In late March, the artist Admire Kamudzengerere held a series of provocative auditions for a new performance. He and his collaborator, Rachel Monosov, asked dancers to respond to various questions with physical, rhythmic movement. How does it look, for example, to have a culture put upon you? How do you represent a transformation from strength and power to weakness? The four successful applicants performed in the pair’s work, Transcultural Protocol, a choreographed three-act meditation on tensions between different cultures, which debuted at the Venice Biennale this May (with stateside performances to be announced). Kamudzengerere is one of the four Zimbabwean artists selected to represent his country. The performance aims to raise issues of racism and gender discrimination as four bodies—male and female, black and white—shove each other.
“Is this scary, you guys? Is this scary to touch on such a fiery topic right now?” the gallerist Catinca Tabacaru asked during a public conversation at her gallery, where she was exhibiting a solo presentation of Kamudzengerere’s work. “Bring it,” he responded quickly. The biennale is one of the premiere events for the international art world, attracting curators, dealers, artists, and writers to Venice every two years. As anger still looms over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in this year’s Whitney Biennial—and many forms of discrimination continue to trouble our country and others—Kamudzengerere and Monosov staged a performance of aggression to take place right before people’s eyes.
At the entrance to their rehearsal studio, a couch and desk offered the pair space for resting, talking, and working out the details for the show. Above the desk, they’d taped pictures of famous artworks from history, among them the Greek sculpture Discobolus, or The Discus Thrower, and surrealist photographer Man Ray’s picture of hands painted black and white, Hands painted by Picasso. Throughout the first portion of the performance, four dancers on pedestals contort their bodies into shapes resembling these images. The Discus Thrower, Monosov explained to me, was one of Hitler’s favorite sculptures for its representation of an ideal form. In Hands painted by Picasso, the paint is intended to make the hands look like gloves, but also conjures the practice of blackface. Thus, Transcultural Protocol intends for the dancers to reclaim problematic, culturally loaded forms—or at least to transpose them onto their own bodies.
“The whole piece is coming from the idea of tensions,” says Kamudzengerere. During the second act of the performance, the two female dancers and two male dancers (one black, one white in each case) lean their shoulders against each other, shoving back and forth. They also reach their bodies into the surrounding audience’s domain. Monosov describes it as a “psychological test for the audience.” These interactions with the audience and each other are meant to challenge viewers to examine their own prejudices, judgments, and responses to confrontation.
Kamudzengerere also sees the performance itself as a way of “owning time.” At the Venice Biennale, Kamudzengerere exerted control—if just for an hour—over an audience culled from the wealthy, sophisticated, international art-world elite. He hoped to induce discomfort. If he can’t literally force people to walk a mile in your shoes, he would at least confine them, focusing their attention on the inequality you’ve felt deeply and which can otherwise be so easily ignored.