Forgetting, Remembering, Reflecting: A Conversation with Laura Anderson Barbata / Laura Anderson Barbata and Jonathan P. Eburne

Figure 1. Laura Anderson Barbata, Julia y Laura, 2013.

How does an artist prepare for a solo exhibition? I spoke with the New York-based transdisciplinary artist Laura Anderson Barbata amid a series of major exhibitions of her work. This included a show called Transcommunality (January–October 2021) at the Newcomb Art Museum in New Orleans, which brought together the stunning textile work and video documentation from the artist’s performance-based, collaborative projects over the past two decades. In Fall 2023, having spent 2022–2023 as an Artist Fellow at the National Arts Club in New York, Anderson Barbata will open a solo show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in September, a survey of her last three decades of artwork titled Laura Anderson Barbata: Singing Leaf. Her work also features in an exhibition of contemporary Latin American art at MoMA titled Chosen Memories (2023), which includes a series of c-prints documenting her time working with Yanomami, Ye´Kuana, and Piaroa Indigenous communities in the upper Amazon beginning in 1992 (Figure 5).

This was not what we sat down to discuss. Our conversation had to do neither with solo exhibitions nor with career surveys. Even so, we touched on many of the core questions such synoptic activity indefatigably entails. We spoke, for instance, about what it means to remember (as well as to forget) one’s own artistic archive. We also reflected on the ethical demands of self-portraiture and the openness to dialogue it makes possible. Laura Anderson Barbata’s capacity for introspection is as central to her artistic work as her capacity to inspire it in others. Such shared, reciprocal self-reflection forms the practical basis of the long-term collaborations that typify her working practice. In the early 1990s, her collaboration with the Yanomami community led to the formation of the Yanomami Owë Mamotima project (Rainforest Paper Project), subsequently co-directed with the artist Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë. In exchange for an apprenticeship in the traditional Ye´Kuana practice of canoe-making, Anderson Barbata trained community members in papermaking, bookmaking, and block printing; this work yielded the award-winning artist book Shapono (1998/2001) (Figure 2), a traditional oral narrative written in the Yanomami language and illustrated by children and adults from the community; it was block printed in an edition of 50.

Figure 2. Yanomami Owë Mamotima, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, and Laura Anderson Barbata, Shapono, March 1992–December 2001. Photo: Olympia Shannon.

The artist’s other major collaborative projects are likewise notable for both their duration and, in particular, for the sustained practice of care they entail. From 2003 to 2013, Anderson Barbata worked with scientists, museum workers, and government officials in Norway and Mexico to rematriate the remains of the Indigenous Cahita (Mexico) singer, actress, and performer Julia Pastrana (1834–1860), whose embalmed body was displayed as a touring side-show exhibition for over a half century after her death. After a decade of research, correspondence, and activism, Anderson Barbata orchestrated the return of Pastrana’s remains to her native Sinaloa de Leyva, where her coffin was greeted with official ceremonies and a funeral mass, and then buried in the municipal cemetery according to local traditions. This project has continued in alternative forms in the ensuing decade; Anderson Barbata has developed and performed a series of performance lectures in Pastrana’s name, as well as an ongoing zine project and an edited book, The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, published in 2017.

Concurrently, for over two decades Anderson Barbata has been working with traditional stilt-dancing groups from Oaxaca, Trinidad, and Brooklyn to create large-scale, carnivalesque “Interventions.” These are public events that incorporate “procession, performance, dance, music, textile arts, costuming, ritual, and protest” as their artistic media.1 In 2011, she collaborated with the Brooklyn Jumbies on Intervention: Wall Street, a musical procession of Black men in 12-foot tall business suits that coincided with the Occupy movement; they handed out golden foil-wrapped chocolate coins, with Anderson Barbata at ground level representing “the proportion of women in executive positions—and their salaries—in the banking industry.” Intervention: Indigo, performed in 2015 and reprised in 2020, is “a call to action to serve and protect,” in response to police violence against BIPOC people. Other recent Intervention series include Ocean Calling (2017) and Intervention: Ocean Blues (2018) and an ongoing series Intervention: Raphael Red, begun in 2018.

