In 2019, on the final weekend of the Venice Biennale—the glittering art exhibition held in the historic Italian city every other year—Solange Knowles was gearing up to stage the latest in a series of ambitious, site-specific works of performance art, at spectacular settings including the Herzog & De Meuron–designed Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and Los Angeles’s Getty Center at sunset. In Venice, she was preparing to perform Past Pupils and Smiles when the city was hit with a series of biblical storms, flooding many of the exhibition spaces and forcing Knowles to move her work indoors just three days before it was set to open.
Through the mediums of sound, movement, and costume, Past Pupils and Smiles was, above all, a work about protection—whether self-preservation or the act of protecting those around you—and among Knowles’s tight-knit group of collaborators, the ties that bound grew only stronger as they adapted their work for the new setting at the last minute. If anything, the intensity of the experience made the final product feel more emotionally potent, whether courtesy of the so-called Gatekeepers—a group of young Black women invited from across Europe to participate and whose movements were choreographed to reflect the piece’s spirit of community—or the strains of free jazz and contemporary classical music composed, written, and arranged by Knowles and led by the drummer John Key that accompanied the performance.
Across their wide-ranging conversation in the book, they explore the full gamut of Knowles’s creative interests, both formal—movement, architecture, fashion, and expanding the boundaries of live performance—and theoretical, touching on the many Black women who have shaped her approach to art-making, from Katherine McKittrick to Saidiya Hartman. “I love how Solange so often pays homage to the Black women artists and thinkers who have inspired her,” Wayne Sultan adds. “So much of her work reminds Black women that we should always hold close the importance of our perspectives, our expressions.
“It extends traditions of Black feminist thought and aesthetics that emphasize the power of our ideas and labor to refuse what doesn’t honor us and instead imagine and construct the spaces that should hold us,” she continues. “Our vantage points are so often marginalized, and her work provides such an inspiring example of what it looks like when we as Black women center our own desires, needs, beliefs, journeys.”
Most of all, however, the team behind the book—and the original performance—hopes it serves as both a rare window into Knowles’s creative process and a physical artifact that captures the original performance in Venice while standing up all on its own. “I hope people are excited to dive into the incredibly rich archive of the performance that the book provides—the photographs, architectural renderings and drawings, film stills, the musical compositions,” Wayne Sultan adds. “You really get such an in-depth view of every detail. The graphic design, color palette, notational system, paper cuts—all these aspects of the book as an object extend the life of the performance and are in conversation with Solange’s body of work in general.”
Past Pupils and Smiles, by Saint Heron and Anteism Books, is out now.