Artist brings indigenous rituals, costumes and stilt walkers to contemporary urban environments

Douglass Library Installation view

Douglass Library Installation view

Born in Mexico City in 1958, Laura Anderson Barbata grew up along the ocean, playing with her sisters in the water. “My family didn’t have TV, and we made our own toys with simple materials,” she recounts from her studio in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood.

Today, as an artist, Barbata, it could be argued, is still making her own toys. She creates videos, installations and performance art with elaborate costumes that echo indigenous rituals and interact with contemporary street life.

Named the 2016-17 Estelle Lebowitz Endowed Visiting Artist for the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers, Barbata will present a lecture on Tuesday, November 1, 5:30-6:30 p.m., at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library, and a performance work in progress on Wednesday, November 2, 10:30 a.m., Alexander Library. Both libraries are in New Brunswick. An exhibition, Laura Anderson Barbata: Collaborations Beyond Borders, is on view through December 16 at the Douglass Library.

“Intervention: Indigo,” a video, begins with the sounds of street noises and cars honking. An elevated expressway creates a shadow over a street on which residents walk in slow motion, past corrugated metal gates covered with graffiti. Suddenly, a figure towering over the others appears. Clad in indigo cloth, patterned with indigenous designs, he is joined by a band of stilt walkers, twirling and cascading in their blue garments, fringe sashaying.

Produced in collaboration with Brooklyn Jumbies, “Intervention: Indigo” combines procession, protest, performance, music and dance to bring attention to the “crisis impacting the lives of people of color living in this country,” according to Barbata’s description.

In these participatory art initiatives that document communities and traditions, Barbata seeks to address issues of human rights and feminism, often enlisting collaboration from universities, government institutions, scholars, activists and artists. The Rutgers exhibition includes sculpture, video and exotic textiles, some with tufted woven cloth, feathers and fringe. They look like costumes, but Barbata prefers to call them “wearable sculpture.” She does all the stitching herself, and the materials she employs are frequently recycled.

In 2011, during the Occupy Wall Street protests, in another collaboration with Brooklyn Jumbies, Barbata made “Intervention: Wall Street,” propelled by the worldwide economic crisis. The moko jumbie stilt walkers, in tall suits and seemingly chatting into phones, parade about, distributing gold foil-covered chocolate coins to passersby, amid chants: “Some people got to have it, some people really need it, you got to do good things with it” and “For the love of money, people will steal from their mother…”

In western Africa, Moko Jumbie is a spirit who watches over a village. With its towering height, it is able to foresee danger and evil, and is traditionally called in to cleanse and ward of evil spirits that have brought disease and misfortune. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Oaxaca, Mexico, the Zancudos (stilt dancers) perform annually to call upon the power of their saints to receive protection, blessings and miracles.

Barbata started out as an anthropologist. Traveling to the Amazon in Venezuela, she worked with the indigenous Yanomami people in a paper and bookmaking project using local materials through which the Yanomami could tell their traditional stories and legends.

She has been working with stilt-walking communities in Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, and Brooklyn for a decade, using it as a platform for protest. Her “transcommunality”—a concept of erasing borders—encompasses community art, public art, social intervention, performance and sculpture. “Art is a catalyst for dialogue and change while having fun,” Barbarta says. “The knowledge of what others are living through opens our eyes and expands our conscience. And this awareness and experience allows us to identify with others and also brings us closer to our own voice, so that we can ask ourselves: What do I think? What is my responsibility? What can I do?”

Her collaborators are volunteers. “I invite crafters, weavers, embroiderers,” she says. While she has received some funding that helps toward housing and transportation, hers is “a community without funding, a place to contribute to each other’s profession,” she says. “Grants are difficult to get, and the amount of time spent writing a grant takes away from the work. Because these are community projects, we discuss it horizontally—everyone has something to gain.” The greatest guarantor of success, she says, is personal commitment, and that is much more valuable than funding. “I work with what is available: materials, skills, knowledge and resources.”

Lack of funding, Barbata says, has never stopped her. “I feel it’s urgent, it has to be done, I have to continue, and as an artist, that is my life.”


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.


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