Latin America; the South as the voices and movements of peoples, wherever these movements exist; the South as the visions and wisdoms of women; the South as the discovering of new paradigms, which challenge the existing theoretical concepts and categories breaking the mind constructs, seeking a new language to describe what it perceives, refusing the one, objective, rational, scientific world view: the South as the discovery of other cosmologies, as the discovery of other knowledge’s that have been hidden, submerged, silenced. The South as an ‘insurrection of these subjugated knowledges.’
From 2007 to 2014, I directed the Centro Hemisférico of Performance and Politics––a satellite centre of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University––in Chiapas, Mexico. This unique center for research, activism, performance, and artistic expression was born out of a collaborative relationship with Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya (FOMMA), an Indigenous theatre troupe based in San Cristobal de las Casas (Chiapas, Mexico). I implemented theatre techniques and trainings in an intercultural exchange between Western theatre practices and Indigenous Mexican popular theatre to further develop FOMMA’s repertoire, whose theatrical work focuses on Indigenous women’s rights, literacy, cultural survival, ecology, health, and education. The central theme of my dramaturgical direction with the women, actresses, writers, and activists of FOMMA was empowering themselves, one another, and their communities through written and scenic work. Theatre based on testimony and memory can create groundwork for social change. As a working class immigrant born in Colombia and raised largely in New York, I was drawn to their stories of interfamilial violence and trauma, particularly patriarchal violence. Together, we worked collectively to find creative strategies out of these ‘destinies’ prescribed to women. As a theatre director based in the global south from 1999 to 2015, I have a wealth of experience working with Indigenous women in the Americas. It was this experience that led to my collaboration with the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics (CCPPA), which is how I met Roewan Crowe.
I have learned to intertwine creative and artistic techniques with the practices of popular theatre, testimony, and oral history (as understood in the Freirian sense), in order to create a methodology based on cooperation, unity, and organization. Roewan hosted me for long stays during my work with women from the Hollow Water First Nation, located east of Lake Winnipeg. Roewan and her partner Jarvis were fundamental in making me feel welcome and supported during my work there. During this time, I met Chilean-Canadian artist Monica Mercedes Martinez while on an architectural tour of Winnipeg. She told me about her creation of ceramic sculptures and the dream that she had had of taking them to the Atacama Desert as a way of remembering the victims of Pinochet’s violent military coup. At that time, Monica talked about her ceramic forms as ‘bones,’ recalling for her the dead and disappeared of Chile––a death toll and a history that I was familiar with as the daughter of Latin American immigrants and having studied Latin American politics in college. I was born in 1964 in Medellín, Colombia, the year the guerrillas––the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia (FARC)––formed with the stated intention of overthrowing the government and installing a Marxist regime. Since then, a more than fifty-year war in Colombia has left 260,000 people killed and millions displaced. As an activist-artist-scholar, my work explores issues of violence, aesthetic practice, and performance as an act of resistance, focusing on the transmission of social and cultural memory.
In my conversation with Monica, I recognized an alignment, a mutual idea of return. As daughters of Latin American immigrants raised in the north, we shared a history. Our parents left our countries and the violence taking place during that time in both Chile and Colombia. We reminisced about returning to our countries of origin with our work, feeling in our bones a need to return and shape our own cartographies through art. I saw our encounter as two progressive artists, born of the South and anchored in a decolonial world-view, converging to form an alliance. I proposed to Roewan that she should connect with Monica, that this might be a perfect fit for a cross-cultural collaboration for the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ upcoming Encuentro that would be held in Chile. Months later, Roewan informed me that the project had been accepted and she invited me to become a member of CONSTELACIONES, a performance ensemble made up of artists, scholars, and activists. The journey to Chile would not be a solution to the political violence Chileans experienced, but it might be an opportunity to transpose––as an exile––the rage and sadness of Latin America’s political oppression under brutal military regimes.
