An Interview with Tsedaye Makonnen


Maya Simkin

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 “Tsedaye Makonnen is an Ethiopian-American interdisciplinary artist, a mother and a former doula. Recurring themes present in her work are identity, colorism, womanhood, ritual and kinship.” “Tsedaye has performed in D.C. at the Corcoran Gallery, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.”

The Interview:

What are you doing today?

After we meet, I’m going to go to Alonzo Davis’s studio, which is like directly diagonal from here,  I’m going to be helping him. I don’t know if you know him but he started a gallery back in the day to support black arts & artists and is known for his abstract art. And right now he’s working on these police vests that he’s trying to activate. He’s putting objects on them so they’ll be activated in performance, and have people wearing them, so I’ll be helping him with that today. 

How did you get interested in using performance art as a medium?

I was exposed to it by my then professor now really good friend J.J. McCracken who is a really well known performance artist but also is multi-disciplinary. She was trained in ceramics. And she’s over at Red Dirt Studios which is like a hop skip and a jump from here, really close. I was doing ceramics with her and someone suggested that i take classes with her, because she’ll help you develop your ideas and research for your pieces, so I selfishly took the class. So I was learning a lot about clay, I fell in love with it, and then just based off talking to her about my ideas and not knowing how to execute them in a medium, she was like you should look into performance. 

So she started sort of molding me, making me come to her shows, showing me how to get creative with how you make money [from performance], and she was showing me her editions of prints, little things like that. She was just kind of exposing me here and there, and giving me lists of artists to look up, a lot of performance art women of color that have been doing it for a long time. 

She was teaching as an adjunct at a bunch of schools, and her students at the Corcoran had their thesis coming up and she was like “well one student needs someone to perform with her, you should try it out” and from that one time I was hooked. That was what I wanted to do.

What was that first performance like?

I learned that I  am definitely made for performance art, or at least for the weirdness and abstractness of it. The piece had to do with mental health and it was me, her [the artist], and another woman, and we all were doing different gestures and I was representing anxiety. She painted us. We wore all white and these face masks that were white and had these pastel colored leggings, she had pink i had blue and the other girl was like orange or something so we looked like we were going to do modern dance or something. She had me stand on a ladder so i got up on a ladder and i had to try to consume this really thick blue ribbon. So i had to stand on the ladder and have a bit of it in my mouth and the rest of it rolled down to the ground and i had to slowly get it all into my mouth, spit it out, and do it all over again which sounds really gross and it was. But it had to do with anxiety like trying to consume anxiety or like yourself where you keep repeating the same thing that causes the anxiety. And it was a hit!  At this point I've done weirder things.

What’s the “weirdest” thing you’ve done?

I had this Bleach Blood Bath series that had to do with Colorism, and that was actually my very first solo performance. And since then I’ve sort of developed it and changed it, but I took bleach and saran wrapped my body and wore all black and then I took a syringe and filled it up with bleach and would just kind of apply it to look like I was painting on myself. It looked like blood because with bleach on black clothes, it initially turns bright red and then it kinds of lightens up and doesn't ever get really fully white. 

Since then I’ve used bleach, where I’ll do things like that where I’ve taken a paintbrush and painted it on my clothes, people just get really disturbed like “you're using bleach! That looks really dangerous!” And in that first performance, when I did a test run, the seran wrap worked perfectly and  that’s probably because I used the typical brand, but for the performance, I had to run to the corner store, and it was some off brand seran wrap. Now I know there is a difference in quality with seran wrap. The bleach ended up going through parts on my thigh and at a point in the performance, no one in the audience knew, but I had to rush out because I felt like “oh shit, it’s starting to burn my skin,” so I wrapped it up. Luckily they [Performance Lab in Bushwick] had a shower so I took everything off and jumped in but I totally got actual burn marks from it, so. In that kind of space, so many performance artists injure themselves to them, it’s not a big deal, like they’ve broken an arm or whatever. 

