The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
In March 1992, performance artist and MacArthur Fellow, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and writer/artist Coco Fusco locked themselves in a cage. Presenting themselves as aboriginal inhabitants of an island off the gulf of Mexico that was overlooked by Columbus, their spectacle provided a thorn in the side of postcolonial angst.
Enacting rituals of “authentic” daily life such as writing on a laptop computer, watching TV, making voodoo dolls, and pacing the cage garbed in Converse high-tops, raffia skirts, plastic beads, and a wrestler’s mask, the two “Amerindians” rendered a hybrid pseudo primitivism that struck a nerve. Interested members of the audience could pay for dances, stories, and Polaroids. Guilt, molestation, confusion, and letters to the humane society were among audience responses. Nearly half the visitors that saw the cage in Irvine, London, Madrid, Minneapolis, and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. believed that the two were real captives, true natives somehow tainted by the detritus of technology and popular culture.
Guillermo Gómez-Peña We performed the piece at Irvine, which is known for it’s incredible xenophobia towards Mexicans. We also performed the piece in Madrid in Columbus Plaza, the heart of the Quincentennial debate, and later on in London at Covent Gardens. People of color were exhibited at Covent Gardens and many other places in Europe, from the 17th century to the early 20th century.
In all of the cities we have performed, there have been a range of responses from absolute tenderness and solidarity—people giving us presents, offerings, quietly being with us, sending notes of sympathy—all the way to extremely violent responses. In London, a group of neo-nazi skinheads tried to shake the cage. In Madrid, mischievous teenagers tried to burn me with cigarettes while some handed me a beer bottle of urine. There were business men in Spain regressing to their childhood, treating us as if we were monkeys—making gorilla sounds or racist “Indian” hoots.
I think we have touched on a colonial wound in this piece.
Coco FuscoWhen we created this piece, our original intent was not to convince people that the fiction of our being Amerindians was a reality. We understood it to be a satirical commentary both on the Quincentenary celebrations and on the history of this practice of exhibiting human beings from Africa, Asia, and Latin America in Europe and the United States in zoos, theaters, and museums. When we got to Spain, more than half the people thought we really were Amerindians. Then there were others who came to watch those who were taking us seriously. There were people who were not sure whether to believe that we were real. Other people were absolutely convinced that they understood Guillermo’s language, which is virtually impossible because it’s a nonsense language. One man in London stood there and translated Guillermo’s story for another visitor. We had a lot of sexualized reactions to us. Men in Spain put coins in the donation box to get me to dance because, as they said, they wanted to see my tits. There was a woman in Irvine who asked for a rubber glove in order to touch Guillermo and started to fondle him in a sexual manner. There were several instances where people crossed the boundaries of expected sexual behavior. I think that was provoked by us being presented as objects, by their sense of having power over us …
GGP … the boundary between ethnography and pornography. To add to what Coco has said, this endemic dual perception of the Other, as either noble savage or cannibal, has existed at the core of European and American relations since the very first encounters. We try to play very much with these dualities. When we appear in the cage I am the cannibal, I am the warrior, this threatening masculine Other who causes fear to the viewer. Coco performs the noble savage, you know the quiet, subdued innocent. The response people have towards her is either one of compassion or one of sexual aggression.
CFThe most hysterical reactions we had to the piece happened when we appeared at the Smithsonian. One alarmed person called the Humane Society. The Humane Society told that person that human beings were out of their jurisdiction.
The responses we had from Native Americans and Latins were more interesting. They tend to find fault with the hybridity of the contents of the cage, while Anglos take this as a sign of our lack of authenticity. In Washington, for example, there was a Native American elder from the Pueblo tribe of Arizona who was interviewed by a Smithsonian representative. He said that our performance was the most real thing about the Native Americans displayed in the whole museum. He said the installation and performance ought to be permanent to give people a very clear idea of the Native American experience. Then there was a man from El Salvador who pointed to the rubber heart hanging in the cage and told everybody, “That heart is my heart.”
