In the final week of a performance art residency at El Muse0 in New York, we managed to catch up with artist and designer Ayana Evans for her thoughts on the recent New York magazine Vanessa Beecroft profile that sparked a ton of chatter. Beecroft is known for her controversial views on racial identity and didn’t disappoint in the article, in which she stated, “There is Vanessa Beecroft as a European white female, and then there is Vanessa Beecroft as Kanye [West], an African-American male. I even did a DNA test thinking maybe I am black? I actually wasn’t. I was kind of disappointed, and I don’t want to believe it.”
Italian-born Beecroft who now lives in Los Angeles is not new to Evans, with whom she became familiar through her own art background, which includes a masters in painting from Temple plus one in visual arts from Brown University. A year-long trip trip Evans took to Italy upped her familiarity with Beecroft, whose work she had a chance to see exhibited. Evans is now based in New York though like West has deep roots in Chicago’s South Side, which she describes as a “small neighborhood” in a city “divided by race but not class.”
Read our exchange below, in which Evans provides feedback on Beecroft’s views on race, her contributions as an artist, why she thinks West’s Chicago-upbringing predisposed him to working with Beecroft and how the controversy has impacted Evans’ view of her work.
Image above is from Evans’ “I Carry You & You Carry Me Performance,” at Bushwick Open Studios in 2015.
Q: You read the article. What was your initial impression?
Evans: “She’s crazy. Halfway through, I was like, she’s full-on racist. I think she’s very delusional. And she says she doesn’t know who Beyoncé is. Either that’s the weakest shade you could possibly throw or you’re so crazy about and fetishize black women and somehow still don’t know the most famous black woman in the world. Either way I’m insulted.”
Q: Why do you think she’s had so much success?
Evans: “Her work is amazing. I can’t think of another photographer or sculptor I would put in her category. The way she uses women’s bodies and places them, it’s very unique and the way she makes you think about complex issues of race and misogyny, it’s amazing. It’s copied but she did it first. But, [New York] continually called it performance art and Vanessa has never performed. They’re not in action, they’re posed figures. I do not consider her performance art.”
Q: My eye is not as educated as yours. What is so amazing?
Evans: “She creates a very striking image. She has a specific style that is sexy, fashionable and confrontational, which is hard to do. And the sheer massiveness of it. She uses bodies to make a point. That all is very interesting and unique. I can’t think of someone who has done that in this way with women’s bodies.”
Q: Do you think her success has been aided by her being a white person commenting on black people?
Evans: “Totally. The fact she’s playing with race makes her something of an object to talk about and creates controversy around the work. It’s just enough that she’s questioned and has received death threats and yet not too much that’s she’s been kicked out of the art world. And it’s not just that she’s white, it’s also that she’s European that’s helped her. I’m not sure in America she would go over as well. European systems are different. I lived in Italy for a year. Her being an Italian and having a fetish for black women makes sense. [While I was there] men would approach me and my friend and say things like, ‘I love black women. Even your toes are different, your fingernails are different.’ I’d never experienced that before. But because it’s fetishism people won’t scream racism, but you’re loving an individual like they are an object or a creature.
Q: Women of color have a hard time getting noticed in art. Why?
Evans: “It’s sexism and racism. Part of [Beecroft’s] success is also because she’s thin and looks a little like a model. It’s not a critique, my looks are helping me, too. You can compare her to actresses. Is it harder for black actresses? Yes, and I think you have the same challenges in the art world.”
Q: If the world was an equal place, would she have the same authority?
“No, because more people would be more familiar with black people and wouldn’t even listen to her. She talked about Kanye bringing a new form of awareness through his Yeezy [Season 3 presentation] at [Madison Square Garden], and I love Kanye, but I do not see his clothes in that fashion show as doing that. [Beecroft] was creating work inspired by [Rwandan] refugees, but she didn’t talk about how the women were over-sexualized in their nude-colored-turtlenecks; there’s a disconnect going on there. You get the feeling, [Beecroft] doesn’t read about us and doesn’t really care about us.
Q: Is she occupying a space a woman of color should by occupying?
Evans: “No, because the work is good. And I don’t buy that, it’s mental poverty to think if this person is here, that person can’t be there. If the world was more fair, Nona Faustine would already be as well known as [Beecroft]. Nona is getting shows but I do believe if the world were fair, she would be even further along because her work is equally brilliant.”
Q: You and Kanye West both grew up in the South Side of Chicago. How do you think that impacts his view of her work?
Evans: “Chicago is small. I knew [West’s] first manager. It’s also very segregated and when you grow up in it, that doesn’t bother you. People in New York thinks that’s so terrible and are so offended by the thought, but black-owned businesses thrived, there is a sense of strong community and the truth is the South Side of Chicago has a very large middle class. It’s divided by race not class. I’m middle class, I had a very comfortable upbringing. So when you see segregated work like Beecroft’s, it’s not going to jar you. Her art is black and white and that’s how we grew up.
Q: Do you think [West] saw her as a way to legitimize himself in the fashion world? Until Beecroft, he had something of an outsider status.
Evans: “There is that element, but more than that, he saw her as a good artist. He actually appreciates art more than most pop musicians. Usually the artist’s style is copied, appropriated and used. What he did with her I find to be very classy. He paid for the art he wanted to use. The “Runaway” video he [and Beecroft] did with Selita [Ebanks] is amazing and I do consider that to be a collaboration. He picked Selita, someone who looks mixed versus very dark or light, and since that video, [Beecroft] has worked more with different hues.”
Q: What do you make of Kim Kardashian cutting off her salary?
Evans: “A smart move. I’m sure Kim was like, that doesn’t make sense from a financial standpoint. As his wife, she’s protecting their shared finances. I think Kim is right though. You should be paid for by the project. The other thing though is [Beecroft] made it sound like it was all Kim, but I’m sorry as big as his ego is and intense as he is about his art, if he wanted her to be on his payroll, she would be. And even that’s racist, not giving him credit as a man making his own decisions. Maybe that’s how he presented it to her, but racism is allowing her to accept that as the truth.”
Q: Knowing her thought process, does it impact how you view her work?
Evans: “Beecroft is an artist I liked before Kanye used her. I thought her work was so interesting. I remember seeing her stuff in Italy. Now it’s hard to like her as much. I look at her photographs and now it doesn’t feel as challenging, it’s fetish. The internet has had a big impact. It’s like Picasso was a womanizer and you don’t think of that when you look at the work, but now a famous artist is heard from more often and your personality is more known. In her case it’s problematic though for others it works in their favor. She started getting noticed in early 2000s. She’s always been crazy, we just didn’t notice it.”