June 17, 2011
Since moving to Water Island in the Caribbean, I have kept a low profile. Most people here think of me as a painter, and I run a non-profit art alliance called sevenminusseven on St Thomas. I did do a couple of programs for the department of health but they were also low key and on other islands (St. Croix). So when another non-profit art group asked me to do a short performance at their women empowerment evening, I said yes. As soon as I did I realized that I would no longer be under the radar. These islands are like very small towns where no one can leave and the national pastime is gossip.
I asked the woman who asked me perform what she wanted me to do. I assumed she had watched my videos. I have performed for Catholics, so I can behave, though even with my best behavior I tend to offend a little bit. She kept saying go for it. So I did. Ahhhhhhh when will I learn.
So here was the set up: The performance space was akin to doing a street show. I was in front of the door to the gallery, which was once an ice house; there are about 200 people milling about, no seats, half the audience is wandering between the gallery and a smaller space that was showing a film, Who Does She Think She Is? I hate to dish something that attempts to be empowerment, but this film was really a whiny lament on why there are not higher-profile female artists, why women are not taken seriously and not shown in museums as much. I would say probably because of films like that. Anyway Meowww. I will have to put that resentment on an amends list, but for now fuck it.
I have my girls in the audience up in the front; they are yelling my name to get the audience focused. So far no one has paid a bit of attention to anyone on the mike. On the way over one of the organizers said none of the art they received had been very edgy so I thought okay, you want edgy, I know how to be edgy ...
I was even considering doing the whole thing in the nude using my body as a work of art, since it resembles so many of the figures painted during the Renaissance Art period; but before I could even begin to disrobe, about 10 minutes into my performance, the organizer takes the mike from my hand and asks me to tone it down, there are children in the audience; and then tells the crowd next would be a singer who would perform nice sweet songs. As if to say, this obnoxious woman will be leaving soon.
I was stunned when she handed the mike back to me. I was almost speechless and thought I would just drop the mike, say fuck it and walk off the stage. I have done it before. Instead I said, "Well we could talk about something totally depressing or more sex." The audience yelled more sex. So I told them something depressing. I told them I was HIV positive and the reason I talk about sex and sexuality in an empowering way is to help people see beyond disease, shame, guilt and fear, and I guess that didn't work out too well tonight. I ended with a poem about living with HIV and still wanting to have sex. They applauded and I gathered up my peeps and we headed to the boat to go back to Water Island.
The only response I was waiting to hear from the event was if I won first in show, since a painting of mine was in the top three. I thought it would be cool, but as the day went on and I did not hear anything I figured someone else won, no big deal. Then on Monday, two days after the event, I received an e-mail from the organizer telling me that there was an uproar about my performance. Why did they bring some sleazy performer in to talk about sex and AIDS to ruin the event?
The complainer went on to say that people were rushing to their cars to get their children out of there before they heard any more lewd comments. Some people could not get their children out fast enough and now had to deal with the trauma of what happened. (By the way, I saw no one leaving and even said before I went on this might be considered R rated and to take their kids into the film or the gallery if they are concerned about that kind of thing.)
I have been doing sex educating through lecture, performance, art and writing for over two decades, and I have been here before; but I am still shocked and amazed that the adults of the world feel that speaking positively, openly and with humor about how to protect yourself will permanently damage their offspring -- when these same children are hit with billions of images that sexualize them through the Internet, TV and clothing choices. The schools preach abstinence and fear when it comes to sex, so when they do end up pregnant or with an STD they are surprised.
I am back in my studio today painting vaginas. (It is a relaxing exercise -- try it!) I was mad, then sad, then resigned. I can only be me; I will not edit my style. (I don't mind changing content but I believe in a sex-positive message done with humor.) I will not hide my positive status and for now I will let the emotions calm down and start to plan my February event which will include nudity, burlesque and everything sex called Tend to Offend or something like that. Being an educator means pushing the envelope sometimes. Even though the name-calling can be hurtful, it is better to evoke a conversation than live a life that is filled with polite applause.
River lives on a remote island in the Caribbean. She performs all over the world for colleges, conferences and in theaters. She is also currently the co-director of a nonprofit art alliance on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands called sevenminusseven. Keep an eye out for River's upcoming book, SEXED, and her next show, "The Dominatrix Next Door."