La Pocha Nostra’s reputation in the performance art world precedes it. They’ve led rebel artist pedagogical workshops internationally under the leadership of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes. Their core members have made history with their performances on the entrenched stereotypes surrounding Latino cultures. There is always an overtone of humor and drama in their spectacle. Also, there is always an opportunity the viewer to get involved, to make a fool of themself, to reveal their own vulnerability or to refute the performance altogether. Above all, members of La Pocha are image makers – politicizing the well-known tropes of Latinidad for our Instagram and social media times. The gaze is paramount.
We enter the space of Defibrillator, greeted by a mash-up of electronic and classical music that lends an air of drama to the space. Many other mash-ups already begin to unfold before us. We see a shamanistic, gender-fluid figure behind a microphone, wearing a shirt emblazoned with “POLICIA,” a cowboy hat, a tulle skirt, one high heel, one boot. On either side of this enchanter are two chairs facing each other. A Flamenca in a red dress takes the seat on the Shaman’s right and a Gangster/Cyborg with black latex clothing takes the seat on the left. They are staring intently at each other, their eyes focused directly in front of them.
The Shaman begins with an invocation, first in English, then Spanish, then back to English again. “Live Art, Dead Art, Nor, Sur, Mexico, body, brain, Native, other, video, theatre, performance, binary models completely useless, psycho magic facing the abyss of our time…,” and he goes on. La Pocha is declaring their stance, acknowledging their labels, acknowledging the preconceived notions of their work at the outset. Make all assumptions that you want about these tableau vivants; they invite it.
The Flamenca puts on a mask, and the Cyborg picks up a goat carcass seated nearby. “Hold those poses,” the Shaman demands, “Post on Facebook now! That’s a good image.” The Flamenca stalks around the space, teasing the audience with her tongue that is a brown babydoll’s arm, teasing us with a gasoline pump held between her thighs, at the end of it a lipstick tube. She wants to touch us through her mediated limbs. I allow her to put lipstick on my mouth with her phallic pump, and others follow. There are laughs, many cameras flashing, photographers frantically attempting to capture every moment of the exchange. All the while, the Cyborg is struggling under the weight of the skinned and headless goat that he holds with a wooden plank piercing its torso.
The music is constantly changing from classical to electronic to rock ballads in this theater. The Shaman gives the Cyborg and the Flamenca instructions, “Film noir images from the 40s involving a Mexican male and an Anglo female,” and asks us to ponder why the female always in a position of power. The hulking Flamenca and Cyborg approach each other with intense gazes as she foists him up on her shoulders, ultimately creating a Pieta image. He lies limply across her lap, sweat and a little goat blood dripping from his arms and face. The Shaman now wants a piece of the action.
The next tableau, Seven ways to kill a Mexican, begins. A young, possibly Anglo woman, wearing a see-through shirt and shiny, tight pants to kill, holds a gun to the Shaman’s face. She presses the gun to his nose, his chest, his groin, holding him down to the ground. The Shaman invites members of the audience emphatically to reenact the killing of a Mexican. They resist at first, then progressively get into it, as the Shaman stands on a bench, and each person presses the gun to his face. “I’m more indigenous than you, more revolutionary than you,” the music chants.
The Cyborg returns and loves on a blow up doll, caressing it and distorting its limbs. The absurdity of it, combined with Whitney Houston’s “And I will always love you,” elicits laughter from the audience.
Now the Shaman returns, this time dressed as a boxer with Mexico and US gloves. The Flamenca is now dressed as his coach. “Tell us why you had to hide away for so long,” the music blasts. The Coach holds up a mirror for the Boxer to shadowbox; he punches it until shards fly around the space, then proceeds to punch himself repeatedly. The Coach holds him down trying to keep him from punching himself now, simultaneously threatening to punch him herself.
The Cyborg is lifting up his goat like a weight now. The Shaman/Boxer acknowledges this as “goat gym action.” The Coach has left, now returning dressed as a nude Virgen de Guadalupe, flowers wreathing her head, gauze-like fabric barely covering her pale body. “Make it more hardcore, come on!” taunts the Shaman to his two images. Black liquid starts to flow from the Virgen’s flowers onto her body. The Cyborg has returned to his chair and wraps a handkerchief around his bicep. He is now a junkie. His massive syringe is full of clear liquid, which he dispenses to pour as tears down his face.
The Shaman asks, “Do we have any protesters tonight?” as the Cyborg begins to chop each of the limbs of his goat off its carcass. The Cyborg/Hitman wraps his goat in a black fabric and duct tape. He carries it across the room to the Virgen and kneels before her. They pose like a triumphant painting; there is a confidence from all that this is a good image. The Shaman explicitly states so there is no question – we are now witnessing the Oilspill Madonna 2009 and the Cartel Hitman circa 2012.
“How do we get out of this mess? Let’s make a final image.” He invites local performance artists to join the image, to help us make sense of this, and to add complexity to it. One youthful, male-bodied person immediately disrobs entirely except for sunglasses and sits in front of the two on his knees, in a demure yet confident posture. Most of the audience have iPhones and cameras out to capture the image. “That’s too normative,” calls the Shaman, and a woman enters the scene to pour beer on the male Nude’s face. She remains clothed. The group of four now rearrange several times, each Neo-classical pose inviting audience members to photograph ferociously. We arrive at a final image – a totem pole with the four stacking their heads on top of each other, the oil-soaked Virgen at the bottom.
The Shaman ends this with one last invocation. “God bless Cuba, God bless Colombia, God bless Iran, God bless Mexico,” he starts authoritatively and going down the list he begins to become less sure. “God bless…France? Chinga’o, God bless Iceland, porque no?” He starts to bless everything, and we laugh again. “God bless my left testicle, the vagina, America – shift, I mean the continent.” More laughter. Ending his invocation, the Shaman’s blesses us, “Thank you for being so kind with us tonight.” We applaud, and the theater is cleared.
I realize as we are leaving the space that we will need to look at all our photographs later to remember every image that was created. This will keep us honest about our values in a way, as the most valuable images to us will be the ones which we created on our individual devices or contain our likeness in them, not necessarily the ones with the most complexity or compositional integrity. Each return to the image and to the process of gazing upon them is woven back into the legend of La Pocha Nostra. As such, the performance is not over.
RP14 performance photo by Jon Poindexter.
Rashayla Marie Brown is an interdisciplinary artist and cultural theorist. Her journey includes radio DJing, researching black British music in London and founding the family-owned graphic design company, Selah Vibe, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia. Brown holds a BA in Sociology and African-American Studies from Yale University and a BFA in Photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She has received numerous awards, including the Anna Louise Raymond Fellowship, Chicago Artist Coalition’s BOLT Residency, the Propeller Fund, and the Mellon Research Grant. She currently serves as the Director of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion at SAIC.