An Interview with Tsedaye Makonnen


Maya Simkin

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Tsedaye Makonnen is an interdisciplinary artist as well as a mother and former doula working with "identity, colorism, womanhood, ritual, and kinship." She "has performed in D.C. at the Corcoran Gallery, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.” In this interview, Makonnen discusses several performances, recent and from her roots and tells us more about herself.



The Interview:

What are you doing today?

After we meet, I’m going to go to Alonzo Davis’s studio, which is 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 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. 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 said, "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], showing me her editions of prints, little things like that. She was exposing me to a lot of performance artists who are women of color that have been doing it for a long time. 

[McCracken] was teaching as an adjunct at a bunch of schools, and her students at the Corcoran had their thesis coming up and she said “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 the artist had me stand on a ladder and try to consume this really thick blue ribbon. 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. It had to do with  trying to consume anxiety, where you keep repeating the same thing that causes the anxiety. 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. Since then I’ve developed it and changed it, but I Saran wrapped my body and wore all black. I took a syringe and filled it up with bleach and would 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 lightens up and doesn't ever get fully white. 

When I did a test run for that performance, the Saran 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 plastic 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 it burning my skin. Luckily they [Performance Lab in Bushwick] had a shower so I took everything off and jumped in but I  got actual burn marks from it. 

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 ground coffee- which is a material I tend to use a lot in my performances. Usually I sprinkle it as a ritualistic way to activate the performance. I 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. We’re all connected as friends and now we are working professionally together 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 it which grew 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. Once slavery was abolished it became a government site and then it became a prison, which is interesting because when you talk about the pipeline to prison, that's exactly it. Then it closed down in 2007 and they opened it back up for Chale Wote ten years later which is pretty cool.

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 that followed us in the procession. Megan is a singer so she wrote a score for this performance. We brought in elements of our different styles so I had the ground spices to sprinkle. We used a lot of glitter on our bodies and I added the glitter into the spices to toss into the air. 

The festival attracts 30 to 40 thousand people so it got to the point where it was hard just to move down the street. People were actually running away from us because the theme of Chale Wote is Wata Mata this year, meaning having to do with water, which is 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, and the mythology around her is that she’s really powerful in a way that is scary for humans. We didn’t realize that because in the Western part of the world, Mami Wata is actually revered and looked up to. So basically, people thought we were embodying her and were possessed. We had this element of body snatching with this fishing net we were carrying, 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. It was 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 started locally sourcing people to sell to King James, the English, who then started the Jamestown settlement here. We were connecting all of those things, but flipping it. We were resurrecting the Queen's story so that maybe if she came back, she could have a chance to repent. 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. It was really a symbolic cleansing of slavery.

Your performance in DC last year, Common Ground, definitely implicated the audience. What’s the significance to you of doing that versus performances where you don't depend on participation?  

In Common Ground, it was important because it was focused on Shaw, the residents, and the business owners. 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 the performance I do this Ethiopian-American coffee ceremony, which is performative and not an exact coffee ceremony. 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. 

One of the most important aspects of the performance was the kids that were involved, with whom I worked for the last four years at Shaw Community Center. They helped me make the ceramic coffee cups for it and passed out the coffee. They were the ones who were being sent out into the field. We provided them with what they needed and then they were off to claim their neighborhood and talk to those people. They were going around asking pretty deep questions. 



The whole idea was to start a conversation and discuss how segregated DC is and that neighborhood specifically. 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. Wherever they pop up you know things are changing. That block specifically on 8th street where it’s 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 those 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. Who are these people renaming parts of the city when it already had a name and there are people who have already lived there? 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 “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 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. 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 brown people on it that used to live there but no longer can afford to live there, so yes, it is a mixed bag. 

I don't fault artists for taking the money, especially the ones who do the murals or sculptures for public art for developers. Where else are they gonna get it? Regina was articulating that so well. She said “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.” 

I know artists on the other side of that who are very discerning about where they get their money from and I respect both sides of that. I’m in the middle somewhere. 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 selling the ephemera, but through the gallery. 

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. The success is based on the audience, whether they receive it well, or if they’re mad about it, those are good things. If I get good documentation and the piece can live on, that’s usually success too. 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. Despite that, 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 there.  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 it's super pixelated with 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 there, you were a social worker, you were taking on these women and were their sisters, their friends, their mothers. We were involved in their lives in a way that was amazing but also really taxing and draining. 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, Freddie Gray had been killed. I was going through a lot internally and  then facing the fact that the babies that I’m around the deliveries and births of are dealing with racism in utero, and seeing that first hand was like, there was no way to feel hopeful. 

So I made these clay babies. I got into breaking unburned clay. 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 all-nighter because I was at a birth and I had no time to actually make the clay babies. I came off the birth and had 24 hours before the performance so I pulled the all-nighter, made the babies, dropped my son off in Jersey with his dad, and drove up to New York, having had no sleep. I was 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. I was walking them through a script telling them “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 were married and that was their baby. Eventually I said “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 said “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 emotions and people in the audience were screaming "noo!!" too. And eventually, one by one, they all did it, 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, if people wanted them they could take them. One friend at the time was the only one who got it and said “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 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 to it.

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.