“CHOQUE CULTURAL CULTURE SHOCK RUPTURA RUPTURE VIOLACION RAPE GENOCIDIO GENOCIDE.”
Collaboration in the arts and performance usually emerges from the desire to harmonize voices and visions, signaling both the nuances that differentiate creative approaches and the similarities that bring them together. But when the nodal point of collaborative projects dwells in mixed and border-crossing identity politics, and in the pervasiveness of colonial mindsets in current dehumanizing practices, artistic partnerships become acts of resistance. Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco and Chicano performance artist, writer, and educator Guillermo Gómez-Peña joined forces and talents in the early 1990s to discuss the unbalanced relations between the regions that make up the Americas and the complexities of what it means for those individuals who reside between cultures and languages.
Before they began their collaboration, both artists were already invested in exploring histories of colonialism, racism, and the impact of geopolitical and affective borders in their art. For example, Fusco had explored the impact of slavery and racism in Cuba, while Gómez-Peña founded the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo to create collaborative art projects with migrant communities along the US-Mexico border. In 1990, the two, together with Mexican-American artist René Yáñez, began their collaboration, creating Norte/Sur, a multidisciplinary art installation that exposed the connections and disconnections between the United States and Latin America. Two years later, in 1992, the quincentennial commemoration of Christopher Columbus’s expedition sparked a series of worldwide events that revisited Columbus’s “discovery” and its political ramifications. Taking up this infamous date, the collaborative performance project the two created has become iconic—an example of the way interdisciplinarity can importantly lie at the base of decolonial and political art projects that question histories of oppression.
Fusco and Gómez-Peña explored the ways the “discovery of America” was represented over some 500 years: this was the focus of the Walker Art Center exhibition Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco: The Year of the White Bear. The second half of the exhibition’s title was inspired by a poem that refers to the Spanish conquistadors as “white bears,” a term used by the Páez people of Colombia—a powerful reminder of how history is written from the perspective of the colonizers, erasing languages and worldviews from Native peoples of the Americas.
The project included diverse forms of art-making, including an experimental radio program created in collaboration with Minnesota artists including Native American writer Jim Northrup and Korean American performance artist Damas. In the radio show, Gómez-Peña engaged in dialogues on collaborative writing, the role of artists in discussing the aftermath of colonization, and the glorification of Columbus. These conversations helped to solidify the political and aesthetic tone of the pair’s interdisciplinary “counter-quincentenary celebration”: a clear—if often humorous—critique and challenge to Western, colonial narratives of discovery and progress. Their project included not only the radio program but also a visual arts installation, a simulated Mayan stellar observatory, and a durational performance—one of the project’s most well-known elements—entitled Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West. In the performance, Gómez-Peña and Fusco presented themselves as indigenous Guatinauis, natives to the fictitious island of Guatinaui, somehow untouched by colonization. They were on display in a gilded cage in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden where people could pay: to take pictures of themselves in front of the cage; to see the “natives” perform a ritual dance (to rap music); or to hear stories in Guatinaui language, which was actually gibberish. As caged “Guatinauis,” the two performed various rituals of “authentic” daily life such as writing on a laptop computer, watching TV, sewing voodoo dolls, and lifting weights. They wore grass skirts, plastic beads, and leather wristbands, as well as a wrestler’s mask and head dresses. Dark sunglasses, cowboy boots, and Converse sneakers completed their costumes.
The two artists’ bodily presence was key to examining and challenging the objectification of human beings that was at the core of colonization processes, as well as many museum practices that intended to display “otherness.” When discussing the long-lasting effects of colonization, those individuals whose bodies carry memories of violence inflicted upon their ancestors are living proof that 500 years after Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, the created hierarchies of power based on bodily differences remain intact. As caged Guatinauis, Fusco and Gómez-Peña carried in their bodies the metaphorical and physical imprint of centuries of exploitation and slavery. Their bodies, forcedly observed and objectified, revealed how Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West exceeded the limits of a theatrical performance and served as a kind of reenactment—or even more bluntly—yet another everyday enactment of the way ownership can mark racialized bodies. Their bodies, then, summoned up the very violence exerted upon myriads of colonized bodies, past and present. The central presence of the performers’ bodies in the exhibition acknowledged the currency, literally, of the colonial gaze (remember you could pay to take a picture, for instance, with the two artists) and the political potentiality of bringing together individual and collective experiences in artistic collaborations.
