By KURT MCVEY October 24, 2023
“The pearl. Something so small, but so significant. A gift. An exchange. It says, ‘Humble yourself here. Calibrate now your own sense of humility and the nature of your perspective.’ ”
It may not be prudent to begin a fresh narrative about a seemingly singular artistic journey with words from anyone but the artist herself. That’s if Marlborough Director Sebastian Sarmiento weren’t so passionate about transdisciplinary artist Laura Anderson Barbata’s wonderful, humbling, three-decade, two-floor-spanning exhibition, Singing Leaf. The show, full of taste and care, affirms this “transdisciplinary” qualifier as it’s robustly inhabited with strong gestural paintings, intricate self portraits in honey wax, 23 figurines in a salutary installation (Procesión de Alebrijes, 2011–12), lifesize characters (not costumes), fiber art, sculpture, video, photography, performance, and most relevant to the term in quaestio, “artified” objects, obras, objetos de arte, elevated by Anderson Barbata with the help and guidance of a vast universe of collaborating artists, performers, friends, historians and artisans, many of them Indigenous.
Laura, pronounced with a playful jaguar’s “apical-alveolar trill,” points to the gallery’s young staff as, not just worthy curators and administrators, but highly educated and enthusiastic stewards, guides, or holders of the space and the deep experience, many years in the making, the space itself holds and facilitates. It’s refreshing when all hands are happily upright and on deck.
Sarmiento shares “la mencionada pasión” with his fellow co-directors of Marlborough Gallery, Alexa Burzinski and Nicole Sisti. “The four of us met over two years ago to plan the show,” Sarmiento clarifies, a few feet from Anderson Barbata’s powerful but unassuming Caras vemos (corazones no sabemos), a tiny sculpture made in 1997 embedded in a narrow wall at eye-level at the front of Marlborough’s Chelsea location. The piece is a micro, disembodied left hand made of polychromed wood embedded at an early threshold, holding, depending on context and perspective, either a tiny or giant pearl incised with the word “Ye’Kuana.”
Ye’Kuana, along with Yanomami and Piaroa, are three of several Indigenous communities and unique cultures in the Venezuelan Amazon that welcomed Anderson Barbata, who’s Mexican, into these communities with the shared promise of exchanging a unique skill, trade, or craft.
Many have heard by now the cross-over conversations about the importance, and the difference, between setting an intention and set and setting, terms often used when referencing Indigenous plant ceremonies. Art exhibitions and creative collaborations, outside of more ritualistic spheres, can still use these tools. It’s especially helpful if the intentions are genuinely concerned with and dedicated to honoring, rectifying, even reversing enduring symptoms of colonial violence and cultural erasure. This takes time. Singing Leaf is the music of dedication.
Though grounded in North (Mexican, largely) and South American traditions, the interplay in Singing Leaf is more focused on the utilitarian, even material or textural exchange, especially in regard to handmade paper and bookmaking, as opposed to Jungian para-psychological and metaphysical projections. Universal archetypes, mythological rights of passage, and dream logic are all present, but more centralized is the incredibly nuanced, but fierce untangling of Christian and Catholic dogmas and their generational tentacles of oppression, away from something much older and considerably more natural, subtle, and intuitive.
Intuition, this feeling of deep instinctual knowingness, capable of positively affecting one’s actions, declaring its strict but silent opposition to the European “mind” or intellect, is present across multiple sculptures of various size, medium, location, and aesthetic. Most share a single trait: the removal or decapitation of the head or bust. Like mother nature, the artist confidently decentralizes herself, but her presence, her essence, is felt everywhere. The objects and initiatives within the gallery, within Singing Leaf, are like the flora and fauna in the wilds of a dream the audience member gets to share equally with Laura, the intrinsic, animating force.
