Fact Sheet: Performance at the National Portrait Gallery

Media only:  Concetta Duncan  (202) 633-9989, duncanc@si.edu 
                      Gabrielle Obusek (202) 633-8299, obusekge@si.edu

Since the reopening of the museum’s building in 2006, the Portrait Gallery has presented several performances as part of its public programs spanning modern and traditional dance, performance art, and music from various genres. From 2015 onwards, the Portrait Gallery established several initiatives to expand the notion of portraiture as performance including its IDENTIFY series dedicated to performance art, the Smithsonian’s first choreographer-in-residence, and performance as a medium in formal exhibitions.


In 2015, the Portrait Gallery established the “IDENTIFY” series dedicated to performance art.

The series was created to expand the definition of portraiture through performance and invites artists to critique aspects of American portraiture and institutional history by making visible a body or bodies that historically have been forgotten, marginalized or oppressed. “IDENTIFY” performances and commissions include.

*Notes commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

“Portrait with Hydrogen Peroxide Strips” by WILMER WILSON IV – Oct. 10, 2015

WILMER WILSON IV is recognized internationally for his investigations of race, “Portrait with Hydrogen Peroxide Strips” was a performance and installation in which he covers his entire body in textured hydrogen peroxide strips, commonly used for teeth whitening. It was directly related to the archival research undertaken in his Camouflage and Armor, Wholesale, and Henry "Box" Brown: FOREVER bodies of work, in which functional, everyday stickers became second skins around his body. The meditations on skin were visually arresting, creating dense patterns of repeated, identifiable symbols.

“Hospital Hymn: Elegy for Lost Soldiers” by Martha McDonald – Oct. 17, 2015

McDonald is known for her work featuring handcrafted costumes and objects that are activated by the acts of singing, making and ultimately undoing her handwork as "woman's work." Her performance at the Portrait Gallery was presented in conjunction with the exhibition "Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859–1872." Her performance explored how public places connect with private histories and emotional states. She was fascinated that the building housing the National Portrait Gallery was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Civil War and how Walt Whitman ministered to the sick and dying. Her performance sought to conjure the memory of the hospital and memorialize those who died there.

“Ishi: The Archival Performance” by James Luna – Jan. 16, 2015
James Luna is known for his installations and performance art that focuses on his identity as an indigenous artist. He portrayed Ishi (d.1916), the last member of the Yahi, who were Native Americans indigenous to Northern California. Luna and Sheila Tishla Skinner paid tribute to the man known during his lifetime as "the last wild Indian" and also gave voice to indigenous women. In his performance he developed characters such as the ShameMan, Uncle Jimmy, and the Artifact to speak to issues effecting Native people globally. His performance shared an important story on behalf of the Native peoples of California and the phenomenal story of Ishi.

“Identified” María Magdalena Campos-Pons – May 14, 2016
María Magdalena Campos-Pons worked with saxophonist and composer Neil Leonard, to reinsert the Black body into historical narratives. Under the name FEFA, they used personal stories, music and procession to evoke both protest and devotion. The performance occurred on all three floors of the National Portrait Gallery, and  responded specifically to the site of Lincoln's inaugural ball on the third floor. It also considered the repercussions of Lincoln’s actions as they reverberated through the colonies, the Caribbean, and Brazil. Destinations in the transatlantic journey of Black slaves, such as Brazil, Cuba, the U.S., and Haiti, bear witness to an incomplete struggle and the resulting racial intolerance. Through recitation, music, movement and costume, the performance illuminated current struggles, and focused on the process of healing. The music explored the processional essence of music, from Civil War-era brass bands to the first jazz ensembles from of New Orleans, to Cuban music.

“Portrait of Anne Newport Royall” by J.J. McCracken – Feb. 4, 2016
J.J. McCracken performed a conceptual portrait of Anne Newport Royall. Royall, one of America's first female journalists, who was arrested in 1829 for arguing in public. Her trail is part of a broader history of silencing, particularly of women.

