Performa Director RoseLee Goldberg Finds A World Stage

Athi-Patra Ruga’s Night of the Long Knives I, 2013
Athi-Patra Ruga’s Night of the Long Knives I, 2013

When the live arts biennial Performa was founded in 2004, it was conceived of as a New York event. “It was only a few years after 9/11 when everyone was so traumatized,” says founder RoseLee Goldberg. “The original idea was very much to galvanize the Downtown community once again, to remind people of New York’s long history of artists’ performance.”

Since its founding, Performa has fueled a massive increase in performance art. Now, Goldberg hopes to broaden horizons yet again with next year’s event, focusing on live arts from South Africa, Kenya, Senegal and Morocco.

“It has been profound for me to watch the art coming out of South Africa over the past two decades post-apartheid,” says Goldberg, who grew up in Durban. “There are so many artists making work of such unique strength, and it feels like the right time to focus attention on this new generation.”

The organization kicked things off with a gala entitled “Beloved Country” on November 1, concentrating on arts within South Africa. Nigerian museum director and writer Okwui Enwezor was the honoree, and pivotal in bringing the work of photographers, artists, writers and journalists from South Africa to international attention. Enwezor was also the first African curator of the Venice Biennale, which he organized last year.

Performa’s RoseLee Goldberg

“Growing up in Africa, there’s a sense that culture is less about painting and sculpture, in the European modernist sense, with music and dance, poetry and storytelling as separate categories,” says Goldberg. “The arts are far more fluid and more integral to daily life and to the rituals and ceremonies of the many tribal groups, languages and oral traditions that make up the ‘rainbow nation,’ as Archbishop Desmond Tutu described his country.”

The gala served as a curtain raiser for the 2017 biennial proper, and was an occasion for raising support and stirring interest. It was “a moment for us to come together and start making public the ideas we are working on,” says Goldberg, adding that the organization is deep in its research phase. “Performa galas are unusual in that every aspect of the evening—from the graphic design to the food and commissioned performances—is designed to inform. Anyone who’s been to a Performa gala doesn’t forget about it in a hurry.”

Goldberg sees such events as crucial. “We’re going through such incredibly difficult times with millions of frightened and homeless migrants, racism rearing its head, and massively faltering economies. But the art world somehow manages to keep a conversation afloat that goes against the grain of what we’re seeing in the political world,” she says. “That’s what art does so well—it keeps the airways open.”