Through the performances of personae, I instigate transformative dialogues between people that might never get to talk. Performing as my black grandmother from the South, my Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn, a butch dyke who runs an underground meal plan service, and as myself at 16 - when I was Greek-identified - enables me to explore my identities in a range of communities, as an insider and an outsider.
My performance characters are autobiographical portrayals and they are stereotypes. Uncle Bob is a character I perform from the Borscht Belt of the Catskills, NY. He is a personification of my Jewish grandfather. As a “toomler” he leads Conga Lines, hosts variety shows, and teaches dance lessons to sidewalk audiences. Butch in the Kitchen provides Tupperware-packed meals and “heart burgers” that are subsidized by fraudulently acquired food stamps. Dew Drop Lady, my Jewish grandmother in a housedress and “schmatah”, reminisces about the nickel empire that was once Coney Island. Janie Bell, my black grandmother, waxes nostalgic about her migration from Virginia to Harlem, and finally describes parting with her young son on Welfare Island”, where she died of tuberculosis.
In addition to performing as relations, I reexamine a lexicon of images from popular entertainment and art that are expressive of my racial heritage. Performing as a Borscht Belt comedian, I evoke and reinscribe this genre’s legacy of Jewish blackface minstrelsy.
While delivering a barrage of jokes that recall the predictable vernacular of sexism and self-hatred, I eschew the minstrel’s blackface for a crimson mask that gets accrued while bathing in a 25-gallon tub of borscht.
As the Jewish performance artist, Eleanor Antin, I slide into her tutu and reinvent her characterization of the of the black and Russian ballerina, Eleanora Antinova. I convert Antinova’s original evocation of Diaghilev’s revolutionary The Rite of Spring into a Detroit Rebellion that is envisioned with the Black Panther Party. Antin’s original cast of Diaghilev and Nijinsky are replaced with life-size puppets of Huey Newton and Stokeley Carmichael.
As a university professor, I have taught and expanded traditional curricula for courses in two and three-dimensional media, video, art history, contemporary art, critical theory, and community engagement. As an MFA advisor, however, my task differs. I assist learners in as they expand the contours of their research and practice. Their structure for taking risks have enough berth to yield failures, realizations, and raise the barre for self-perception.
When I consider my task as a community advisor, I immediately think of my family. My earliest memories of sitting at the kitchen table are a medley that includes the clattering of dishware, the hushed buzz of gossip, eruptions of laughter, and the endless declarations of righteousness tinged with indignation; the hubbub of conflicting ideologies. This cacophony included the voices of my mother, a New York City public school teacher; my father, an African-American labor organizer; and my maternal grandparents, 3rd generation Jewish-Americans with unyielding certainties. They challenged, goaded, criticized, and sometimes even influenced each other, as they sat around the kitchen table, eating together for almost 40 years. Being raised in this noisy, discordant, yet thought-provoking atmosphere has helped me formulate how I build my advising groups. In the context of our “kitchen,” my students, like my family, test each other’s loyalties, safe in their sense of kinship. Our goal is shape a sequence of realizations.
I have performed at art spaces, galleries, festivals, and museums nationally, including the Detroit Institute of Arts; The Jewish Museum (NY); Bronx Museum of Art, Queens Museum of Art; University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA); and Arizona State University Art Museum. I also lecture at conferences and universities including the Open Engagement Conference (Portland, OR), Intervene! Interrupt! (UC Santa Cruz), Northwestern University, New York University, and Wayne State University. I have been awarded grants and fellowships from the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art; New York Foundation for the Arts; and Urban Artist Initiative; and Skowhegan School of Art.
My teaching experience includes Stamps School of Art & Design at University of Michigan, School of the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), City University of New York (CUNY): Queens College (CUNY), York College (CUNY), and the College of Staten Island; and the Harvey Milk Institute of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies (San Francisco). I am delighted to be a returning faculty advisor to Goddard where I have taught, and learned, as a faculty member since 2005.
Watch some videos of Abrams' recent projects below.