Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production

Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production

by Leticia Alvarado


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In Abject Performances Leticia Alvarado draws out the irreverent, disruptive aesthetic strategies used by Latino artists and cultural producers who shun standards of respectability that are typically used to conjure concrete minority identities. In place of works imbued with pride, redemption, or celebration, artists such as Ana Mendieta, Nao Bustamante, and the Chicano art collective known as Asco employ negative affects—shame, disgust, and unbelonging—to capture experiences that lie at the edge of the mainstream, inspirational Latino-centered social justice struggles. Drawing from a diverse expressive archive that ranges from performance art to performative testimonies of personal faith-based subjection, Alvarado illuminates modes of community formation and social critique defined by a refusal of identitarian coherence that nonetheless coalesce into Latino affiliation and possibility.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370789
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/04/2018
Series: Dissident Acts Series
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Leticia Alvarado is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown University.

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Other Desires

Ana Mendieta's Abject Imaginings

Artist Ana Mendieta ends her curatorial statement for Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists with a willful expression of ontological alterity:

Do we exist? ... To question our culture is to question our own existence, our human reality. To confront this fact means to acquire an awareness of ourselves. This in turn becomes a search, a questioning of who we are and how we will realize ourselves. ...

This exhibition points not necessarily to the injustice or incapacity of a society that has not been willing to include us, but more towards a personal will to continue being "other."

The 1980 exhibit, co-organized with artists Kazuko and Zarina, filled the Artists in Residence (A.I.R.) Gallery with a range of multimedia works, from video to installation, interpreted through what one reviewer termed Mendieta's "passion." Dialectics of Isolation brought together "Third World Women here in America" through a curatorial gesture planted in the liberal mandate of the New York City cooperative's devotion to "advancing the status of women artists." But a different impulse organized this group's rumination on collective isolation. As Mendieta's curatorial statement would reveal, Dialectics of Isolation cohered as a structure of feeling — what Raymond Williams theorized as an affective formation that acknowledges the lived and felt as well as "feeling as thought"— of burgeoning 1980s women of color feminist critiques. Indeed this curatorial statement articulated the women of color feminist heuristic defined by Grace K. Hong and Roderick A. Ferguson as comparative and "fundamentally organized around difference" in "attempts to do the vexed work of forging coalitional politics through these differences." In what follows, I trace Mendieta's intersectional feminist impulse to her early 1970s performances executed while pursuing her MFA at the University of Iowa's Intermedia program. It is here that Mendieta begins to elaborate a complex engagement with alterity, approaching its racialized and gendered vectors through the unsettling aesthetic force of her abject performances.

Mendieta's oeuvre is marked by shifts in media and aesthetic strategies from painting to performance, to earth-body work. Critically, she is most recognized for the latter — the ephemeral, figural markings she etched into and out of the earth and nature in her Silueta Series (1973–1980). Forcefully universalizing with their iconographic contours, different iterations of the Silueta in mud, ice, or fire, formed out of flowers, leaves, or rocks, present an essential yonic figure with arms outstretched or alongside the body proportional to Mendieta's nearly five-foot frame. Mendieta's sustained use of a simplified human form has generally been interpreted in three ways: first, by feminist art historians to codify her as an essentialist artist representing both the essence of woman and a primitive exoticism; second, to read Mendieta as an exilic subject whose work reflects her longing to ground herself, literally, through interment, with her Siluetas as representative of the indentation of this desire; and the third as a prescient practice saturated with blood that foreshadows Mendieta's violent and spectacular art-world-celebrity death. Her biography and work have been held up by what Miwon Kwon has identified as contrasting "camps" in which the body, Mendieta's constant medium, is regarded as "a transparent signifier of identity and self" in the service of essentialist arguments, against social constructivists who cite "the body as a nexus of arbitrary conventions of meaning, the body as signature or sign." More recent theoretical excavations have moved away from thinking of Mendieta's work from within these binary logics, focusing instead on suspended states of unknowing — pursuing the "path not taken" of the "what if"; embarking on the search of traces in a cave or in the psyche of the "what still"; and pondering, after loss, of the "what now" of vitalism's afterburn. With few exceptions, Mendieta's Siluetas are still used as the principal vehicle to approach her theoretical and artistic contributions.

I propose an alternate framing for the artist, one that centers an aesthetics of abjection as a politicized strategy and decenters the focus on her Silueta Series by linking her early performances to the curatorial work bookending the more-recognized earth-body work — a frame that can then be used to revise critical interpretations of these latter works. Mendieta's abject performances provide a site to reflect on embodied alternatives to weak multiculturalism's reification of identity that alter not only the way we think about the artist's oeuvre but also terms of inclusion for minoritized populations. Following Hong and Ferguson and their theorization of women of color feminism and queer of color critique, I read Mendieta's performances as "[refusing] to maintain that objects of comparison are static, unchanging, and empirically observable, and [refusing] to render illegible the shifting configurations of power that define such objects in the first place" while offering a "clear-eyed appraisal of the dividing line between valued and devalued, which can cut within, as well as across, racial groupings." Throughout this book, abject performances serve as a rubric through which to rethink political strategies. Here, Mendieta's abjection expands the deployment of intersectionality as a concept. Critiques of intersectionality have outlined its limits as metaphor, but understanding its parameters as always in flux, when engaged through abjection, intersectionality is less a metaphor and more a sign of the failure of language to approximate shifting and ambivalent dynamics. Its emergence signals an attempt developed by women of color to try to name this dynamic. Mendieta's recourse to the abject brings into focus analogous and shared relations to dominance by minoritized subjects, not only appraising the "dividing line" that delimits the abject from the nonabject, but also the ways these positions are mutually constituted beyond Cuban or even Latino particularity, allowing us to think expansively about Mendieta's contributions specifically for the field of Latino studies but also ethnic studies and American studies more broadly.

Given the multifarious scholarship on Mendieta's Siluetas, I turn only briefly to this work, using her abject performances as a frame to reimagine the promise of the work as a heuristic with signposts for caution. For José Esteban Muñoz, the Silueta form, evocative of the absent body, was a "deeply symbolic indention in the world," an "after[burn] of mimetically generated intensity" imbued with a vitalism he called brownness. These contours of the sensate demarcate a utopian methodology, by which to imagine, following Kandice Chuh, a subjectless critique for Latino studies while bringing into focus some of the notable silences in Mendieta scholarship, particularly regarding Mendieta's problematic appropriative gestures, most often used to signal the "primitive" or Other. My aim is not to discount the theoretical contributions of her cultural production nor to discount the art historical cartographies into which she has been drafted, but to show her as also participating in a theoretical genealogy that explores the complicated negotiation of different ways of being and belonging, what Muñoz might describe as feeling brown "in a world painted white, organized by cultural mandates to 'feel white'" that tells us something about the political promise of abjection.

Life Portrait

Any treatment of Mendieta's work must situate her as a child of the Cuban diaspora, one of Operación Pedro Pan's young, lost to the United States until a hoped-for end to Castro's godless regime. The Catholic Church and CIA–cosponsored initiative delivered a pubescent Ana, months from her thirteenth birthday, and her quinceañera sister, Raquelín, to the Midwest's Iowa and its holding spaces for lost youth: other Pedro Panes but also orphans and young people with emotional and behavioral problems, many of whom had been in trouble with the law or came from dysfunctional homes — young abject subjects. Although descended from a Cuban family with a long legacy of political and cultural leaders, in the United States the Mendieta sisters were placed within a new social and racial apparatus distinct from the one they were accustomed to on the island, one in which their elite position was reversed. Instead of the affluence they experienced in Cuba, particularly in Havana's El Vedado, where they were looked after by black servants and educated in private schools, or the weekends and holidays spent with extended family in Cárdenas and Varadero, they were now at the mercy of Catholic Charities and their boarding institutions. From St. Mary's Home to the temporary foster homes the sisters were sent to, they were at times separated (despite promises to the contrary), assigned cleaning duties, accused of theft, and discouraged or prohibited from using their native language. Despite Quiroga's reminder that "hers was a conscious aesthetic and political decision to inscribe within the work of art the life story of the artist who produced it," I do not rehearse this information believing her practice to be reducible to her biography. I do so, rather, because her biography and her own citation of it highlight the need to consider multiple national and racial ideological frameworks, relationally and comparatively, to make sense of the project illuminated by Mendieta's work.

In exploration of the discursive formation of "bodies that matter," Judith Butler theorizes a social matrix with an abject realm that is useful to invoke here for making evident the Mendieta sisters' new social location. Butler argues that the abject, "those who are not yet 'subject,' but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of subject," create a discursive realm against whom the "subject" is constructed, shored up through the performative repetition of the repudiation of those they cast out. Applied here, abjection signals a social location for minoritized populations against whom dominance is achieved by repeatedly casting out those subjects who threaten to reveal the inequalities of a national body insistent on framing its very foundation through a legacy of freedom and equality. Despite the privileged access to the United States that they received as Cold War exceptions, the Mendietas' very presence in institutions dedicated to the nonnormative, unclaimed, and unwanted signifies just how they mattered in the United States: they were abject subjects — criminal, service providers, performing racially coded symbolic labor. The Mendieta sisters, and the other youths they found themselves among, helped to define both U.S. Catholic Charities and their Iowan hosts as American: righteous and benevolent saviors delivering the young from Castro and other evils, but also superior to and deserving of domestic labor from their rescuees. While they were members of an elite back home, in the United States, the Mendieta sisters were abject creatures against whom white subjects forged their Americanness.

