Grant Recipients Robert Rauschenberg Award Performance Art/Theater 2022

Brontez Purnell

A portrait of Brontez Purnell against a light grey wall, wearing clear frame glasses, a silver nose ring, and silver hoop earrings. His hair is short and he has a short black and grey beard. A few tattoos are visible on his chest.
Photo by Brontez Purnell.

Artist Statement

In art, I tend to lean into a radically open understanding of form and body to create work that combines punk rock subversion and free jazz improvisation. My explorations of dance, writing, and film all fold into one another, sometimes with no clear break; I make art in a multiplicity of forms because, as a writer, I know that a picture is worth a hell of a lot more than 1,000 words. In the end, I would say that all my work ultimately generates from the written word. I started writing zines when I was a teenager in the 1990s. My love for painting the naked page with words has grown considerably since then. To quote Nikki Giovanni, “I write because I have to.”

- December 2021


Brontez Purnell is a writer, musician, dancer, filmmaker, and performance artist. Purnell’s films and semi-autobiographical novels reflect upon the search for community, artistic lineage, and belonging, giving expression to untold histories of queerness and blackness.

Purnell’s 2021 book 100 Boyfriends collects stories of queer men experimenting with love, sex, substances, and their senses of self. A novel told through disparate voices, its three acts cohere around a cruised pursuit of pleasure and the desire to be desired.

During a residency at The Lab, San Francisco, CA (2017), Purnell produced Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock (2018), a filmic collage and performance that presents the life and work of the San Francisco-based, postmodern choreographer Ed Mock. Assembling archival materials, interview footage, and documented choreography from the 1980s, the piece suggests an ancestry to contemporary Black, gay performance practice.

Purnell’s films have been presented by the Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, CA (2018); Visual Aids, New York, NY (2018); and The Lab, San Francisco, CA (2017). He has been awarded the San Francisco Film Society / Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grant (2021); the Lambda Literary Foundation Jim Duggins, PhD Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize (2021); and the Whiting Foundation Award for Fiction (2018).

Purnell holds an M.F.A. in Art Practice from the University of California, Berkeley and a B.F.A. in Dance and Theater from California State University, East Bay. He is the creator of the cult zine Fag School, the frontman for the band the Younger Lovers, and the co-founder of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company.

100 Boyfriends Mixtape, 2017, 8mm film, b/w, sound, 8 minutes 33 seconds. Filmography by Gary Gregerson. Courtesy of the artist.
Seance, 2018, 8mm film, color, b/w, sound, at the Tom of Finland House, Los Angeles. Performers: The Brontez Purnell Dance Company. Filmography by Gary Gregerson. Courtesy of the artist.
Performance excerpt from Emotional/Content, at Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, 2018. Soundscape by Brontez Purnell and Jesse Carlo Parsons. Videography by Jenn Dorn Heard.
A black and white photograph of a performer gesturing with their right hand and holding a microphone up to their mouth with their left hand. They wear black glasses and a grey sweater with sections patterned with black and white repeating diamonds. The background is black.
Performance still from If I, John Henry, at Black Choreographers Festival, San Francisco, 2015. Photo by Robbie Sweeney.
A black and white photograph of a performer positioned in the middle of the floor, nude, on their hands and knees. Around them, audience members sit on the floor and watch. The floor itself is black with a diagonal white stripe running across it.
Performance still from Bhang, Bhang, I'm A Burnout, at West Wave Dance Festival, Z Space, San Francisco, 2013. Photo by Robbie Sweeney.
Free Jazz, 2013, 8mm film, b/w, sound, 23 minutes 50 seconds. Performed by the Brontez Purnell Dance Company. Filmography by Gary Gregerson. Courtesy of the artist.