Performance Art


IDENTIFY pulls back the curtain of time to acknowledge those who are missing from the museum’s historical collections. Wealth, class, race, and gender often determined who could have a portrait made in the 18th and 19th centuries – this performance art series strives to make visible the invisible.  Each artist selected critiques American portraiture and institutional history by making visible a body or bodies that historically have been forgotten.

woman singing in the Great Hall

Lee Mingwei's Sonic Blossom

The National Portrait Gallery presented the gift of music with Lee Mingwei's Sonic Blossom in the month of April 2018. In what the gallery described as "Performance art as portraiture", individual visitors to the museum were randomly approached by a trained opera singer in a custom-designed gown and asked "May I give you the gift of song?" If the gift is accepted, the two moved to the National Portrait Gallery’s Great Hall (on the third floor) where the visitor receive the transformative gift of one of Franz Schubert’s five lieder (art songs).

View the performance here

woman in a purple queen-like costume

Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz's PIETA (Queens)

Performed at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, May 6, 2017 Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz's PIETA (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 responds to the human cost of gun violence through the lens of Michelangelo's Pietà. The performance, accompanied by live music from the Howard Gospel Choir and DJ Stereo 77, provides a meditation on the universal theme of loss and mourning and offers a symbol of resilience.

View the performance here

woman in 19th century dress coveribg cots with sheets

Hospital Hymn: Elegy for Lost Soldiers by Martha McDonald

Site-specific installation and performance by Martha McDonald at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Oct. 17, 2015. Hospital Hymn conjured the Portrait Gallery's history as a temporary hospital for soldiers during the American Civil War, where Walt Whitman worked as a nurse. Inspired by Whitman's notebooks from the period, the piece memorialized the war's quarter million unknown dead.

View the performance here

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company

View excerpts of performances from the Smithsonian’s first choreographer-in-residence inspired by National Portrait Gallery exhibitions. Enjoy the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company’s amazing dancers.

Interview with Dana Tai Soon Burgess

Dana Tai Soon Burgess is an American choreographer, dancer, performance artist, and cultural figure. In May 2016 Burgess was named the Smithsonian's first-ever choreographer in residence at the National Portrait Gallery.

Dana Tai Soon Burgess discusses his creative process and his company's approach to interpreting portraiture through dance.