Google Ayana Evans. You likely won’t know her name or her face, but you’ll definitely know her performance art. Whether it’s her donning a fly, green jumpsuit at an art opening or going to events full of eligible bachelors with a sign pinned to her back that reads “I just came here to find a husband,” Evans has etched out a lane as an artist who makes communal experiences for Black women.
We spoke about creating meaningful art, the obstacles Black women artists face, and why she admires Lil Kim.
When did you know being an artist is your calling?
I always wanted to be an artist, even as a kid, but I didn’t think I could be a professional artist. I thought I’d do it as a hobby. I didn’t know it could be more than a hobby until I got to college, and I was going to interviews to be a buyer for department stores. I would go home and cry after those interviews because I really didn’t want to do that, but I thought that was the only way I could make money. My professors said, no, you should just go to grad school and teach. When I was in school, everybody was told to go to grad school to teach at the college level.
Now, that model is falling apart. Colleges are still pushing students toward academic positions, but there are less tenure-track jobs. Nowadays, I would never tell someone that. I would tell them that it’s hard, and you have to figure something out [laughs].
When you’re creating art, are you conscious of how the audience will receive it?
Yeah, I think about that all the time. I might think about it too much. I don’t want to miss the mark so far that someone thinks my art is some sort of satire when it’s not. If I’m trying to show you pain, I want for you to feel that pain. If it’s funny, I just want it to be funny. If it seems a little angry, I want you to think it’s a little angry. I think about how I want it to be received. You know sometimes people don’t think about that, but they’re trying to do work about race and gender and culture, and they end up stomping all over everybody. You almost do more harm than good then.
How do you find the courage the create? I ask that because your body is always so much a part of your artistry. Do you have a hesitation around that?
It sounds status quo, but if you’re scared, you do it anyway. I’m always scared [laughs], but I always just do it. Some people do a lot of research, and then they make a piece. I kind of go backward. I have a flashing idea, I’ll do it, and then I’ll research it and explain it to myself. There’s a feeling I have when I’ve hit my mark or I know it’s a good idea, and then it’s more like I have to do it.
How then do you draw boundaries in your life, given that your body is so much a part of your artistry? How do you decide what to share and what to keep for yourself?
Honestly, I’m terrible at drawing boundaries [laughs]. My Instagram is technically about art, but you might see my nephew in a picture. I don’t have a lot of boundaries with my art because I do see myself as the art, and I see life as art. I believe life is art. Art is life. Art is in everything. I don’t need a boundary because art is everywhere. I love blurring the lines. So if someone wants me to have a boundary between performance and audience, between art and reality, I’m not going to give them that. I want it to be blurry.
Let’s talk a bit about your art then. I remember seeing the “I Just Came Here to Find a Husband” piece, and thinking, “This girl is dope because she’s saying what we’re all thinking.” What was the impetus for that piece of art?
I was just so desperate [laughs]. I would put on a skirt and start thinking that the skirt should be a little shorter so I can attract somebody, and maybe it shouldn’t be too short because I want to look like “wife material.” I was really overthinking it and really desperate. I decided I wasn’t going to lie about that anymore. I found that a lot of my friends didn’t realize I felt that way, and they felt the exact same way, and thought I was the one who didn’t care. So, that’s a great example of the blur [between self and art] because I really felt that way.
I put the sign on my back because I was desperate. I was also thinking about the one thing I didn’t want to talk about, and decided that’s what I should make my art about. A lot of people don’t make art about love because it’s not really on trend, so to speak. You don’t really see that at galleries in Chelsea. And when I say love, I’m not talking about politicized love. I’m talking about plain old I like you, you like me, love. It’s a subject you’re not supposed to make art about.
I first did the performance at the Black Ivy Alumni Gala, and I put the sign on because I went to the event solely [to find a husband]. I didn’t think the food was going to be good [laughs]. I went with one of my [sorority] line sisters, and we had a ball. Women high-fived me. Some men came up and said I was desperate while some men started running down their stats. “I’m single. I have no kids. I graduated from [fill in the blank]. Here’s my number.” I kept doing it because it made a lot of other women feel better. It’s one of those “what’s the worst things that can happen” moments, and I found out nothing bad really does happen. Some people called me desperate on social media, but it didn’t hurt my feelings because they were right [laughs].
Did the collective response to “I’m Just Here to Find a Husband” give you the fuel to keep creating art?