In a 2012 introduction to her work, Edward J. Sullivan points out that Anderson Barbata’s trans-disciplinary art can be difficult to define according to conventional taxonomies of artistic practice. In particular, Sullivan distinguishes her collaborations and interventions from “performance art” on account of their daring—yet also playful, joyful—processes of cultural mestizaje. In her collaborations with stilt-dancing groups such as the Zancudos in Oaxaca and the Brooklyn Jumbies in New York, Anderson Barbata furnishes “a platform for mutual nourishment of physical, aesthetic, and cultural interpenetration,” for which the artist herself is “all at once the entrepreneur, catalyst, artistic enabler, and integral participant in all of these efforts.”2

The artist has adopted the term “transcommunality” as the descriptive term for this necessarily immersive, relational, and long-term collaborative artistic work.3 Melissa Hilliard Potter has also usefully described this body of work as “social sculpture.” I find this latter term to be especially powerful, for it not only characterizes the immersive, kinetic sensory environment created during each Intervention; but it also acknowledges the gorgeous works of wearable art that come to life before, during, and after the processions.

To sort through Laura Anderson Barbata’s artistic career is to encounter the powerful cords of friendship, artistic exchange, and creative reciprocity she has created and sustained, no less than the textiles, sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, and videos she makes. “All I can say,” she notes in an earlier interview, “is that I am moved to create works within a specific social or political moment, and I feel those works arise from an intuitive, rather than an analytical position—and because of this they have the potential to resonate with truths and core ethical values more profound than individual opinions.”4 I take this statement to suggest that for Anderson Barbata the art of making is continuous with the art to be made; an artist’s methods, means, and medium are woven from the same social fabric.

Laura Anderson Barbata is, Sullivan notes, “as much a philosopher and an art and cultural historian as she is a practitioner of visual creativity.”5 This insight resonates strongly with me as I reflect on our conversation below. To describe Laura as a philosopher and cultural historian is to identify the profound thoughtfulness that underlies the artist’s characteristic warmth and generosity. As I transcribed the recording of my conversation with Laura I was struck anew by the nuance and precision of her thinking, even—or rather, especially—when she was describing everyday habits and practices. For a collaborative, trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural artist such as she, the commonplaces of daily life and interpersonal engagement are anything but incidental to her work; they comprise an essential medium of its possibility.

The following text is adapted from the transcription of Zoom recording from 2022. The recording begins as we are speaking about forgetting things and the challenges of keeping track of one’s own life.

                                                           —Jonathan P. Eburne

: :

Figure 3. Laura Anderson Barbata, Autorretrato (Viernes en Tamaulipas), 2012. Photo: Olympia Shannon.

JE: Do you keep a journal?

LAB: I have always, and I also keep this, which is a form of a journal. It’s a kind of agenda. This is an entire year [holds up a thick sheaf of paper] week-by-week.

JE: And it’s loose-leaf. You put it in a binder?

LAB: I put it in a binder. But now I’m going into—hey, I have an old year in here. I haven’t done my binder work.

I keep these, because sometimes I need to consult them, as in: when did I talk to Jonathan? I remember we had a meeting; I want to go back to it. I don’t always put everything in the standard calendar.

And I also have these lists. Some people have seen them on my desk, and they laugh. They laugh! They’re very long, everything from books I want to read, to going to the dentist, to updating my website.

And then I have this—

JE: The actual, reflection part?

LAB: Eh, I don’t reflect any more [laughs]. These are notes. Right now, I could take some notes. And I might. You know, when you say something like, “You’ve got to check out this website.” Then I’ll write it down right here. I have “Zoom with Jonathan, and the date.” Ok, I’m ready for you.

What about you? How do you keep track?

Figure 4. Laura Anderson Barbata, Autorretrato (Primera Parte), 1996/2023. Photo: Stefan Hagen (edited by Jeremy Haik).

JE: Increasingly, it’s kind of analogous for me. I went through an Alec Guinness phase, which had something to do with Englishness, I think. I became enamored with the musicality of Guinness’s speaking voice. He was also a memoirist; he wrote beautiful memoirs. He was raised by a single mother, he never knew his father, and he converted to Catholicism. He writes about that; it’s a kind of spiritual autobiography in some ways. But it’s not really spiritual; it’s more cultural: being an English Catholic, there was a whole network of care that he could tap into. Anyway, he’s a beautiful writer, and he mentions keeping a diary in which he basically just writes down the date and the weather. Which is also very English. So I started doing this myself. For me it’s a way of pinning memory down, like a bug, to a fixed place, much like the agenda pages you just described; it serves a similar function. I came to realize how much I need this because I forget everything. But this little system enables me to forget, without having to worry that it’s gone forever. I also keep lots work notes; I keep lists of things, which I don’t do, and which is the nature of such lists, right? I have pieces of paper everywhere, too, which serves the function of never having to look at a blank page. There’s always something to go to.

