What keeps you interested in the idea of the trap in particular?
I just think it always applies. The physical traps I make are set up like lean-tos that are made beautiful. They’re painted gold, they have velvet linings, they have multicultural prints inside. But they’re cardboard, so they technically can't keep you there. Right? So it becomes something about the trap being a state of mind. Getting comfortable in decorating your trap. People who are displaced find ways to make the best of a situation. Find beauty in life, no matter how horrible it is.
You just mentioned boxes we “put ourselves in” — say more?
So one of the reasons I think traps of race, sex, and class work so effectively is that the people who are holding down the trap, so to speak — living in these traps — buy into it, right? People generally will stay in their lane. “Don't make waves. Don't complain about our cardboard box because they'll take this away.” It has to be really bad for you to request more if you're already afraid of losing what little you have. I mean, all hell breaks loose when people revolt or ask for more humane treatment, or to not be treated badly — to get equal pay for women, or voting rights for people of color, or equal housing. You know, crazy stuff like that. [Laughs.]
And there's also a massive depression, I feel, that leads to a certain kind of lackadaisical approach to existence. “It doesn't matter what I say, it doesn't matter what I do, nothing's going to change anyway. So I might as well hold on to what I have.” Which is pervasive across the country, in multiple classes, in every race. Because if you have the cardboard box: “At least I have this cardboard box, and I can put some fabric on it, I can make it feel like home. But if I cause problems they might burn my cardboard box.”
How do the performances you do alongside the traps play in?
I'm interested in the gap between the action and the dialogue. A lot of times with performance art, there's not a whole lot of dialogue, because words can overtake an action — once children learn to write, most stop drawing. So I try to make the actions fairly dramatic. The last performance I did, I'm dressing and undressing a ridiculous amount of clothes, reciting a poem, and moving and dancing. The act of performing by itself kind of speaks to me getting out of my traps, my safe space, so to speak.
I mean, that sort of gets at the heart of what's interesting to me about the way you approach traps. The rhetoric around wanting people to leave their safe spaces has been totally defined by the most obnoxious people.
So I like that you are both creating these spaces that are safe and also have something new to say about the value of getting out of them.
Yeah. You need a safe space, you need a trap to go to and hide sometimes, to find yourself, to figure things out, to decorate, to get away from all the social bullshit. But then if you stay in it all the time, and never get out, that is another problem. But do you need to get out of it all the time? It's really about finding balance, which is an ongoing process and struggle.
And I know one of the difficult things is it feels like I'm not making a hard statement about anything with my work. Because my work deals with multiple identities, and shifts, and the ability to be more than one thing at one time — being able to have more than one point of view and still be the same person.
Yeah. Even if you're not trying to make a hard statement about anything, how do you think of the performances as companions to the physical objects in your installations? How do you think of them as interacting with what the broader installations are trying to say?
I started as a painter. So I painted the figures trapped in the canvas, looking at the viewers — really dealing with the space of the canvas, the gaze. And then when I started to make the three-dimensional component, this was the consciousness being aware of the trap. So in my early performances, the masks were life-sized. I would put them on and wear them in the performances. The wall pieces coming off the wall and taking up actual three-dimensional space — that was the action. The space between stagnation, revolution, and evolution.
Can you say more about that?
Stagnation: being stuck in the trap. Revolution or revelation: realizing that you're in the trap and trying to think about changing it. And evolution: stepping outside of the trap and invading the space of the viewer, becoming present, saying, “This is who I am.”
Not to get too much into psychoanalysis here, but you were talking earlier about how the performances are a way of getting out of your own traps. You brought up multiple identities earlier, so do you feel like you in some sense —
Like I become Sasha Fierce? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Like you become Sasha Fierce. Yes. That was the exact question. Verbatim.
I have to say, once I get on stage, I have to be somebody else. I cannot be myself. I mean, if you spoke to me right before I got on stage, I am a crazy insane person. I just try to get into the work and throw the nervous energy into the piece. Rehearsing cuts down on nervousness, but I feel like nervousness helps my art performances.
Not to go too far into psychoanalysis again, but do you feel like you're actively pretending not to be yourself? Or do you feel like you just become someone else? “Pretending” to be not yourself sounds more like one consciousness trying to be another. I guess I want to pick your brain about to what extent you feel that it's actually another consciousness within you.