“That’s my character,” declares Anderson Barbata, diving into the group conversation about her show in a rare moment of territorial claim. She’s referring to her transmutational character and ongoing inhabitable art piece from Intervention: Indigo, 2015/2020, a live intervention performed in collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies. The Jumbies are a collective that performs numerous cultural elements of the African Diaspora including stilt walking and traditional folk dance mixed with contemporary performance art. Jumbies, even when not being inhabited by humans, are fashionably dynamic, potently political characters composed of a multitude of dyed fabrics, a universe of buttons, rattling goat toenails, chains, assorted synthetic fibers, raw silks, pheasant feathers, sequins, dyed corn leaf flowers, a vintage wedding veil with shells and mirror appliqués on cotton from India, a Maasai necklace, vintage hats and military jackets, and so on.
“She performs as the jaguar,” Sarmiento offers up just moments earlier, briefly touching on the animal’s archetypal role in South American mythology and shamanic practice, as well as in other cultures. Anderson Barbata would describe her role with this character as “clearing the path.”
Just a few steps into Marlborough’s large, naturally lit anterior room, one might catch, out of the corner of their eye, perhaps in some liminal, marginal space in their peripherals, someone (Laura’s character we discover) peek-a-booing out from behind a wall that dissects the front gallery from the posterior rooms. This genius curatorial touch (which was slightly startling for a second) this delightful invitational moment alone by the artist and the staff, is just excellent.
To investigate this character, among others from Intervention: Indigo more deeply, one has to go past Archive X, 1998/2023, a collection of handmade abaca paper bundles with inclusions from the New Testament, but written in Spanish, Ye’Kuana, Yanomami, Ashuar, Maya, and Quechua languages. They’re spaced out neatly on a bamboo structure with floor to ceiling bamboo trestles. The structure, when viewed through an uncontacted lens, poses interesting questions about the emergence of ancient shelving and the role books, art, and religion play in society.
“The way the whole show is curated is so interesting,” says Anderson Barbata. “I’ve learned so much. The vision they have and had as they were laying out the dialogue, the relationship between the pieces, it’s been amazing to work with these three brilliant directors and curators. Also their kindness and generosity to say, ‘What do you think?’ ”
“When we talk about reciprocity, we’re talking about listening,” adds Sarmiento, before throwing his gaze back briefly towards the gallery’s entrance. “Listening is central to the work.”
The Venezuelan-born director begrudgingly let slip at one point that the exhibition in many ways begins with “the ear.” He means Yo no soy digno de que vengas a mi, pero una palabra tuya bastarȧ para sanar mi alma, 1996, an elegant art piece composed of a string of incised pearls on a simple cotton thread disappearing gently, somewhat eerily into a cast gesso ear mold, which seamlessly blends into the gallery’s white wall. The pearls have the names of all the Indigenous languages that are spoken in Venezuela today. Is the gallery, the art world, itself listening?
“The gift of pearls.” Sarmiento picks up the thread. “When the Spaniards came to South America, the Indigenous people gave them pearls as gifts. We consider this work to be monumental in its silence and scale.”
Singing Leaf is grounded in a sense of reciprocity, a major permeating throughline of what feels like both a mature retrospective and a confident coming out celebration, one outrageously overdue. With this effort, one might daydream about Nick Cave, Daniel Lind-Ramos (Marlborough held an exhibition of Daniel Lind-Ramos in 2020, just before the COVID shutdown), Méret Oppenheim, and other heavy hitters. The exhibition, which unfortunately comes down October 28th at Marlborough’s Chelsea location in Manhattan, both reaffirms and challenges terms like “museum quality” while elevating the private gallery construct into something, not just dedicated, pumping, and finely tuned, but full of wild, hyper-present, effectively consummated intention.
The Mexican-born, Brooklyn-based Laura Anderson Barbata was one of 40 artists recently featured in Chosen Memories: Contemporary Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift and Beyond at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition, which concluded in September earlier this year, brought together a broad spectrum of contemporary works by various Latin American artists who have been “investigating history as source material for their work,” as the museum put it. A standout from Chosen Memories was one of Anderson Barbata’s photographs, a self-portrait or Autorretrato, (1994/98). Anderson Barbata isn’t featured in the frame of this gestationally iconic chromogenic print. She took it. Notions of labor and visibility among a jungle’s worth of ideas are infused here. An edition of three is featured in Singing Leaf.