Performing on the surface of this white area of death in the Atacama Desert would prove to be an act of agency, one of cartographic necessity. Instead of trying to hide or efface loss and mourning, I converged with the huge massive expanse of salt. Performing with CONSTELACIONES in Atacama would be an opportunity to finally embody and handle autobiographical material directly—my own memory—not as fiction or ‘magic realism,’ but as a performer engaged in practices that explore what it means to inhabit displacement and transmute it into shareable collective knowledge. The performance would provide other cartographies, other maps, other forms of knowledge. Returning ‘bones’ with the ensemble of CONSTELACIONES is, in essence, about letting go, about keeping nothing and remapping through live performance.
Early in rehearsal with my Winnipeg colleagues, I shared my sense of sadness and mourning around the ‘symbols of grief’ that Monica had created. After working and collaborating for a week––in addition to working on the performances that would happen in Chile––we created and performed Wrapping Atacama, an intimate participatory event wherein we invited a few close guests to join us in wrapping the forms before they were sent off to Chile. Some members of the collective focused their energy on creating a collective space of labour by placing materials on a table and encouraging participants to engage in the vibrant objects by packing them and talking to each other. The performance of labour––everyone working on a shared vision––became a representation of the group’s conceptual pillars of care and connection.
On the other side of the room, Roewan and I explored relating directly with the bones by touching them, singing to them, swinging and cradling them. My intuition led me to move between the spaces, not resting in one or the other, moving between the different areas where invited guests alternated between witnessing and wrapping the forms. During the first part of the rehearsal process in Canada, we discussed creating a performance based on Monica’s ‘symbols of grief.’ During our rehearsals, memories of upwards of 3000 murdered and disappeared people in Chile morphed into the ceramic forms. My own sense of Chile’s violent past framed and defined the ‘symbols of grief’ as materializing the absent and disappeared. The day after this participatory performance event, a discussion occurred around the divergent approaches to the forms and the importance of emphasizing ‘art’ and ‘labour’ as central to the performance. Care and connection aligned with notions of aesthetics, and performance and labour translated into task-based actions, tableaus, and choreographies.
During this process, I began to lose a sense of alignment and convergence in our artistic alliance. Feeling, expressing, gesturing, crying, morphing objects into beings did not fit the task-based score of the piece. The Atacama Desert was a place of horrific violence and murder during the Pinochet regime. In the initial stages of rehearsal and scoring, I suggested that the Women of Calama––who are still actively searching for their dead––be invited as witnesses to our performance in the desert. I viscerally distrusted an impetus to score a performance of returning bones, symbols of the disappeared of Chile, because around them was a pool of blood and torture.
I believed our collective understood the history of and political violence that took place in the Atacama Desert, as well as how how this violence has impacted generations of Latin Americans. CONSTELACIONES has written:
“The site in Atacama, was chosen to pay respect to the Women of Calama, who have endlessly searched for their loved ones who were violently disappeared into the desert. Martinez and her CONSTELACIONES work to honour and remember the lives that her ceramic forms embody. Returning these symbols of grief, violence and time to Chile will complete a journey that began with Martinez’s family’s exile in 1974. The seemingly endless winter landscape of Chile’s northern reaches echo her first memories of the barren winter landscape of her family’s Canadian refuge. She also enacts the ritual to reconnect herself to her ancestral homeland.”
Months later, we traveled to Santiago de Chile as CONSTELACIONES. Following the concept of performance as a series of tableaus, we––alongside others members of the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas (CCPPA)––traveled on a bus that followed the infamous ‘Caravan of Death’ route. The atrocities committed along this route from 1973 to 1990 haunted our journey. One hundred and twenty civilians kidnapped by security forces and tossed from helicopters into Chile’s ocean, rivers, and lakes. Our first tableau was performed at one of these sites where the murdered washed up on shore despite being weighed down by metal rods. I am nauseous as I recognize where I am. I have returned to the unspeakable violence that my parents rescued me from when we left Colombia for the United States. I cannot find a way to process this journey to hell through poetry or camaraderie—I can only witness and archive and translate. I felt the hostility of the route seep into all of our psyches. How to put aside emotion? Is ritual devoid of sentiment? Is labour art? Is emotion detrimental to art? How can this landscape not affect every aspect of our beings? Writing the word ‘Return’ in the sand, Roewan reads a poem that she wrote (and which I translated into Spanish) and the ensemble embraces Monica while facing the ocean––this closes our first tableau in Chile. Two more days on the Caravan of Death route and we arrive at the Atacama Desert site.