All this makes me think of what you were just saying about forgetting everything, and wanting to forget. Does your own journal and record-keeping allow you to— or relieve you of having to remember everything? I was just rereading The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates, which is a book about Renaissance European memory systems. A lot of this goes back to the Egyptian story of Thoth and Thamus in Plato’s dialogue: an anxiety that the invention of writing (by Thoth, who is also Hermes) is a problem, because it means you don’t have to learn things by heart anymore. Writing takes things out of your memory; it’s an artificial memory. And I thought: that’s beautiful, I love that.

Figure 5. Laura Anderson Barbata Autorretrato, 1994/98.

 LAB: That is amazing, Jonathan, I love it! Coincidentally, I have been reading about that same subject; have you read Irene Vallejo´s El infinito en un junco. La invención de los libros en el mundo antiguo? There’s so much there to think about. In my case, these notes are tiny doors that I can open whenever I need to, and through which I can then go to the memories. Just a few words and it will take me directly to that moment. If I don’t put that door in, I will never be able to return to that memory. Which is slightly different from what you’re saying. But that is one of the things that fills me with anxiety about the digital world. We used to have slides, and then DVDs of our work, and then, aargh, mp3s and mp4s and then mp-whatevers.

JE: Because it’s some other place, or even fictional, in some way—virtual and not at-hand?

LAB: Yes, and then you have the hard drive that has images from the 1980s, and then another one from the 1990s, and the one from the ‘80s doesn’t work anymore, so those are basically lost forever. That, to me, is a torture.

Figure 6. Laura Anderson Barbata, Julia Pastrana, Bienvenida a casa, 2012. Photo: Olympia Shannon.

JE: I was curious to ask you about an aspect of your work you just raised, and I’ll get there in a second. But first, in addition to sharing your anxiety about data loss, I’m also really struck by your way of describing your mnemonic system—you have this wonderful image of the door, of the reminder as a door to memory. It makes me think about memory as a storehouse or even a hotel. I’m wondering if the internet or cloud version of that kind of memory changes that structure in some fundamental way.

Looking even now at my computer screen, I feel as though everything I look at is inside a one-window shop. Everything takes place within this one rectangular frame, right here, the delimitations of my screen. Is that a part of it for you as well?

LAB: I don’t even know how to answer that question, because I’m having a very hard time with memory—in terms of our cognitive memory, what I remember—and memory in terms of the cloud and all of that. Emotionally, I haven’t evolved enough to manage it, or even to access it. So basically my issue is that I start to have anxiety attacks because I can’t find things, and as I am searching through my files I realize, hey, I’ve been using the same image for the past ten years, and yet there are all these other images I’ve just found buried in the files, other images that are beautiful. I find that I end up repeating myself visually, in terms of the images of my own work that I am putting out there.

A lot of this happens because of an economy of time. We’re so bombarded with things that are demanding our immediate attention, and demanding our time. That velocity, and the speed at which we are expected to respond, begins to reduce the memories we are able to carry with us and share with others. That’s where I have my anxiety [makes choking gesture].

JE: That’s beautifully put. I can really feel that anxiety. I wonder if there’s an analogy here with the very phenomenon of anxiety itself, as a fundamental restriction of emotional breadth. . When that kind of restriction comes to bear on images, and life experience, and all that your work reaches out to, it makes me think about the sadness of constricting a repertoire and an archive so starkly. There’s a kind of tragedy in that, even if it’s based only on an economy of time or technology.

Figure 7. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, Intervention Wall Street, 2011. Photo: Frank Veronsky.

LAB: I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately. Does it matter that some of the documentation of my work is completely lost? At least right now, I believe that I can find, and go through, one of those little doors that is rarely opened, because you never know when you might just have the urge or need to search for… that! And when I start to look around that way, I often end up finding a piece of work that comes back to me, like a memory. And fortunately, or unfortunately, I still have a line-up of hard drives over there behind me. I once tried—I needed something from one of the hard drives, and I couldn’t even open the door anymore. What are those guys even doing there? They had been providing me with a false sense of memory. And I have to force myself to ask, is it better to lose all those tiny doors? But honestly, I still cannot say goodbye.

The truth is that I don´t really know what exactly has been lost; I counted on those little doors to be there. I have tried to list what I have lost and forgotten, which immediately creates a tiny door that might open into a void, or maybe not. It is an interesting place to explore.

