The Black Feminist Creative Using Art To Question Power And Spread Activism


Performance artist Gabrielle Civil is asking the question that’s on a lot of creatives’ minds nowadays: How can you bring art into traditional activist realms?

“Whatever it is that we’re doing right now is not working,” Civil says. “As artists, what are the ways we can harness our creativity to think outside the box to do something different?”

Her debut memoir, Swallow the Fish, was published earlier this year, and chronicles her coming-of-age story as a Detroit-born black feminist performance artist. The experimental narrative includes poetry, photographs, review excerpts, and meditations to describe her personal journey of working through body image and beauty anxieties, to eventually claim her own artistic identity.

Gabrielle has gone on to perform over 40 original individual and collaborative pieces around the world, and has taught at St. Catherine University, Antioch College, and Naropa University. But after finishing her memoir, she is rethinking the directional development of her work.

“Most of the time when I make an action, I make it, I do it, and it’s over,” Gabrielle says. “Except for this one piece called ‘Say My Name. An Action for 270 Abducted Nigerian Girls.’” Gabrielle had first performed the piece in May 2014, less than a month after the Chibok schoolgirls were abducted.

On 270 sheets of paper, she wrote the phrase, “A girl who was snatched,” or “A girl who was called,” or “A girl who escaped,” and invited the audience to react as she read each phrase before dropping the piece of paper to the floor.

“What becomes interesting is that tension of doing and not doing,” Gabrielle says. “Is someone going to pick up the paper off the floor? Will someone read the name? What is going to happen? And it brings us back to the question of how this terrible thing has happened—what are we supposed to do?”

This question surrounding the purpose, or futility, of artistic engagement within the current political climate is central to the next performance piece she is working on, called “I Miss Barack.” For this piece, Gabrielle plans to wear a sweater embroidered with the phrase, “I Miss Barack,” made by knitwear label, Lingua Franca, and engage in a solo dance-a-thon with a crowdsourced resistance playlist.

Gabrielle intends for the performance to be funny, and to play into a political nostalgia that asks about the nature of change and hope. “It’s also endurance work, where I just dance to as many songs as there are,” she laughs.

Claiming and maintaining joy is how Gabrielle believes artists can truly maintain the sustainability required to work toward a more socially just world. She reflects on her project called Experiments in Joy, performed in 2014 during her tenured appointment at Antioch College.

Gabrielle had invited seven black women performance artists to collaborate and instigate performative joy within the community of Yellow Springs, Ohio. The results from these artists varied from a feast, a dance party, automatic writing, to a ritual of healing, where a performer dressed up as a nurse and asked strangers to leave behind an artifact to symbolize letting go.

“There are so many expectations about what we’re supposed to be and do, that prioritizing joy is really very difficult,” Gabrielle says. “And yet, what would happen if we claimed joy in the midst of everything else? Not as a denial, but as an attempt to gain our own liberation.”

Gabrielle is currently preparing for a fellowship through the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Denison University for the 2017–18 academic year. For her new body of work, she challenges herself, as well as other artists, to explore the different strategies that may connect, inspire, and transforms others.

Words: Hannah Kim
Photos: Courtesy/Gabrielle Civil