance, she clenches her fist in a Black Power symbol and sprinkles rice over the crowd. Everyone is left still as Cherno Biko’s #BlackTransLivesMatter remixed version of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmout” is the remaining soundscape.
“I’ve always rejected having things on the wall because objects are dead if they are not being used, so why create a cemetery for dead objects,” said Marcelline regaring the life of her sculptures in performances. Her current era of work, “The Artisanal Collection,” has taken root in a practice of healing through protest art. “There is power to activism outside the streets, you can be an activist in the tower.” The tower being white-dominated academic and fine arts institutions many artists of color find themselves in. As artists of color, we typically feel the burden of being a political figure just for existing in these spaces. Even if we do not chose to be radical artists, we become defiant just for defining ourselves and addressing systemic oppressions.
Circus Act IV (B*tch)
Marcelline talks of her current performances as a meditative practice and a visual means to navigate gender, sexuality and spirituality. Reflecting on the past, she discusses the use of self-deprecation as an attempt to connect trauma with the spectator. Marcelline quickly admits she wasn’t happy when she debuted her piece “Circus Act IV (B*tch),” part of the “Circus Act Series.” Performing in the highly academic environment of Maryland Institute College of Art, her body was always on display and white classmates often acted disrespectfully. She internalized that reality into a performance of strapping herself to a cart on all fours, wearing all white, and allowing the majority white audience members pull her around. While being pulled she would maintain an expressionless face to hide her pain, leading the audience to believe they weren’t inflicting any.
“When I see young Black performers making work for the first time, it’s often very self deprecating,” says Marcelline. She describes a public performance she saw recently of a young Black man wearing minimal clothing and softly signing a spiritual. “ I just want to tell them, your history exceeds beyond pain, you can be so much more than a body constantly in pain. Yes, you can make work about trauma but you don’t have to subject yourself to more trauma. Because its already in the news, we are constantly sharing articles where it’s like, ‘Black bodies are being killed,’ ‘Black body being soiled,’ ‘Black body being burned.’ There needs to be more realities where we are triumphant and hopeful, celebrating each other, being healthy and happy. Yes, a lot of us are marginalized and struggling, but we are also beautiful souls.”
Daughters Of The Universe, This Is Our Song
Daughters Of The Universe, This Is Our Song. 2015. w/ Evan Christmas, Nikki Lee, Elise Drake. Photo by Emilia Penannen
The garments worn during performances are not costumes, but an extension of self. “Daughters Of The Universe, This Is Our Song” was a collaborative performance by a group of women led by Marcelline. Spools of red yarn function as an expression of their bond and care for each other. The women extend the bonds by lacing the yarn into Marcelline’s Venus symbol metal tree sculpture. The yarn branches out devil horns and forms fruit. Wearing floral skirts, with painted clouds on their faces, the women act as moving landscapes. They circle the tree, pluck the fruit then feed each other. “Time and change. The body as the landscape that you need to actively excavate. You have to do the work to know yourself, to grow and transform…Sharing the fruits of our labor throughout these cycles of life and death,” Marcelline explains. The yarn bonds break throughout the performance, yet the women continually repair them in a gesture of maintaining survival and vitality.
“Black artistry is so much more prolific than any other form of artistry because it comes from a very painful and traumatic past. The fact we’ve been able to survive despite all these oppressive predicaments. Once we start redefining what it means to be black in America, which meaning you are not dead or in jail, that’s when I want to redefine. Those are the norms I want to challenge.
Or that you have to be on a pedestal in order to be for your voice to be valued and for your body to be considered.
Or that you have to present as traditionally feminine in order for your femme identity to be legitimized.
I think that can only happen if I show that I am okay in not performing in expected ways so that other artists who might share the same opinions would be less afraid try to subvert those norms. It’s a collective effort.”
Marcelline Mandeng was born in Yaoundé, Cameroun, and moved to the United States at age 11. She was raised in Philadelphia and attended Maryland Institute College of Art for her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture. Marcelline currently lives in Philadelphia and works between Philadelphia, New York City and Baltimore. She is part of the experimental club night known as ATMdata, thrown twice a month in West Philadelphia. She is currently working in expanding her performances to public sphere, especially where there are designated platforms left empty.
*Some sources say 22, as others say 21. Memorial Lists do include the names of white transwomen, yet deaths remain majority Black and Brown women. An emphasis to keep in mind is the fact these are women were documented, many others due to misgendering, citizen status or other issues do not become known to the public. We must wish they too rest in power.