‘One Person, Many Stories’ – A Performance by Sheena Rose

By Katherine Kennedy Monday, November 26th, 2012 Categories: Features, Reviews, Updates
 

“Hi, my name is Sheena Rose…Where am I from? I’m from Barbados…Where is that? It’s in the Caribbean…Colours? What do you mean by colours?”

This was the introduction given by Barbadian contemporary artist Sheena Rose, as she began her performance titled ‘One Person, Many Stories,’ on October 28th 2012, held at High Park House, St. James. It marked Sheena’s debut to the medium of performance art, and her inaugural piece was exceptionally well received by the small audience of about thirty members. The size of the gathering added to the intimate setting, as spectators were seated on either chairs or rugs in the front room of the house. The head of the room became Sheena’s stage, with only a chair draped in flowered fabric at the centre, and a bare, unassuming table in the corner.

After her initial statement, Sheena faced the crowd and began to strip away her clothing, pausing at strategic intervals and holding the poses. This act was immediately reminiscent of a life drawing class, giving people the chance to quickly sketch Sheena if they so desired, and it relates to the premise of the performance. Sheena has been a life model at the Barbados Community College (BCC) for the past five years, and during a session where she had a particularly provocative pose, the idea of having a nude performance arose while she conversed with the students. The last garment Sheena removed was her brightly coloured head-scarf, revealing several fake red roses adorning her hair. They were the only false items on Sheena’s otherwise exposed body.

‘You think I gonna talk about Sexuality?’ – Performance ‘One Person, Many Stories,’ (2012) by Sheena Rose. All photographs by Adrian Richards.

Up to this point, the performance could be compared to an extent with the work of Carolee Schneemann, specifically ‘Interior Scroll,’ (1975), during which Schneemann also adopted a series of life modelling poses before completely disrobing. Schneemann then went on to extract a scroll from her vagina and read aloud from it to the audience – a statement which was overtly feminist and telling of the times in which it was performed, as she presented the woman’s body and especially the vagina as ‘…a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the source of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, birth passage, transformation.’[i] However, Sheena dispelled any notions which may have been considered, confronting the group and asking the rhetorical questions:

“You think I gonna talk about Africa? You think I gonna talk about colour? You think I gonna talk about race? You think I gonna talk about identity? You think I gonna talk about sexuality? You think I gonna talk about beauty? You think I gonna talk about my hair?”

All expectations which are associated with a woman, notably a black woman, who performs nude were laid out. This is not a piece which can be pinned down to one category – feminist, gendered, political etc. – because Sheena presented these questions as a challenge to the ‘norm.’

The audience was not left to ponder on this for long, as Sheena began to call out “Ras! Ras!” switching the attention to her voice as the viewers wondered who was being addressed. The change of tone and expressions indicated that Sheena was cast in the role of more than one persona, as her response was to irately ask, “Ras? If my hair was short, you would call me cut-off?…Call me Rose, Model or Artist.”

‘Call me Rose, Model or Artist’ – Performance ‘One Person, Many Stories,’ (2012) by Sheena Rose, Photograph by Adrian Richards

This snippet of conversation addresses the labelling (stereotyping) of a person by their physical attributes, namely hair. This is distinctly relevant to Barbadian and Caribbean society, where hair has become somewhat of a defining symbol. The skewed concept of what constitutes ‘good hair’ is an identified reason for the negative ways in which self-image has come under attack. Sheena has not let this define her – she wishes to be treated with respect, and named for who she really is.

Posing all the while, still allowing the audience to draw her if they wished, Sheena settled in the chair at the front of the room and changed the direction of the conversation. One could almost forget that it was a performance as she talked frankly about a past relationship – it was as if the viewers were being taken into the confidence of a close friend reflecting on the mental abuse they suffered from their partner, and hearing the fears of remaining single and a virgin forever.

“Bullshit!”

The abrupt response and change of tone from vulnerable to cold and hardened pulled the audience roughly out of this confessional moment, and placed them into one of shock when it was followed by:

“I got raped.”

As the audience reeled from this, and questioned ownership of the voice (was the true confession in the blunt statement? Was it Sheena or the other character who had suffered in this way?), they were again jolted from their thoughts by a shrill scream. Without reacting to her own cry, Sheena seamlessly began to speak as if to an artist, saying she ‘loved the work’ and asking where the inspiration came from, to which she replied “I used to beat my wife.”

This string of traumatic revelations may seem disjointed – each glimpse of these events could scarcely be processed before the audience was disconcerted again – but maybe that was the point. The common factor between each scenario was Sheena finding herself faced with a raw honesty that uncovers a very private part of someone, and that can leave you at a loss for how to react. She translated this disorientation and exposure by presenting herself fully nude and sharing these memories, tearing down physical and emotional boundaries of each person present, removing them from their comfort zones.

“You see people like you?”

Sheena repeated this line in a crescendo as she rose from the chair and advanced towards the audience, her stance aggressive and her eyes narrowed. This was a perfect example of the invasion of space, breaking down walls in an even more unyielding way. She made eye contact and leaned towards people’s faces, the latent threat behind the words becoming more obvious the louder she said them. Finally, Sheena pointed directly to an audience member and stated:

“We don’t pick up your kind of people.”

These words hung in the air for a moment, then tears welled up in Sheena’s eyes as she succumbed to her emotions. This was a re-enactment of the first time Sheena experienced racism, but in this version she was portraying the role of the racist, and it was the overwhelming feeling of disgust for such hatred, and the ugliness that comes with it that pushed her to the brink.

This part of the performance was especially poignant. Although on the one hand, Sheena had been using her nude body as a means of stripping away boundaries and encroaching on the viewers’ personal space, emotionally Sheena’s own boundaries had collapsed through reliving this memory – leaving her truly naked for the first time that night.

'We don't pick up your kind of people...then I cried' – Performance ‘One Person, Many Stories,’ (2012) by Sheena Rose.

As her tears subsided, she backed away from the spectators slowly, still allowing sketching opportunities. The mood in the room shifted again, as Sheena leaned back casually and took on an unmistakably male posture. She then repeated a series of comments, each from a different voice as evidenced through accent or language, and each representing a male’s advances towards her.

Whether it was a Cuban coming on too strong, a Barbadian making a judgement based on race, a chauvinistic Surinamese, or a Martiniquean placing pressure on her to not reject him – what each of these men had in common was a sexist approach, and it was interesting to share these experiences through Sheena herself, especially as she conveyed it just as clearly through body language as she did through speech. She paused after several repetitions, and signalled the end of these memories by her change in demeanour as much as the silence. Standing up straight, her facial expression softening and her hands folded demurely in front of her, it was a definite return to the feminine, in sharp contrast to the poses which echoed the masculine voices.

The next segment of the performance featured Sheena finding an invisible creature and naming it ‘Nothing.’ She then began to search the ground, crawling on hands and knees in an attempt to find ‘Nothing,’ interacting with the viewers as she moved between them, even checking under one person’s foot. This change of pace raised questioning looks from the audience, but unlike the uncertainty earlier regarding who had gone through the awful experiences Sheena relayed, this was more of a questioning of Sheena’s sanity as she continued her hunt for ‘Nothing.’

It was later revealed that this dialogue was taken from an ‘Archie’ comic strip, where Archie named an insect ‘Nothing’ and lost it, resulting in comedic effect as a frustrated Veronica did not understand. Sheena took this frivolous comic and identified with Archie’s quest, as she drew a comparison between the way artists can be misunderstood; “He was looking for Nothing but to Veronica, he looked like he was going crazy. That is how I feel sometimes with my art, that you have ideas but to some persons, it looks like nothing. But to me…nothing is something.”[ii]

A page from an ‘Archie’ comic strip titled ‘Nothing Doing’ (1963)

“I found Nothing.”

Repetition came into play again as Sheena stood and backed away towards the table in the corner, which had thus far remained untouched. She kept up a steady mantra of words, which came across as a soliloquy rather than a memory or dialogue as before:

“Ideas? Feelings? Passion? Art? Emotions? Thoughts? Identity?…Nothing?”

She produced a vivid, flowery plastic tablecloth and began setting the table with food covers, salt and pepper shakers and a vase.

“Sexuality? Virgin? Lonely? Sex? Womanhood?…Nothing?”

Finally, she removed the false roses from her hair, and one by one placed them in the vase as the centrepiece, completing the kitsch set up and shaking out her locks.

“Caribbean? Colour? Hair? Race?…Nothing?”

Ironically, each word she repeated could be linked to the list of norms she challenged near the start of the performance. Whereas she began with these questions being rhetorical and defiant, some of the same questions now give the impression of insecurity, like she was evaluating the performance internally and realizing that each stereotype she tried to reject was still brought to the forefront. What made this unique was the handling of each issue. They were not addressed with an agenda aimed at any one category, but through honest accounts of Sheena’s existence as a Barbadian artist dealing with a variety of situations.

The final table display is the only real engagement Sheena had with props for the whole performance, and this could be due to the misrepresentation of the Caribbean being a prop itself; the stereotypical ‘colourful’ image is superfluous to the actual realities West Indians encounter. The tablecloth is Surinamese; the kitchen items are from the Chinese store; even the roses, which could have been assumed to be connected to Sheena’s surname, are in the end just a gimmick – yet this is the embodiment of what people who do not know Sheena envision when they hear the word ‘Barbados.’

'Colour...what you mean by colour?' – Performance ‘One Person, Many Stories,’ (2012) by Sheena Rose

This highlights the refrain of ‘nothing’ in her soliloquy; there is no substance to many assumptions outsiders make of the region, but the personal nature of Sheena’s piece created a tangible link to her culture and identity. The people who witnessed her moving and powerful performance know that there are complex layers behind the enforced stereotype, and what a brave move it is to present these ideas nude – even in an intimate and safe setting – in a society which can be largely conservative.

Facing the audience, utterly bare now without even the roses in her hair, Sheena concluded the piece:

“Hi, my name is Sheena Rose…Where am I from? I’m from Barbados…Where is that? It’s in the Caribbean…Colours? What do you mean by colours?”

References:

- [i] Carolee Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy (1979), p. 234-235
- [ii] Sheena Rose, Found Nothing…. (October 29th 2012), quoted on http://sroseart.tumblr.com/

Katherine Kennedy
Katherine Kennedy

Katherine Kennedy is an artist and writer. She graduated in 2011 from Lancaster University, UK with a degree in Creative Arts; her combined major of Fine Art and Creative Writing helped develop her keen interests in both visual and literary pursuits. She has won multiple awards for her artwork and writing in her home Barbados, and has exhibited internationally in London. Since returning home, she has remained immersed in creativity, completing a local artist residency and contributing to ARC Magazine. Katherine is the Assistant to Director on the FRESH MILK Art Platform Inc., in addition to producing work as a sculptor and installation artist.