Brendan Fernandes: Breaking Down Boundaries and Creating Spaces
Brendan Fernandes is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice spans a diverse range of media, including photography, sculpture, performance art and multimedia projects. He centres much of his work around social and political injustices, power and agency, queer and racialized communities, migration and human connection.
Currently based in Chicago, the internationally renowned Kenyan-Goan-Canadian artist has presented projects at the 2019 Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Third Guangzhou Triennial, the Stedelijk Museum, Montreal's MAC and the National Gallery of Canada. Speaking of his art practice, he has said: " Working at the intersection of dance and visual art, my pieces open up questions about hybridity of media and seek to problematize the notion of a fixed, essential or authentic identity."
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NGC Magazine: You originally trained as a professional dancer, but began combining dance and art already early on. How has this been reflected in your work?
Brendan Fernandes: Art and dance have always been part of my life. They were both things that I excelled at, giving me joy and a sense of community. At York University, I pursued a double major in dance and visual art, but was always told that one can’t do both. I actually wanted to combine them, break down the boundaries between these two disciplines.
When I was forced to stop dancing due to injury, it was devastating – physically, mentally and emotionally – like a tragic loss. During the period away from dance, I pursued Colonial Studies at the University of Western Ontario, and began to focus on my cultural heritage: my hybridity as an immigrant to Canada, born in Kenya to a fifth-generation family of Indian heritage. I began reflecting on that story of migration and movement, and of cultural identity. This led me to explore the history of dance and ballet – specifically as a Western hegemony, including the hierarchical order of movement and bowing at the court of Louis XIV. When I moved to New York City, I began thinking about how we choreograph our daily lives. I started to experiment with dance movements through performance and – instead of using my own body – in collaboration with other dancers.
I feel very fortunate as an artist, because I have found a way to meld these two art forms, creating a hybrid practice that continues to change and morph. The intersection between the two is confusing, but it has also allowed me to do what I always wanted to do: to be both a dance person and an art person.
NGC: Bodies and movement are dominant elements in your work. How do they inform your practice?
BF: In dance – and particularly in ballet companies – there are strong hierarchical structures, and dancers are always being told how to move. Within my work, I constantly question this authoritarian framework. When I started creating performance works, I was reluctant to tell people how to move their bodies. There is a nurture and a care that is needed, and collaboration. I always try to build an empowered space of agency and, within that space, it's a conversation – a dialogue. I will intervene and break down the concepts to create this space.
The pieces are rigorous, and we still push ourselves, but within the work it is definitely about collaboration and dialogue. By giving agency in my work as a dancemaker – providing a space that enables visibility and being heard, while giving my dancers choice and freedom – it hopefully reflects the larger system of society.
NGC: You are a multidisciplinary artist, working across a wide range of media. Can you expand on your approach?
BF: I am an artist who works with concepts, so the choice of medium comes from the idea. At the moment, I am working on a commission from Danish National Radio, and we are making this piece about voices, political agency – and a space of solidarity. The work is a sound composition, and I am working with a composer and an 18-voice choir who sing lyrics that I have written, but also sing the sounds of police sirens. I tend to work predominantly in sculpture and performance, but also with light, sound and film. As an artist, I love that I can choose and combine different elements, as well as fashion and architecture. For me, it is about bringing all these parts together. This challenges my practice, allowing it to develop and grow.
Hybridity is a core part of my practice. I always say that it is queering, a queer space. For me, queer is a moniker that doesn’t distinguish just gender and sexuality. It is about self-inclusivity, about reinventing oneself, about thinking and re-evaluating. It is also about the need to advance and change within social and political spaces. We are living in precarious times and experiencing hard moments, and we need to move forward and change. We need to queer the space, rethink the systems, and dismantle and challenge them.
NGC: Through your work and practice, you pursue change. Can you elaborate?
BF: The framework within my practice and work is to dismantle and decolonize from within the system – to find a voice within it and bring lasting change. How do we forge new paths within an existing system to develop new ways of thinking and imagining the future? We don't know what it will look like, because it is an imagined space, but there is hope in believing in this space.
In my work, I am pushing for change, and although I don't think I will see a full transformation within my lifetime, I can still take strides to do that work. For me, dance is very much a political space that is challenging a system. It is about dismantling a system by critiquing it. I think metaphorically about social space, for inclusivity, for queer bodies, for marginalized bodies. We have a lot of work to do to support our Indigenous communities, our immigrant communities, our queer / trans communities. This work needs to be acknowledged.
The same is true of social dancing. How do we create gatherings? How do we forge solidarity? How do we find joy in being together and just moving our bodies? I use “to move forward” as part of the language of dance: to move your body. To move your body forward, to move bodies together. For me, that is a political space – and a space of protest.
NGC: Your work has been situated outdoors, and frequently in gardens. What drives this choice?
BF: I have been working on outdoor pieces for a while. During the pandemic, I was again thinking about the act of gathering outside, and about gardens as spaces to help support the body. For the performance intervention 72 Seasons, I worked with gardeners, studying seasonal changes and ecosystems. The way a garden is structured and grows is a social metaphor for taking care of one another. Humans need to look away from differences and more at our similarities. There is the concept of returning to the land, giving back to it. There is also the idea that gardens allow us to be outside with one another and feel safe – safe from viruses, safe from whatever is happening.
NGC: A selection of works from your 2017 series As One have been included in the Gallery's Movement exhibition. What do you hope audiences will take away after experiencing these works?
BF: The series is about acknowledging the histories of trauma due to violence or colonialism. Focusing on cultural hybridity and identity, I was looking at the African object and the mask object, and the idea of the cultural artifact versus the souvenir. I was exploring how museums took masks from their places of context, removing their meanings or original uses. When they were brought into the museum space, they were stilled, their bodies taken away. In these photographs, it is an abstraction of body and mask: the colonizer ballet body is giving the body back to the object and acknowledging it. It is bowing to it, it is apologizing to it. But at the same time, it is creating this hybridity.
The works also reference the history of photography, in the ways that the images were staged. They reflect Picasso and primitivism, the canons of art. If you see the way that the masks are positioned not facing forward, they are kind of indifferent. The dancers are addressing the masks with a formality not given before. It is also a play on museum display.
Brendan Fernandes will be in conversation with NGC curator Andrea Kunard on October 27 at the National Gallery of Canada, book the event. Movement: Expressive Bodies in Art is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until February 26, 2023. Consult the Calendar for related Events and Performances. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.