The work, somehow both haunting and triumphant, features the arms of Enrique Ortiz, a Ye’Kuana man hailing from the Culebra community in the Venezuelan Amazon, where Anderson Barbata visited frequently in the early ‘90s. Ortiz is seen in the image embracing a canoe that was hollowed out by the capable, but still learning Anderson Barbata. Ye’Kuana, you see, are legendary canoe builders. Anderson Barbata, a hungry thirty years younger, would be afforded the opportunity to learn how to make such a canoe after agreeing upfront to teach Ortiz and his community how to make paper and eventually books, while simultaneously uncoupling their culture from the deep entanglements of European colonialism.
“Ye’Kuana means People of the Canoe,” the artist explains in front of Autorretrato. “They’re incredibly skilled at making these dugout community canoes. The tree decides how long the canoe is. They can also be extremely wide. We began this project in which I was accepted as an apprentice as part of an exchange. I was teaching them to make paper and books for their community so they can tell their story, their history in their own words and illustrate it themselves, and using technology that they use, but adapting it for the purpose of bookmaking.”
At one point, while in the Venezuelan Amazon in the early part of the last decade of the 20th century, Ortiz said to the artist, which she relayed in her voice, dropped an octave or two here in New York City many years later: “This is going to be difficult to hear possibly, but you’re never going to be a good canoe builder. We have so many other things to teach you. Plus, we want more of your time devoted to the bookmaking project.”
“They saw me with a machete...I tried,” admits the artist, stepping back into her own skin. In the exhibition, just beside Autorretrato, in which the canoe appears both phallic and vaginal, masculine and feminine, earthly and alien, is one such book. This is Shapono, (March 1992-December 2001), a hand-made book (ed. of 50) constructed with water-based inks on sometimes crisp, sometimes pulpy shiki and abaca papers. The book was executed in collaboration with the Yanomami Owë Mamotima project and Laura’s cherished friend and collaborator, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, an Indigenous Yanomami artist from Sheroana, a small community of the Upper Orinoco River in the Venezuelan Amazon. Sheroanawe, a tremendous artist in his own right, was featured in the 2022 Venice Biennale. He continues to incorporate and pass on skills learned and shared while collaborating alongside Anderson Barbata. Shapono received the award of Best Book of the Year from the Centro Nacional del Libro of Venezuela and is now featured in various collections around the world.
“The way Laura contributed,” Sarmiento explains, “she provided a way for them (Yanomami) to provide their own origin story without it being mediated by anthropologists from Europe or Catholic missionaries. It’s about the democracy of paper.”
Marlborough’s three young directors are hands on, quite literally at times, especially when it comes to maintaining El viaje (Autorretrato), 1996/2023, a major installation invoking a river that’s snaking through the anterior gallery (Styx? Amazon?), itself an archetype associated with vision quests, initiation trials, and other rights of passage, from birth, to death, to the mystical.
This multifaceted, multimedia work features a carved wood canoe carrying honey wax figures. Note the absence of the head on the corn figure or “traveler” with the small hairless “xoloitzcuintli” sculpture. This type of ever-faithful dog, with its exceptional body warmth, was seen by both Aztecs and Maya to be the ideal “psychopomp” (guide of souls), capable even of sensing the departure of the soul from the body after death, and of warming and protecting it on its journey to the Underworld. Real marigold petals, which make up the river, are also associated with the Mexican Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, and many other international festivals. They're interspersed weekly with dried-out older organic petals that in turn overlay an intentional foundation of paper petals to prevent underlying sogginess. Prized for their bright coloring and potent fragrance, marigolds are thought to attract the souls of the dead. El viaje, with its river, boat, initiate, and sturdy “xolo” totem guide, sets the stage (and thesis) for the gallery “trip.”
“We had a difficult time recreating it (El viaje) because marigolds were not in season in the summer when we were trying to do the photography for the catalog,” Sarmiento says matter-of-factly, with traces of happy exhaustion. “So we planted marigolds in our warehouse and have been buying marigolds from every vendor in New York. We change it every week.”
