- Melina Paris
By Melina Paris, Contributing Writer
On Jan. 20, the Cuban-born, New York-based artist, Carlos Martiel, stood unclothed, alone in a dark room. A motion sensor triggered by people walking in, illuminated a constellation on the artist’s body.
Stars from the flags of countries in the Western Hemisphere were fixed with string to his body. The artist stood completely still. Various- sized stars on his body and four more on the floor in front and behind him were lit in iridescent blue.
The constellation represented a conceptual map in which no state is superior to another. Instead, they come together within a unified field. The visual of Martiel’s nakedness cloaked in galactic darkness combined with the unprejudiced constellation that was sewn on to him was striking in its beauty; it also implied peace and fixed nature. The performance was called América.
Another perspective is that the performance asserted the legacy and history of the Western Hemisphere as if it’s written into the skin, indeed, into the very DNA of those of us rooted in the New World.
Martiel was one of three artists, including Andil Gosine from Trinidad and Jimmy Robert from Guadeloupe (an island in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean), to stage a performance at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach entitled, Representational Acts, on Jan. 20.
Representational Acts is thematically linked to the Pacific Standard Time exhibition at MOLAA, Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, which runs through March 4.
Our Holy Waters and Mine
Gosine’s work draws from his background as a queer Indo-Trinidadian man. In Our Holy Waters, and Mine, Gosine looks to the experience of South Asian migration to the Caribbean by referencing indentured servitude and Kala Pani (“black waters”), the Hindu taboo against crossing the sea, and how that relates to his own history.
Kala Pani belief implies that crossing the seas causes the loss of social respectability and corruption of cultural character and posterity. When slavery was abolished in British colonies, authorities went to India to find indentured labor to replace the emancipated slaves. To attract these laborers to Caribbean countries requiring cheap labor, the countries were presented as promised lands. The British strategy to dispel the doubts raised by Kana Pani was to place containers of Ganges River water on the ships, to ensure the continuity of reincarnation beyond the Kala Pani.
To represent this, Gosnine entered by pouring water from a bucket into glass jars marked with names of 12 bodies of water. Six glasses referenced the ancestral journey from India to Trinidad and six marked his own ancestors’ travels to bodies of water in the United States, where they settled. The artist also utilized long-stemmed white hydrangeas to represent giving and the tension of social history and individual desires in the Indian diaspora. Passing flowers out to audience members he chanted, “Our Holy Waters are not the Ganges.” He also repeated like a mantra, “I’m tired of…,” adding nearly two dozen physically and mentally arduous actions to end the phrase including, seeking, proving, arriving, thirst, pleading, labor and demonstrating.
The performance was sweet and poignant. As water and life can often represent hope, the repeated phrase “I’m tired of,” presented a sense of weariness.
He eventually laid bunches of flowers on the ground, faced out forming a rectangle. As he laid in the center in a resting pose, people to whom he gave the flowers silently walked up and placed them atop his body.
The performer, Jerome, appeared in a costume made of white rolls of paper resembling carnival attire. His deliberate movements against a droning audio track contrasted with the simultaneously syncopated rhythms of Caribbean music and dance. The avant-garde performance merged with traditional festival arts and blurred boundaries between the modern and the ancient.
As Jerome moved and posed within a zigzag pattern and a rectangle of yellow floor tape, he recited Jimmy Robert’s 78-line poem. Abolibibelo. It began with staccato utterances, then filled with contrary phrases combined with thought-provoking expression. Movement embodied his words and vice-versa.
Abolibibelo was imaginative and matchless; the performance called on viewers to interrogate their surroundings and to cast a critical eye on representation.