You clearly use a lot of different materials, some of which are recurring, and I see here you have something...

These are ground spices- cinnamon, clove, cardamom, and then ground coffee- which is a material I tend to use a lot in my performances. Usually I sprinkle it as like a ritualistic way to activate the performance and I just love the element of smell as a stimulant. I’m trying to figure out other ways to use it in studio.

So are you trying to combine performance and studio work?

Yeah I guess so, I’ve kind of been yearning. Like this [pictured below] is totally experimental. I don’t necessarily like it, but I’m just trying it out, and eventually get it to something that I do like. These are Amharic letters. I think with this one I was thinking of boats, but you can’t really tell that they look like boats. Next I want to figure out how to paint with it, and make a dye out of them [the spices].

You were in Ghana recently performing African Body Snatcher. How was that?

That was amazing. That was for the Chale Wote Art Festival. There were four of us, Ayana Evans, me, Nana Ama Bentsi-Enchill, and Megan Livingston. And we’re all connected as friends, so that's kind of where we met and then obviously now we are working professionally together too in this collaborative. 

That piece had two parts. The festival takes place in Jamestown, Accra and we did a performance where we collected water from Jamestown, Virginia and created this whole neomythology to go with the story and then it grew from there once we got to Ghana. We did a procession. The performance started at James Fort in Jamestown in Accra which used to be a holding site for people who were being sold into slavery. And once slavery was abolished it became a government site and then it became a prison, which is you know, interesting, cuz when you talk about the pipeline to prison, like yeah exactly. Then it closed down in 2007 and then they opened it back up for Chale Wote 10 years later which is pretty cool.

So we started there and we had four women who were the water bearers so they carried the water that we got from Jamestown, Virginia in bowls above their heads and we had a band and they followed us in the procession and Megan is a singer so she kind of wrote a score for this performance. We brought in elements of our different styles so I had the ground spices to sprinkle and we used a lot of glitter on our bodies so I added the glitter into the spices so it was kind of like tossing that into the air and creating that effect. But then at one point it actually came in handy because we started to use it as crowd control. The festival attracts 30 to 40 thousand people so it got to the point where it was hard to just move down the street and there were people jumping in front of us and photographers and so I was like using that to throw and it would get into people’s eyes. 

They also were running away from us too because in the theme of Chale Wote is Wata Mata this year, so having to do with water, and that’s because of their spin off on Mami Wata which is a West African deity. We didn’t realize that Mami Wata in Ghana is a terrifying thing. They see her as this satanic force but the mythology around her is that she’s really powerful in a way that is scary for humans. And we didn’t realize that because on the Western part of the world, Mami Wata is actually revered and looked up to. So basically, people thought we were embodying her and like were possessed because we had this element of body snatching with this fishing net, and even before we started doing that we’re literally just walking and people are running away from us. I think we all thought it added a great element to the performance. 

We incorporated the body snatching element as we were walking, and that has to do with the mythology that we came up with before getting to Ghana, based off of research on this Queen who was a part of the slave trade. Her and the King at that time were selling Nigerians and then they started locally sourcing people to sell them to King James, the English, who then started the Jamestown settlement here. So yeah, we were just kind of connecting all of those things, but flipping it, like resurrecting her story to maybe if she were to come back, giving her a chance to repent because we’re assuming she didn’t understand what the effects of the decisions she made at that time were going to be. We ended with the water from Jamestown, Virginia from the Atlantic Ocean, pouring into the other side of the Atlantic in Jamestown, Accra. So it was really symbolic and like cleansing of slavery.

Did that one have activation that was dependent on the audience or their participation?

Well this one because of the body snatching element, we were going towards the audience even though they were all running from us, and a few of them we kind of caught. One guy gave in and was like covered in the netting and walked with us. So that element was definitely participatory. 

Your performance in DC last year, Common Ground, definitely implicated the audience. What’s the importance to you between performances where you do that opposed to when you don’t depend on the audience?  