It’s definitely another mode. Like, when I think about multiple consciousness, I think about the big societal thing that causes the shift, but I also think about the small things: the difference between how I speak to my children, versus how I speak to my husband, versus how I speak to my coworkers, versus who I am on the stage, versus who I am right before I got on that stage. Both sides of me are aware of the other.
Yeah. Even just personally, as a kid, I always thought that as I became an adult I would develop this one unitary personality, and I would be worried about not presenting the same to everybody — about coming off in a somewhat fake way. Which was obviously not healthy.
Right. That idea of fakeness is important because, for me, I feel like I’m being genuine in all versions of myself. Even on stage, I don't feel like I take on a persona. I feel like it's me on the stage. It's just an aspect of who I am that is a little bit more boisterous and kinetic than other aspects of who I am, you know? I talk about multiple personalities as a way to negotiate your way through a system that can be oppressive and restrictive, but I also think it's a natural human trait to accommodate, to behave like the people you're around.
I'm Caribbean. I've been here a long time so I have no accent — although some other Caribbean people can pick it up. But depending on who I'm speaking to, I kind of pick up the movements, the actions, the inflections of who I’m talking to. Just listening to my mom, I would know who she was speaking to by how she would speak — how American her accent would be, or how Jamaican her accent would be. Some of that definitely has to do with the code switching that African Americans have to do, and there are several ways to look at code switching. It’s, one, definitely viewed as disingenuous. But at the same time, it is also a way to shift class. If you don't know how to speak standardized English, you're not going to get the job. You can't show up to the party. I did a whole series on bootstrapping as a way to pull yourself up.
“Pull yourself up by the bootstraps! You gotta dig yourself out of the ditch.” What? But if you're in a ditch and you dig, you’ll just get deeper. How do you pull yourself up? They're all so ridiculous if you actually think about them logically.
But the idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is grabbed on to not just by the people who had gold-lined steps to climb to get to the elevator, but also by the people who didn't even have boots. Right? A huge percentage of the population that is disenfranchised believes that their station in life is their own fault. That they just didn't have the intelligence, the brilliance, the work ethic, the luck — God wasn't on their side — to help them pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Which is horrible. Especially if you know there's a whole system in place.
So I did a series of drawings of people not pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, but pulling other people up by the bootstraps, and wearing the masks as crowns on their head. Part of that is the ridiculousness of the statement, but also the idea of all these multiple consciousnesses being balanced on top of their heads, while struggling to hold on to ropes that are holding on to somebody else's bootstraps. The whole series was about that struggle to get ahead: what you lose, what you can get, what it implies, the impossibility of that motion. I got obsessed with that statement. What would it look like to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? You would fall.
We’ve been talking for a while about mostly the conceptual side of your practice, but how do you think of the materiality of a figure trapped in a wall?
I’ve always been interested in how to give a painting presence in our dimension. Which sounds super science fiction, but I like that. And also, I never work from a study. None of these are based on people. I like the idea of the people being made themselves — I'm just a vessel which they come through. So I work in the clay, and I don't know what it’s gonna look like. I don't even know what size it’s gonna be.
At the same time, thinking about the marks we make on our bodies for this series, and the lines that separate us from other people, and the bars that keep people who are in prison inside, and the traps, and the fingerprints, and the scarification as a way to know who you belong to in tribal traditions, or war paint to know you're preparing for something — they’re all ways of telling a story or a narrative on the body. Another way of having a voice, another way of breaking out of the second dimension into another dimension, not even the third — beyond the third. If you could imagine the mind itself as a whole other dimension. They become language. We use our bodies and we use our clothes and we use our fashion as another way of telling a story, of acknowledging our existence, of having a voice.
Inspired by the fragmentation of our multiple identities, Aisha Tandiwe-Bell’s practice is committed to creating myth & ritual through sculpture, performance, video, sound, drawing and installation. Bell received a NYFA in Performance Art/Multidisciplinary Works and her work was exhibited in the 2017 Venice Biennial. She’s exhibited internationally and has been awarded several artist residencies and fellowships.