Yeah, it definitely did because it had a bigger response than I expected. This was the most personal piece I’ve ever done. I did think about the audience because I didn’t want the women at the Black Ivy Alumni gala to think I was making fun of them. If they thought that, I would’ve taken the sign off and said sorry. But [the success of it] definitely made me want to make more art. It was the most popular thing I’ve done among people who are not artists. It resonated in the real world. A lot of people liked it and related to it on a very basic level. It broadened into other things, like t-shirts.
Then I heard whispers—behind my back, not in my face—that people in the art world thought it wasn’t real art. They’re supposed to be so artsy and open-minded. They know that art can be anything, as we’ve learned in school. But these academic artists were still putting it down behind my back. In theory, everything is art, so I know they weren’t going against that theory. They just wanted to put me down.
Do you find that your art is devalued because you draw inspiration from pop culture?
For some people, yes, that gives it less value. I personally don’t care because I enjoy pop culture. I think it’s art, and it’s accessible to a lot of people, and that’s not a bad thing. For some people, pop culture is too accessible, which brings up another issue that’s problematic and classist.
Take me through “Throwing Hexes.” I’ve read that it’s inspired by Lil Kim’s “All About the Benjamins” verse. Why did Lil Kim become your muse?
Lil Kim is a bit of a badass, but if you know her story with [The Notorious Big] and you’ve listened to interviews, she’s said that she’s been insecure. She’s had to work really hard in a man’s field where she wasn’t supposed to win. I feel that way in the art world sometimes. I like her boldness, and in that verse specifically, she’s like I’m on a song with all of these dudes, and I can hang. There’s something really interesting about that. I see her as a great muse, although there’s problematic things about her. That’s not lost on me. But the things I like most about her are not necessarily what she’s most famous for. A lot of people know that squat position [on the cover of Hardcore] because of her. She made it famous to pop your legs like that with a bikini, heels, and a fur on. I don’t idolize that, but I do idolize a lot of other things about her.
I don’t ever think I’d get plastic surgery, but I can relate to the idea of wanting to be something different. People have said to me, “You’re a pretty Black girl” without realizing they’re saying I’m pretty for a Black girl. My nose is wide. I’ve not been teased about my nose as an adult, but I have heard the phrase down South that I’m a “waste of yellow.” It’s a term they say to people when you’re light-skinned, but your hair is nappy, your lips are big, and your nose is big—so your skin is light, but everything else is very Black. There’s a part of me that understands Lil Kim. I’ve thought if I could just pinch this nose, I’d be prettier.
When I read fashion magazines, I see that my nose is bigger than anybody’s in any magazine. Most actresses with noses like mine get plastic surgery within two or three years of their breakthrough. I know that because I’ve looked for it. Halle Berry and Kerry Washington had noses like mine when they first started, and their careers boomed after their nose jobs. But when someone like Lil Kim goes overboard, everybody calls them crazy. I see where that crazy comes from. I see her as this underdog figure who said fuck you to a lot of people, including the feds.
Do you think then that Black women artists face obstacles that white artists don’t face?
Oh, for sure. Black women are easily dismissed. We’re not as celebrated as even our male counterparts. We have to worry about how we look, and if we don’t, it doesn’t play out well for us. These are just things I’ve observed. I can’t let those obstacles weigh me down or make me bitter. It has become something that drives me and makes me more creative with how I strategize my career and promote my art. I know my path is not going to be the same as my white counterparts, and I think it’s naïve to think it’s going to be the exact same for me. The same doors don’t open. I come from YouTube, and a lot of people don’t realize that. I went to an ivy league school, but my big break in performance art came from YouTube.
How so? Take me through that journey.
“Operation Catsuit” was something I did on a whim, and it was supposed to be a social experiment done one time. I took a two to three year break in my art career, and I was searching for something creative to do that had nothing to do with fashion, which is what I was doing at the time. I started going to art openings, and I wasn’t fitting in because I was dressing like I was going to a fashion event. At a fashion event, you can wear something tight and sexy, and you’ll be celebrated, but at art openings, I would get side-eyes.
So, out of frustration, I started doing “Operation Catsuit.” I wore this outfit designed by Tiffany Rhodes whose line is called Butch Diva. I tried a whole bunch of her clothes, and I picked out a bright green catsuit because I thought it would look good against white walls. It was also a fuck you to wearing black, since a lot of people at art galleries wear black. My fashion friend videotaped the responses to my outfit at the Museum of Modern Art. A lot of white women were taking videos of my butt. Some people were very nice to me, which I also didn’t expect and made me check myself. I had all of these assumptions about people based on how they look, and those people were the most pleasant.
