Uprising Art is happy to share with you the fourth interview dedicated to BE.BOP 2013, an amazing initiative we supported as media partner, last May 19-23 in Berlin, Germany.
Focusing on the legacy of the Black Power Movement in the context of the « Cold » War from a Global South perspective, it presented several Caribbean contemporary artists – becoming in this regard the first Afropean performance festival – and by extension the first performance festival of the Caribbean Diaspora in Europe.
Here is an interview with Teresa María Díaz Nerio, an artist who participated in BE.BOP for the second time, with a live performance and through her participation in the roundtable.
Could you please introduce yourself?
I am Teresa María Díaz Nerio, from the Dominican Republic. I have been living in The Netherlands for the past eleven years, where I studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and later completed a Master in Fine Arts at the Dutch Art Institute in Enschede. I work with performance and research.
What are your current areas of investigation?
I normally research before I do a performance. Most of the time both are totally interrelated: my investigations lead to performances.
I am currently researching on the presentation – or representation – of Caribbean women in the cinema of the 1940s and 1950s in the Spanish Caribbean – Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico. The film industry in Mexico was really powerful at that time, and we, in the Dominican Republic, did not have that many movies at that period, or not at all, because we had a dictatorship and, on a cultural level, film productions were non-existent, even though we were the fourth country in the continent to have televisions. I am looking at the representations of women as “Mamita” or “Mulatita”, those two stereotypes of Caribbean Black women. I mean actually I am looking at ‘Blackmestizas’: this is the way I am calling them/us, and how I consider myself also a Black woman or a Blackmestiza. I do not want to fall into some sort of racial mathematics, as a Puerto Rican scholar Jose Juan Rodriguez Vazquez recalls what Korinman and Ronai denominated as a ‘classificatory tyranny’ which racialism-racialization is, so I decided to conceptualize the term “Blackmestizas” because we are Blacks but we are mixed, and we are mixed but we are also Blacks.
Have you already done a performance on the deconstruction of this “Mamita”/“Mulatita” stereotype?
Yes, I made a performance that I just presented in Glasgow, at Tramway, which was curated by Arika, an organization based in Edinburgh. The event was called “Freedom is a Constant Struggle”. I made a lecture-performance that was a deconstruction of the film “Yambao”, 1957, from Alfredo B. Crevenna, a Mexican-Cuban co-production.
The movie is about the character Yambao, a “mulata” which I describe as a dissident, maroon, trickster character played by Ninón Sevilla which is a rumbera (Rumba dancer and actress)- a light skin Cuban. She usually performs as a rumba dancer and often, in other films, as a very poor woman who ends up working as a prostitute and/or who dances in the Cabaret. Yet, always, and this is what is really interesting – even if she plays this kind of characters, she does show some justice to Blackness. Through her dancing and her use of Afro-Cuban music and Afro-Cuban spirituality she brings what Fred Moten calls the ‘Black sociality’ into her characters and therefore into the Mexican film-industry. This is not unproblematic as often Blackness is placed outside of Mexico, yet it remains a very important historical moment for Afro-Cuban music and its internationalization. Rhythms like Cha Cha Cha, Rumba, Mambo etc. became well-known through the Mexican Cinema. Many Cuban musicians, most of them Blacks/Afro-Cubans played in the Rumbera Cinema of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. I am looking at this film from the perspective of highlighting the elements where a white supremacist worldview and embodiment of Caribbean bodies take over. My attempt is to deconstruct the film in a decolonial way.
I also talk about blackface, the fact that there are a lot of the Black faces in the film that are not real Black faces: they are played by white persons, with their face painted. This is racist. Why they did not get a Black woman to play in this film? The strangest thing is that you do have Black women in the movie but they are mostly only singing! So, the Black voice and Afro-Cuban music is there but not the dark-skinned body which is often hidden and occupied by light-skin embodiments of Blackness. I address this complex issue.
The lecture-performance also included a rumba dance that I dedicated to Ochun, the Goddess of Love, from the Santeria/Cuban and Yoruba/African tradition.
How was that received?