Anna JohnsonIn your performance, you presented artifacts from a fictional land, including: a lap-top computer, video, a bottle of Coca-Cola … poking fun at the idea that you were authentic savages from a foreign place. Could you talk about your idea of authenticity and ethnic identity?
CF We were trying to blast this myth that the non-Western Other exists in a time and place that is completely untouched by western civilization or that in order to be authentic one would have to be devoid of characteristics associated with the West. It’s reasonable to say that non-Western cultures have a better understanding of Western civilization than Western civilization has of other cultures. In any case, we introduced into the cage some elements that shocked and bothered many people and became the focus of a lot of questions put to the zoo guards. People said, “How could we be authentic if he smokes Dunhills? How could she really know how to use a computer if she is from this undiscovered island? Why is she wearing Converse high tops?” Everything they viewed as part of their world, they didn’t want us to have. That would mean that we were inauthentic. However, if you see Conchero dancers in Mexico City, they do wear Converse high tops and Adidas and Nikes. They probably listen to hard rock when they are not dancing to traditional music. We wanted to make fun of this very Euro-centric notion that other people operate in a pristine world untouched by Western civilization.
GGP To me, authenticity is an obsession of Western anthropologists. When I am in Mexico, Mexicans are never concerned about this question of authenticity. However, when I am in the United States, North Americans are constantly making this artificial division between what is an “authentic” Chicano, an “authentic” Mexican, an “authentic” Native American in order to fulfill their own desires. Generally speaking, this authentic Other has to be pre-industrial, has to be more tuned with their past, has to be less tainted by post-modernity, has to be more innocent and must not live with contemporary technology. And most importantly, must have a way of making art that fulfills their stereotypes; in the case of Mexico—Magical Realism.
CF This fetish about authenticity is connected to an idea that the non-Western being doesn’t have a sense of reflexivity about him or herself. I think, for example, of the videos being made now by Kayapo Indians in the Amazon. I was at a conference this year where American academics questioned the Kayapos’ interest in filming themselves filming and editing. They want to talk about the process while they’re making it and that blows American academics away.
GGP The bottom line is they don’t want us to be part of the same present or the same time. They want us to operate outside of history.
CF The Kayapos aren’t allowed to be self-conscious. If you can be ironic, if you can be reflexive, it’s because you can think. Ethnography and anthropology have consistently negated that dimension of non-Western cultures. It would threaten the veracity of the Western observer’s “information.”
GGP A lot of the work that our contemporaries are doing, like James Luna and Jimmy Durham, attempts, through performance, to take identity out of this historicists ice cube and bring it back into the present, to tell North Americans, “Hey, we’re members of the same society and the same historical moment.”
AJ Guillermo, in a recent article you referred to the Western view of Latin American culture as a fantasy of descending into the underworld, and the Latin American perception of the West as an ascent. Could you expand on this?
GGP Europeans and Euro-Americans utilize a Dantean model when they deal with other cultures. For them to abandon the United States or Europe (conceptually or physically) implies a descent to hell. It is very much part of the Western psyche: you descend in search of enlightenment, sexual pleasure, magic, exorcism … and come back.
AJ In your performance, Border Brujo, you use kitsch imagery, Mexican visual mythology, plus references to the 1940s Hollywood conception of Mexico as a libidinous and carnival atmosphere where servicemen could pleasure themselves. The young Jane Powell could go down to Mexico, warble a few musical numbers and perhaps, lose her virginity. What conception do Mexicans have of the way in which Americans present them? As you were growing up, how did you respond to those Hollywood images?
GGP Observing Mexican culture, you can find two very schematic responses. A more politicized response is that of anger, realizing that an extremely complex culture that is two or three thousand years old has been reduced to an inventory of very simplistic stereotypes. We are viewed as lazy, over-sexual, romantic, irrational. Then the other response is that of simulation, which is the saddest one for me because of the way the United States has broadcast these stereotypes through movies, television, and art. The publicity has been so powerful that we, in fact, have internalized many of these stereotypes and regurgitated them. You have situations of many cities in Mexico creating simulated environments after the meta-Mexican environments created by Californians. Tijuana is a perfect example; like many of the border towns, Tijuana has recreated, as reality, this fantasy about the Amigo country that Hollywood invented 40 years earlier. It’s like a game of mirrors in which images and symbols reflect and ricochet off each other and, at some point, reality gets lost for good.
