Performance art: WoC you need to know

The phrase ‘women in performance art’ brings a certain image to our minds: perfect thin white bodies female bodies. This paints an image of performance art only belonging to a certain narrative. When looking for artists of colour who practice live art in the last three decades in which performance art has been recognised as a medium, we find very few. For those practicing live art who don’t fit into the slim white woman or the intelligent looking hipster male category, it can feel isolating sometimes. Working with/in a medium where you feel like you don’t belong, or no matter your efforts, the lack of representation might make you feel as if your work will never be recognised.

These are the reasons why I have decided to put together a list of inspiring women of colour, for those who need a reminder that the field of performance art is for them too.

Some of these artists works have not been archived and there is very little evidence about their performances, some of the works have performative elements but not necessarily fit into the live art category. I was reflecting mainly on women who created work in the late 20th century when women’s work (white women) in performance mediums started to get noticed by critics.

Nil Yalter

Egyptian born artist and an immigrant to France, Yalter worked as a visual and live artist challenging gender codes stereotypes in both eastern and western world.

One of her most famous pieces includes Headless Belly dancer-1979, where she belly danced while writing a text by Rene Nelli over her belly. Yalter recently exhibited at the Avant Garde Feminist Art Exhibition at Photographer’s Gallery, one of the only three women of colour presented alongside Ana Mendieta.

Yoko Ono

She is well known for marrying John Lennon, and ‘breaking up’ The Beatles (a myth put forward by white male Beatles fans). She created very important live art work at the same time which was overshadowed by her involvement with Lennon, however, the media chose to focus on her dating life involving a white man instead of her artistic career.

In 1964 she performed Cut Piece, in which she presented herself as a passive woman in a gallery space, offering the audience to come up to her one by one and cutting her pieces of clothing. In 2003, she revisited the performance.

Lorraine O’Grady

O’grady works with concept based photo and video installations. One of her first public performances remains as one of her most well-known pieces today.

Mile Bourgeoise Noir (Miss Black Middle-Class)1955, she criticized white art spaces and black artists navigating them, through her guerrilla performances and interruption of white art institutions. In this particular piece, she has documented her journey from Manhattan thrift shops, whilst wearing a dress made out of 180 white gloves.


Lorna Simpson

You might have come across Lorna Simpson very recently at Tate modern. Simpson also works with the performative elements of time-based media. She creates photo series, such as Five Day Forecast 1991, in which she presents to us a black woman’s figure whilst using text to make comments about identity politics. This type of work can be considered performative as it captures performativity through photography.

Through the same style of work, she also documents black women’s hair. Whilst none of her photographs actually show a face, which might be a comment on shared societal issues, which make her work both personal and removed from one’s self.


Anita Dube

Indian based visual artist, works with performative elements of visual arts, such as using time-based and inspirational material like meat or candles. In 2004 she created the performance piece Kissa-E-Noor Mohammed (Garam Hawa) where she dressed up in male drag, portraying the nine ‘rasas’ (‘essences’ or ‘sentiments’) in Indian aesthetics through the character called Noor Mohammed.

You can find a very inspiring interview with her at Whitechapel Gallery about how she navigates India as a queer woman and talking about her first love in the context of her work.

Q&A: Artists in Conversation 11 March – 27 August 2017



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