Laura Anderson Barbata’s Transcommunality is a stunning new art exhibit at the Newcomb Gallery at Tulane University in New Orleans which will be open until October 2. Despite the pandemic or maybe because of it, this exhibit has a strong online presence with an amazing virtual reality presentation. You can see every object up close, read every label on the wall, see most of the videos, and experience a series of exhibit related zoom events, and recorded round table discussions as well as a detailed catalogue and short video presentations for younger viewers.
This is the first exhibit that looks back on 30 years of Laura Anderson Barbata’s artistic work though she has had exhibits of her work at colleges and museums around the United States and Mexico and been part of group shows. Her artwork has taken her around the globe with an emphasis on both social justice and collaboration. She took on a multi-year effort for the repatriation for traditional burial in Mexico of the body of a mistreated 19th Century Mexican performer Julia Pastrana whose body had been embalmed and on exhibit for a long period in Norway.
The primary focus of the exhibit has a particular link to Trinidad Carnival. Barbata has worked with Moko Jumbies and other stilt dancers in different countries. She first came to Trinidad to do a community paper making collaboration in Grand Riviere and attended the 2002 Carnival. Then she worked with Dragon and the Kilamanjaro Moko Jumbies of Cocorite. From 2003 to 2007, she made their costumes—she prefers the term “wearable sculpture” and worked on the band’s Carnival presentations.
Her costumes were stunning. Photographer Stephan Falke was present during those years and his book Moko Jumbies remains an amazing documentation of that period of her work. An excellent German documentary was also made at the time. Several of Falke’s images from this period are in the Tulane exhibit.
Then her focus shifted. As she told Madeline Murphy Turner: “After that, I wanted to take the experience of all I had learned in Trinidad farther—to expand it and share it with others—and to build bridges of dialogue, collaboration, and exchange in New York City, where I have my studio.”
She then started what has been a long term ongoing collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, a small troupe in New York, through the leaders Ali Sylvester from Trinidad and Najja Codrington from Barbados. With them, she has been involved in the creation of complex choreographed presentations not tied to Carnival and often on the streets of New York with choreography. Most famous is “Occupy Wall Street” where the images of the Brooklyn Jumbies rising tall in business suits walked down Wall Street and went viral.
“I look for ways that art can heal and improve how we live.”
Intervention: Red, 2021. Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with Chief Shaka Zulu, Naimah Zulu, Sarauniya Zuly and Kameron Bryant. At The Watermill Center for CROSSROADS by Carrie Mae Weems and Robert Wilson. Picture Michaela Lind
Codrington, in a round table discussion for the Tulane exhibit, talked of the impact they had in the various interventions they have participated with Barbata, “I find that social activism is best taken sometimes through art.”
Their processional interventions initially left people confused and questioning but had an effect to let them see things from above, gain perspective. She also works with a Mexican folkloric group Jarana Beat based in New York and Chris Walker, a dancer, choreographer and new head of the Division of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin.
Another room of the exhibit features the stunning suits Barbata created for Intervention Indigo that was first presented in Brooklyn in 2015 with Brooklyn Jumbies at a police precinct as a call to action on police violence with Mexican traditional dance rituals and saw the power of indigo, a “natural dye used in rituals of protection, power, and spirituality.” It was also presented in Mexico City in 2020. With the pandemic, she has made a series of face masks in indigo. The short video is my favourite from the exhibit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-m0wLE7dSbY
Starting in 2009, Barbata has also been working with a stilt-walking group Zancudos de Zaachila from Oaxaca and other artisans in Oaxaca. One room of the exhibit at Tulane is devoted to her collaborations in Mexico. It included elaborately decorated stilts, a series of folkloric wooden pieces created with local Oaxacan artisans as well as the costumes. Barbata was also involved in a complex gift exchange convening with other artists that stretched from Jamaica to Papua New Guinea. A stunning book with the same title as the exhibit, Transcommunality came out in 2012 that summarised her work to that point.
The Tulane exhibit has connected Barbata with members of the local Mardi Gras Indian community in a series of workshops and conversations and hopefully will lead to future collaborations in New Orleans. The black masking Indians have become iconic in the rich Mardi Gras culture in New Orleans. There were a series of recorded exchanges with Big Chief Shaka Zulu and a commissioned short video. He is the one Mardi Gras Indian leader who does stilt dancing in New Orleans as part of performances across the United States. It is a family tradition passed down from his father. He has passed it on to his daughter Niya. Shaka Zulu has had a long and complex artistic practice himself, leading a drumming and dance troupe, touring the country with different groups and teaches both beading and stilt dancing to young people in New Orleans. Barbata collaborated with him and his stilt dancers very recently with Intervention Red at The Watermill Center Summer Festival in New York.
The richness of Laura Anderson Barbata’s art can only be fully experienced by taking time to view the virtual tour of the exhibit, the videos of the street interventions, her Tedtalk and more in the triumph of this museum exhibit curated by Laura Blereau.