This golden yellow in various shades as seen in Autorretrato and El viaje, balances out two seemingly more primary colors in Anderson Barbata’s practice: red and blue. Removing the head or intellect as the artist asks of us means dispensing at the starting gate with stale, contentious, American political binaries that seem to constrict us all. Forgetting them entirely isn’t wise either. One might instead declare “Indigo” and “Cochinilla” the more specific signifiers of these foundational color pillars than crude avatars of “left” and “right.”
Towards the conclusion of a visit to the artist’s studio in September, it was made clear that Anderson Barbata is inviting us, not only to see color, but to feel it, deeply understand it, in every cell and nerve in the body. And the body more than the soul, but tethered to it certainly because the body keeps the score. Indigo farming and manufacturing can be traced through many stages of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, especially in the 1700s, from the Caribbean to the harbors and plantations of New Orleans on up through the Carolinas. The Brooklyn Jumbies, during Intervention: Indigo, 2020, in particular, served as living light mirrors and trickster doppelgangers, deliberately juxtaposing themselves against New York City’s so-called “Boys in Blue. ”White stars or light fractals created by pinching the fabric, often cotton and denim, including many handmade indigo-dyed cotton textiles from Burkina Faso in West Africa made by collaborating artist, Habibou Coulibaly, are conspicuously paired with actual metal NYPD badges. LGBTQ+ rights, in the United States and around the world, are also important to Anderson Barbata and many of the performers who bring the Brooklyn Jumbies to life.
“Rolling Calf, (2015) was a character I developed with Chris Walker, an amazing dancer, choreography, and teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” Laura says. “The character emerges from Jamaican folk stories. It’s about the restless spirit of a young slave boy who died tragically young. It’s also about a mother who lost a son. There’s a dance he (Walker) did in front of the police precinct to honor the mothers and their children who have been lost at the hands of the police.”
And there’s the Cochineal. That’s a soft-bodied “scale” insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which Carmine, the usually rich red, sometimes magenta dye is derived. The bug is a primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America and some parts of North America. The female cochineal must be killed, crushed down and obliterated physically and alchemically to express and extract the inherent ingredient and future global cash crop from which the dye is made. Only females feed on the red cactus berries, concentrating the dye in their bodies and in that of their unhatched larvae. It’s a brutal process with clear metaphorical (evolutionary, genocidal, commercial, geo-political) implications. Same goes for the natural blue dye derived from the Indigofera tinctoria plant.
“To me, Indigo is a perfect point of departure to explore the issues of protection, of wisdom, and royalty, because it’s one of the oldest natural dyes historically utilized around the globe,” Anderson Barbata explains. “It has an alchemical process, a layered, mythical way of being in the world. A leaf providing a green color then turns blue in front of your eyes. It has a strong aroma as well. In West Africa, newborn babies are wrapped with Indigo-dyed cloths to protect them. What does it mean to protect and serve your communities? The Moko Jumbies tradition comes from West Africa and the Caribbean. Their mission is to protect and serve and to remind us, as citizens, that we must also serve and protect each other.”
The Cochineal were trafficked across the Atlantic for centuries. The red dye was used to enrich Europe’s most sanctimonious curtains within various sacred ecclesiastic sanctuaries. The artist flipped the script on these brutally dyed fabrics by creating Intervention: Raphael Red, an earlier counterpoint to the 2020 Indigo intervention. Anderson Barbata was commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, to perform outside in public with the Brooklyn Jumbies, Spontaneous Celebrations stilt dancers, and Grooversity musicians, all ongoing collaborators, back in 2017. Raphael Red was designed to acknowledge underrecognized and “invisible” labor, with perhaps a more concentrated focus on museums; their curators, conservation staff, custodians, janitors, administrators, security guards, and receptionists.
The artist possesses large glass jars of the deceased, female cochineal beetles in her studio. Lush fabrics the same color as Renaissance Raphael’s highly selective, seductive red, as seen in his famed tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, hang on minimal fashion dummies nearby. One can sense Anderson Barbata is fiercely protective of these creatures, all females, harvested, shipped, and sacrificed in the billions over centuries for aesthetics and decoration. These themes were further explored in Intervention: Red and Intervention: Cochineal, which dive more deeply into the symbolism of the color in MesoAmerica, specifically its connection to themes of gender violence.
