To begin, Solange marched down the spiral white ramp of the Guggenheim Museum in a chorus line of black women. The media people hanging near the edge of the barrier on each tier were forced to part, to create several inches of distance between the artist and ourselves, so that she and her performers could get to the bottom. All barefoot, Solange and two backup singers wore clay color ensembles; the other eight women wore white. From this vantage, the press section was looking down—but only physically—on fans dressed in white off-the-shoulder tops, suits and tanks (Solange requested we wear all white). They sat cross-legged on the ground floor in diligent rows. None of us had phones.
In this main, open foyer of a building constructed for an affluent white man and his art, Solange and her band staged a site-specific performance. Aesthetically, the interior of a museum can either aim for sparseness in the interest of minimalism to let the artwork breathe, or the architecture and structure can otherwise be as ornate and imaginative as the work. The Guggenheim is a grand space.
Two years ago, Michelle Obama talked about “places like this” at a dedication for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. “There are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers, and they think to themselves, ‘Well, that’s not a place for me—for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood,’” she said. “I was one of those kids myself. So I know the feeling of not belonging in a place like this.”
Later that year, Betye Saar told The New York Times about how black artists, particularly women, met resistance from the creative end as well: “We were invisible to museums and the gallery scene,” she said.
So Solange figured she wasn’t meant to be there, but she’s used to planting herself in places she’s told she doesn’t quite belong. Existing in the space wasn’t enough, though. She dared to be an artiste, to indulge and make like she owned the place, by putting her album, A Seat At the Table, on display. She performed six of its songs on Thursday at the Guggenheim, as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival and her own museum shows, titling the performance “An Ode To.”
From “Rise” on, I was thinking the vibe might be moodier if the space weren’t so bright and if light could escape. But bright was what she wanted. “I care about seeing your faces and the light in the space,” she told us in a speech after the whole performance. “I don’t care that much about the institution... They just happen to be beautiful spaces.”
There was nothing small about her, but something quiet. Gorgeous melodic screams blew out from her and bounced off the art-lined walls. Though the acoustics drowned out her enunciation at points, the music beautifully echoed in a space where the ceiling for once seemed out of reach, and “Cranes in the Sky” high notes touched the top, the magnitude speaking for itself.
In the middle of “F.U.B.U,” Solange crouched into the seated audience of fans, giving a few the closeness they desired. She approached a black security guard who stood near the museum’s entrance and acknowledged his presence, singing for him in the moment. And she walked to a ledge near the drummer, braced herself, and began to twerk adamantly, a transcendent act of reclamation and an obvious interpretative response to whomever. The crowd went wild, aware that this portrait of Solange signified affirmation. Even if someone had somehow twerked at the Guggenheim in their private time before, hers was the first time it meant something.
The choreography throughout felt intuitive, with uniform swivels, sudden dips and the type of hand-clapping girls like me used to play, meant to be interpreted as delicate force.
The movements—fluid and intentional, like a synchronized all-black yoga class, with warrior, tree and chair poses meant to set the foundation—weren’t perfect; instead, they were occasionally out of sync but organic, the dancers so close their curves touched. The male band members who joined the dance weren’t as rhythmic. Everywhere Solange went, our eyes followed, her voice crisp and rippling, controlled and dense with inherent emotion.
Going into the show, there was no way we weren’t going to come away with the type of poetry that sounds extreme, and to feel what we were intended: pride, appreciation, awe. Certainly, it was nice to be there, “not just allowed in this space,” as Solange told everyone after the show, but occupying the space and “wanting to tear the fucking walls down.” There’s power in the simple act of an intimate takeover.
The drone that buzzed around us during her serene cover of Syreeta’s “Black Maybe” died and blended into the next anthem, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” the burst of celebration part of this set, which Solange had billed as “an interdisciplinary performance piece and meditation examining themes from A Seat the the Table through movement, installation, and experimentation with reconstructed musical arrangements, composed and conceptualized by Solange.”
She had her joyous release at the end, when she dropped to the floor, slithered and pounded, no longer concerned with synchronization, instead evolving her dance into free movement that was less contained. An even bigger procession of black performers followed, with a full-on band and horn ensemble that descended the ramp, passing me by again, headed toward Solange down below.
Two straight rows of black women had formed in the middle of all this grandeur. Solange marched her way from the center of the line to the front, where she belonged, and there she stood her ground.