Madelyne Beckles and Petra Collins: In Search of Us
by Cason Sharpe
On a rainy March evening in midtown Manhattan, a few hundred guests filled the lobby of the MoMA for the latest iteration of the museum’s PopRally series. Demographically the crowd skewed younger and less overwhelmingly white, myself included, than one would expect to find at an event held by such an institutional heavyweight. Everyone in the crowd was dressed to the nines. I had anxiously debated my outfit before arriving, untucking my shirt and then tucking it back in again until I got the look just right. On this particular evening the MoMA had been transformed into the hottest club in town, a far cry from the quiet place of reverence it had been earlier that afternoon when field trip classes lined up in the same lobby to take the museum’s official tour. This is the goal of PopRally, a series of one-night-only events which “serve as a gateway for young and diverse audiences to engage… with modern and contemporary art.”1
On this particular evening, we huddled together for In Search of Us, presented by New York-based photographer Petra Collins and Montreal/Toronto-based artist Madelyne Beckles. An orangey-pink sunset backdrop hung behind a stage, flanked by a plastic palm tree on one side and a Grecian column replica on the other, framing a living room scene replete with plush, beige carpeting and brightly upholstered couches. The living room was cartoonishly messy: oversized Cheetos bags and larger-than-life books of feminist theory were strewn around the space alongside shoes, dresses, flowers and other domestic detritus. Music blared from speakers overhead: bass-heavy rap and R&B. The lights were dimmed, leaving the installation soaked in a soft glow. Three performers cloaked in flowing robes lounged on the couches, flipped through feminist texts and danced along to the music. Spearheaded by Collins and Beckles, In Search of Us included a digital salon with video work by Beckles, Grace Miceli and Aleia Murawski and a musical performance by Brooklyn rapper Junglepussy. The living room/stage, which served as the focal point of the show, was brought to life by Beckles and Collins in conjunction with designer Samira Alfarius, who participated in a three-hour tableaux vivant within the installation, alongside fellow performers Monica Hernandez and Kalena Yiaueki.
In Search of Us used Lorraine O’Grady’s 1992 essay “Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity” as a point of departure. The focus of O’Grady’s essay is Manet’s Olympia (1865), in which a Black maid bows behind the eponymous white sitter, her arms outstretched in offering. Such figures are a common visual thread within Western aristocratic portraiture: Black servants, most often women, are placed at the periphery of the image with heads bowed in submission.
By virtue of being housed within a major art institution, In Search of Us put itself in dialogue with a Western art canon. The show issued a challenge to the MoMA: if the museum wants to attract the mythic Young and Diverse Audience, it has to grapple with the history of racism and misogyny reflected in and perpetuated by a large body of its collection. The living room set, exaggerated in both its opulence and disorder, parodied the domestic spaces of a white elite, spaces where, historically, Black women could only enter as servants or sexual objects, spaces where portraits were painted that would be subsequently hung in museums. The outfits of the three performers – long dresses of white chiffon, lace trim and colourful, patterned overlays – looked as though the maid from Manet’s Olympia had walked out of the painting to style a collection with Rihanna, thereby recasting herself as a central character rather than peripheral object.
The anachronistic aspects of the installation bridged a history of politicized representations with contemporary concerns. It’s worth mentioning the MoMA’s proximity to Trump Tower, only a few blocks away. When Junglepussy’s backup dancers waved signs emblazoned with the lyrics “this pussy don’t pop for you,” it could have been a direct address to the current US administration. The shadow of Trump Tower lent the evening a sense of urgency, a reminder that the critiques raised by In Search of Us are of particular importance in a political climate in which state policies on health care, immigration, the economy and the environment continue to disproportionately jeopardize the lives and humanity of women and queer people of colour.
The three performers, all women of colour, appeared to perform to and for each other rather than for the audience. They sat down, they talked to one another, they looked at their phones. The parameters around the piece – the raised and therefore distanced installation, the capped audience size (tickets for the event sold out), as well as its one-night-only ephemerality – gave the performers an agency that otherwise may have been lost in the eyes of an infinite and unknowable public. These boundaries made it clear that the performers were not present to be gawked at — or to serve. Their only obligation was to feel themselves, and they were generous enough to share those feelings with us in the audience. Our obligation in turn became to recognize that generosity and mirror it, to give them back that respect. In her essay, O’Grady writes, “…self-expression is not a stage that can be bypassed. It is a discrete moment that must precede or occur simultaneously with the deconstructive act.”2 By undoing the figure of Olympia’s subservient and peripheral maid, In Search of Us planted seeds for new modes of self-understanding. As the title of the show suggests, this search for selÎood is ongoing.