The video begins with the sounds of street noises and cars honking. It’s Bushwick, Brooklyn. An elevated expressway creates a shadow over a street on which corrugated metal gates are graffitied over and residents walk about in slow motion. Suddenly, a figure towering over all the others appears. Clad in indigo cloth, patterned with indigenous designs, he is soon joined by other stiltwalkers, twirling and cascading in their blue garments, fringe sashaying as they pass McDonald’s.
Patrol officers on the street express joy and awe at the spectacle of magical figures parading on an ordinary street, and fans hold up their phones to capture it on video and maybe post it to social media.
This is “Intervention: Indigo” by Laura Anderson Barbata. Named the 2016-’17 visiting artist for the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers, Barbata will present a lecture on Tuesday, November 1, at 5:30 p.m., at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library, and a performance work in progress on Wednesday, November 2, at 10:30 a.m., at Alexander Library. Both libraries are in New Brunswick. An exhibition, “Laura Anderson Barbata: Collaborations Beyond Borders,” is on view through December 16 at the Douglass Library.
“Intervention: Indigo,” produced in collaboration with the performance group Brooklyn Jumbies, combines procession, protest, performance, music, and dance to bring attention to the “crisis impacting the lives of people of color living in this country,” according to its description. “There is an obligation for a public call to action — one that draws attention to the urgent need to elevate and change the values and practices of the police and the systems that support these views.”
Indigo, best known for its use in denim, is one of the oldest natural plant-based dyes used all over the world and embedded with ritual “symbolism and spirituality; power and nobility,” we learn. Barbata employs textiles hand woven and dyed in Burkina Faso (West Africa), Guatemala, and the United States. Cloths are dipped in vats repeatedly over a period of days or weeks, imbuing them with rich color. Blue, says Barbata, historically represents absolute truth, wisdom, justice, safety, and royalty. “Newborn babies are wrapped in indigo for protection. It’s not a coincidence that the police wear blue. We need to remember what it means and be true to it.”
Barbata creates participatory art initiatives that document communities and traditions. She seeks to address issues of human rights and feminism, integrating popular culture, burlesque, and performance, incorporating ritual dance, craft, carnival, costuming, and protest, and enlisting collaboration from universities, government institutions, scholars, activists, and artists. The Rutgers exhibition includes sculpture, video, and exotic and fantastical textiles, some with tufted woven cloth, feathers, and fringe. They look like costumes, but Barbata prefers to call them “wearable sculpture.” She does all the stitching herself, and the materials she employs are frequently recycled. She may start with, say, a traditional wicker basket from Jamaica and build upon it, adding a bird, fringe, shells, and buttons. “For me the piece must fulfill its purpose socially. We’ve been wrapped in textiles since childhood, and I see it as a way of communicating ideas.”
In 2011, during the Occupy Wall Street protests, in another collaboration with Brooklyn Jumbies, Barbata made “Intervention: Wall Street,” propelled by the worldwide economic crisis. The moko jumbie stilt walkers, in tall suits and seemingly chatting into phones, parade about, distributing gold foil-covered chocolate coins to passersby, amid chants: “Some people got to have it, some people really need it, you got to do good things with it” and “For the love of money, people will steal from their mother.”
In western Africa, we learn, Moko Jumbie is a spirit who watches over a village. With its towering height, it is able to foresee danger and evil and is traditionally called in to cleanse and ward off evil spirits that have brought disease and misfortune. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Oaxaca, Mexico, the Zancudos (stilt dancers) perform annually to call upon the power of their saints to receive protection, blessings, and miracles.
Barbata has been working with stilt-walking communities in Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, and Brooklyn for a decade, using it as a platform for protest. Her “transcommunality” — a concept of erasing borders — encompasses community art, public art, social intervention, performance, and sculpture. “Art is a catalyst for dialogue and change while having fun,” Barbata says. “The knowledge of what others are living through opens our eyes and expands our conscience. And this awareness and experience allows us to identify with others and also brings us closer to our own voice, so that we can ask ourselves: What do I think? What is my responsibility? What can I do?”
Her collaborators are volunteers. “I invite crafters, weavers, embroiderers,” she says. While she has received some funding that helps toward housing and transportation, hers is “a community without funding, a place to contribute to each other’s profession,” she says. “Grants are difficult to get, and the amount of time spent writing a grant takes away from the work. Because these are community projects, we discuss it horizontally — everyone has something to gain.” The greatest guarantor of success, she says, is personal commitment, and that is much more valuable than funding. “I work with what is available: materials, skills, knowledge, and resources.”
