By Richard M. Rawlins. (originally published in the Sunday Guardian Arts Section. 09.10.16)
‘But wait Sean, dats a man talking to a bird on a cliff I see there? Cheese on…’ (Bajan accent). The answer, was yes, it was a man talking to a bird.
That conversation between Barbadian artist, Sheena Rose and the chief architect and Alice Yard contemporary space co-director, Sean Leonard, some years ago would be fully realized as a work to celebrate Alice Yard’s 10 year anniversary in 2016. Rose was the first participant in the Alice Yard site-specific improvisational 24hr Residency (2009) as conceived by artist Marlon Griffith and Alice Yard’s co-director, Christopher Cozier.
Branded Out of Place, the celebration is actually more a series of actions than any sort of ‘big’ event.
Co-curated by Alice Yard artist in residence (AIR) and Cozier, Alice Yard’s 10th anniversary ‘project X’ is a sequence of informal collaborations between various artists, who choose to engage the art space, asking questions that seek to alter the public’s relationship to artistic investigation and experimentation. As the Alice Yard blog says, “What would happen if we dislodge the artwork from traditional forms of display/encounter and locations, dismantle mythologies of sole authorship and propose the status of the art object or action as an instigative “event”?”
Artist Sheena Rose’s fascination with the birdmen of Trinidad would inspire a performance piece called, ‘Bird Story’, at 10 o’clock in the night on Saturday, September 17th.
A man talking to a bird is nothing ‘slight’, as noted on instagram by @anikamagic3 who commented, “Doh be watching dem small cage and big man slight in de road nah… Chiki Chong does sell for 20-40k here.”
Yes, there is no business like bird business, apparently.
Artist, Christopher Cozier (co-director of Alice Yard) has a story about once having to babysit a bird. This ‘bird-sitting’ required all the normal and pre-requisite considerations: bathing the bird, sunning the bird, walking the bird, feeding the bird sensimillia seeds mixed in with the regular seed, playing some salsa music for the bird, putting the bird outside when the lawnmower making a set of noise on a Sunday morning. Thing like that..
Rose’s performance on the front steps of the health food restaurant at Alice Yard, came with far fewer pre-requisites than an actual bird-sitting session, but was every bit as compelling a story.
Sheena Rose, with her recent ‘Black Obeah’ series of artworks – including mixed media pieces and performance art – have been casting a spell on us for a while now. Just type in #sheenarose #performanceart #blackobeah and watch what happens.
Rose is becoming known for her online performances, often involving a series of characters shaped from her own psyche such as Mr. Fox, Diamond, Sassy, Georgie Bundle, Sub Title, The Over Thinking Artist, the Serious Art Critic and She. Rose’s characters are becoming household names in their own right as they play themselves out in 10 – 45-second instagram soap opera episodes; think American artist Cindy Sherman on a dose of ‘social media bashment’ steroids and you begin to understand what Rose is really capable of.
The performance started at 10pm, (according to Rose, 10pm is not too far from 11pm and that is close to ‘duppy’ hour). So as any clairvoyant would expect, the performance began with the lighting of a set of Black Sage incense to ‘ward of the duppy and dem’. Duppies (or ghosts) are a thing with Rose. Her last performance at the Gwangju Biennial (Korea) was about a rather rude duppy that was into oral sex. Yeah I know… but hey – all’s fair in unrequited love and art.
On this night though it wasn’t about Rose and the duppies, but rather a new character by the name of Miss Bossy. Miss Bossy – a bird played with much aplomb and mysticism by Rose – was clad in a beautiful flower-print dress, a big wig, long nails and faux diamantes. She sat on the front step of the restaurant in the glow of a couple of indigo lights as a projected black and white video of her character with a bird cage in hand (the bird inside singing chirpity, chirp, chirp) as Bossy invited the audience into her bird cage via a little front gate. The audience, many of whom caught a vibe from the character inside the ‘cage,’ preferred to view the action from behind the safety of the short front wall and through the bars of the small front gate, with the one or two brave souls venturing in.
‘Where he is, where he is so? I doh be here by myself this long yuh know? I always by this man side.’
What followed were some great interactions between Miss Bossy and the audience which was slowly being sucked into the spell of the performance. Rose is quick on her feet and adapts to what is happening around her in real time. So she works with what she has, as do many of the artists that pass through Alice Yard. For 45 minutes, we were party to a heated interaction with an audience member that Miss Bossy suspected to be a mongoose. She lamented about having to wait on her man to come back for her; told of her feelings of isolation, captivity and feeling used.
‘You want benefits too? You want me to scream cause I feeling a lil’ agitated with all the noise around me.’
Alice Yard is located at 80 Murray Street, so it’s in the middle of some hectic nightlife at times, including bar, street traffic, prostitutes and general limers. Every time there is an artist talk, the natural acoustics and ‘foley’ of the space make for some serious attention-getting competition. Ms. Bossy would get more and more agitated and louder and louder, almost to screaming at times when loud vehicles passed by: something she said she couldn’t take. ‘Why this man have to live in a noisy place? Why he have to bring all these girls around me to be screaming and screaming so? Yuh want to hear me scream? Apparently they like it when I scream…’
‘You feel coop up too, or is it just me?’
The bird at moments slipped into the role of an avian therapist, often inviting the audience to reveal and share. One man, who claimed to be ‘befuddled and confused’, was admonished by the bird, with the flick of her wrist, toss of her head and curl of her lip: ‘Charrr… like you need my man to straighten you out?’
‘Do I sound ungrateful to you?’
There was a lot of introspection too, as the bird questioned the nature of the relationship with her man. And yet, “I shouldn’t complain. I shouldn’t complain at all. I get pampered. I get showered and I heard I’m valuable…” When someone said to the bird that the gate was open and she was free to leave, she again became agitated, agreed that she could leave, got up off her perch and defiantly walked towards the front gate of her open cage as if to go through. But she spun around on reaching the gate, as she ‘chose not too leave’.
‘I heard many times that I could go through that gate yuh know. But I love him.’
Her actions, (reminiscent of the grand charge of a secondary school fight, think ‘doh hold meh back!’) instantly schooled the audience on the symptoms that are part and parcel of Stockholm syndrome.
‘I need to close my eye’…
And just as quickly as it started and we got sucked in, we were unceremoniously put out as the bird declared she was tired of us all, shut her gate and continued waiting for her man. The audience was left to talk among ourselves and seek attention elsewhere, all the while questioning the sage advice of an avian philosopher as well as our own caged reflections and insecurities.