Ayana Evans, Baring Truth

Ayana Evans is a wildly charming, radiant force making her way through the world in a neon spandex catsuit. A self-proclaimed “un-edited” girl from Chicago, Evans uses her personal life and experience to produce performance art, photography, video and even some sculpture, painting and printmaking. Her work challenges societal perceptions of black women and in some cases asks the viewer to take on some of those struggles themselves.

From the beginning Evans has straddled the Fashion and Art worlds, deliberately sussing out her personal niche as an artist.  She’s been working in NYC since 2002 and comes from a Painting background with an M.F.A. from Tyler School of Art. Evans admits that as a young artist she was a bit naive about how you get things done as a professional artist.  It took some difficulty to learn how to navigate the seemingly small and cliquey art scene of NYC, but it appears to be paying off. Evans has performed throughout the U.S. as well as in the UK, Ghana and the Caribbean. She has received a SIP Fellowship from the Robert Blackburn Print Shop and is just finishing up a 3-month residency in Manhattan at Artists Alliance Inc.

What strikes me most about Evans is her punk-rock attitude toward life and art-making. Her “act now and apologize later” strategy is right up my ally. She has an endless supply of fascinating stories ranging from crashing fashion show parties to odd interactions with people on the street during one of her physically rigorous performances. I sat down with the artist in her studio space at Artists Alliance in the Lower East Side (one of my favorite buildings in New York City).  For a (mostly) Performance artist I was surprised to find how much was going on in there; experimental monotype and silkscreen printmaking, custom wallpaper designs and a mini photo set complete with her trademark neon animal print spandex. We sat and talked about how she got into performance art from painting, where her performances come from and where it’s all going.

Ayana Evans in her studio at Artist Alliance Inc. 2019

How did you go from studying painting at one of the top ranked schools in the U.S. to becoming a hard core performance artist?

Well I went from a luxurious studio in Grad school to living in a studio apartment with no space for art making. I was making really small work, 10x12 inches cause that was all I could do in this tiny apartment. On top of that I didn’t understand how the art world worked.  I didn’t know to go out and meet people and network and go to openings. I thought that all those opportunities were based on merit. I couldn’t figure it out cause I was a hardworking girl from Chicago! I was a straight A student, I studied Kung Fu, I worked at a soup kitchen since I was 13 and did other community volunteer work, I played classical flute.  And I was good! I was getting really frustrated because I was getting so many rejections, I lost my job and I just decided to quit art. I made an announcement. I quit painting and went into Fashion. It was something I always loved and was interested in so I just went for it. Fashion was the beginning for me.

Fashion led you to Performance Art?

Yes, well I always loved performance art and I would go all over the place to see them.  One night I was at a performance when this woman, who I didn’t know, walked up to me and said, “You’re in fashion.  Why are you here”? I was taken aback, but she was just curious. She could tell that I was out of my realm, even though I thought I was dressed down a bit that night. I told her I just love performance so much and I want to see more, and she lit up and we exchanged numbers. Her name is Lalee, and we laugh about all that now.  We’ve become good friends, but she was really the person who introduced me to performance art all over NYC. In a single night we’d go from a performance in the Bronx, down to the Lower east side and then over to Brooklyn. It was such a fun scene and I’d see so many performers over and over again. You could really see the evolution of people’s work and how it would change it different contexts.  

How did you start performing?

I was hanging out with some girlfriends - and we were talking about fashion and how we wish we could just wear whatever we wanted.  And my friend introduced me to this designer who runs Butch Diva and I had a yellow neon catsuit commissioned as a way to test out my idea of being myself, being comfortable and wearing what I want.  So I got my catsuit and I walked down the street with my friend who had a small handheld camera and that was it. That was my first performance.

Ayana Evans, From the series "Love Letters to LES” 2018, Photos by Karl F. Cooney

Much of your work addresses challenges that black women face or misconceptions about black women.  Does performance art allow you to talk about these issues in a way that another medium wouldn’t?

Yes and no. I think there are a lot of writers that accurately describe verbally what I am trying to describe physically. And, in lesser numbers, there some painters and sculptors who capture similar sentiments and themes to those I am working from. But for me there is an immediacy with performance art and a level of confrontation that can accompany it that I was not able to achieve with other art forms. With performance art the viewer doesn't just have to deal with my choice of words or imagery; they also have to grapple with my actual presence in relation to themselves. This for me is so important that it made performance art my preferred medium to work in.

How do you prepare for a performance?Are they planned? Rehearsed?

They are not rehearsed. I make notes (usually on post-its) for myself or jot down things I want to include or think about well in advance. However, I don’t plan everything out in a rehearsal. I do write down all the steps I plan to take. I literally write everything out and view it mentally like: "1. put shoes to left after you center the performance area. 2.) Walk forward. 3.)Ask for help being wrapped in fabric." --I write this usually the day of the performance or a day before and I STILL always end up changing the piece as I perform because for me part of what I want the audience to see is my response to the space and the moment. If it rains, if the crowd is louder than I expected, if they are quieter than I expected, if the room is too hot... anything can cause the  steps to change because the mood of the audience and myself will change. The initial list makes me feel more prepared. It’s an outline and if I get nervous I have my outline to use as a reference for what to do and what to reject doing or what to do more of in the moment.