The morning of our Return Atacama performance, we set up the shipping boxes containing Monica’s forms in bone chilling temperatures, roughly 180 feet from our witnesses Shannon Bell, Jarvis Brownlie, Smaro Kamboureli, Cassie Scott, Lex Taylor, Dot Tuer, Kimberley Wilde, and Marcello Andres Valdez Perez. Several of them were scholars from different academic institutions and members of the CCPPA. We had traveled with this group from Santiago de Chile. The director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, Diana Taylor, joined us on the morning of our performance. We started the performance with our bodies draped over the boxes, like crows. We removed the bones from the boxes and unwrapped them, placing them on the desert floor around us. From there, we each gathered bones in our arms and made the trek towards the witnesses, where we deposited the bones in such a way as to construct a mound. I first experienced Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) by asking permission to return the bones to their place of origin, touching and holding sand in the palm of my hand. In doing so, I experienced the weight of my black ancestry, and finally, the anguish of the victims of the Pinochet regime. “I am alive because I feel with my heart.” (Acteal prayer from Chiapas, Mexico). Repeating this mantra allowed me to ritualize an experience that would have otherwise been unbearable.
The performance was durational. For three hours, we walked from the horizon toward the witnesses, again and again. The sound of the desert, with its whistling wind, pushed my gaze upwards. I saw the sky––gray-blue––and imagined the death flights, the fate of the victim’s bodies as they were thrown into the mouth of volcanoes and onto this lunar landscape where I currently stood. The rest of the performers maintained the task-based structure of the piece, what I call the ‘form’: walking and carrying the bones, sometimes together, sometimes alone, while helping and embracing each other. I walked alone, holding the bones with fierce and radical tenderness. I picked up bodies, tortured and slashed and bound, never to be found by their loved ones. I sang lullabies as the forms became the universe of my cartography. I did not walk with the others. I did not allow for empathy or help in placing the bones. I did not want help making the disappeared present. I wanted to remember, carry, nourish, and mourn.
The next day, Roewan Crowe facilitated a meeting with the members of CONSTELACIONES and the witness-scholars. I video-archived the process. The witnesses were moved by the experience. Comments included: “Powerful to watch,” “Monica was holding the cross and the four of you were holding the bones…,” “The visuals, the sound, the sensuality, as a ritual, felt it….” One person questioned the narrative; some the distance. CONSTELACIONES continued to work together toward a second performance at the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center in Santiago de Chile. The piece and our experience in the desert continued to inform––and make possible––our artistic alliance.
This experience––this intercultural collaboration––leads me to ask: how do we move beyond limit problems? How do we resolve matters of translation and cultural diversity in order to create strong artistic alliances, ones rooted in both a sense of place and in the ways that we position ourselves—bodies, souls, spirits, subjectivities, and minds––in the world? Who gets to decide the aesthetics of any performance in a collaboration?
In my professional trajectory directing Centro Hemisférico in Chiapas and as a theatre director and performance artist, I have incorporated the cartography of memory into my work across three continents. I have witnessed this process as profoundly transformative and life-affirming. In a globalized world rife with political interests and continuous global and military violence, intercultural collaborations reclaim a sense of community and alliance. Artistic collaborations are a way of revealing ourselves to others, and in this way, generating knowledge and becoming politically and socially involved in all aspects of our lives, whatever historical, political, or social vicissitudes we carry with us. An artistic alliance emerging from collaboration––like CONSTELACIONES––can lead to transformative acts that call us into affective and powerful relations, mapping and performing personal knowledge into transmittable knowledge.
The performance in Atacama instilled in my body a sense of history, territory, community, and self. Performative moments permitted each one of us to exercise our own field of action and thinking. Each one of us became more empowered by through reclamation in this heightened time known as performance. Radical creativity is yet to come, but every doing is the materialization of a potential.
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