Lack of funding, Barbata says, has never stopped her. “I feel it’s urgent, it has to be done, I have to continue, and as an artist, that is my life.”
Another project is “The Repatriation of Julia Pastrana.” Pastrana (1834-1860), a native of Sinaloa, Mexico, was born with hypertrichosis lanuguinosa and gingival hyperplasia, resulting in a face and body covered with thick hair and a disproportionately large jaw. She was exhibited in the 19th century as the ugliest woman in the world, yet was also a mezzo-soprano who performed in English, Spanish, and French, played guitar, and danced. After her death, her body was embalmed and exhibited throughout Europe and the United States for more than 100 years and ultimately stored at the University of Oslo, Norway.
Barbata first learned about Pastrana through her sister, Kathleen Culevero, the artistic director of Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth, who produced a play about her and invited Barbata to serve as designer for the production, largely performed in the dark. It was produced in New York in 2004 and again in 2013. Barbata subsequently led the effort to return Pastrana to her homeland for burial.
“Julia was an artist and from the same state in Mexico where I grew up,” says Barbata. “Her story illustrates many of the problems that still exist for women. She was dehumanized because of her personal appearances and wound up in limbo in a box in an Oslo basement, with justification from scientific institutions.” Barbata had no funding to do anything about this and recounts how it had been exhausting and discouraging, “but I had a moral and ethical commitment to see what I could do.” She embarked on a letter-writing campaign and was ultimately able to obtain a death certificate so Pastrana could be buried. “Julia represents the problems we have today in human trafficking, sex slavery, and violence toward women. We have been able to change the discourse so she is no longer just a victim.”
In the exhibit we see a series of photographs Barbata made, based on an original rendering of the subject, recreating her jaw, her facial hair, her muscular body, and her burgundy-colored tiered frock. In one diptych, Barbata herself dresses in the role, as if to try on what it feels like to look that way (although Barbata has smooth skin and traditionally feminine structure).
Born in Mexico City in 1958, Barbata grew up along the ocean in Mazatlan in the state of Sinaloa, playing with her sisters in the water every day, she recounts. “My family didn’t have TV, and we made our own toys with simple materials — that continues to inform my approach.”
Her father managed a restaurant that catered to tourists and her mother was a cashier, hostess, and dessert maker — her specialty was marzipan made with locally available ingredients. Barbata’s mother also made papier mache jewelry and flowers that she sold in stores. “We danced at the restaurant — I loved costumes and music.”
Barbata studied philosophy and architecture in Mexico, then sociology and anthropology at the University of California San Diego, where she also studied sculpture and printmaking. Her drawings and photographs won awards at the Institute of Fine Arts, Mexico, and in 1991 her work was included in an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. After traveling to the Amazon in Venezuela with performance artist Carlos Zerpa, she proposed a papermaking workshop to the indigenous Yanomami people in exchange for training in making a dugout canoe. This led to a paper and bookmaking project using local materials through which the Yanomami could tell their traditional stories and legends. She did a residency at Wave Hill in Bronx, New York, in 1994, where she had an outdoor site-specific installation, and in 2001 got a grant to work at the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, creating an edition that explores the cataloging of indigenous languages of the U.S. and Mexico.
Back in Caracas in the mid aughts, working again with the Yanomami, she was taken to dinner and told by one of the directors that the world had changed, referring to the financial collapse. When she returned to New York, “It was a completely different city — the streets were empty, stores had closed, no one was in the restaurants and bars. It became imperative that I create work to address the implications of the banking world.”
Her studio had been based in Manhattan’s Chinatown for 20 years, but she moved to her current space in Bushwick a year ago, where she both lives and works —though she is frequently on the road, whether as artist in residence or teaching, or for an opera, “Florencia En El Amazonas,” opening in Mexico City (she is creating the “characters,” or costume designs), or at the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands, where several of her characters are part of an exhibition on carnival practice.
Barbata’s partner lives in Mexico. They visit and Skype as often as schedules permit. “We’re seeing an expansion of the concept of togetherness,” she says of their relationship. “It’s not just about being together domestically in a physical space. We feel we’re living together in terms of life purpose, intentions and goals. It forces you to look at what a relationship is constructed on … and for each to support the other to manifest themselves in the best way they can.”
Laura Anderson Barbata: Collaborations Beyond Borders, Center for Women in the Arts at Douglass Library, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick. Through December 16. Artist talk and reception Tuesday, November 1, 5 to 6:30 p.m. Performance of a work in progress and lecture and reception with artist on Wednesday, November 2, 10:30 a.m. to noon. 848-932-3726 or www.iwa.rutgers.edu.