In addition to this performance, Fusco and Gómez-Peña curated the in-gallery component of The Year of the White Bear. Their curatorial choices were an artistic intervention into highly hierarchized museography practices, challenging the way museums have often replicated the objectification and exoticization of colonized cultures. Their exhibition contrasted cultural artifacts from both “high” art and popular culture, juxtaposing colonial, 18th and 19th century, contemporary art by indigenous artists, and tourist “art.” Together, these items dismantled museum hierarchies that privilege certain objects (“high” art) and not others (tourist art), presenting a version of history not sanctioned by colonizers.
Historical artifacts, such as conquistadors’ helmets and guns and religious-themed figures of saints and virgins, collided with pre-Hispanic ceramic figurines and pre-Columbian dolls dating from 250 to 300 BCE. The annihilation of entire worldviews through the use of violence and evangelization came to the fore in the spatial proximity of these objects. Extended labels that explained from what graves the objects were stolen revealed colonial display practices that exhibit objects yet strip them from their cultural context. The exhibition articulated a resemanticization of the concept of objet-trouvé or “found object.” In other words, the practice of assigning aesthetic value to objects randomly found by artists gained a new meaning when framed through the display of artifacts pertaining to cultures, one of which violently subdued the other. In The Year of the White Bear, the arrangement and display of these objects makes evident their socio-historical valence: these are traces of genocide and disappearance. A painting by Thomas Waterman Wood, Indian Boy at Fort Snelling (1862), placed next to a rifle from the early 20th century, for instance, invited a spectator to wonder how such a weapon was used in settler colonization and what future a Native American child could have when his culture was wiped away.
Outsize words, in Spanish and English, painted on the gallery walls underlined what the quincentennial meant for millions of people in the Americas: “CHOQUE CULTURAL CULTURE SHOCK RUPTURA RUPTURE VIOLACION RAPE GENOCIDIO GENOCIDE.” Such phrases challenged the notion that the colonization of the Americas is finished or in the distant past. Pieces that would signal past history, like jewelry from 19th-century Mexico, took on a new meaning when displayed alongside a headband of a Huambisa Jivaro indigenous Peruvian man from 1958. Such juxtapositions reveal how the uneven distribution of privileges still endures: jewelry as a sign of status, nevertheless, depends on its cultural origin; and, more subtly, the precious stones and minerals that express craftsmanship in some cases can be also a reminder of how the Global South’s resources continuously feed the desires First World empires. Extractivist mining policies throughout the Americas harm and continue to impact indigenous populations. The exhibition also featured works by artists often left out of historical and artistic circuits—absences that tend to replicate hierarchies of aesthetic value. Artists invited to create new commissions included Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos, Latino artists Pepón Osorio and Alfred J. Quiroz, Puerto Rican artist Angel Rodríguez-Díaz, and Mexican artist and arts educator Maruca Salazar, among others. Each detail of the exhibition, thus, revealed the ever-present power of colonial structures and demanded its audience recognize their own role in a historical process that is not yet ended.