“We had to broaden the gallery’s definition of what art is,” says Sarmiento, moving deeper into Marlborough’s recesses. “Every individual component matters. Each work has individual variations that make it so unique to the character that we have to make sure that we catalog everything. It was a massive undertaking that we’ve been working on for a long time.”
Within Singing Leaf, nestled deep and comfortably within Anderson Barbata’s entire oeuvre, while serving perhaps as the show’s heart, is The Repatriation of Julia Pastrana, a standalone mission, quest, or “humane” passion project that transcends the institutional art world and the usual constructs “art-speak” attempts to address. To launch into the central, very real, sometimes abstracted or obfuscated figure of Julia Pastrana is to move too quickly past so many of the artist’s incredible obras, like her and her collaborators’ stilts.
Stilts, as in the usually wooden elevated-walking tools that the Brooklyn Jumbies and other performers use in carnivals, circuses, parades, processions, and street interventions. Anderson Barbata learned about stilt walking and how to make them from a man from Trinidad named Dragon. She could “artify” the stilts while bringing international performers, educational opportunities, and institutional support to Dragon’s community in Trinidad and Tobago.
Cactus, 2012, carved and painted wood in the alebrije traditions of San Martín Tilcate in Oaxaca, Mexico, is an obvious exhibition and perhaps career highlight, for instance. This cacti stilt pairing, which looks like actual cacti bursting with flowers and spiked appendages, are more than ready made, they're ready to go. The same pair of stilts were used on the streets of Zaachila and Teotitlán de Valle, Oaxaca in 2012 and could easily be activated by a willing Jumbie at any moment.
“One of the most powerful metaphors the jumbies and stilts offer,” says Laura, “is they see the world from an elevated perspective. They are fulfilling that spiritual role, because they can see further. They are aspirational for us on the ground. They’re bridging the gap between the gods and everyday life.”
Marlborough has a small ancillary gallery in the rear, northeast corner of their Chelsea location. It’s a unique, intimate little room within the larger New York City gallery ecosystem. If one enters and looks up, they’ll see Autorretrato (Primera Parte), 1996/2023, a sculptural installation featuring one of Anderson Barbata’s headless honey wax figures crossing a precarious rattan rope bridge. The bridge is flanked by two small mirrors, raising questions over the objectivity, or relativity, rather, of past and future.
“She’s moving across the bridge without a head, but I believe she will not fall,” Laura says, before admitting she sometimes moves the figure back and forward along the bridge during the run of the show for different reasons. “The premise of my whole way of being in the world, is that, if you develop and follow the voice, eyes, ears and intelligence of your inner self, you’ll see that it’s quite liberating.”
One might be starting to feel the enormity of Singing Leaf; the confidence of riches. First floor works like Self-Portrait (With Cochinilla), 2023, a sensuous, flowing silk jacquard hand dyed with cochineal, turmeric, iron, indigo, and rose petals and “painted” with wax, charcoal, and graphite, are delicate, ethereal, traumatized, and ferocious and deserves more time than it can be given here. Same goes for Reina Nyame, 2005-07 and her glorious crown or headpiece.
“Her name is Reina Nyame and she’s a queen,” Laura says. “She performed in Trinidad and Tobago during Junior Carnival with (the previously mentioned) Dragon and his Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture (Cocorite, Trinidad and Tobago), on the ground, not on stilts. The show-stopping headpiece is inspired by El voladores de Papantla, a dance ceremony performed in Mexico, sometimes referred to as The Danza de los Voladores (''flying men”) or Palo Volador. Dancers tie their feet and hang and swing upside down many feet from the ground on a pole while wearing headpieces like this, which allude to peacocks and flowers and the sun and many different forms.”
Moving up the stairwell to the second floor, one walks past the shouldn’t but could (don’t) miss Happy Suit, a lushly layered 2008 work made with repurposed textiles and threads printed with unique stars, fractals, and mandalas. Wax and graphite drawings on handmade paper honoring undercelebrated insects, plants, and natural elements in the second-floor hallway give way to the hauntingly magnificent, synergized multimedia installation, Consuelo, featuring a life size, polychromed Linden wood sculpture of the Virgin Mary (yes, without head and shoulders) made in 2006, and a companion, single-channel video art piece on loop with the same title from 2002, when it was first shown in Mexico City.
“I want people to imagine what it was like, gazing at the horizon on the ocean, and imagining Christianity coming,” says Anderson Barbata. “Is it a bird or a wave? No, it’s this figure. A mother, a blessing spirit, but it’s also terrifying. I cut the head as well to liberate her from her gaze and her gender slightly. When Mexican people put their own Earth Mother idols inside statues of the Virgin so they could secretly pray to their guardian spirits, by removing the head, the inner earth mother inside can actually grow out, emerge, and express herself fully.”
Julia Pastrana was born in Mexico in 1834 in the “Free and Sovereign State” of Sinaloa. She was also born with a genetic condition, hypertrichosis terminalis, also known as werewolf syndrome. Her face and body were covered with straight black hair. Pastrana was frequently paraded around and billed as, “The Ugliest Woman in the World,” both in life and after death, as she was embalmed posthumously and showcased as a traveling “oddity." During her life, and perhaps more so now, she would become recognized as a talented singer and performer. Julia Pastrana died on March 25, 1860, in Moscow, Russia during childbirth.
“We always knew that we wanted to show Julia Pastrana because it’s so essential to Laura’s body of work, but it’s such a hard thing to convey,” Sarmiento explains. “When talking in the summer, we were thinking about how to articulate what was accomplished. What Laura said to me was, ‘Julia always guides the effort.’ ”
The effort is right there in the title: The Repatriation of Julia Pastrana. Yes, Anderson Barbata sought out and repatriated Pastrana’s body, which spent years languishing in a storage closet at the Shreiner Collection at the Department of Anatomy of the University of Oslo, Norway. Laura, along with the help of many advisors and collaborators, was instrumental to returning Pastrana’s body to Culiacán, Mexico, after a steadfast and vigorous repatriation campaign, to receive a proper burial ceremony in Sinaloa de Leyva, Mexico in 2013, to many tears, flowers, and wider prayers. Many in attendance that day were themselves circus performers. A frottage diptych or rubbing from Pastrana’s gravestone, made by Laura, can be seen in the gallery, along with various “zines” that showcase Pastrana’s incredible story.
The story of Pastrana’s repatriation led by Anderson Barbata, the full narrative of this decade-long crusade, is perhaps best laid out in The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home (Lucia/Marquand, 2017), which was edited by Donna Wingate and Laura Anderson Barbata. That being said, there is a vinyl print of the full chronological repatriation narrative in the second floor gallery. This story stands as an expression of this wildly passionate and selfless project, but also hammers home Anderson Barbata’s true transdisciplinary status. What Laura succeeded in accomplishing with The Repatriation of Julia Pastrana, surpasses fine art categorization. This persistence, this brave, righteous, flaming sword-through Gordian Knot-level bureaucracy, this deep sensitivity to the emotions and soul of this woman; bravo.
“We decided five to ten days before the exhibition opened, when reading the whole narrative, about how she was commercialized while both alive and dead (mostly by an American named Theodore Lent), that we did not want to include an image that would perpetuate her exploitation,” Sarmiento says.
The coup de grâce at the end of this somehow both subtle and overwhelming exhibition, is a wild and deeply human series from 2012. This is Julia Pastrana, 8 Portraits. These portraits are made using abaca and human hair affixed onto handmade pigmented cotton linter paper. They read like wax paper-the type of paper used to remove hair at “waxing” appointments. They provide a ghostly impression of Pastrana, and perhaps an untold number of souls who have also lived, thrived, struggled and died with hypertrichosis and other genetic disorders. It was decided among all parties, not to divulge to this writer or the audience where the hair itself came from. Some things are better left a mystery.
“The installations are not chronological,” says Anderson Barbata at the end of the trip. “It’s about thematic development; ideas coming forth. The show forces the artist to separate. You’re vulnerable and out in the world, but it’s done with so much care, and care for me, the artist, too. We talk so much about reciprocity, but it’s also about balance. I’m still walking on that bridge.” WM