In Conversation with

Awilda Sterling-Duprey: (Un)Drawing the Continent Blindfolded

A chat with the Puerto Rican artist about her participation in the Whitney Biennial in New York, where she performs a series of dance-drawings.

C&AL: When did you start doing performance art?

ASD: In New York, when I was doing my Masters at the Pratt Institute, in a course with Trisha Brown… The exercise that had the biggest impact on me was one where we would use one of our fingers and move it around while we were lying down with our eyes closed… We had to follow our finger so that it lifted us off the ground and continue like that. It was a line in a tridimensional space, and the freedom to make the finger circumnavigate not only the body but also the three-dimensional space of the studio… Later, I had a great teacher in Puerto Rico, Professor Nelson Rivera, who together with his Number 3 Group was working in the context of concrete music. And he always invited me and assigned me scores to give a body to that symbology. Those contexts helped me a lot to maximize my ability to understand abstraction and how to bring it to a three-dimensional spectrum of the body.

C&AL: Improvisation is constitutive of Afro-Caribbean traditions. How do you approach improvisation from Afro-knowledge?

ASD: Improvisation is a characteristic element of African arts. I have realized that in repetition there is a moment when the pattern changes. This happens with jazz; it happens with sculptures of saints. Fabric design is nourished precisely by this change in the pattern. I learned a lot about this subject from Sylvia del Villard, from the University of Puerto Rico (Afro-Puerto Rican actress, choreographer and activist), who mentored me and taught me the value of the entire continent and the ethnic groups which form us… She talked to me about deities and my abilities for art, dance and my interest in religions. Of course, it was already integrated in my family but at that time people didn’t talk about African value. So we had to “behave well so people would respect us,” so people would see that we were a different kind of Black woman or man. But Sylvia embodied the ethical values of an entire continent and had been with all those Africanists at Fisk University in Tennessee, USA. And that had an impact on me… That is what leads me to integrate religious concepts through dance, because history is in the body and in dance. Each step is a story of the deity that has as many levels as the elements of nature it represents… My wholeness is visible and expressed within all those contexts of improvisation.

C&AL: How has your relationship with improvisation changed?

ASD: I always painted while listening to jazz, but I was not necessarily expressing it in my painting. Now I am expressing improvisation. What I do is imagine myself drawing the currents of that sound… I make my own tonal and chromatic scale from the sounds I hear.


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C&AL: In …blindfolded you also explored salsa. How did you adapt gesture to the context of the biennial?

ASD: Yes, I had already worked with Omar Obdulio Peña-Forty taking the music of Ismael Rivera (the great improvisor) and reformulating salsa numbers to invert their meaning through technological manipulation… The gesture is urgent because I also work on it while listening to jazz improvisations by Puerto Rican musician Miguel Zenón, and at the Whitney I used Zenón again with “Las caras lindas” (The Beautiful Faces) from the album Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (2019), which is the sound with which I conclude. After I paint, I clean my hands and instead of throwing the papers away I build a new continent that I invented. (She starts to laugh). While I hammer the cloths onto the panel, I build a continent. (Peals of laughter)

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh