Born in 1989, New York, New York; Lives and works in Oxford, United Kingdom
What is a complete vessel? What is a complete body within performance? I see being a cyborg as using anything mechanical to enhance one’s life – even just a pottery wheel. — Shawanda Corbett
Shawanda Corbett (New York, b. 1989) lives and works in Oxford. Her first solo exhibition, Neighbourhood Garden, was held at the Corvi-Mora Gallery in London in June 2020. She was awarded the Turner Bursary from Tate in July 2021. Corbett is currently pursuing her practice-led doctoral degree in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Art and Wadham College, University of Oxford. Corbett will have her first exhibition at Salon 94 in January 2022.
Visual and performance artist Shawanda Corbett battles otherness by building a branching world constructed by ceramics, visual art, dance, film, and performance. Whether she’s talking about traveling, communication, cyborg theory, or her own work, Corbett is “finding a thread we can all relate to.”
A lot has changed since Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline first used the word “cyborg” in 1960, and Corbett’s understanding is influenced by the myriad advances in technology and transhumanism since. “We all use something mechanical,” she says, “Computers, electronic mechanisms—it’s all cyborg theory. Robots are the tip of the iceberg.” Cyborg theory began earnestly in 1985 with the publication of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, a theoretical work that envisions the breaking down between organic and synthetic, human and animal, physical and non-physical, pointing to a post or transhuman chimera that utilizes technology to subvert patriarchal, capitalist, and essentialized systems, categories, and lives.
Corbett’s understanding and interpretation of the cyborg are personal and lived—cybernetic existence is second nature to her, a person born without legs and with one arm, and that story is one she wants included in the Cyborg theory canon. “The perspective I want to add is from a person like myself,” she explains—“A Black woman with a physical disability.” In her daily life Corbett regularly relies on machines, but it’s also a necessary component of her artistic practice—“I see being a cyborg as using anything mechanical to enhance one’s life – even just a pottery wheel,” she explains in conversation with Isabella Smith at Crafts Council.
Beyond the theoretical and philosophical, Corbett inhabits the imaginative, partially birthed by a lifelong love of science fiction. For her, it’s all fair game from the poorly puppeteered spaceships in 60s broadcasts to the high-concept work of Octavia Butler. That devotion to the speculative finds a home throughout her work, and in turn she expects the audience to respond with their own imagination. Consider her ceramics, pieces that weave together the archetypal, the linguistic, the mysterious, and the futuristic, representing real-life individuals—“They are just like bodies,” she said to Smith. “That’s why there are different shapes, colours and layers to all of them.” Like her performances, Corbett’s ceramics question the idea of a “complete body,” utilizing the familiar and the alien. Some are known entities that provide nourishment like bowls and spoons. Others toy with viewer expectations, their shape thinning and expanding to the creator’s intuition. On their surfaces, new forms and new languages reside. Perhaps the lines in the clay are sigils or sentences, begging the viewer to consider their magic, their wishes, their stories.
While she never reveals her magician’s hand completely, perhaps there is a clue in the wide cultural inspirations in her work. Take her 2019 performance Blackbird in Mississippi, one part dance, one part concert. A personal and theoretical piece, Blackbird in Mississippi questions the idea of a “complete body” while considering Black American history. “I think when you look at the things that I've made and perform as a whole,” she says, “it kind of tells the story. It's socio-politically-based, considering where society's heading, but that doesn’t exclude flashbacks or the present.” In the announcement of Corbett’s 2020 Turner prize, awarded by Tate Britain, it’s aptly noted that the work “parallels between a slave’s voyages on the underground railroad to the artist’s own journey towards rehabilitation.” In the piece, Corbett undulates in white face paint recalling mime ministries in Southern Black churches while lush string arrangements and a spiritual choir ebb and flow. In her ceramics, she similarly bridges cultures, beginning with a Japanese throwing technique learned from Kazuya Ishida wherein vessels are thrown upside down, and incorporating ideas from the United States, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East—in the particular series called Cyborg Ceramics, she studied “Egyptian glass, African vessels, and Middle Eastern ceramic utilitarian ware and architecture” to create the work she envisioned.
Corbett also has her eyes and mind on a number of forthcoming projects including a live performance at the United Kingdom’s Tate Britain in its Art Now series, a series of digital prints and photographs, and a wordless, dance-based eight-act film she sees clocking in at around thirty minutes, tentatively scheduled to debut at Salon 94 in January 2022.
"It's a way of saying what is Blackness without saying it,” she says about the film, “It’s just being it.” Inspired by Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett, Corbett reframes his work, his theories, his framing to evoke the Black experience. Schlemmer created, choreographed and directed to evoke geometrical representations of the human body, dressing performers with wearable architecture. He described his work as a “party of form and colour.” For Corbett, too, wearable architecture is a must. She goes on to explain her idea being an operatic exposition of human existence and emotion, rooting it in the course of one day—“a day within a Black person’s life.” Love is central, as the film looks to consider a universal approach to healing—how to heal oneself, how to heal others, all the while considering the rigidity and failures in ascribing binary definitions and categories.
In all her work, it’s clear that Corbett has a firm grasp on the arbiters of division as well as the history and violence behind their power. Using her words, her movements, her pottery, she takes them to task, and with her fortitude and critical, playful ethos, the future’s looking a little less divisive and a little more hopeful.
— Jordan Reyes, 2021
UK Crafts Council