Today we’d like to introduce you to Gabrielle Civil.
So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
If you had told me years ago that I would be living in southern California, I never would have believed it. Don’t get me wrong. I knew my life would be fabulous, full of books, art, writing, travel, and brilliant, artsy people. But California always daunted me: the traffic, the earthquakes, the wildfires—and especially the bodies! Growing up as a plump, four-eyed, dark-skinned black girl in Detroit, I thought California was a place where everybody had to be screen test and bikini ready at all times. And I was certainly not ready.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
You see, for many years, I was not a body.
I was a brain—a massive, throbbing, juicy mind.
I was a thinker. I was thought itself. Weightless imagination, galloping into everything, going everywhere. Into the sky, looking at clouds or through an old red ViewMaster. I was absorbing images, people, places and words, especially words. I was a bookworm, winning the kindergarten reading contest by reading 105 books that year. One hundred and five books in kindergarten! Later I pored over encyclopedias, planting myself in Mary’s Secret Garden, discovering the locked woman in the attic in Jane Eyre, feeling the blue strains of black love in If Beale Street Could Talk.
It wasn’t that I hated my body. To the contrary, I loved dancing, hugs, touch. And I didn’t exactly have low self-esteem. In my family, in school, in church, I was uplifted and nurtured but always for my intelligence and personality. The body was trouble. I was a black girl in Detroit, going to white schools in the suburbs. I didn’t understand how to square my specific body with the glamorous, embodied life I wanted to lead.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
The unlikely answer, my salvation, came as performance art.
Performance art is live art action, the creation of experiences with and through the body in real space and time. Performance overall is a big umbrella that includes dancing, acting, singing. The kind of performance art I do combines body art, practices that emerged in the 1960s created by people like Yoko Ono and Adrian Piper, and an engagement with rituals from the black diaspora, chant, spirit work, and engagement with ancestors. My performance art work arrives at the intersection of installation, conceptual art, and poetry. I find or create an environment, enter it, and then make something happen with my body, sometimes with language, sometimes with music, landscape or projections, sometimes with other people like collaborators or the audience.
How did this happen? Well, I’d always known that I wanted to be a writer and in college had started doing poetry readings, sometimes with theatrical flourishes. When I moved to New York City after college for grad school, I started considering how poetry could roam free off the page, beyond the reading. My friends Madhu H. Kaza, Rosamond S. King, and I founded the No. 1 Gold Collective and started conducting language experiments. We frolicked around the Big Apple, infiltrating the city with language, slipping our own poems into library books, and personally disseminating more than 10,000 poems wrapped in gold foil in our Gold Leaf Project. This was the start of me allowing my body to show up and accompany my thoughts and ideas.
As I describe in my first performance memoir Swallow the Fish, a turning point was moving to Athens, Ohio for a dissertation fellowship and developing a project called “25 Targets.” On the cusp of my twenty-fifth birthday, I decided to pick 25 words that would be meaningful for me in that milestone year. I then bought 25 hunting targets from Big Lots, mixed some green paint, and stenciled a word on each target. Then, I posted those targets all around town. On the day of my birthday, I moved around and saw those words hanging in space, or sometimes thrown straight into the trash, and I realized that as much as those words meant something to me, they were simply markers of where my body had been. I understood that my body had brought those words into space and I needed to bring my body more directly into the world and into my creative practice. This was the start of my deep play with performance art.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve made fifty performance art works that have premiered nationally and internationally—in Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, Puerto Rico, The Gambia, Mexico, and more.
My work has occurred in galleries, theaters, classrooms and the streets. I’ve been present in my body, being in my body, activating my body and not just appearing. It has been a wonderful way to move through the world and materialize my inner visions!
At the Salt Lake City Public Library, I did durational rituals and blessings with de-accessioned library books. In Ghana, I retraced the path of the Middle Passage back to the Atlantic Ocean. Around the country, I’ve performed many times an act of embodied remembering called “Say My Name (an action for 270 abducted Nigerian girls)” that requires me to call the name of a kidnapped girl written on a piece of paper, drop that paper on the floor, and see how the audience might intervene. I actually performed that work at the West Hollywood Public library. In LA, I also opened an interactive space of Q&A with curator Andrew McNeely at the Acid Free Lit Fest at Blum & Poe.
Yes, my work as a black feminist performance artist and writer has brought me to California in, mind, body, and spirit. I’ve had a chance to share to dialogue with curator Amanda Hunt at Art + Practice in Leimert Park. A year ago, I was honored to be awarded a Rema Hort Mann LA Emerging Artist award for my performance art practice. The biggest dream opportunity has been joining the faculty of the MFA program in creative writing at CalArts where I teach performance memoir, art and activism, and more. Supporting all this, I walk to my gym (LA Fitness!) and take my Zumba and Power Circuit classes. I have also taken my plump self to the beach to catch some California rays!
It’s been quite a trajectory. You can read more about my ups and downs becoming a performance artist in Swallow the Fish and my second performance memoir Experiments in Joy. I am thrilled to say this last book just been long listed for the Believer Award in Nonfiction. Woo hoo! A companion volume, “Experiments in Joy: A Workbook” has just gone into its second printing, published by Co-Conspirator Press, a design project of the Women’s Center for Creative Work here in Los Angeles. It’s a dream for me to do more projects with WCCW and other local creative incubators. My LaVoyage story is all about refusing the mind-body split and living an amazing embodied life!
Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
I look back at that pudgy girl with big eyes and big dreams and know that she would be proud of where I am now. My LA Voyage story is all about refusing the mind-body split and living an amazing embodied life!
- Swallow the Fish-Gabrielle Civil $15.95 (on amazon.com)
- Experiments in Joy-Gabrielle Civil $16.95 (on amazon.com)
- Experiments in Joy: a Workbook $10 (at Co-Co Press) https://cocopress.womenscenterforcreativework.com/Experiments-in-Joy
- Website: www.gabriellecivilartist.com
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gabrielle.civil.1
- Other: http://www.remahortmannfoundation.org/project/gabrielle-civil/
Personal photo: Allison Yasukawa; Ally Almore, Dennie Eagleson,The Accomplices, Fungai Machirori. Sarah Bay Gachot