Well the majority are participatory because it’s cool to experiment with how the audience will react and then also how they interpret your piece or reinterpret it for you through their actions. In Common Ground, it was important because it was focused on Shaw and that community and the residents and the business owners, so it wouldn’t have made sense for me to perform something when it had to do with everyone else, including myself, but really it was about the neighborhood. In it I do this Ethiopian-American coffee ceremony, which is my version, it’s performative, it’s not an exact coffee ceremony, and I had women in the piece who are my friends, helping me. They all either had a tie to DC or to Ethiopia, and they were doing the ritualistic parts of sprinkling the grounds spices. 

But obviously one of the most important aspects of that was the kids that were involved, who I worked with for the last four years at Shaw Community Center. They helped me make the ceramic coffee cups for it and they were the ones who were passing out the coffee. So it was kind of like we were performing and so were they, but they were the ones who were being sent out into the field. We provided them with what they needed and then it was like “ok go claim your neighborhood and talk to these people” and they were like going around asking pretty deep questions. 

The whole idea was like let’s start a conversation and kind of discuss how segregated DC is and that neighborhood in specific. It was very political to do it there, in front of Compass Coffee, because they're kind of the signifier of gentrification in this city, like wherever they pop up you know shit’s changing or it already changed. That block specifically on 8th street where it’s like Glenn’s and all these new shops, I think the Warby Parker is right at the end of the block and the place that’s got like 3,000 dollar apartments, that block, has this boundary or invisible border that they [the kids] will not cross. The kids and their parents talked about how they don't feel comfortable or welcome on that block. 

That block is called North End Shaw, which is also a new name, like who are these people renaming parts of the city when it already had a name and there are people who have already lived there? It's almost like it’s this new age Christopher Columbus, like “nothing existed here before, we just like discovered it,” so yeah that was a big part of the conversation and I didn't want it to be one side vs. the other, which is why we posed it so that the kids would ask a question and start this conversation with the residents and people walking by. 

Some of the questions were super light hearted like “what do you love about shaw?” and “what brought you here?” and other questions were like “have you interacted with anyone who doesn't look like you in the neighborhood?” and “have you been on this block where my school is?” and stuff like that. 

And something you’ve been speaking about lately is the role of arts in gentrification because it’s definitely a mixed bag. 

It is a mixed bag. I don’t know, cuz like gentrification uses the arts to bring people into the neighborhoods and these developers bank off of the artists and people moving into these neighborhoods.  They really want that mural that has hella brown people on it that used to live there but no longer can afford to live there, so yeah, it is a mixed bag. 

And I don’t know if what I’m doing is helping or hurting. Because people are like “oh so pretty so glad this is happening in my neighborhood” and are snapping pictures and posting them on Instagram. But I’ve had moments where like certain neighborhoods that have their like main street pages like Shaw Main Street and Rhode Island Main Street, which support the businesses, but like when there's a Main Street Instagram that means there’s developers, but they’ve reposted one of my pictures like “DC! Yeah!” Like they're’ totally missing the point. But at the same time, you have to make money. 

I don't fault artists, especially the ones who do the murals or sculptures for public art for developers, I don't fault them for taking that money. Because where else are they gonna get it? Regina was articulating that so well, she’s brilliant, she’s been around a lot longer than I have in the art scene. She’s like “I don’t want to work for grants, I don’t want to be a grant writer, to get money for my art, because that takes away from studio time. I don’t want to be chasing after open calls for artists, I just want to be in my studio and paint. And if a developer comes to my studio and hands me a check that pays for my rent and health insurance, I know I’m doing the world a service with the work that I’m putting out.” And she’s like “I’ll flip that money and use it towards good. Because it could always go to someone else that won’t.” 

And I know artists on the other side of that who are very discerning about where they get their money from and I don’t know, I respect both sides of that. I’m in the middle somewhere there. And every performance artist I know does it differently, there’s the strictly gallery represented performance artist who makes money off of their videos and photographs, and like selling the ephemera, but through the gallery. That’s what I’m trying to figure out right now, like making prints from materials that I use in a lot of my performances, so it’s still connected to my performances but it’s a different medium. 