JE: I mentioned that there was something I was going to ask you about, and since there’s no proper order to any conversation really, this might be as good an opportunity to bring it up as any: when it comes to digging through your memory files, both materially and psychically, there are rather serious implications when it comes to the way you describe the evolution of your artistic work, how you present yourself as an artist, and how you cultivate your public face through your cv and website. I was going to ask you about this, but I was a little nervous about doing so, because it risks conflating the limits of my knowledge with the way you present your body of artwork. For instance, in several places your career narrative—whatever that means: your artistic trajectory—pretty much begins with the Venezuelan Amazon knowledge-exchange project from the early 1990s, with the Yanomami Community of Platanal (see Figure 5).6 This is remarkable work, and it exemplifies the collaborative, reciprocity-based forms of artmaking you later develop as “transcommuniality.” But it’s hardly your first artistic project. You mentioned having a hard drive from the 1980s with work you can’t access, and it’s interesting in that context to have noticed that your work from that period doesn’t feature quite so prominently in your career narrative. I was anxiously trying to form a question about this: what were you doing before Venezuela? I’m not suggesting that there might be some categorical disavowal of that earlier work. Rather, it’s interesting and a little alarming to consider how a kind of disavowal gets produced archivally, technologically, in ways that aren’t entirely in your control.

LAB: Right, right, it’s true. So many things come to mind when you mentioned that. To answer, first of all: what was I doing in the 1980s? I was drawing. I was drawing and making sculptures about nature, which took me to the Amazon. There’s a trajectory. It makes sense—it makes sense to me; to a lot of people it doesn’t make sense. Let’s say you’re applying for a grant. They only want the last five years of your work. My projects are so slow. Slowww. And they are long-term. So if you want five years, you’re going to get the same project. “Indigo” started in 2015, and it was re-performed with a new layer in Mexico in 2020. Five years—it’s a very strange thing and an arbitrary division. And because I’m petrified of boring people, I do try to condense what I have done [laughs].

JE: That says more about people than it does about you.

 Figure 8. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with Chris Walker, Jarana Beat, and The Brooklyn Jumbies. Intervention: Indigo, 2015. Photo: Rene Cervantes.
Figure 9. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with Chris Walker, Jarana Beat, and The Brooklyn Jumbies, Little Jaguar and Diablos. Intervention: Indigo, 2015. Photo: Rene Cervantes.

LAB: I think my father instilled that in me. You mentioned the website. I’m actually having to redo the website because I can’t update it anymore —and since I don’t have anyone to help me, I have to do the whole thing myself. I lost the keys to my own website, and the people who designed it won’t give them to me. So I’m going through one of these new platforms, and doing it all over again. Some things I can just drag and drop, copy and paste, and realize, “oh, there’s a space in there.” And then updating… and putting things in a new order… anyway, you’ll see it when I’m finished. But I must face the fact that my website will never be finished because it is a living archive.

JE: Well, for what it’s worth, I’m incapable of cleaning off my desk—literally—so the idea of having to put your entire virtual house in order and then move it is incomprehensible. It’s like changing studios, but it’s not really about the way you create work. It’s more like a meta-studio you don’t actually get to live or work in.

LAB: It’s your life, and then… It’s strange, because we are always editing as we select what we share with the world. We are making choices that might not make sense five years from now. And you realize you’ve just been repeating yourself… You need to rewrite your own history over and over and over again to make sense of the past in relation to the present. Or maybe it´s the other way around: to make sense of the present and its relationship with the past. Just a minute… I’m adding a note in that journal that I showed you: “Hannah Arendt: Between Past and Future.

JE: I would imagine that there’s a kind of psychoanalytic aspect of that rewriting, too, whereby every time you revise that past or present, you realize it was already there. Or else you come into a new truth, which you realize you were doing all along without necessarily knowing it. Is it something like that for you?

Figure 10. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with Cheikh Gueye, Mei Yamanaka, Jahde Huntley, Yuko Tsuji, and The Brooklyn Jumbies, Intervention: Ocean Blues, 2018. Photo: Shannel Resto.
Figure 11. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with Cheikh Gueye, Mei Yamanaka, Jahde Huntley, Yuko Tsuji, and The Brooklyn Jumbies, Intervention: Ocean Blues, 2018. Photo: Shannel Resto.

LAB: Absolutely. For example, we talked about the 1980s. In the late ‘80s, I was drawing and making sculptures, all on the subject of the environment. And so to be doing interventions in 2017 and 2018 such as Intervention: Ocean Blues and Ocean Calling at the United Nations during the first ocean summit (Figures 12 and 13), it just [draws a circle in the air] comes back around. In my case, you come to understand that recursion for yourself: I’ve always been working on these subjects. Growing up in Mazatlán, facing the ocean, seeing the ocean every day: all this becomes visible to me and the impact it has had on my work and my outlook on life.

