On November 8, 2010, Peter Dobill met up with Rafael Sanchez to discuss his performance work while enjoying a meal at Dojo Restaurant in New York City.
PETER: What is your background coming into performance art and how did you start out?
RAFAEL: I started doing make shift performances in high school around, 16 or 17. I would go to open mics and throw myself around, say dates and names, slam stuff against the wall, talk about race and history: taking the ideas I had learned from books and history, stuff that was really influencing me at the time (Invisible Man, 100 Years of Solitude, etc.) and take those sources and do ad hoc performances with it.
At Brown University, I would do performances at open mics and on the main green, on the streets in Providence, wherever people could see me. I was making videos and putting music together for the performance and transitioning into work dealing with religion, gender dynamics, and perceptions of beauty. I studied public art and space in class, where I was introduced to the work of Adrian Piper, David Hammonds, and Butoh dance. Butoh really hooked me into the idea of theatre and the body in a particular motion and event and manifesting its removal – which then led to staging durational and endurance work, leading to my performance work BACK TO AFRICA.
I guess performance art crystallized into what it stands for me now in 2000 with BACK TO AFRICA.
Can you talk about your performance BACK TO AFRICA, since it’s such a major turning point artistically?
It came out of reading a lot of Fannon, negritude poets, and Sarte’s ‘Being and Nothingness.’
Coming from an urban environment, where I didn’t see many white, asian or latin folks, being exposed to a strict religious side from my grandmother’s side of the family, busting my ass through school to go to Brown University, where I was in the bottom half in coming from economic capital and academic ability and studying all this stuff – well, I have all this information from my African-American studies and what the hell do I do with this?
I’m not any closer to Africa or closer to what it means to be black. It makes me more confused – confused in the sense of what does it mean to have a black identity or a racial or socioeconomic identity at all?
I wanted to do a piece about the farce of “going back to africa”
I grew up watching videos of Malcolm X, listening to socially conscious hip-hop, learning about afro-centricity while at the same being disgusted with it – I didn’t see it really bringing anybody closer together, I didn’t see it do anything for people who didn’t have a chance to go to college or had to duck out of high school – I didn’t see it enhancing the quality of anyone’s life.
So you know what, I’m going to run through the ‘hood, put some white and gold face paint on with a wig, carry a suitcase that says “Back to Africa” and run after buses attempting to catch the bus back to africa and see what happens – give speeches, ask people about which bus it is and see what they say.
Removing it from an academic environment gave it a charge – people feared me more than a potential robber or were more intimidated since I looked so different than anyone else in the community while doing this performance. Seeing how people were embracing this image; the contradiction of someone who doesn’t look African but having a “Back to Africa” suitcase.
I was intrigued by the responses of the public judgments, creating a dialogue within the community. What happens if I do this everyday at the same time for a month?
From this piece, I became interested in this type of public performance – seeing how people responded to something not planned or staged beyond my intentions for doing the piece – which carries through when I re-perform the piece.
Even today, if I catch up to a bus in time, people will lie to me and tell me I just missed it in the other direction and I’ll run in the other direction all the way across town just as they say.
I like that people want to play that game with me, and they know that when they play that game they are admitting something to themselves about the pointlessness of going back to africa – afro-centricity. Not that it’s meaningless, the information is very valuable – but what do I do with that information to empower people? It’s a frustrating conundrum and a puzzle for me.
A lot of my early performances came out of that frustration and wanting to get it out in some way.
Your performance practice encompasses so many different aspects: endurance, political, public interaction, movement, tribute and spoken word pieces. How do you reconcile the ideas with the mode of performance in your work?
Sometimes I’ll be reading something or listening to something, and it’ll just develop
A perfect example; I was sitting on the toilet and this song, ‘Gonorrhea’ by Lil Wayne came on the radio, and this song is ridiculous. It’s just a whole new level of affirming the vulgarity and raunchiness of music; the song is just so raunchy. I was like, you know what would be great – get a pink thong and a disco ball mirrored helmet and dance to that song for 4 hours – almost wearing out the the absurdity of that song.
This song by a hip hop “god” juxtaposed with me dancing in that outfit, grinding along – I just like the twistedness of that image.
What sticks to me is the level of pain that can be put into a performance – not just the physical body in pain, but the pain of the message – it’s a painful message to think about abused bodies consistently abused and susceptible to abuse for an infinite amount of time – but the image exists because of the intention behind the song.
In my tribute work, it’s all about moments in peoples lives – EMOTIONAL CONTENT – NOT ANGER is a piece I did for performance artist Rob Andrews, I developed the work around his childhood experience of growing up from family turmoil, trying to reconcile family expectations coming from a prep school background into becoming what he expected and wanted of himself.
Every year on Arthur Russell’s birthday, I do a tribute performance. Sometimes I use a song or themes from his albums. Starting in 2004, I said to myself, I’m going to do performances for the rest of my life for his music and I started thinking about how the performances will change with the circumstances of my life – how I could go back and rework performances and put them in a different context or just let my life dictate the pieces I would make that day.
There are so many ideas to process and they all revolve around my history and my life.
I did a piece about the Sudan, HABIBI ABID, where my good friend Daniel Givens buried me in sand and poured motor oil over me. The performance was in direct response to what I learned about the genocide occurring in Darfur.
The idea for that work all started from a cassette I bought by chance – it was great music but I couldn’t figure out were it was from. I was asking people at corner stores, music stores, etc. For years I played this cassette not knowing where it was from and to find out it was from Sudanese musicians and that there is such great music from a country that has so much political turmoil and bloodshed . . . I could go over and over those types of intersections of the personal and political and find new ideas for performances.
After 10 years now of continuing to perform, what are you interested in pursuing in your practice?
Right now, I’m interested in doing performances that have a certain level of grace to them – I’m interested in doing performances in a singular space for a long duration.
Performed during my recent retrospective at Exit Art, THE LIMIT AS THE BODY APPROACHES ZERO was about starting in this direction, when I submerged myself into water for 24 hours, I wanted to explore the meaning of manhood and how these concepts are constantly changing.
I’m interested in more stationary performances but asking the same questions and seeking to make the same points, using a lot more creative mediums than the sound and movement I’ve used so prominently.
The past 10 years have been a bunch of big ideas and a lot of interruptions – for the last 6 years I’ve coached track year round – I remember doing a performance after coaching all day and running to my car to drive to the chelsea piers . . .
In the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve had a much fuller commitment and attention to the art of performance, which I hope to continue.