Artist Brendan Fernandes on ballet and BDSM

A man in a blazer dancing in front of a curtain

The Soho House Chicago member, who Solange Knowles cites as an inspiration, shares how his art practice finds elegance in kink as well as classical dance

By Osman Can Yerebakan    Photography by Michael Salisbury     Videography by Kevin Oh      Fashion Direction by Samuel Ratelle      Grooming by Karen Lynn     Saturday 12 September, 2020

Artist Brendan Fernandes had a life-changing break-up at 21. Not unlike most heartbreaks, however, his was a formative one – the ‘bliss in disguise’ kind that later proved him life works in strange ways. ‘When I was told my body was not equipped for professional ballet, I realised dance and I were through and we would never cross paths again,’ he now remembers. It was this parting of ways with dance in 2006 and starting the prestigious Whitney Independent Study program in New York that helped the Kenyan-Canadian artist craft his unique art practice. Today, Fernandes is known for creating multidisciplinary artworks that challenge the single experience of sculpture, performance or BDSM. 

‘How do I support and burden the body in a world full of power dynamics?’ asks the Chicago-based artist. His response varies from sculptures inspired by ballet training devices and S&M toys, to performances for which he assigns professional dancers. ‘Ballet and kink are both about searching for beauty and pleasure through discipline – and they depend on hierarchy and effortless fortitude.’ Look at a ballet dancer’s foot training device or a back stretcher, and you will notice more than a single similarity with the leather community’s own toys.
A man dancing in front of a curtain

‘Ballet and kink are both about searching for beauty and pleasure through discipline – and they depend on hierarchy and effortless fortitude’

Above and below: jacket: Private Policy; pants: Gucci; shoes: Acne; chain: Random Identities

A man in a studio dances in front of a curtain
‘I always look at feet,’ he admits. This fixation ties back to his teenage years when he struggled to form his own foot’s arch to deliver moves, but it was a challenge. ‘Ballet is romanticised and beautiful as much as it is racialised,’ he says in relation to growing up as a child of Kenyan immigrants outside of Toronto and struggling to fit into the dance community. The only artwork he’s personally performed to this day is Standing Leg (2014), in which he struggled to get up and stand while donning a training device on one foot. 

Standing up is not only a physical act, but an ideological one for Fernandes as a gay artist of African and Indian heritage. He flirts with territories traditionally reserved for White creativity, such as Minimalist sculpture and design, in addition to ballet, and exhibits his work internationally at esteemed museums. His solo exhibition, Contract And Release, at New York’s Noguchi Museum last year introduced a series of abstract sculptures in response to artist Isamu Noguchi’s collaboration with modern dance doyenne Martha Graham. The rocking chair Noguchi had made for Graham’s dancers did not swing. But the version Fernandes created in collaboration with the architecture firm Norman Kelley, and with inspiration from West African market chairs, did. 

Throughout the run of the show, dancers’ movements activated his sculptures, including the rocking chair, in a series of performances. Action, in fact, is a crucial word for Fernandes, and 2019 was a year to prove that with back-to-back crowd-pleaser pieces at the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Guggenheim prior to The Noguchi. He took over New York’s top three institutions for genre-bending presentations, all of which blossomed into unapologetically queer performances with a kinetic energy shared between the dancers and the audience.
A man in a grey matching outfit dances in front of a red curtain

‘Being told I wasn’t right for ballet has pushed me to challenge and augment the body in unconventional ways’

Above: look by Private Policy; shoes: Acne; eyewear: vintage