Saya Woolfalk is an Asian- and African-American performance artist based in New York. She received her B.A. from Brown University in Visual Art and Economics in 2001. She then studied sculpture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving her M.F.A. in 2004. In 2005, she received a Fulbright IIE Grant for the study of performance and craft traditions in Brazil. Woolfalk’s experiences with Carnival inspired her to explore ways to bring the fantasy of toys into the adult world. Plush multi-colored costumes and toy-like forms have since come to characterize her work. She also travelled to Japan for the study of performance and craft traditions under an Art Matters Grant in 2007. Both countries have had an enormous influence on her artistic practice, on the forms blended into her costumes, and on the way in which she constructs her own identity. As Woolfalk says in her artist statement, “A black, white, and Japanese woman, my work is inspired by ethnographic, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory.” Also in 2007, Woolfalk received an NYFA Fellowship in performance art and became an Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
The same year, Woolfalk first exhibited No Place at the Zg Gallery in Chicago, Illinois. Then called “No Place: Wonders from that World,” No Place has become probably her best-known piece. Performed again at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery in 2009, No Place represents a kind of slippage between the language that codifies daily life and the inability to entirely capture the subject. It is a kind of in-between moment, out of utopia, peopled by characters including the Empathics, Pleasure Machines, and Cleaners. People in No Place are part human and part plant. They are constantly in flux, changing colors during their different life cycles and becoming part of the landscape when they die. Her most recent performance, entitled “The Ritual of the Empathics,” is a piece in which women try to conjure No Place into the present through a series of rituals. Woolfalk intends ultimately to show three temporalities: the present, the future, and the future of the future.
Woolfalk’s work draws on material from pop culture, ritual, and street spectacle to catalogue and critique our socio-visual landscape. She combines performance, sculpture, painting, and video in her fantastical installations to playfully re-imagine the representational systems that shape our lives. Her visual media then come to act as narratives that shape perception, order symbolic language, and help inform the way that we perceive the world.
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