JE: I did get that sense from the drawings I saw. Which I love, by the way. One of my favorites is Autorretrato/Amazonas (1995) (Figure 18). One of the things I especially love about it is the way it creates a line of continuity on the order of self-portraiture, as well as the environment. I’m thinking about the way you figure in the Julia Pastrana projects, for instance, where you put yourself in pictures next to her, to be co-perceived, even as you have also worked as an earthly representative for her body and spirit (Figure 1). You made possible the discovery and rematriation of Pastrana’s remains, a century after her death. The collaborative work you do is never not a self-portrait also, because you have to be there, in a very real and concrete way. You have to be part of it. You have to be present in it.

The other thing I was noticing is how much movement there is in that drawing. I’m interested in the kinetics that seems to animate so much of your work. Which is all to say: it’s fascinating to go back through your body of work and find those continuities: they were there already.

LAB: Thank you. I think self-portraits are a very important exercise; I recommend that everyone make self-portraits. It’s about rigor but also about honest introspection. Self-portraits demand that you dig deeply into yourself in order to understand–and recognize—yourself in the world and in your own artwork.

The collaborative works you mention are not not self-portraits. The challenge, for me in self-portraiture, is to look at myself in that mirror: the work or project is the mirror I am facing, and as I hold it up I must ask myself: “what is me? who is the me in this?” I feel it is a very important exercise, and I force myself to answer those questions through self-portraiture. In Julia Pastrana it’s very clear; you see a consistent work of self-portraiture. But in the intervention works—I’ve stopped calling them self-portraits. For example, in Intervention: Indigo, I’m the Little Jaguar, a character in the intervention, which nobody else will play (Figure 9). Not only did I make the character, but I also perform in every iteration of the intervention. But I haven’t called it a self-portrait, since it’s a character—but perhaps it fits into that category. I don’t know; maybe I have to start challenging myself further on this point. Jonathan, would you call that a self-portrait? Is there another way of saying, “self-portrait”?

Figure 12. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, Chris Walker, Jahde Huntley, Mei Yamanaka, Alicia Delimore, Candace Thompson and Jarana Beat, Ocean Calling, 2017. Photo: Frank Veronsky.

JE: Good lord, me? I’m a bad Spanish speaker. But one of the things I love about the term “retrato” is that it sounds like— although it’s a false etymology—the word “retreat.” I do love the idea of thinking about portraiture as something that distances itself, that retreats from presence. You have a portrait of somebody else because you are not there anymore; a self-portrait ends up being something that you are not. There’s something really interesting for me in the pseudo-etymology of the term, for this reason. It goes back to our memory conversation a few moments ago: what you do in a self-portrait is, perhaps, to retreat from yourself.

LAB: I think it has that element, but also it has— thank you for that, that’s an important way to approach the question—but I think it’s more about reflection. How you reflect. What is reflected. The portrait can be a stagnant concept, right? But the retrato is more about how you are reflecting, being reflected. So it’s more of a living process— if we’re both understanding autorretrato in the same way.

JE: That makes a lot of sense. I hope I’m not interrupting you, but I was just thinking back to the anxiety you mentioned—which I share—of boring people. You’re someone who I feel is hyper-present. When you are talking with somebody, you’re there. You’ve very present, and you give a lot of yourself in that moment. And yet to make a self-portrait: I wonder if there’s something about the rigor of an autorretrato that means you can no longer be there for someone else, but that you have to step back from being present in your relationship to other people, let’s say. Does that ring true to you?

LAB: Let’s see if I understand, and if I do, you’re making me very nervous, in a good way. [Laughs]. I like people making demands on me, challenges.

JE: It was meant to be a compliment, I’ll just say.

LAB: Thank you. What I’m feeling and understanding about what you are saying is that it has to do with the capacity or the ability to desprender. Desprender is such a beautiful word. It’s tricky to translate it into English; it means “detach” or “release” but also more literally to take apart. There’s a you, and now there’s this other you that’s going to live independently. It’s going to communicate itself, at that moment of release. So yes, there is this feeling of stepping away. I think, as an artist, that it’s about mirrors; it’s about looking. It’s about looking at yourself with honesty and looking at yourself beyond the circus. And that’s why I think you like la palabra autorretrato more than “portrait,” because it really refers to looking within. And then there’s the question about what people feel—you just said, “you are very present when you speak.” How do I communicate that? It isn’t through a face. You’ll rarely see a face in my self-portraits. There is one with Julia Pastrana; it’s where we’re looking at each other and we’re engaged in this face-to-face encounter. But what it means really to experience the presence of a person: you have to look at yourself first. Deeply.

