Jessica Karuhanga performs ground and cover me in Dublin. Photo by Jennifer Lena Harrington.
Jessica Karuhanga performs ground and cover me in Dublin. Photo by Jennifer Lena Harrington.

Jessica Karuhanga navigates space through performance

On February 11, artist Jessica Karuhanga brings her performance ground and cover me to Remai Modern.

Presented in partnership with Queer City Cinema, ground and cover me engages with the physical and figurative contours of the institutional space. Karuhanga enacts gradual movements that are intuitive and deliberate responses to the walls, windows and ground. This piece is a choreographic rupture to institutional spaces that otherwise insist upon Black queer people’s disappearance. 

Remai Modern spoke with Karuhanga about the ever-changing nature of performance work and ground and cover me. Don’t miss this performance and her accompanying artist talk on February 11 at 2 PM.

Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your practice.

I’m Jessica Karuhanga and I am a multidisciplinary artist who currently works with new media, performance, writing and drawing. 

What was your path to becoming an artist?

I have been an artist for as long as I can remember. As a kid I would draw pictures, sew clothes, and build structures. I actually taught myself perspective and how to play music by ear in kindergarten. My family was always very encouraging even if we didn’t always have the means. My grandparents gifted me with art classes where I built sculptures out of metal, clay and plaster. My friends always called me an artist. I think of these memories as my artist origin story. I tried art school. I dropped out. I returned and went on to pursue a masters. After school there were periods or months or years where I wasn’t able to make anything. I’d say my performance practice is entirely rooted in precarity. It came out of a necessity, as a human, to find some way to always create. 

Tell us about your work ground and cover me.

ground and cover me is a piece composed of intuited yet deliberate movements that engage with different sites and their history. 

You first performed ground and cover me in 2017 – how has the work evolved since then?

The original work was commissioned by curator Justine Kohleal as part of her MFA research at OCAD University. Her thesis exhibition was about anti-colonial interventions into institutional sites. I was really drawn to this hallway at OCAD because of its witness and quietness. There was absolutely no student traffic in this space. I was especially drawn to the windows that overlooked the Grange, a park and Georgian manor,  that are the foundation of the AGO. To me these sites bring up concerns I have around public, private spaces, class, and access. I wore comfortable street clothes and headphones while holding fistfuls of geraniums. I read somewhere that the original owners of the Grange had their gardener name a genus of the geranium after them. My palms ended up sweating into the flowers and I incidentally stained the walls with my touch. Since then I have ditched the flowers. There were too many symbols. I always listen to Solange’s A Seat at the Table at full blast. The album endeavors to foster a sanctified space. All these elements together speak to larger questions of belonging and safety. Where can I safely be as Black queer human in all of my totality? 

Jessica Karuhanga performs ground and cover me in Dublin. Photo by Jennifer Lena Harrington.
Jessica Karuhanga performs ground and cover me in Dublin. Photo by Jennifer Lena Harrington.

You perform ground and cover me in various locations. How does this work change when enacting it in a new place?

As the work evolved I’ve come to realize it’s part of a larger series of reflections. The movements were always first and foremost a meditation on the physical infrastructure as a pathway to unknowing a space. In my view all sites are deeper than their surface. All sites are layers of strata, memory and ruins.

Can you tell us more about the concept of Black embodiment?

My understanding of embodiment comes from feminist discourse and performance studies. Black embodiment is beyond simply identifying as Black. It is a fibral, pulsating, guts thing. This distinction is important to me because in a world that supports pretend-ians and virtue-signaling I have become highly suspicious of empathy. You might feel sympathy or distress at the suffering and duress of Black folks but that is not empathy. You simply cannot possibly feel what we feel. 

What role does the audience play in ground and cover me?

The audience is there to bear witness. One of the most interesting locations where I performed the piece was outside the Dunlop Art Gallery and Library in Regina. The audience included participants and patrons to the Queer Arts Festival but also random pedestrians. I always quietly start the piece. It is never really announced. One or two people notice and signal others and the audience congregates. I like this approach because it feels as though their experience is much more activated.

Jessica Karuhanga performs ground and cover me in Regina. Photo by Jason Cawood.
Jessica Karuhanga performs ground and cover me in Regina. Photo by Jason Cawood.

What do you enjoy most about performance work?

If I am going to be honest it is a love-hate relationship. To me performance art is one of many possible conduits of communication. I approach every project with the consideration of what medium that makes the most sense for a concept. My practice is really more conceptual I would say. The work might end up being a sculpture, film, painting and so on. Ultimately, I dig the temporality of performance. I love the ephemerality that resists permanence.

What is the biggest challenge for you in performance work?

I have only made five performances. Most of them have retired. I think the demands on Black folk, and especially gay and trans Black performers, is a lot. The voyeurism is unsettling. You have to have other dimensions to your practice or have really healthy boundaries. People within and outside of art communities love to consume Black culture. So much so that there is an entitlement not just to our production but our spirit. There is a deliberate conflation when it comes to consuming art and wholly absorbing our energy. 

What do you hope people take away from seeing your work?

I hope they are moved.  

Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?

I have my first solo exhibition opening in the spring at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. The show is being curated by Darryn Doull, who is also incidentally a childhood friend. I am excited to finally have the opportunity to present a body of work. But also to let it go. 

About the Artist

Jessica Karuhanga is a first-generation Canadian artist of British-Ugandan heritage whose work addresses issues of cultural politics of identity and Black diasporic concerns through lens-based technologies, writing, drawing and performances. Through her practice she explores individual and collective concerns of Black subjectivity: illness, rage, grief, desire and longing within the context of Black embodiment.

She was the 2020 – 2021 recipient of Concordia University’s SpokenWeb Artist/Curator In Residence Fellowship. Karuhanga has presented her work at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (2021), SummerWorks Lab (Toronto, 2020), The Bentway (Toronto, 2019), Nuit Blanche (Toronto, 2018), Onsite Gallery (Toronto, 2018) and Goldsmiths University (London, UK, 2017). Karuhanga’s writing has been published by C Magazine, BlackFlash, Susan Hobbs Gallery and Fonderie Darling.