South African, 20th–21st century, male.
Active in France.
Born 11 August 1962, in Johannesburg.
Printmaker, choreographer, performance artist. Identity politics.
Steven Cohen was the first South African artist under apartheid to create confrontational performance art engaging with sexual and cultural identity. He began his career in the 1980s, while conscripted into the South African army, when he went absent without leave and learnt how to screenprint at Cape Town’s Ruth Prowse School of Art.
His screenprinted work conflated domestic surfaces like serviettes with horrific images like injured feet and cockroaches. This sinister sense of fun is a cornerstone of Cohen’s work, which shifted from serviettes to furniture upholstery to performance.
From the 1990s, Cohen began to develop a performance persona, engaging with his identity as a South African Jewish homosexual white male. He invented Living Art, a reflection on the value of performance art, which manifested in a work comprising four characters (Ugly Girl, Dog, Jew, and Faggot), for which he received the 1998 Vita Art Now Award. These characters remain pivotal to Cohen’s work.
Head-hunted in 2001 by French choreographer Régine Chopinot, Cohen relocated to France with his partner, Elu. He calls his choreography ‘undance’, as it does not conform to dance expectations. His work is performed impromptu or choreographed in public arenas and stage settings, and is generally recorded in still and moving images. These are subsequently displayed in exhibition format.
In performance, Cohen often adorns his body with a full head of make-up, elaborate corsets, and exaggerated footwear. Frequently his pieces reference persecution and expose his genitals. Principal performances include Chandelier (2001, in an informal settlement, Johannesburg), Golgotha (2009, in New York and Paris), The Cradle of Humankind (2011, with Nomsa Dhlamini, the woman who was Cohen’s carer when he was a child, filmed partly at Sterkfontein, Gauteng), and Coq/Cock (2013, The Trocadero, Paris, for which he was arrested, and later released, on a charge of sexual exhibitionism).
- Sassen, Robyn/de Waal, Sean: ‘Surgery without Anaesthetic: The Art of Steven Cohen’, in Steven Cohen, TAXI-008 Krut, Johannesburg, 2003.
- Powell, Ivor/Mayen, Gérard: Steven Cohen: Life Is Shot, Art Is Long, Stevenson, Cape Town, 2010.