“REINAS” by Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz – May 6, 2017
Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz's “REINAS (Queens)” series considers female archetypes who have shaped her identity and worldview. Expanding on her previous work and reflecting on her perspective as a mother, Ortiz responded to the human cost of gun violence through the lens of Michelangelo's “Pietà.”  The performance was accompanied by live music from the Howard Gospel Choir and DJ Stereo 77, providing a meditation on the universal theme of loss and mourning as a symbol of resilience.  

*“Precious in Da Wadah, A Portrait of the Geechee” by Sheldon Scott – Nov. 6, 2016
Sheldon Scott presented “Precious in Da Wadah, A Portrait of the Geechee.” The artist’s commissioned performance explored techniques enslaved Africans used to produce rice in the coastal region of South Carolina. The performance challenged the concept of European technology as the basis of American agriculture, mercantilism, and financial prowess while highlighting the ingenuity of rice cultivation by the Gullah/Geechee people.  Scott also examined the advent of rice as a cash crop and the commodification of the black body.

“KNOW” by Sandy Huckleberry – Oct. 28, 2017
Internationally-recognized performance artist Sandy Huckleberry is known for thoughtful, meditative performances that draw attention to the space in which they occur and the relationship between the audience and the performer. “KNOW” addressed women’s struggle, strength, and perseverance using voluntary audience participation.

“To Name An Other” by Jeffrey Gibson – May 22, 2019
“To Name An Other” explored the relationship between injustice, marginalization and identity and  featured 50 volunteer performers who self-identify as people of color, LGBTQI+, Indigenous or Native American.

*“Sonic Blossom” by Lee Mingwei – April 15, 2018

The critically acclaimed performance piece “Sonic Blossom” by artist Lee Mingwei was part of the museum’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The series provided visitors with the chance to receive “the gift of song.” Professional, local opera singers roamed the galleries in custom-designed gowns and approached individual museumgoers to offer one of five lieder (songs) by Franz Schubert. The lieder were performed for visitors on the thitd floor of the Portrait Gallery.

*“Birthright” by Maren Hassinger – June 25, 2022

Hassinger explored the complexity of individual family histories through collective ritual in a live performance based on her 2005 video work of the same name. The performance included a screening of her 12-minute video, which documents the artist meeting her uncle for the first time and learning about the paternal branch of her family tree, followed by an invitation to visitors to share family stories while they twisted newspaper in a meditative ritual she performed throughout the video.


In 2016, the Portrait Gallery became the first Smithsonian institution to establish a choreographer-in-residence and selected Washington, D.C.-based choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess. The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company was in residence from 2016 – 2023.

During its residency the company presented seven newly conceived, live performances inspired by the Portrait Gallery’s collection and exhibitions in addition to a series of nine video works created for Instagram TV during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The company also restaged four choreographic works at the museum for Portrait Gallery audiences.

Prior to its official residency, Burgess also created two live performances inspired by the museum’s “Dancing the Dream” exhibition.

  • “Margin” (2016) in response to “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today”
  • “After 1001 Nights” (2017) in response to “The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now”
  • “I am Vertical” (2017) in response to “One Life: Sylvia Plath”
  • “Silhouettes” (2018) in response to “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now”
  • “A Tribute to Marian Anderson” (2020) in response to “One Life: Marian Anderson”
  • “El Muro/The Wall” (2022) in response to “The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today”
  • “Surroundings: A Tribute to Maya Lin” (2022) in response to “One Life: Maya Lin”

Curatorial Performances

“Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down)” by Sheldon Scott – Oct. 26 – Nov. 2, 2019

Presented as part of “The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today” exhibition.

“American Woman” by Holly Bass – Sept. 10, 2022

Presented as part of “The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today” exhibition.

“Portrait of an Indigenous Womxn [Removed]” by Anna Tsouhlarakis – May 5 and Nov. 5, 2023

Presented as part of the “Kinship” exhibition.

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.                    

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Connect with the museum at npg.si.edu and on Facebook, Instagram, X and YouTube.  

# # #