It was beautiful and I think this is the first performance I really enjoyed performing. There was an element of improvisation given by the context of this event which featured several jazz improvisations. Participants included the theorist Fred Moten, poets Sonia Sanchez, NourbeSe Philip and Amiri Baraka, jazz improvisations by Daniel Carter, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Grimes and performance artist Emma Hedditch and others. The jazz improvisation freed me to perform. Of course, the performance was not static and included movement anyway as I was going to dance, but I felt relieved by the overall atmosphere.
What was interesting is that I conceptualized the screen in the middle of the space. The audience was on the two sides of it, with the same image of the film projected onto the two sides. I thought of that screen dividing people – as race does, so I danced on the two sides around the screen, you could not always see me, I was constantly moving and having the audience loose the feeling of who I was. I made a parallel between screen and skin.
This was highly symbolical.
Yes. I was moved towards a very personal symbolic approach, the audience was not aware that I mean screen-skin but I perform, dance and speak screen-skin. The music, Rumba and Afro-Cuban music, helped a lot to give me the freedom to dance.
You have been participating in the first edition of Black Europe Body Politics. Could you tell us more about your involvement in the project?
I have been collaborating with Alanna Lockward since 2009. She invited me to perform here, in Berlin, Hommage à Sara Bartman. We had already met through emails and since then we are collaborating constantly.
Before the 2012 edition of BE.BOP, we were in discussions around the subject of Decoloniality with Alanna, Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vazquez. The 14th of February of 2011 – on a beautiful date, the Transnational Decolonial Institute went into the world. I participated in the writing of the manifesto of decolonial aesthetics. The collaboration exists within that group since then, and Alanna came up with this amazing idea. She invited me last year and this is how I started researching on the “Mamita”/“Mulatita” stereotypes of Caribbean women and the diaspora. The diaspora part is still in the process as for now.
Do you seek to involve the diaspora in your performative actions and how?
I do it in everything. A while ago, I realized that I was always choosing historical characters to inspire myself to make artworks. And I understood the people I chose to focus on are people that come from the Global South, from countries that have been colonized. They all bear this history of Blackness, of anti-imperialism. There was this thread behind all my different works where I am trying to understand how the colonized mind works actually.
The diaspora is there of course because I lived here too long already! It is implicit in my work. The fact that I chose Sarah Baartman has a lot to do with the fact that I live in the Netherlands where I experience this kind of incredible racism as a Dominican woman. This racism is so institutionalized… It seems very small you know… But it is huge, actually, and violent.
In this new work around the “Mamita”/“Mulatita”, I was thinking exactly about those stereotypes where you have either the oversexualized Black female body or the kind of faithful servant. There is a book actually called Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America by Micky McElya and I thought this is a great description. This is how they want to portray the Black woman. The sad thing is many women have internalized those stereotypes and perform them in their daily life.
They are acting as characters?
Yes. You are bombarded with this cliché all the time and then you think ‘yes, Caribbean women are really sexual or not sexual at all, are fat and cook all the time and love white kids’. Those stereotypes are so extreme.
It is about what the decolonial group modernity/coloniality conceptualized as the ‘coloniality of being’ and also about, it seems to me, ‘coloniality of knowledge’ actually… They colonize your whole body: you do not have it anymore. It becomes an image they can do whatever they want with it and you follow. People, who somehow do not have the opportunity to take a break and look at things and at their being by themselves just perform those stereotypes the whole society is telling you.
This is problematic and this is why I am researching the cinema of the 1940s and 1950s. It is important to trace that history – linked with colonialism – and show where this image is created and when and how it is presented today in real life.
How can women un-trap from these gender stereotypes? Are you trying to help them, to provoke a reaction, with your performances?
I am un-trapping myself and decolonizing myself. Of course, I hope that through my own decolonization people get inspired.
People have to take their future in their own hands. We are not what people try to tell us we are. The human being can be so dignified. So, why should we let somebody oppress us? This is why we have to show the colonial matrix of power and what it does. The problem is also that white Western Europeans think they are not colonized. But in fact they maybe are even more colonized because they think they are in a position of superiority. As Walter says this is an option to choose decoloniality… So, I am just showing an image that to me deconstructs sexuality and gender roles.
And is this also why you bring to the table those hidden histories?