Prior to and following the Walker exhibition, Fusco and Gómez-Peña embarked on a world tour of Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West. To the artists’ surprise, many viewers at the different venues where they presented the performance believed that they were actually undiscovered Amerindians, and critics, museums, patrons, and visitors reacted with either confusion or anger.1 Fusco relates this confusion to the fact that for more than 500 years, indigenous peoples were exhibited in taverns, theaters, gardens, museums, zoos, circuses, and world fairs in Europe and in freak shows in the United States. In most of the cases, the people exhibited did not choose to be on display.2 From Columbus bringing Arawak people to Europe to the “Eskimos” put on display in England in 1501; from the display of the head of the aboriginal resistance fighter of the Cadigal people at the London Museum in 1802 to the touring of the “Hottentot Venus” Saartje Baartman in the early 1800s; from the exhibition of the four Charrúas who survived the genocide of all indigenous people in Uruguay in 1834 to the Zulus on display in circuses in 1882 to the “pygmy” put on display in a primate cage at the Bronx Zoo in 1906 to the Haitian woman exhibited as “Tiny Teesha, the Island Princess” in 1992, Fusco recalls that the origins of “intercultural performance” are based on the objectification of the speechless other.
Some white audiences, their reactions captured in a documentary that Fusco and Gómez-Peña had produced to support the performance tour, demanded more “authenticity,” noting that the performers were not “dark enough” to be “undiscovered Amerindians.” Film footage shows visitors paying the price to feed them, touch them, or even grab their genitalia. As performance studies scholar Diana Taylor notes, some viewers were “deeply invested” in maintaining the colonial fantasy that allowed them to think that otherness can be contained in a cage, without recognizing “the contemporaneity of the postmodern, postcolonial encounter.”3 Two Undiscovered Amerindians asked the audience to rethink colonization as a process that continues into present times. The cage articulated the artificiality of borders that keep the “savages” at bay, restraining the danger of violence or contamination. It demarcated the line between the audience and the “others,” between spectators and spectacle, between the power of seeing and the passivity of being seen. At the same time, the cage undid its own function: if these others, these savages, are contained and objectified for the gaze and desires of the audience, then who did the cage contain, and where does violence stem from? Fusco and Goméz-Peña’s reenactment of the colonial gaze performed the same violence supposedly contained to an historical past. Their performance revealed the contemporaneity of the violence of borders and called upon viewers to acknowledge the millions of bodies that were and are caged in different ways. In this regard, it seems particularly prescient given the present-day news about Immigration and Customs Enforcement imprisonment facilities, as the violence of anti-immigrant policies were present throughout the exhibition, as was the necessity of building solidarity and empathy through art and performance.4
As Bolivian feminist scholar and activist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui states, “There can be no discourse of decolonization, no theory of decolonization, without a decolonizing practice.”5 More than 25 years after the quincentennial, revisiting both Year of the White Bear’s archive and the film documentary that came from the performance is not a form of archaeology or a nostalgic remembrance, but a performance—a decolonial practice—in itself.6 This archive reveals the ways in which marked bodies can collective produce narratives of resistance. Revisiting the archive of live performance demands attention to such communities and how they connect with the material conditions and experiences of individuals in the here and now. Gómez-Peña wrote on his body the phrase, “Please, don’t discover me!” It is time to understand that colonial practices look back at the audience, demanding that they, the viewer, discover themselves.
1 The Walker Art Center was one of only two venues—along with the Whitney Museum—where the work was contextualized as art. In the case of the Walker, the relationality with the objects on display in the exhibition called for a critical understanding of the role of the audience in processes of objectification and colonization.
2 Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Intercultural Performance” (TDR, Vol. 38, No. 1., Spring, 1994), 143–167.
3 Diana Taylor, “A Savage Performance: Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s ‘Couple in the Cage’” (TDR, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1998), 160–175.
4 The possibility of creating alternative communities through the intersection of arts and politics has been a constant concern in Gómez-Peña’s work. From the mid-1990s until the present, La Pocha Nostra, the multidisciplinary collective he founded, has promoted artistic collaboration through its international workshops and exchanges that develop “temporary communities of like-minded rebels.”Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 3.
5 Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui,“Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization” (The South Atlantic Quarterly 111:1, Winter, 2012), 95–109.
6 See Fusco and Paula Heredia, The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey (Authentic Documentary Productions, 1993).