For you, does the success of a piece rely on the outcome of the audience reaction or is it just based on your intention in making it?

I think it’s both. I think the success is based on the audience, if they receive it well, or even if they’re mad about the piece, that’s a good thing too. And then also if I get good documentation and the piece can live on after that, that’s usually success. Especially for a performance artist, because if there’s a way we can make a living, it’s off of the documentation and what happens after. Even though if you missed the performance you missed everything, because the best part of it is lost. 

The means of getting to the performance has a lot to do with it too. There are still performances that are really dear to my heart because of how much I put in to get to the performance and all the effort i put in.  There’s one piece that I did that got really bad documentation, but I have one video that my friend took with her phone and, like super pixelated, and bad lighting, but that performance was a super successful one.

Why that was dear to my heart was because at the time I was working as a full time doula, for an organization here in DC,  Mamatoto Village, and I was working with low income people. You weren't just a doula, you were a social worker, you were taking on these women and were their sisters their friends their mothers, we were super involved in their lives in a way that was amazing but also like really taxing and draining because they had a lot to deal with on top of the racism that they were dealing with in the hospitals and having to be there and fighting for them it was just a lot. And at that time i was still taking classes, I was a full time doula, I’m a mom, and I had this performance in Brooklyn as part of this festival and I think at that time, i think Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray...

Trayvon was 2012.

So it must have been Freddie Gray, so yeah I was just going through a lot internally and thinking about how Black bodies are treated and then facing how like “holy shit” the children the babies that I’m around for their deliveries and their births, they’re dealing with racism in utero, and seeing that first hand was just like, there was no way to feel hopeful. So I made these clay babies. I got into breaking clay like unburned clay. And I stuffed them with chocolate kisses that had the gold wrap and I spray painted the babies black and swaddled them in these Ethiopian cloths that I had. 

I had five of them and I passed them out to the audience. It was in Brooklyn, my friends were there, I think it was my birthday weekend. I pulled an allnighter because I was at a birth and I had no time to actually make the babies. I came off the birth and had 24 hours before the performance so I pulled the allnighter, made the babies, and drove up to New York, dropped my son off in Jersey with his dad, and went to New York, having had no sleep. I was like on pure adrenaline and then I pulled these babies out at the performance and had the audience members pass them around and in front of my eyes it was very much like augmented reality where I was giving them an experience that most of them haven't had, kind of walking them through a script like “you have just received your newborn and you're at the hospital and you're getting to know your baby...” 

People were being silly and having fun and pretending that they’re married and that’s their baby. And eventually I was like “ok whoever has the babies now in their hands please step up,” so they came up and I asked them to face the audience and show their babies off and they went along with that. Then I told them to turn away and face the wall and was like “throw the babies against the wall” and everyone was like “nooo!! What do you mean??” I wasn’t pressuring them, I just gave them the one instruction and then was just watching them go through these like “whaaat” and people in the audience were like “no don't do it!!” And eventually, one by one, they all did it because I guess there was peer pressure, even though I never said they had to. 

When they broke them against the wall all of the chocolate kisses came out which I knew was going to look really pretty but it looked a lot more beautiful than I had expected. After they were done I offered the chocolate kisses up like “if you guys want them, go ahead.” One friend at the time was the only one who got it and was like “hell no, I'm not about to eat the inners of a baby.“ We are all born with such sweetness and this amazing potential and society beats the shit out of you and takes that sweetness out of you and that’s what that part of the piece is.  The whole 36 hours before felt like a performance too and I brought all that emotion from being at the birth and not having slept and having dropped my son off, yeah. 

Are there any topics or questions that you’ve wanted to address but haven’t yet? Do you have any non-art related aspirations?

I’ve really grown to love making these installations for my performances, and sometimes they’re more important than the actual performance. It kind of made me realized that i would love to do set design.