Yes, it is important to talk about those histories, about Sarah Baartman, for instance, but not only about her, about the Black body in general. I use her example because of what happened to her was so extreme… Her story is obscure. It is terrible how scientists and the rhetoric of science have used her body to claim whites were the best and superior.
In general, as long as people will keep claiming modernity, they will keep being colonized. Modernity is coloniality.
Did you notice different reactions when you perform in the Caribbean instead of Europe?
I never performed in the Dominican Republic or in the Caribbean actually… I studied here and have travelled very little to my region. I have not been invited there. Alanna wanted to curate a show there but it did not work out yet. I mostly performed in Europe and once in Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA.
Do you feel the need to perform there?
Of course! I would love to! Love to!
Perform in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico… Everywhere! It is a matter of organizing it and expanding your network.
Is there any frustration of performing only in the European context?
Not at all. Most of the time I feel oppressed by being here but then I also feel super free. I am not attached to the place and that gives me an incredible freedom that I do not get in Dominican Republic because when I am there I cannot detach from something that is so close to my body and skin. It is more complex to get the freedom to create in my own context.
Have you received any violent reactions to what you do or experienced denial in what you denounce?
The other day I was finding very strange that even though my performance Hommage à Sara Bartman has received a good critic in Europe, I do not remember of anyone writing about it in the Netherlands…! They do not mention my research and name. If I was a white Dutch male or female, I think they would have been writing about me… But why not? Why they do not want to put me on the scene? This is because I am talking about race. And as Artwell Cain was explaining in the Netherlands they do not even want to use the word race… Race does not exist for them so why would there be racism?
As an artist, I also move more in the underground scene. I am not looking for the recognition of those huge institutions. I do not care about that, I care about the people and the community we create. I want to go forward into the discussion on decoloniality and changing things.
Do you consider your performances as a political act, a denunciation, a resistance?
It is political. All my work is political. Linked to what we were talking before, I talk of identity in politics. Identity in itself, for me, does not even exist. Identity is already a political construct.
So yes, my performances are political but they also have a metaphysical level that maybe many people do not even perceive… It has always been there and now it is coming in a more specific way. I am bringing Afro-Cuban music, Afro-Caribbean religion that is not institutionalized and that is the power of it. What the church does many times is work as a kind of State of that religion and kills it. They kill the metaphysics and the real spirituality.
So you do integrate religion and spiritual elements in your performances?
Not any religion in particular as an institution. But I am interested in spirituality, and especially Black spirituality because it conveys a lot of power, of connections, of energy.
In my last work, I dealt with Ochun, from the Santeria – a syncretic religion from Cuba and the Yoruba. I integrated her dance and symbolism. Before I wrote a poem to be performed, it was about Erzulie, the Haitian voudoun Goddess of Love. I am interested in the symbolism of women and love. I want to give that love. The way we spiritually connect and relate to beings and everything that is alive and that is dead is crucial. Everything is and that relationship is what makes us stand on the ground. Otherwise, we are empty…
You are in charge of what you are and what you become.
Do you use your own body in your performance to assert your Black consciousness?
Yes, I do use my body to assert my Black consciousness and also to share it, for me performance is about sharing, giving, and not about taking. I also collaborate with other people like Stefanie Seibold on The Jungle is a Skyscraper, Travesti de Sangre, and Matt und schlapp wie Schnee. And with the artist Yota Ioannidou in our work Aula Intergalactica. I also work with the audience. I did a work on the discourses of Fidel Castro called The Speaker where I invited some people to read his speeches.
There are other persons in my performances. I think I have this thing for impersonation somehow… To perform for me is a way to become. When you perform, you are in a sort of trance. I want to perform because I want to create relationships, threads. I want confrontation of my body with other bodies. Let’s have this body to body confrontation of identity in politics and look at what we can create together. I do not believe in the static artwork that stays forever. I think that things live and die, that’s it. I want ephemeral, moving, changing, becoming artworks.
May 21, 2013, in Berlin, Germany
By Clelia Coussonnet
Headline picture’s credits : Teresa María Díaz Nerio, ‘Ni ‘mamita’ Ni ‘mulatita”, Taken at Episode 4: Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Tramway, Glasgow, April 2013 © Alex Woodward/Arika 13