JE: That’s terrific. We can continue this line of pursuit, or: here’s a question I was going to begin with, and I feel I’d be remiss not to ask you. What do you want to talk about? What’s on your mind? Is there a string in your hands that you’re interested in pulling on?

LAB: The importance of being lost. Of losing, of losing oneself, of uncertainty.

Figure 13. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, Chris Walker, Jahde Huntley, Mei Yamanaka, Alicia Delimore, Candace Thompson and Jarana Beat, Ocean Calling Queen, 2017. Photo: Frank Veronsky.

JPE: Oh wow. Could I ask you a question about that, then? It strikes me that there are certain tools or conditions that enable getting lost, which make it less of a trauma and more of an exploration. Many people feel lost all the time. Do you have tools for getting lost? You mentioned the rigor of self-portraiture. Is there a push and pull between the importance of getting lost and the idea of not being lost?

LAB: I don’t know if I understand the question, but not because of the way you’ve explained it, but because of the way my brain works. So I’m not going to answer your question; I’m going to add to your question by asking: Are your emotions and feelings not a portrait of you? And how can all of that be communicated visually? And can you let go of them, knowing that you don´t know how they will be understood or interpreted?

JE: I’m wondering if it might be worth returning to what you said a moment ago. What do you mean about getting lost? There may be some different ideas at work here. If someone feels lost, it’s good to ask: well, let’s talk about those feelings. The process of giving form to those feelings can be helpful in addressing them as feelings. And perhaps they’re no longer lost as a result? But this seems like something else than what you’re saying about getting lost.

LAB: I am talking about allowing yourself to take that step onto the precipice. I have not attached words to this moment, this feeling, this fear, this desire, nor do I fully understand it. I think that if we are not doing that all the time, then…. I’m a little suspicious of someone who doesn’t do it all the time as an artist. Especially at this moment, at this political and social and economic and environmental moment. Did I say political? [laughs].

JE: I love the expression: “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” You said to allow yourself to get lost: it’s both an allowance and a demand. To put this pressure on yourself, to make sure you’re not enshrouding yourself in comfort.

LAB: Absolutely. There is no growth without that. No growth, no learning. We’re seeing it right now. We’re seeing the effects of that kind of mentality: of not accepting truths, other truths, other realities, other histories. We’re seeing it right now. So yes, exactly. And that requires—that’s another mirror. You look in the mirror of society and see your role, and you listen. Not just to oneself, but to what’s around you. So I agree with that completely. I think it’s very important.

Figure 14. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, Intervention: Red, 2021. Photo: Stefan Falke.
Figure 15. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, Intervention: Red, 2021. Photo: Stefan Falke.

JE: As I understand it, the two main coordinates of your long-term projects are predicated on that demand, the work of internal reflection you just described—you said it in a far better way. The commitment to decolonization, decolonial practice: that’s an ethos. This happens on a very practical level.: I once watched you lead a workshop with students about collaboration, about working together. It was amazing. So much of your work, as decolonial practice, involves transcommunality, which requires not only your own participation, but also bringing other people into the benefit and importance of allowing themselves to let go, to get lost, and to demand this of themselves: to go further, to work with their own discomforts. And not necessarily to become comfortable with each other. It’s often said that, “oh, to work together you’ve got to get comfortable with each other.” But I wonder if what you’re saying is something quite different from that. I don’t mean deliberately provoking people into being provocational toward one another. I’d love to hear you talk about how you work with these ideas of reflection and getting lost when you’re teaching or leading a workshop, as well as practicing collaboration. How do you collectivize getting lost?

