In the closing days of the 2019 Venice Biennale, multi-hyphenated artist, musician and cultural force Solange Knowles has taken over the dramatic Teatro alle Tese de l’Arsenale to stage her new work of performance art, In former students and smiles (2019). The work was performed live with musicians, dancers, singers and a group of 16 black women dubbed ‘The Gatekeepers’, a troupe of dancers invited from across Europe to take part in the piece.

For Knowles, the work was a response to a time of transition and uncertainty which she likened to being in the mud, hence the dark brown hue of the set and minimalist costumes. It was based on performance art that Knowles had launched earlier that year, including Witness! (2019) at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and Bridges (2019), staged at the Getty Center in Los Angeles a week earlier. She was also influenced by When I come back home (2019), the accompanying film to her critically acclaimed album of the same name.

The front and back covers of In former students and smiles Courtesy of Solange Knowles, Anteism and Saint Heron

In former students and smiles– produced by Arts Council England and officially part of the Biennale’s ‘Meetings on Art’ series curated by Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar – has only been publicly staged once, but the photographs of this performance and another staged strictly for documentation purposes are the subject of a new book by Montreal publisher Anteism due out August 23rd. Never one to have just one project on the go at a time, she is also composing her first ballet scorewhich will debut at New York City Ballet’s Fall Fashion Gala on September 28.

Here, Knowles discusses the genesis of her piece at the Venice Biennale, how its meaning has evolved for her over the two very tumultuous years since its debut, and the ancestor of performance art that has informed the way she documents her work.

The Art Newspaper: You said to In former students and smiles that it was “a time to mourn” and “a time to express how much grief comes from loss”. Looking back after more than two years of tremendous (and ongoing) loss and grief, how has your understanding or appreciation of the piece changed?

Solange Knowles: I think the grieving process is so specific to our own individual histories, but the collective grieving that we’ve been doing for the past two years… I think we don’t know and won’t know the effects of that for a long time. I started mourning a lot of loss in my own life before this play came out, really thinking about the things I needed to scream, throw tantrums, roll my neck, and this show was kind of my way to say I won’t always have grace and give grace, and that’s OK.

When we step into the afterlife, our family and friends have a “wake” to view the body and give a moment to react to the overwhelming feeling that accompanies loss. This show was kind of my own wake – seeing my own body and the bodies of women who share my grief. Sometimes in service you can hold it all together until the music starts. I felt like from the minute those first sirens sounded, it became a call to let him out. Let the performance be the space where there was no need to hold it together. So many black women I know have begun to sit with our traumas and have begun to do some deep internal work within ourselves during this time, and it will be interesting to see generationally what that will look like for all of us. I wish peace for all of us in these new revivals.

A photograph of In former students and smiles (2019) by Solange Knowles from the new book on the project Photo by James Mollison, courtesy of the artist, Anteism and Saint Heron

For the show, you invited 16 black women from across Europe – The Gatekeepers – to participate. How did their experiences and perspectives inform and shape the performance? How did your interactions with them affect how you viewed the piece?

I named this room In former students and smiles to honor the daily interactions I have with the black women who saved me. There is a certain eye contact or smile that we give each other when we feel most seen, heard, protected and acknowledged. I hold these moments so sacred.

I find a lot of racist bullshit happens when you’re traveling – at airports, hotel check-in counters, restaurants, places away from home – when you’re already so vulnerable. The looks I get from black women in these environments make me feel so embraced in those times. Those looks hold me back. I know they know the story without having to say a single word. Bringing these women into the show was a pivotal moment in the process. The piece became an offering for them.

Performers in Solange Knowles In former students and smiles (2019) Photos by James Mollison, courtesy of the artist, Anteism and Saint Heron

Before the guardians became people who designed spaces to keep us out – spaces that the guardians decided we didn’t belong in – there were stories and scriptures about the guardians of temples. They were the backbone of the temple and all of its ways of functioning. I designed the scenography to keep the space centered, to build an energetic force on the square. These women were the guardians of this energy and it was given back to them. We protected each other. I remember the day before the first performance, I asked all the performers to only make eye contact with the women and with each other – no one outside the square ever watches the play. This ensured the intentionality of the offerings. We only played for these women and when it was over we had all said so many things to each other without saying a single word.

Venice is such a symbolically charged place, both in its current precarious existence at the peak of climate catastrophe, and in its history as a center of European culture and commerce, much of whose wealth has been obtained through colonization and exploitation. How did you think about the symbolic weight of this site during the development In former students and smiles?

Creating the world has been central to my work for so long, so when I walk into any space, I consider history, symbology, past, present, and future, but mostly focus on the world that I can create inside the space. In this room in particular, the historic architecture weighed heavily on me. I paid a lot of attention to the columns, which I have looked at architecturally in previous work. I decided to ignore them for this piece. Ignoring architecture, and continuing the language of my film When I come back home (2019), it was time to create my own coliseum. It was time to dig the ground and put your hands and feet in the mud. I really honed in on ways to bring that feeling to life.

A photograph of the staging by Solange Knowles In former students and smiles (2019) Photo by James Mollison, courtesy of the artist, Anteism and Saint Heron

There was a concern about flooding occurring while we were there. My costume designer was literally carrying the costumes in suitcases over her head in knee-deep water on the sidewalks. We had just played at the Getty and weeks before the show there were wildfires. Mother Nature had definitely tried to get our attention during these shows.

Performance art, especially when presented at destinations like the Venice Biennale, often reaches more viewers through documentation (be it videos and photos or books); while you were working In former students and smileshow did you think about the beyond of the piece in media and documentation, and how did that influence the performance?

I think of Senga Nengudi Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1978) and the images of this piece, and how much they marked me, how much they influenced my way of seeing the world and the art of performance. Without these images, my whole context for performance art would be different. I remember this vividly when I wonder how and why I document my own work. I leave these images and these texts to a future generation.

It’s important that the work continues long after I’m here. It is important to make timeless choices because of this. When we documented these images, I asked the photographer to capture while we were performing, and then perform the piece again without an audience. It changed our posture, our eye contact, the way we rested our hands. I love going through the book and being able to identify the images from each take.

Performers in Solange Knowles In former students and smiles (2019) Photo by James Mollison, courtesy of the artist, Anteism and Saint Heron

In former students and smiles followed by other plays you staged in 2019, Witness! and Bridges. How did your experiences with these earlier pieces influence your approach with In former students and smiles? And, in turn, how has the experience of developing, rehearsing and performing this piece in Venice (and revisiting it for this book) influenced your thinking about future pieces?

All my work evolves into the next room. I’m constantly taking themes that I’ve explored in past shows and using the next piece to dig deeper, explore more [and] ask new questions. Witness! really marked the musical landscape for In former students and smiles. It was sort of my introduction to working on new musical compositions in this space and so it was wonderful to see the evolution of sounds and language in music. I developed a counting system for these pieces that really laid the foundation for how I composed, so those early works really helped inform how I work on performance pieces.

Bridges and In former students and smiles have many similar parallels since they use the same choreographers and dancers. However, where Bridges look towards the light, and truly embrace the architecture, In former students and smiles embraces the darkness and creates its own architecture. It becomes theater.

Looking to the future, I’m excited to find new homes for the pieces. They still have a lot of life in them.

A photograph of In former students and smiles (2019) by Solange Knowles from the new book on the project Photo by James Mollison, courtesy of the artist, Anteism and Saint Heron

Solange Knowles, In former students and smilesAnteism, 188pp, $55, out Aug 23

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