Consequently, it was in Iowa that Mendieta first began thinking of herself as something other than white: "It's then that I realized that I lived in a little world inside my head. It wasn't that being different was bad, it's that I had never realized that people were different." From Raquelín, we know that "it never entered [their] minds that [they] were colored" until high school, when Ana would receive "anonymous phone calls in which she was called 'nigger' and told, 'Go back to Cuba, you whore!' ... [She] later reported to Cuban television that, 'since I look Latin, I was always 'la putica,' the little whore, to them.'" In the Midwest, the Mendieta sisters entered a matrix where they were marked by their Cubanness, an illegitimate otherness within a racialized society. This difference was measured against other racialized bodies that were beginning to threaten the hierarchized order of the 1960s United States. Interestingly, in the sisters' account above, they were othered through a punitive invocation of black bodies, forcing an abrupt renegotiation of their understanding of themselves as racialized subjects in relation to blackness. This significant shift in Mendieta's consideration of her racial identity, her developing sense of what we might call a U.S. Latinidad, invites a multisited and comparative approach to fully understand her future performative gestures. She prompts us to move from Cuba to the United States, not through the more common sites of analysis — such as coasts and borders — but taking us instead to the Midwest to consider her alongside other racialized populations.

In her aesthetic choices, we can see Mendieta exploring this complex racial matrix illuminated by her displacement from Cuba, beginning with her work on canvas — a body of production often overlooked or passed over for an emphasis on the Intermedia performances and installations that links her to a European avantgarde. The rich work of her Intermedia performances, particularly as they explore racialization, however, is informed by the ways Mendieta activates the two-dimensional plane in painting. In the paintings created between 1969 and 1971, Mendieta is clearly a student of art history. Her color blocking reflects knowledge of the vibrancy of Fauvism while elaborating her own muted and earthy palette; her rendering style invokes Gaugin and Matisse with touches of Picasso's "africanesque" markings and de Kooning's Woman series. Though Mendieta showed the ability to render the figure in a naturalistic way, she chose to alter her models through expressionistic gestures. The paintings also reflect Mendieta's interest in the sacred iconography of various cultures she was concurrently studying. Most of her largely figurative paintings were executed in bold broad contours, not unlike those that would etch out a Silueta, and are noteworthy as experiments in a visual register that moves beyond conventional standards of beauty.

When Mendieta abandoned painting, she requested that any remaining canvases be destroyed, telling her mother, who stored them in her home, that they were no longer of use to her. Because her mother ignored Mendieta's request, a significant number of paintings survived her desires. One such painting is an untitled 1969 portrait for which Mendieta's mother sat as model (plate 1). Mendieta's portrait is framed as a bust. Its subject bears a deeply saturated countenance, rich in red ochers and defined with burnt umber, while the hair is a dark cinnamon that appears plaited through the striations created by electric cobalt and emerald. The dark color palette, with occasional highlights in chartreuse and cadmium yellow in heavy brush strokes, flattens the surface of the canvas, as do the expressionistic linear markings drawn over the entire surface of its subject. The linear patterning additionally differentiates the adorned neck and bust from the smooth planes of the face in the style of Picasso's primitivism or, as art historian Julia Herzberg suggests, perhaps directly referencing the markings on African masks she was studying in art history courses. In this portrait, Mendieta significantly darkened, or browned, her mother's countenance, which is predominantly characterized by what Herzberg — one of the few Mendieta scholars to address this work — referred to as an "Africanizing air."

In this work, we can read Mendieta as straddling two different racial ideologies, both haunted by the specter of blackness. As her teenage self told us above, Mendieta had "never realized that people were different" in Cuba — a privilege of her phenotypic "whiteness" and class. Once in the United States, Mendieta was drafted into a different racializing schema in which she was suddenly marked. On a visual register, she was now perceived as dark skinned, no longer white or protected from a racializing gaze. Mendieta's portrait indicates an engagement with this new racial schema, ruminating on its implications for her in the United States and for the way she considered her legacy and family abroad. While not unproblematic and framed through her privileged position as phenotypically whiter than she is black, Mendieta's use of what we might read as two-dimensional minstrelsy can also be understood as beginning an investigation of the comparative racialization implied when the epithet "nigger" was hurled at her as a teenager. Literally darkening the skin of her mother references the long history of blackface in Cuba, exploring a familial and national connection to blackness.


Excerpted from "Abject Performances"
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. Sublime Abjection  1
1. Other Desires: Ana Mendieta's Abject Imaginings  25
2. Phantom Assholes: Asco's Affective Vortex  57
3. Of Betties Decorous and Abject: Ugly Betty's America la fea and Nao Bustamante's America la bella  89
4. Arriving at Apostasy: Performative Testimonies of Ambivalent Belonging  131
Conclusion. Abject Embodiment  161
Notes  167
Bibliography  193
Index  209

What People are Saying About This

Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings - Juana María Rodríguez

“In this provocative text, Leticia Alvarado offers us abjection as an aesthetic strategy for thinking about embodied performances that bear the weight of the fraught communal failures of latinidad. Her eclectic archive of formal and informal performances of world-making practices draw her readers toward those improper subjects of Latino cultural production that expose the perverse pleasures of refusing both civic incorporation and identitarian regimes to linger in the difficult promise of racialized otherness.”

Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America - José A. Quiroga

Abject Performances counters inspirational, mainstream representations of Latinos that give them a constrained place in U.S. minoritarian politics. Leticia Alvarado understands abjection as resistance: a wily, uncooperative ethos within the heroic narrative of Latino inclusion and assimilation. She sets her critical eye not on aspirational models, but on artists and performances that insist on the confusion of boundaries. The result is a brilliant contribution to Latino Studies.”

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