Performance Art


IDENTIFY pulls back the curtain of time to acknowledge those who are missing from the museum’s historical collections. Wealth, class, race, and gender often determined who could have a portrait made in the 18th and 19th centuries – this performance art series strives to make visible the invisible.  Each artist selected critiques American portraiture and institutional history by making visible a body or bodies that historically have been forgotten.

group of performers in colorful costumes

IDENTIFY:Jeffrey Gibson

To Name an Other

May 22, 2019

To Name an Other is Jeffrey Gibson's largest performance to date.  The artist, a half-Cherokee member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians choreographed performers who self-identify as Indigenous, Native American, LGBTQ, or as people of color, to explore the relationship between injustice, marginalization, and identity.  This performance included new garments printed with texts that name significant acts and events that have occured in recent years. 

woman singing in the Great Hall

IDENTIFY: Lee Mingwei's Sonic Blossom

April 2018

The National Portrait Gallery presented the gift of music with Lee Mingwei's Sonic Blossom in the month of April 2018. In what the gallery described as "Performance art as portraiture", individual visitors to the museum were randomly approached by a trained opera singer in a custom-designed gown and asked "May I give you the gift of song?" If the gift is accepted, the two moved to the National Portrait Gallery’s Great Hall (on the third floor) where the visitor receive the transformative gift of one of Franz Schubert’s five lieder (art songs).

>> View the performance here

woman sitting on the floor working with sticks

IDENTIFY: Sandy Huckleberry

October 28, 2017 / Performed KNOW

Internationally-recognized performance artist Sandy Huckleberry is known for thoughtful, meditative performances that draw attention to the space in which they occur and the relationship between the audience and the performer. KNOW addresses women’s struggle, strength, and perseverance using voluntary audience participation.

woman in a purple queen-like costume

Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz's PIETA (Queens)

May 6, 2017

Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz's PIETA (Queens) series considers female archetypes who have shaped her identity and worldview. Expanding on her previous work and reflecting on her perspective as a mother, Ortiz responds to the human cost of gun violence through the lens of Michelangelo's Pietà. The performance, accompanied by live music from the Howard Gospel Choir and DJ Stereo 77, provides a meditation on the universal theme of loss and mourning and offers a symbol of resilience.

>> View the performance here

man in chains with his back to camera

IDENTIFY: Sheldon Scott

November 5, 2016

Sheldon Scott presented Precious in Da Wadah, A Portrait of the Geechee as part of the museum's IDENTIFY series.  The artist's commissioned performance explores techniques enslaved Africans used to produce rice in the coastal region of South Carolina.  The performance challenged the concept of European technology as the basis of American agriculture, mercantilism, and financial prowess while highlighting the ingenuity of rice cultivation by the Gullah/Geechee people.  Scott's work also examines the advent of rice as a cash crop and the commodification of the black body.

woman performing in colorful costume

IDENTIFY: María Magdalena Campos-Pons

May 14, 2016

María Magdalena Campos-Pons works with her husband, saxophonist and composer Neil Leonard, to reinsert the black body into historical narratives. Under the name FEFA, they use personal stories, music and procession to evoke both protest and devotion.

woman on a high wooden chair


February 4, 2016

J.J. McCracken performed a conceptual portrait of Anne Newport Royall.  Royall, one of America's first female journalists, was arrested in 1829 for arguing in public.  Her trial is part of a broader history of silencing, particularly of women.

Native American man and woman

IDENTIFY: James Luna

January 16, 2016

James Luna portrays Ishi, the last member of the Yahi, a Native American tribe indigenous to Northern California.  Luna and Shelia Tishla Skinner not only pay tribute to the man known during his lifetime as "the last wild Indian" in their performance art, but also give voice to indigenous women.

woman in 19th century dress coveribg cots with sheets

IDENTIFY: Martha McDonald

Hospital Hymn: Elegy for Lost Soldiers 

Oct. 17, 2015

Site-specific installation and performance by Martha McDonald at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Hospital Hymn conjured the Portrait Gallery's history as a temporary hospital for soldiers during the American Civil War, where Walt Whitman worked as a nurse. Inspired by Whitman's notebooks from the period, the piece memorialized the war's quarter million unknown dead.

View the performance here

man placing stickers on his body

IDENTIFY: Wilmer Wilson

October 10, 2015 

Wilmer Wilson IV (b. 1989, Richmond, Virginia) is recognized internationally for his investigations of race.  As he slowly covers his body with everyday objects that adhere to his skin, he asks us to think about the historic meanings of black skin in the United States.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company

View excerpts of performances from the Smithsonian’s first choreographer-in-residence inspired by National Portrait Gallery exhibitions. Enjoy the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company’s amazing dancers.

Interview with Dana Tai Soon Burgess
Dana Tai Soon Burgess is an American choreographer, dancer, performance artist, and cultural figure. In May 2016 Burgess was named the Smithsonian's first-ever choreographer in residence at the National Portrait Gallery.