Aisha Cousins

What is a performance art score, and why did you begin creating them?

I define a performance art score as a set of written instructions for a live art piece.

I was introduced to performance art in college, but I don’t recall learning to see the instructions as a separate work of art until years later at the Museum of Modern Art. I happened to land a job there right when the museum was increasing its focus on performance art. As a result, I was exposed to a ton of live art as well as documentation and critical thought about it. Anyhow, I can’t recall exactly when I stopped saying “I’m a performance artist” and started saying “I write performance art scores,” but I’m pretty sure it was while I was working at MoMA.

Before that, I had been making murals and mixed-media drawings. Murals were my public art form of choice. I loved them and thought I would make them for the rest of my life. Over time, however, I became frustrated with the way murals create a one-sided conversation where the same statement gets repeated for decades, as opposed to adjusting to the changing times. I started experimenting with other media and wound up creating a performance art piece I felt really good about, called Diva Dutch. I started morphing it, getting other people to perform it, etc. After a while, the performances began to feel like a one-way conversation too. I shifted directions and started writing the instructions down, so other people could do them in a way that highlighted their unique talents, ideas of beauty, and personal histories. That’s why I like writing the scores down. I like that it allows them to become a way for each new person who performs them to express themselves.

Aisha Cousins wearing her Obama dress.
Aisha Cousins: From Here I Saw What Happened and I Could Not Understand (aka The Obama Skirt Project). Photo by Zach Fabri.

How important is community participation in your work? How have these dialogues influenced your work and upcoming projects?

You know, I was on such a mission to make works that created a two-way conversation, that now most of my work doesn’t function without participation. I need performers to bring the scores to life, and the works generally aren’t complete, unless an audience engages with them. They don’t necessarily require a group of people to come together and say “we are a community” though. They just bring people together by engaging them in a conversation about an experience or an interest that everyone has in common.

The people who participate totally affects the end result and influence whatever new work evolves. When I write a score, it’s not finished until it’s performed a few times. I ask for feedback, and often use it to adjust both the format and the content of the scores.

You must have a lot of funny and interesting stories about the Obama Skirt Project.

Tons of them, especially during the phase when I wore Obama fabrics for 365 days. When I was working at MoMA, Michelle Obama came by to check out the artwork. Ironically, I probably would have met her if I’d not had on an Obama dress. One of her guards saw the Obama on my chest, and I could almost see “stalker alert” going off in his head. I wanted to explain it was an art project, but he had a gun and he wasn’t trying to hear it. Anyhow, she came all that way to see some art and missed the one piece that referred to her husband. I, on the other hand, did not get arrested by the Secret Service. And I’m happy about that, you know… Plus, when the guard got that “stalker alert” look in his eyes, it occurred to me she probably would have thought I was a stalker too. Not exactly the first impression I want to make, so again, I’m ok with that.

Ms. Allyson wearing her Obama Skirt
Ms. Allyson wearing her Obama skirt. The Bed-Stuy Story Skirters is a group of women who have been re-performing Aisha Cousins’ project, which is based on a pop culture practice found in many African countries of wearing clothes that depict political leaders. © Andrew Beard

All my co-workers were disappointed, but I thought it was a good experience because it pushed me to think about why I wanted to meet her. People are always pushing me to tell the Obamas about the project as if they have some magical power to make it grow. I don’t know if that’s true though. It’s not really about them. Well maybe about Michelle, but definitely not about Barack. People get engrossed in the Barack Obama aspect of it because he’s such a huge public figure right now, but the project is actually a documentary about black women. I just wanted to meet Michelle Obama because I’ve seen her make such awesome comments about the role of artists in society. I wanted to tell her about my work in general because I thought she might dig some of the other pieces like Diva Dutch or Brer Rabbit Day. I didn’t really picture her getting an Obama skirt though. As much as she might dig the concept, she doesn’t strike me as someone who would feel comfortable wearing her own husband’s face on a skirt.


Brooklyn-based Aisha Cousins is a writer of performance art scores. Her projects include public performance art scores focused on engaging black audiences from differing backgrounds. Her scores have been performed on the streets of historically black neighborhoods from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Brixton, as well as inside institutions such as the Museum Of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, Brooklyn; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Project Row Houses, Houston, TX; The Kitchen, NY; and MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY.

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