Interview: Sheldon Scott on His Powerful 13-Hour Performance Portrait

An intimate depiction of the daily life of his enslaved ancestors creates space to heal, respond, and understand the institution's place in today's society

Artist (and Eaton DC Culture Director) Sheldon Scott‘s “portrait, number 1 man,” is the first-ever performed portrait included in the Outwin Boochever Competition Exhibition, hosted annually at the National Portrait Gallery. This year’s other entries—which follow the gallery’s prompt: to respond to the current political and social context—include a stop-motion drawing, oil work and photographs. And while they’re all noteworthy for their own particular traits, the fervor and magnitude of Scott’s stands out. For the performance, which initially occurred over 90 hours on a stretch of days in late October, Scott appeared kneeling within the gallery from sunrise to sundown—working “the schedule of the enslaved”—peeling grains of rice one by one.

This work confronts the institution of slavery and the bevy of art institutions that limit works about the horrid pillar of our nation to still media. After Scott’s stint of live performances, which he enrolled in occupational therapy to prepare for, a 12.5-hour film stood in his place. It was shot “on the former rice fields my enslaved family toiled for generations,” he explains. Not only does he transport viewers to those very rice fields, where his and hundreds of others’ ancestors were forced to work, he also brings them into the era of slave-owning, when livelihoods were confined to cruel conditions.

Scott’s work does far more than document—he works meditatively to create a place for healing, understanding and study. His presence (in person or on the screen) forces viewers to process the not-so-distant institution, survey its place in today’s society, and remember the millions of faces, who typically get portrayed as a shadowy cast rather than unique individuals, who were subject to similar circumstances.

We were fortunate, shortly after Scott’s in-person performance, to discuss the work, how he prepared to perform it and more.

Can you expound upon the significance of being the first-ever performance portrait selected/honored now, in 2019?

Performance as portrait has “broken into” the institution with this honor. This is a shift in the thinking and practice of museums and opens up nuanced opportunities for artists with performance-based practice.

When did the idea of presenting a moving, biographical portrait come to mind? How did you draft the script?

I had been curated into the IDENTIFY performance as portraiture series in 2016. At that time, I was interested in performance in service of a community—my Gullah/Geechee ancestry—and “portrait, number 1 man” became the next statement in that narrative. There was some research of what a day of a “number 1 man” looked like, but I have no commitment to the historical record as it is written. I used that framework and then used my understanding of the human condition to create the “script” as humanely and poetically as I could.

What was the process of preparing for your live performance? What went into filming the recorded version? How did you feel after each? 

I spent three months in occupational and physical therapy to ensure my body was ready for the task. I adjusted my eating habit to make the fasting a part of the meditation, but not the focus of the work.

The film, however, using the same language as the performance, is not the same. The most striking difference is the setting, as the film was shot outside at the former rice fields where my foremothers were enslaved. The elements of the natural world are a material that doesn’t exist in the performance, and hold great space in the film.

I’m not sure of how I felt after each of the performances, partly because the suspension of sentience as an act of survival that I had to engage to be able to go on this journey. I had more physical therapy and lots of massage/body work done after the activation. [It] took over three weeks before I felt back in my own body completely. Mentally, I’m still actively working on reclaiming a comfort and ease I had prior to this work, but the performance is still very present in my mind, my body and my existence as there has not been a day since that I haven’t been in conversation with someone about that piece.

What do you hope audiences leave having retained or learned? Does your documentary-style portrait have more to offer than a still one?

I don’t have any expectations around what the audience will hold on to, or how they would deduce or endow the piece. My ego, however would like to know that they, at the least, just simply felt. I wouldn’t say “more,” but there’s for sure a difference when the body is present, particularly with this subject, as humanity is remarkably absent from canonical depiction of the enslaved. This presence may offer the audience a more intimate breath with that historic human condition.

Can you expand on the schedule of your enslaved ancestors? Is the 12-hour video a look into their day-to-day life?

Sun up until sun down was the schedule—no parenthesis needed. That reality of the day is how I approach the material of time in both the performance and the film. The film’s length, 12 hours 20 minutes 57 seconds, was the length of the day it was shot.

Is this a confrontation of the realization that we truly aren’t that far removed from the institution of slavery? Is it meant to coexist alongside the modern remnants of the institution?

It certainly can serve as that confrontation. Moreover, it puts into plain view its legacy and contemporary profile. It’s meant to penetrate the institution.

Images courtesy of ConnerSmith Gallery