LAB: There’s so much baggage we’re carrying. We have to recognize and be aware of cultural baggage, which is part of colonialism. I grew up in Mexico; I was born and raised there. I see myself and the world through that lens, and it’s a colonized country. Because of Mexico’s particular history, there’s an awareness of the impact of the colonial structure. But there are also so many ways in which we’ve internalized it. Many different countries throughout the colonized world talk about it, and how different it is: for example, those who were colonized by British, or Dutch, or Portuguese have different experiences. In order for us to be a group who sift through that—because our intentions can be very noble and good, but…—we need to be checking ourselves all the time. So that is the place of discomfort. You need to be asking yourself and your collaborators, “hey, how are we doing? How am I doing? Do we need to look at this a different way; do we still feel the same way about our objectives and our goals? How do you feel about the way I have been handling this? Is there any recommendation or adjustment you feel are needed?” And likewise in the conversations that take place. That has to be a truly open listening session, with the objective of having a successful project. Also, with an objective, it all goes much more easily. In this case, we can talk about it on a large scale: a successful project is an ethical society. An ethical and just, fair society. With equal rights. That’s a big one. But in our projects as artists, we have little versions of this. Tiny ones. But they’re an opportunity to activate that on smaller scales.

JE: I think I know the answer to the question I’m about to ask, but there’s a colleague of mine, a graduate instructor, who wanted to have a dialogue about authority in the classroom. As she put it, she’s a small, young-coding, cisgender woman, and she was interested in thinking about how one enacts a certain kind of empowerment, how you get people to work together. We had a workshop with a friend who came in and spoke about this question, among other topics. The feminist practice of “putting the process out there” seems to be close to what you’re describing. Perhaps it might be considered even as a self-portrait of the process. And it answers questions about how you encourage people to reflect: how do you inaugurate those moments of asking, “hey, how did this work?” For some people there might be an anxiety about relinquishing a certain kind of authority in speaking to and with a group, or, for that matter, of relinquishing the kind of authority that presumes the singularity of a person in charge. Can you talk about how you see your role in such interventions, these collective reckonings?

LAB: I think it really has to come from a place of honest questioning. I don’t know the answer. We’re going to come up with answer together; you’re going to help me come up with an answer for myself, and vice-versa. Communication has so many layers besides words, right? There’s so much that is going on that we perceive and pick up—emotionally, psychologically, maybe also, I don’t know, on other levels. I firmly believe that words are just a small percentage of our communication, and so that is to say that what is in your heart and what is in your mind is also being communicated, even if you’re not saying it. And people are getting it. So you acknowledge that. And check yourself: if your heart and mind and emotions are being sincere and aligned with what you are saying, then there will be a space for new learning, for constructing new relationships and projects and developing them further. And self-criticism and growth. Again, that has to do with looking in the mirror—we spoke about mirrors and reflections and autorretratos—and with discomfort.

Figure 16. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with Erik Tlaseca and Jesús Fajardo, La Extraordinaria Historia de Julia Pastrana. Cover, Zine 1, 2015.
Figure 17. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with Erik Tlaseca, La Extraordinaria Historia de Julia Pastrana. Interior spread, Zine 2, 2016.

JE: You’ve already brought this back to the autorretratos, and it makes me think of your Julia Pastrana project, with the Eye of the Beholder book and the remarkable zine project (Figures 16 and 17), in addition to the deeply moving rematriation of Julia’s remains you made possible. In this work you are redefining the aesthetic. The rematriation project is not only a matter of remembering a real, historical person who had been turned into an object on display, and turning her back into a person. For there is also your project of redefining the beautiful as the aesthetic. One way of describing what you just said about looking at oneself in the mirror and thinking about one’s feelings and emotions, is an interrogation of the aesthetic. The idea that an artistic practice demands not just a reflection of you, the artist, but a reflection of the participants in it, which includes the beholder: the work of reflection unfolds as a collective self-portraiture. I think what you’re doing is profound, especially in how it all connects as an ongoing, sustained endeavor. I don’t know whether this is the order on which you proceed and think about your work, but I would love to hear your thoughts.

LAB: I think that the Intervention works have multiple entry-points, access-points for the spectator. It doesn’t make that choice for the spectator. It invites the spectator to reflect: they can stay on the surface. If they want to go deeper, they can go deeper. If they stay on the surface long enough, they will go deeper, because they’re going to notice things they hopefully will be curious about. I think of this work in that way. I go over it many times so that it can have multiple access-points. This is also the way I began my work as an artist, with the discipline of drawing: I was drawing seeds. I kept on thinking about the seed as a metaphor for the inner self, and how seeds can be in the dark and suddenly, poof, there’s this emergence. The right amount of water, the right amount of light, and it begins to grow. What that feels like is very real, yet how do you communicate that. So: I was drawing seeds. The solution, on a technical level, let’s say, involved having the drawings with follow a circular reading. Meaning they go up, they go down—or maybe they go down, then they go up. There is a conversation, so to speak, between the seed, what is germinating inside of it, and the space that envelopes each part. It keeps the beholder’s eye longer, to travel through this space: in this case, from a drawing as the point of departure. There is the same trajectory of thought and experience in a work that involves people, public space, time, and sound. I’m seeing how it’s basically the same way as in the drawings: [Laura traces circles in the air with her hands]: is it coming, is it going? Is it happy, is it sad? In that movement, we can start going deeper into that work and see yourself and your place in that work.

Figure 18. Laura Anderson Barbata, Autorretrato/Amazonas, 1995.

JE: It makes me think, to follow your metaphor: by turning that circle from something that’s on the surface of the drawing into something that’s in the milieu of participation, does this produce the conditions that enable the seed to grow?

LAB: I don’t know if it produces them, but it facilitates them. Because that’s what you bring to the work. Everybody brings themselves to it. I cannot claim to be the producer of that experience, but I can provide an invitation to it. Also, all the answers are not there. We have to find the answers to the work ourselves as well. I’m asked more and more to write and talk about my work and to be specific, one of the things I’ve asked my students, for understanding themselves better, is to write about themselves. Writing about your work is so important, and basically I had stopped doing it. And suddenly I’ve been asked to do a lot of writing. So the world is saying, start writing, Laura!

JE: No good deed goes unpunished. Thank you, Laura.

LAB: Thank you, Jonathan. Shall we continue the conversation after you have seen the exhibition at the Marlborough? Maybe we will find lots of mirrors to reflect on. 

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Born in Mexico City, Laura Anderson Barbata is a Mexican transdisciplinary artist currently based in New York and Mexico City. Since 1992 she initiated long-term projects and collaborations in the Venezuelan Amazon, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Norway, and the United States that address social justice and the environment. Her work often combines performance, procession, dance, music, spoken word, textile arts, costuming, papermaking, zines and protest. Among them is her ongoing project La Extraordinaria Historia de Julia Pastrana, begun in 2005, which resulted in the removal of Pastrana’s body from the Schreiner Collection in Oslo and its successful repatriation and burial in Sinaloa, Mexico, Pastrana’s birth state. Supported by the National Fund for Culture and Arts, FONCA, Mexico (2014-2017). Since 2007 she has worked with the Brooklyn Jumbies and have presented their interventions in numerous cities and museums nationally and internationally.

Her work is in various private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; el Museo de Arte Moderno, México D.F.; Landesbank Baden-Württemberg Gallery, Stuttgart, Germany; Fundación Cisneros; Museo Carrillo Gil, México; and Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary.

Anderson Barbata has been Miembro del Sistema Nacional de Creadores, FONCA, México (1999-2017) and professor at the Escuela Nacional de Escultura, Pintura y Grabado La Esmeralda of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (2010-2015).

Recipient of the Anonymous Was a Woman 2016 Award and the Mario Trujillo García 2017 Award for Defense of Human Rights, Instituto de Administración Pública de Tabasco, A. C. (IAP Tabasco) Mexico; Honorary Fellow of LACIS (the Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies Program), University of Wisconsin, Madison; and a fellow of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary TBA21 The Current program.  In 2019 she was awarded The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency.  She is currently on the Board of Directors of the College Art Association where she also serves as VP for Diversity and Inclusion.

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  1. From the artist’s website: https://www.lauraandersonbarbata.com/work/intervention-indigo
  2. Edward J. Sullivan, “From the Studio to the Street: Laura Anderson Barbata,” in Laura Anderson Barbata, Transcommunality: Intervention and Collaboration in Stilt Dancing Communities. Mexico City: Turner Libros, 2012, 10.
  3. Melissa Hilliard Potter, “Community, Collaboration, and Social Sculpture: The Interdisciplinary Art of Laura Anderson Barbata,” Laura Anderson Barbata, Transcommunality: Intervention and Collaboration in Stilt Dancing Communities. Mexico City: Turner Libros, 2012, esp. 23.
  4. Laura Anderson Barbata, “The Barn and the Other: A Conversation with Tim Rollins,” in Transcommunality, 206.
  5. Sullivan, “From the Studio to the Street,” 9.
  6. On Shapono and the Yanomami Owë Mamotima project See Melissa Potter, “Community, Collaboration, and Social Structure,” Transcommunality, 16–19; see also Madeline Murphy Turner: “We, A Part of Them: Laura Anderson Barbata and the Disassembly of Border Regimes,” Burlington Contemporary Issue 4: Art from Latin America (June 2021); 3–27. https://doi.org/10.31452/bcj4.barbata.turner