Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance

Tracing a dynamic genealogy of performance from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, Uri McMillan contends that black women artists practiced a purposeful self- objectification, transforming themselves into art objects. In doing so, these artists raised new ways to ponder the intersections of art, performance, and black female embodiment.

McMillan reframes the concept of the avatar in the service of black performance art, describing black women performers’ skillful manipulation of synthetic selves and adroit projection of their performances into other representational mediums. A bold rethinking of performance art,  Embodied Avatars analyzes daring performances of alterity staged by “ancient negress” Joice Heth and fugitive slave Ellen Craft, seminal artists Adrian Piper and Howardena Pindell, and contemporary visual and music artists Simone Leigh and Nicki Minaj. Fusing performance studies with literary analysis and visual culture studies, McMillan offers astute readings of performances staged in theatrical and quotidian locales, from freak shows to the streets of 1970s New York; in literary texts, from artists’ writings to slave narratives; and in visual and digital mediums, including engravings, photography, and video art. Throughout, McMillan reveals how these performers manipulated the dimensions of objecthood, black performance art, and avatars in a powerful re-scripting of their bodies while enacting artful forms of social misbehavior.



  • “Roll over Joseph Beuys, tell Yves Klein the news! Embodied Avatars radically disrupts prevailing histories, definitions, and genealogies of performance art by focusing on black women who, over the course of two centuries, sought to turn their degraded bodies into dissident tools of emancipation and social critique. Recognizing the first modern stage of black performativity as the auction block, Uri McMillan reveals how black women turned objectification into objecthood, enabling them to remake, disguise, remold the self into an object of resistance, an embodied nightmare to the American dream. Full of eye-popping analytical turns and thrilling theoretical high wire acts, this book is both brilliant scholarship and a performance to be reckoned with.”

    —Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

  • “Uri McMillan takes us on a journey to unexpected terrain. With powerful alchemy, he reveals how black women performance artists work on multiple registers—through seduction, trickery, the comfort of the seemingly familiar—to enact possibility, or what he theorizes as performance ‘in the service of a certain type of freedom.’ Meticulously researched and rigorously theorized, Embodied Avatars is a model of interdisciplinary scholarship grounded in archival work and impressive textual analysis. This book is certain to forge new paths of inquiry and debate in performance, gender and sexuality studies, and black cultural studies.”

    —Nicole R. Fleetwood, author of Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness

  • "Embodied Avatars presents a sweeping and charismatic investigation of the ways in which Black women have strategically staged versions of 'themselves’ as modes of public, personal, and critical performance and as interventions in art, expression, identity, identification, and freedom. This vibrant and energetic study of art, performance, and embodiment is far-reaching, profound, lively, and engaging."

    —Stephanie Leigh Batiste, author of Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance