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2015

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"Humor, pathos, and a bit of discomfort:" Holly Bass on performance, poetry, and activism

Holly Bass performs at Forbes (4-16-13)

by Elizabeth Hoover

In Hard Work, a performance combining dance and spoken word, artist Holly Bass recites: “I work hard. I work with my mind. I work with my mouth. I work with my whole body and soul. My calloused feet bear the marks of many years of flesh against wood.”

A native of San Jose who now makes her home in Washington, D.C., Bass is a performer who indeed works hard. She uses her own body’s endurance to explore how others have endured commodification and objectification throughout history.

In her 2012 performance Moneymaker, Bass danced for seven straight hours inside a vitrine in Corcoran Gallery’s lobby to a soundtrack of pop music and speeches while wearing platform heels on her feet and “booty balls” strapped to her behind. The piece referenced two centuries worth of the commodification of black women’s bodies from today’s video vixens to Saartjie Baartman, an African woman sold into slavery who became a sideshow freak during the late 1700s because of British fascination with her buttocks.

With a bouncing gold prosthetic butt and a cummerbund emblazoned with $€X, the piece has elements of absurdity and humor; Bass’s use of irony has inspired comparisons with artists including Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson. Other pieces by Bass explore the legacy of slavery, labor and privilege, and suicide in the black community.

Writing for Focus, Melanie Spears Harpers describes Bass’s performance style: “Holly uses her body as a totem, absorbing and reflecting ideas through compelling actions and rituals.” 

An accomplished poet, Bass has published work in Callaloo, nocturnes (re)view, Beltway, and The Ringing Ear, an anthology of black southern poetry. She is an alum of Cave Canem and a journalist who writes for national publications.

Recently she choreographed Truck Touch Ballet, a performance by public works employees featuring dump trucks spilling trash, police twirling on Segways, and a pas de deux between two 65-foot cherry pickers.

In this three-part interview conducted by The Fight & the Fiddle editor Elizabeth Hoover, Bass discusses all aspects of her artistic practice, including performance, poetry, and activism.

At the Intersection of Activism and Humor | Bass explains the origins of her work focusing on the image of the booty in popular culture and how she uses humor to challenge her audience to consider different points of view.

Beyond Survival to Freedom | Bass describes how she makes herself vulnerable when she performs and how she seeks to respond to the way generations of African Americans have been taught to behave in public to cope with negative stereotypes and her own vulnerability as a performer.


Working on the Page | Bass answers the question of what it takes for a poem to work on the page and explains how poetry is the foundation of her artistic practice.