The path: Trained as a ballet dancer, Fernandes, 39, was born in Kenya, raised in Canada and now lives in Chicago.
He “uses dance to foreground queer embodiment, considerations of labor and critiques of colonialism in his practice,” the Whitney wrote. He’s currently an artist-inresidence teaching at Northwestern and has a collaborative dance piece, “A Call and Response,” ongoing at the MCA through Oct. 13.
The Biennial: “I’m actually sitting in the exact spot where I got told. It was July 3 when I found out. It meant the world to me ’cause the Whitney is one of those exhibitions that traces the history of what’s happening and what’s relevant in the art world. It was one of my career goals, and I have fulfilled it.”
Keeping the secret of having been selected, which artists agree to do for a period of months, was not easy, however. In planning the backdrop for his work at the Whitney during the embargo period, “I remember being there one day with like a Benjamin Moore paint swatch book,” Fernandes said. “And a friend was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, you know, just hanging out at the museum with a paint swatch book.’ ”
The work: Fernandes’ work “The Master and Form,” a sculpture of dangling ropes behind a central sort of pipework form resembling a jungle gym that gets periodically “activated” by a group of dancers, occupies a full gallery in the Whitney. “I just assumed that maybe they wanted to show a piece of it,” Fernandes said. “But no, they were like, ‘This is your space and we want to have the whole ‘Master and Form’ in this exhibition, and we’re going to support you to have it activated continuously.”
As the dancers move, “long, slow, arduous and kind of liquid,” through ballet positions and movements, “the question is always about the kind of ideas of mastery and form within the ballet technique, but also looking at how a body is supported but also burdened by these devices that become kind of like BDSM furniture. It’s also questioning our masochism as dancers.”
The piece was first shown in and commissioned by Chicago’s Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, but it grew for New York. “I started working right away with Norman Kelley architects here in Chicago to make the renderings,” Fernandes said.
Chicago vs. New York: “I used to live in Brooklyn, so I did the opposite (of others’ paths). It’s three years now. I am fortunate, and I love Chicago. I’ve fallen in love with the city. I bought a home. I was introduced to an art community that was very welcome and supportive. It has challenged me and given me space to do things I don’t think I could have done — I hate to say it — in Brooklyn.
“The first week I was here, I met Madeleine Grynsztejn, the director of the MCA, at an opening. And she didn’t know about my work that well at the time and just knew I was an artist. And the first thing she said to me was, ‘Welcome home.’ And that was something that has stuck with me.”
The controversy: Along with a majority of the artists and collectives in the show, “I signed a letter to ask for Kanders’ resignation, but I was always going to stay in the Biennial because I wanted to find a voice within the institution. We always talk about how we decolonize spaces, how do we challenge spaces? I think by stepping out I erase my voice and I don’t have a platform.”