I do work with a trainer to help me complete some works or at least not hurt myself during them. Ha! I didn't have him at first though! And I'm still not in the shape of an athlete. That's part of the point though. I'm trying to do things that I may physically fail at doing.

I do not want to rehearse though. That's theater. I'm not doing theater work. It am showing a real life reaction in the moment. It's not acting. It becomes acting if you rehearse.

Plus who is going to rehearse doing jumping jacks for 3 hrs?? I would not advise that.

I do usually prep for the documentation of each performance, meaning I think through what I want it to look like so that I can describe the shots I want(especially with video work) to whoever is helping me with documentation -- I do this less so with photos because I just trust more in that medium. Even if everything imaginable goes wrong I usually like at least 3 photos taken and I only need 3-5 to tell the story, so I’m happy with that. I also  spend quite a bit of time calling in favors or asking for professional help with documentation that I can afford. But it hasn’t always been that way and I would never not do a performance if I didn't have the money or resources for documentation. Some of my best work was never recorded. Nothing replaces the live experience anyway!

Ayana Evans, From the series "Love Letters to LES” 2018, Photos by Karl F. Cooney

Since you’ve had this studio from Artist Alliance has your work changed?  Is this work here related to the performance? (Referring to various 2D work hung around the studio)

Yeah these are monoprints I’ve been doing at the Robert Blackburn Print Studio.  I had a SIP Fellowship over the summer and I have access to their facilities for a full year. So I’ve been working on some prints that I partially make at the printshop and then bring back here and keep working on them. They have a lot of mixed media in them like coffee and baby oil.  I want them to have bits of everyday materials. The monoprints sort of reference the cat suit pattern that I perform in, and then I’m also working on a wallpaper design of a black print on neon green foil paper.

Ayana Evans, From the series "Love Letters to LES” 2018, Photos by Karl F. Cooney

All of your work is very autobiographical. The performances, of course, because of your physical presence, but even the prints you’re working on have some very personal info them.  I’m referring specifically to the large reproduction of your actual Lease for an apartment you rented. Do you ever worry about how close you let people into your life? The short answer is NOPE.

The long answer is I only tell what I don't mind talking about. I also see myself and the work as somewhat inseparable. There is a side of myself that I keep to myself. There are no rules on that though. I just go with what feels right for me. I'm a pretty open person in my daily life. I do not have a lot of secrets and I don't see a lot of topics as "private" even ones society labels as private, so for me sharing a lot of myself works. I like knowing people on a deeper level, including the people who come to my shows. If I am vulnerable, they will be vulnerable in return and we will then know each other better. I want that.

Besides, if you know someone else has a shared experience with you, particularly if it is as bad as being evicted, you feel less alone (or less ashamed) of/within your own personal experiences. That is extremely important to me. Lately I have been thinking this thought pattern will lead to new work, more deeply personal work… I’m just not sure what that new work will be yet though.

What is coming up for you in 2019?

I have a presentation/performance coming up as part of Rape, Representation, and Radicality, The Feminist Art Project Day of Panels 2019 at the CAA conference, curated/organized by  Christen Clifford and Jasmine Wahi. This will take place on Saturday, February 16, 2019 from 8:30 am – 5:30pm, at the NY Hilton Midtown (CAA conference site), in the Trianon Ballroom (3rd floor). I have been given a lot of freedom for this and the oher artists involved are amazing feminist workers, so it should be something to see!  

Also, I am VERY excited about have a solo show coming up that will happen at Cuchifritos Gallery in NYC. This is the final piece of my 2018 residency with ARtists Alliance Inc. The show title is: " A Black Woman's Art Show  and... A White Man's Exhibition." Specifically the exhibitions consider my experience as a Black femme performance artist, often being expected to explain topics of race, gender, and visibility, while subjects of color theory and abstraction presented in the work are often overlooked or ignored and how this blurs into differential treatment for the two categories of artists.

The exhibition will be separated over the gallery’s new and old location. In the old location the exhibition “A Black Woman’s Show” will be staged, while “A White Man’s Exhibition” takes place in the new exhibition space. Through two coinciding exhibitions, I will use performance, audience engagement, photography, monotype prints, wallpapers, and video to ask “what happens if a Black artist doesn't have to sell their Blackness?” Performative public programming, and installation of works will push given expectations of both the Black Woman Artist and the White Male Artist. By pointing to and reaching for the freedoms of a white man, I am asking the same consideration that is extended to a cis white male counterpart be extended to me.

For additional information about Ayana please visit her