Solange Dominates Space, Tears Down Walls at Masterful Guggenheim Show
Solange transformed one of the world’s best-known art institutions, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, into a personal gallery where her 2016 album A Seat at the Table could live, breathe and take up all the space it deserves.
Draping the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda of were bodies clad in mostly white – she made the request that attendees come dressed in the color. Before the show even starts, the very image of a sea of matching outfits is something to behold, with the white clothes standing along the white, cylindrical ramps or sitting cross-legged on the white marble floor. The punctuation was mostly skin and its various colors.
The chatty, excited murmurs of fans were halted by the same loud riff of dissonant noise protruding from the speakers repeatedly. Descending from the top of the rotunda was a processional of black and brown women in all white, punctuated by Solange and her two back-up singers in matching brown outfits. The noise mixed with the emotionless, consistent pace of the women as they glided swiftly down the ramp made the room feel like the center of a campy Fifties sci-fi film. The neutral colors popping from the stark white felt futuristic and intimidating. On the floor, they joined the six members of her band, who wore all-red, yellow, blue, black or brown ensembles.
The dancers moved to “Scales” before departing and leaving Solange with her band and singers to perform the opening track off A Seat at the Table, “Rise.” The short song was blown out, with the original track’s final note being expanded and repeated as the three voices filling the room. Much of what the artist did with her complex, personal, triumphant album during Thursday’s Red Bull Music Academy–backed show was open up songs to take up the space, working in tandem with the strange acoustics of the Wright’s architecture to make the sound of the voices and band bounce of the walls and reverberate through every dip and slope.
Diving into “Weary” and “Cranes in the Sky,” background vocalists Franchelle Lucas and Isadora Mendez-Scott not only showed off their incredibly powerful voices but never missed a beat as they moved as one. Solange very rarely separated herself, creating one body with the two others. At times, the band would join, moving in unison with either each other or Solange as they held and played their instruments.
With a new arrangement of “Mad” came one of the show’s finest moments, almost serving as a thesis of what the project hoped to accomplish by interpreting and adapting the album’s lyrics into an interdisciplinary performance piece. Solange brought drama to the song’s breakdown of the “angry black girl” stereotype in order to declare her own right to feel rage and anger towards anything. While hitting lengthy high notes, she opens them up into guttural wails. All three singers on the floor let out tantrum-level shrieks at once, a cathartic release even for those doing nothing else but bearing witness.
Release and catharsis are integral to the second half of the show, as the strict choreography and reactionless faces loosen up. During “FUBU,” she walks through the seated audience members on the floor to sing lyrics like, “This shit is for us” specifically to the black attendees, kneeling down and dancing with them. She even allows for a twerk break, a sign of the more erratic and soul-bursting dancing to come. By the end of the show, she threw herself on the floor, writhing and kicking before jumping around and running back and forth across the floor.
The show ended as it began. Brown and black women and men in all white or neutral colors descended along the rotunda, many of whom were horn players hidden for the majority of show and only revealed themselves during “Mad.” They joined Solange on the floor, creating a mass of around 60 bodies that moved as one before departing once more to allow bows from the band and vocalists.
After a standing ovation, she returned alone to the floor to give a quick speech about the show’s intent. Adamantly she declares that “inclusion is not enough” and that it’s time to enter institutions and tear “the fucking walls down.” The artist did exactly that, creating a masterful, transcendent experience that took an already excellent composition into a brand new universe. Solange did more than just “put some colored girls in the MoMA,” as her brother-in-law Jay Z pleaded on the track “That’s My Bitch.” She also did more than just demand and encourage more representation in the art world from black women. She carved out and confidently filled space, made noise and took ownership. The performance was one of the finest ways an album has been presented in years, and Solange firmly placed herself as someone who will be regarded as one of her generation’s finest and most forward-thinking artists and innovators.