In the early 90’s a Latino performance artist and a Latina video maker grouped together to create a satirical performance of culture stereotypes. The performance involved Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez -Peña dressing up as Amerindians and being caged for display in various places such as Plazas and museums.
The performers were photographed and gawked upon by visitors of the exhibit. The artists sometimes displayed themselves as “savages” through their behavior. For example, they were fed and taken to the bathroom by their “zoo keepers”. The zoo keepers also answered questions for visitors because the performers were “unable” to speak English or understand the language(this was apart of the performance). They wore headpieces, lots of gold jewelry, sunglasses and animal printed clothing. The performers were said to originate from a fictional island in the Gulf of Mexico.
The performance plays off of the colonial stereotypes of “tribal people” but also the old tradition of displaying non-westerners in world fairs, freak shows and circuses. The performers emphasized the stereotype of indigenous clothing but also wore and did western things like wear sunglasses and perform rap(for a dollar Guillermo would perform).
A reason why this piece is so effective is because of its placement and its humor. The piece was displayed in a Plaza in Madrid, the Australian Museum of Natural History in Sydney, the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, London’s convent gardens and several other places. The areas were chosen by the performers because they felt these countries were places that had abused indigenous people. The areas of display were also open to natives and tourists of the countries so as a work it was quite accessible.
The work was also humorous and appeared that way through the actions of the artists. The artists participated in “authentic” traditions such as typing on a laptop, sewing voodoo dolls and watching television. The juxtaposition of these objects is what made the performance interesting to look at but also something to laugh at. If these people were said to be indigenous and from a remote island, why would they have access to these technologies? The performers also over dramatized their roles such as when they posed for pictures or ate food, they did it in a way as a performer would-they exaggerated their actions and behavior.
The ability to read the work was difficult for some. Some viewers came to the understanding that the people were not performers but actual “Amerindians”. They acted with disgust in the way that these humans were treated, which is sort of the intention of the piece. Although some thought the work was “real”, others saw it as the performance it was and laughed it off.
As a whole the work allowed for viewers to examine the way they view non-Westerners and indigenous people, despite the misunderstanding of the couple being performers. The work became open for interpretation because some viewers saw the performance as reality and not a performance. It allowed for an open discussion on the way indigenous people are portrayed through museum exhibits and the media in general.
A compilation of the work was created into a video and features a mix of reactions from viewers, the performers “in action” and video clips of past ethnographical tapes of indigenous people.
Link to Trailer of The Couple in the Cage
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