CF The situation is even more grave among Latinos in the U.S., many of whom lose direct contact with their culture of origin after one or two generations. Their primary experience of cultural identity becomes the reductive stereotype broadcast via mainstream United States culture. Which, in many cases, they assimilate as “real.”
GGP Hope for Latin America really lies in the incredible capability that Latin Americans have to subvert these stereotypes and bring them back in a politicized manner. Unlike the traditional notion of the Left, that everything the United States sends to Latin America is damaging to Latin American identity, we strongly believe that Latin American popular culture has creative capability. It can take this information—plastic, and neon, and cheap industrial materials—and turn it into art. It’s called Rascuachismo in Mexico, a form of voluntary kitsch and political practice: an altar from hubcaps, a temple from plastic, a decoration for the house from cereal boxes …
CF This does not square very well with this very Anglo and European notion of authenticity. A very banal example of this is the reaction of many Americans who went to Nicaragua during the Sandanista revolution. They would get to Managua and be upset to find Sandanistas playing baseball and going to la ciudad plastica, “the plastic city” or mall, to eat at McDonalds. The gringos wanted to go to the mountains to find the peasant.
AJ How does this bear upon the mid-to-late ‘80s obsession with everything border and everything Latin, the revival of the kitsch invention you’re talking about?
CF The United States has been enamored with Latin culture on and off since the transfer of Mexican territory in the 1840s. It’s a cyclical thing, every once in a while there is a return to this fetishistic fascination. Usually, what is appealing is what Americans perceive as the spirituality, the carnality, the sentimentality of Latin culture. We are there to fill a void for Americans every time they recognize or they sense that they have no meaning in their lives.
GGP It is very symptomatic that the “Latino boom” and the multicultural craze and the border hoopla that hit the United States art world around 1987 coincided with a realization that the United States was headed towards an economic disaster, the crumbling of the American dream. It is precisely this moment of disenchantment that Americans look towards the Other to seek those answers they no longer can find inside themselves. The United States art world is fascinated with the form and the carnality but really not with the political content. They want enlightenment without irritation.
AJ That’s why Frida Kahlo is such an appealing icon. She was a martyr and she suffered. Even though she was strong, she was literally pierced through the middle.
CF What is interesting, is that the Frida Kahlo venerated by American feminists is a very different Frida Kahlo to the one people learn about in Mexico, in the Chicano community. In her country, she is recognized as an important artist and a key figure in revolutionary politics of early 20th century Mexico. Her communist affiliations are made very clear. Her relationship with Trotsky is underscored. All her political activities with Diego Rivera are constantly emphasized. The connection between her art and her politics is always made. When Chicana artists became interested in Frida Kahlo in the ’70s and started organizing homages, they made the connection between her artistic project and theirs because they too were searching for an aesthetic compliment to a political view that was radical and emancipatory. But when the Euro-American feminists latch onto Frida Kahlo in the early ’80s and when the American mainstream caught on to her, she was transformed into a figure of suffering. I am very critical of that form of appropriation.
AJ You have both been received on a very literal level. The reviews in the New York Times, the audiences around the cages. Why do you think that people always address the superficial aspects of your performance? Are they discomforted by the more subtle anxieties and antagonisms?
GGP One of the most popular traditions of North American literature is that of the testimonial-style narrative, the confessional mode that comes from a Protestant tradition. In Mexico, a transcendentalist Catholic culture, allegorical symbolic thinking is more popular. We don’t have a tradition of psychological realism in literature or in theater. Social realism was really known in Mexico after the Cuban revolution and more as a fashion than an organic tradition that came from within. As a result you have two drastically different world views that create incredible misunderstandings between artists living a border experience like me. I have learned to create a meta-commentary that makes these misunderstandings evident. I have referred to the border as a place where symbols crack open. I try to make this evident on a stage right in front of an audience.
AJ How has your cage performance altered over time?
