"Stick to the plan, Alice, stick to the plan."
The phrase is repeated over and over in (Don't Be Absurd) Alice in Parts, an exhibition by Seattle-based poet, performer, and artist Anastacia-Reneé that's up at the Frye Art Museum until April 25. "Alice" is Alice Metropolis, a character created, written, and performed by Anastacia-Reneé. Alice is a character who embodies and blurts out the thornier parts of existence.
The immersive Don't Be Absurd tracks Alice's struggle to be heard and acknowledged by her community as breast cancer and gentrification threaten to swallow her whole. The only route forward to survival is to "stick to the plan"—a.k.a. to quietly endure, as generations of Black women have before her, no matter the cost to their bodily health.
“Alice is your sister, your mother, yourself, your friend. Alice is an amalgamation of many, many Black women, and even BIPOC women,” Anastacia-Reneé told me in a recent phone interview. “From my point of view, there's a bit of Alice in all of us.”
Across two galleries, visitors are invited to step into Alice's apartment. Throughout the space are objects one might find in dusty corners, altars, forgotten shelves of Alice's home—selenite, sage, incense. White shirts hang in one corner of a gallery while a drying rack full of bloodstained clothes is positioned opposite. An image of Alice cupping her breast full of cancer is blown up and slapped on walls, reminding us that Black women die of breast cancer at higher rates than white women. Ominously, a bed wrapped in caution tape greets you on your way out.
And across the floor is red tape, cutting through the rugs and two doors at either entrance, arbitrarily dividing up the space into different parts. It's, of course, referencing the practice of redlining—which Alice is falling victim to—but also to the way that cancer mindlessly tears through the body, obliterating healthy cells left and right.
In the back of one gallery is a sanctuary for Black activist, poet, and progenitor of self-care Audre Lorde, replete with offerings and a giant ankh. In front of three screens playing videos of the late poet are The Lorde's Ten Commandments, a list written by Anastacia-Reneé for Alice as a means of daily motivation.
"THEORIZING ABOUT SELF-WORTH IS INEFFECTIVE" commands one, "GO OUT LIKE A FUCKING METEOR" yells another. While no one has recorded Lorde saying these exact things, the spirit of the interpretation rings true.
Spread between these two rooms are video and sound performances originally recorded for Anastacia-Reneé's 9 Ounces project. In each, Alice gives voice to whatever thought passes through her mind as she holds a bottle of liquor in hand—how she starts and ends yoga feeling exactly the same, how she fears getting shot by the cops if she leaves her apartment, how depression prevents her from getting out of bed, how she worries her breast cancer has returned (it has). Watching her is a spectacle that unnerves.
Though I knew the show was formed before March 2020, I couldn't stop making pandemic connections while immersed in Alice's apartment and thoughts—the casual way her possessions are cluttered throughout the space, Alice's impulse toward a comfortable daily uniform, her spiraling thoughts and general sense of unease. I felt called out! My first walk-through of Don't Be Absurd was such a sensory overload that I had to come back days later to really see it. I felt absurd.
But maybe our collective alienation dealt by the pandemic opens up the viewing experience. While the work is specific to the physical and mental pain Black women deal with every day ("Alice has always been in her own personal pandemic," says Anastacia-Reneé), Don't Be Absurd captures a portrait of isolation that urgently reflects the world we're emerging out of.
She recently told me that she fears a post-pandemic audience might want to elude tough artistic subjects “because [viewers] are already experiencing levels that are uncomfortable.” If this past year has been an extended exercise in grief and isolation, why should we look at work that reminds us of it?
Despite this fear, Anastacia-Reneé emerges with a determination to carry out the work of making challenging art. “I think it’s the duty of writers and artists to be archivists, and if you are an archivist, you are reporting on what is happening in the world,” she told me. “We have no choice but to [make] art about the grief and the sadness. And we have no choice but to [make] art about the surviving joy, too."
Get your free timed tickets to Anastacia-Reneé's (Don't Be Absurd) Alice in Parts at the Frye Art Museum here.