I came across Guillermo Gomez-Peña's performance art collective, La Pocha Nostra, as I was doing research for my weekly art column for Remezcla. Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival is this month and the group gave one performance at Grace Exhibition Space in Bushwick on July 5th.
I remember Gomez-Peña from "The Couple in a Cage" performance he did with Coco Fusco. My professor John McKiernan-Gonzalez for a 'Mexican Americans in the U.S.' class at UT Austin showed us the video my sophomore year in college. The two artists, dressed in feathered headdresses, face paint, and at times Chuck Taylor sneakers, are locked in a cage and put on display in a museum as fictitious members of a "lost Amerindian tribe" from the Gulf of Mexico. They type on laptops, engage the audience with dances and watch TV. Their activities were described to the audience as "traditional" and "authentic" and at one point they were referred to as "specimens." Nearly half of all the people who saw the installation believed Fusco and Gomez-Peña were real "discovered" indigenous people.
The performance was a critical stab at the mainstream's practice of otherizing or exoticizing the cultures of indigenous groups. This idea that one's culture can be bottled, scrutinized and defined inside museum walls or any institution, even the institution of the psyche, powers the colonizer mentality. Once "understood" by the mainstream and dwindled down to a nicely packaged definable stereotype, the cultural practices of non-Anglo people are ready to be appropriated. The consistent appropriation and/or mockery of cultural practices that can include clothes, customs and ceremonies happens daily and especially on Halloween (i.e. Chola/ghetto parties, Cinco de Mayo drunk Mexicans etc.)
Gomez-Peña's performance was one of the early artistic critiques that helped mold my consciousness, so it was essential to see his current work, especially since the collective is international and prefers to perform in smaller cities and villages as opposed to cultural meccas like NYC. I've known performance pieces to be pretty strange, sometimes boring but usually off the wall. Nudity, weapons and indigenous imagery were scattered across La Pocha Nostra's website, and they spoke of "radical pedagogy." To get a better idea of what was to come later that night, I meandered down to Multimedia Services during my lunch break to watch Border Brujo and Son, a 52 minute film included in an anthology of Gomez-Peña's work called Border Art Clásicos. Gomez-Peña was adorned with saber tooth bracelets and banana necklaces, Batman buttons and calavera earrings, and talked to me in gringo drawls, Cholo slang and Chilango talk. At that moment I understood. Even if I couldn't explain it.
"Border Brujo speaks in Spanish to Mexicans, in Spanglish to Chicanos, in English to Anglo-Americans, and in tongues to other brujos and border crossers. Only the perfectly bicultural can be in complicity with him." - GGP
However, explaining to someone that dead animals, toy guns, dildos etc. are a part of a show about identity, Chicanismo and border crossings is difficult. Getting someone to go with me was quite a feat. I attempted to explain away seemingly esoteric concepts as I knew they would appear in a midst of absurdity and convinced my roommate to attend even though the cover was $20.
It began with the heavily costumed actors weaving through the crowd of 30 or so art-gawkers. An angelic boy-girl with ass-padded pantyhose was saran-wrapped to a column. A blonde Amazon woman clawed off his plastic cage with her cyborg-reptilian tail. A bald man with a coat of feather fingers flapped on a platform and a bare-breasted Sheeva policed the crowd wielding a bat. An altar held a naked woman being pricked with acupuncture needles bearing flags with corporate logos. At one point the angelic boy with hips twerked in pink panties next to a skinned lamb.
In the end, my roommate asked, "So all this had to do with Chicanos?"