The minute I started the performance, I realized that it was really about the Black body, specifically about the Black woman’s body and socioeconomic class. There are a lot of things about that outfit that shouldn’t make the reaction over-the-top, but my body type makes it problematic. My race makes it problematic. Somebody re-blogged the video on Tumblr and another person put it on Reddit, and within hours, I had hundreds of messages. I wasn’t calling myself a performance artist, but I was obsessively going to performance art shows. Someone I met at a performance show told a gallery owner they should screen my piece, so the first time I showed in an art gallery was because I went viral on YouTube.
Do you think then that social media has been an important catalyst for your career? Do you think you could be where you’re at in your career if you didn’t have social media?
It wouldn’t have happened as fast. I’ve only been doing performance art for five years and three months, so what’s happened so quickly for me wouldn’t have happened without social media. Art curators have found me through social media. It gives me access where I wouldn’t have had access before or I would’ve had to work twice as hard to get that access. I still go to art openings to meet people though. The first curator who showed my work met me in person. I hang out at her spot in Brooklyn all the time. That’s the old school method, but I tell a lot of people that social media can level the playing field for Black artists, although there’s still a lot of racism in the market.
A lot of people use social media wrong though. [An artist] will post an awesome image, but give no info, so I don’t know if they made it or not. I don’t know where it is. I don’t know where you are, I don’t know your real name, and your Instagram is private. I’ve seen all of that on a post where I would’ve loved to give that person’s info to a curator. I’ll send people DMs and say I think you’d be great for the show, but it does create an obstacle. I can’t tell the curator your name, where the piece happened, and if it’s your piece. Sometimes people are too ambiguous with their social media posts for it to be useful.
What comes next for you as an artist? What do you want the next five years of your career to look like?
What I would really like is to get some sort of endorsement deal as a performance artist. [I want my] popularity to be big enough that a perfume company puts me in an ad, and you say it’s the girl in the catsuit. Then, it would be a performance on top of a performance. Right now, I love that my art isn’t monetized because I’m able to do my craft for my craft, but at some point, it will become unsustainable. My next move is to make my art something that really sustains me. Next year, I’m going to spend time at Brown because going into the college system is something that I wanted to go into. I’m really happy that they contracted me for a year, part time.
Do you remember when people used to have cameos on shows as themselves? I want that type of success. I’m a performance artist, and that is my base, but maybe I show up in Hollywood or a music video in a cameo. I want that kind of recognition because I think that’s how the art crosses over more. I also want bigger shows at bigger museums. I still don’t think I’ve hit the greatest note I can hit for a museum. I’m very proud of what I did at the Barnes Foundation [in Philadelphia], and they treated me really well, but I think there’s a bigger level. I haven’t figured out what that is, but it’s a bigger performance—more shocking, inspiring, and reaches further. Barnes is the closest I’ve come to that.
What are you working on, and do you have a timeline for when you’ll debuting new performance art?
I’m working on a piece with a community garden in the Bronx near the Laundromat Project, and it’s really awesome. You can volunteer and grow vegetables alongside neighborhood kids who drop in. That’s happening almost every week, and I think it’s really beautiful. So, I did catsuit gardening last weekend, and we did it in an over-the-top fashion. I think people wait for moments when they can be over-the-top fabulous or colorful, bright, and flamboyant, but you really don’t need to wait.
The next piece is going to be red carpet harvesting. We’re going to literally lay out a red carpet and have dancing, a Soul Train line, and give away organic vegetables to the community. I’m also booked in October for an outdoor street festival. Oh, I can’t forget that in two weeks, I go to Ghana. I’ve never been to Africa before, and I’m performing with three other women. We’re doing a collaborative piece where we take water from Jamestown, Virginia to a neighborhood in Ghana that’s also called Jamestown, and we pour it out. It’s very symbolic, ceremonial, almost like a cleansing of slavery in a very obvious, direct way. It’s called the “African Body Snatcher,” which I thought was brilliant because it’s a play on that very mean childhood phrase, African booty scratcher.
I have a series in my head called “I Want Some Sugar with My Shit.” All of this is part of this idea that in my everyday life, my everyday struggle, I want some sugar. I see the sugar as these flashes of fantasy that I bring in everyday to distract from something painful or uncomfortable about my life.