A performance artist who explored race, culture, and identity, she inspired both students and colleagues in her eight years at SMFA at Tufts
Danielle Abrams, an SMFA at Tufts professor of the practice and a performance artist who made the many facets of her identity the cornerstone of her art, died unexpectedly on April 21. She was 54 years old.
Sometimes scripted and sometimes improvised and interactive, her work incorporated film, video, spoken word, puppetry, installation, movement, and stand-up comedy. She would often embody an entire cast of characters in a performance, many shaped by her mixed race and queer identity.
“I’ve spent my life vacillating between white, Jewish, and Black access, privileges, speech, and cultural codes,” she said in Boston Art Review. “Because of my racial ambiguity, I frequently bear witness to racism and antisemitism. I am grateful for this evidence. It is fodder for my work.”
In her eight years at SMFA at Tufts, first as a visiting artist and later as a faculty member in performance, she was known for supporting students and artists of all backgrounds.
“Her personal mission to give voice to all who feel marginalized, embodied in her own queer and mixed-race identities, made her a powerful spokesperson of the struggles, resilience, and triumphs of traditionally marginalized groups,” Nate Harrison, dean ad interim, and Eulogio Guzmán, faculty affairs advisor to the dean ad interim, wrote in a message to the Tufts community.
At a student-led vigil on April 25, she was remembered by several of those she taught for the warm feeling she created in her classes, and for, as one student said, making “every single one of us feel like we were the most special, most talented, most interesting person she had ever met.” Another called her “absolutely the kindest listening ear.”
Rather than complain when a student was sometimes late for class, one student remembered, Abrams would invite her to talk, and marvel that a mother of three could balance art school and family.
“She gave each and every one of us a voice,” said one student, “especially when we felt silenced, when we felt belittled, we felt ignored.”
Abrams performed and exhibited at galleries, festivals, and museums as diverse as the ICA Boston, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Jewish Museum, New York, Queens Museum, Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, the Queer Arts Festival, and The Geborgen Kamers Gallery in the Netherlands.
Her most recent work, Rights Along the Shore, opened this month at the Boston Center for the Arts. A collaboration with Mary Ellen Strom, also a SMFA at Tufts professor of the practice, it examines the long-term effects of racially segregated swimming sites in the United States.
The sociopolitical mechanisms that foster and sustain racial segregation and injustice were the focus of her performances for more than 20 years. As the characters she creates transfigure, she wrote, “prejudicial assumptions are traded in for complex dialogues.”
A given performance, she wrote, might pose “scenarios between African-American revolutionaries, political icons, Jewish ballerinas, Borscht Belt comedians, and her own black and Jewish family from Queens.”
She said she embraced polarities, as in her 1998 performance and video installation, Quadroon: “I performed the idiosyncrasies of my white, Jewish and African-American grandmothers adjacent to a butch entrepreneur and a teenage self that longed to pass for Greek.”
Abrams received her BFA from the City University of New York-Queens College and her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. She attended artists' residencies at the Yale School of Painting and at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
Before SMFA at Tufts, Abrams taught at the Stamps School of Art & Design at University of Michigan, the MFA Program in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College, and the City University of New York. She was a Faculty Fellow at the Tisch College of Civic Life and a visiting scholar at the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans. She received the Distinguished Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation in 2018.
In their message to the community, Harrison and Guzman said that Abrams “brought an immense joy and deep affection to whomever had the pleasure of meeting her.”
“Danielle was deeply and unapologetically authentic,” they wrote. “We take solace in having shared many joyous moments as she made us laugh with her many marvelous, playful, sassy personae. Danielle lifted us during the difficult times and always made us feel something better lay ahead. We mourn the loss of such a splendorous bird and thank her for sharing her song with us.”