GGP It is becoming more focused and cleaner. The first time it was performed, it was excessive in all ways. We are much more conscious of the piece as a visual performance. Now that we have tried so many possibilities, we know exactly how to trigger reactions. We have added to our list of activities; mine is walking around with a kitchen knife, and as members of the audience ask to be photographed with us, I sometimes take out my knife and pose with it. The police have gotten very upset. Dark skin, a mustache, and a knife are a deadly combination.
CF Something else is happening. There is this feature film about Ishi the Yahi, the Native American who was made to live in a museum in California for five years. He was the last of a tribe that was wiped out by white settlers.
Meanwhile, there has been all of this press about Ota Benga, a Pygmy who was brought to the U.S. in 1904 and exhibited at State Fairs and in the primate cage of the Bronx Zoo. He wound up shooting himself. Tri-Star is now making a movie about the life of Ota Benga. In addition, many women have done work on the Hottentot Venus lately … For some reason, this history of human exhibition is receiving a great deal of critical reevaluation.
GGP People believe these practices are extinct. And we say it still exists in more benign forms. While we were in Minneapolis a month ago, we were invited to the Minnesota State Fair. There was a freak show, and one of the people exhibited was called Tiny Tisha, Island Princess. We entered, completely shocked to find a Haitian midget on display in the same way freaks were displayed in the late 1800s. In fact, her donation box was strangely similar to our donation box.
CF You could take a picture of her for $2.
AJ In Queensland, Australia, they actually had plastic versions of Aborigines in glass cases. That was about 14 years ago. Today, the museum has changed in many respects but it was a very colonial museum.
CF Those museums are the existence of their collections to colonialism. The relationships are now somewhat more egalitarian because museums are realizing that they are not always entitled to objects they have laid claim to. We saw this happening in Minneapolis where there is a dispute over the exhibit of Native American sacred pipes. The curators of the museum felt they had every right to them. And Native Americans protested. It lead to a long series of discussions that the Native Americans wound up winning.
GGP This is one of the most important aspects of the battle right now in this country. Who is in control of the means to represent Otherness? Our national institutions are part of this struggle and there are two sides. Although it’s taking place in the field of the emblematic and the allegorical, nonetheless, it is reflective of the larger political struggle in this country. If we can contribute to giving light to this conflict, we would be very satisfied …
CF Why do people feel the way they do when they see us in a cage? The image and the chronology that we present is something people don’t want to see, it implicates the audience. That understanding is very difficult and painful. Many would rather operate with the belief that racism no longer exists because legal segregation is part of the past.
AJ Your image of the woman in the cage is a very sexually loaded image.
CF Eliciting the same type of comments women hear on the street. I think men do that because they think they can get away with it—I’m in a cage; how can I understand? Or even if I can understand, I’m in character, so I can’t react. A lot of guys get a kick out of that. Also, I had very little clothing. To repressed Westerners, my costume represented pure sexuality.
AJ Like dressing Naomi Campbell up as a Northern African tribeswoman, or Gaugin’s Tahitian odalisque …
CF In Minneapolis, people tended to be less verbally aggressive, choosing instead to take pictures, more than the Spanish or British had. I decided that their way of sublimating was voyeurism.
AJ People feel that with a camera, they have the right to make a theft. Do you feel stripped-down, exhausted, after you’ve been in the cage for a few weeks?
CF It’s physically tiring but nonetheless fascinating.
GGP I think every human being who undergoes the experience of living in a cage for three days would have a different experience according to their degree of familiarity with being exposed to the public eye. Coco and I had very different experiences. Coco, as a woman, has had to face this sinister experience of always being objectified. Because of that, she has already developed mechanisms of protection against that gaze which make her seem very tough. She can turn off an inner channel and disconnect from that experience, just as she would riding the subway.
AJ And you, as a male, experiencing the perpetual gaze?
GGP I had a more emotionally involved experience, I don’t know how to turn off. As a result I came out of the cage three days later completely, spiritually devastated. And Coco was complete and whole and ready to do the next piece.
Anna Johnson is a writer and radio commentator living in New York City.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.