Burn Notice

Tavia Nyong'o on “Knowledge of Wounds” at Performance Space New York

Elisa Harkins, Wampum / ᎠᏕᎳ ᏗᎦᎫᏗ, 2020. Performance view, Performance Space New York, New York, January 11–12, 2020. Photo: Blair LeBlanc.

“IF I AM A BUTTERFLY,” Zapotec performer Lukás Avendaño exclaimed to a rapt audience in the fourth floor black box of Performance Space New York late last Sunday afternoon, “maybe I don’t need a passport.” He was explaining the title of his film La utopía de la mariposa (The Butterfly’s Utopia), 2019, which documents his life as a Muxe artist as well as his search for a missing brother. While much of the performance world was careening rapidly from one American Performing Arts Professionals showcase to another this past month, Avendaño was evoking the spirit of Indigenous gathering at “Knowledge of Wounds,” a full weekend’s worth of programming in movement, music, and ritual. Bringing together a remarkable group of artists, healers, and culture workers, the event, curated by artist S.J Norman (Koori, Wiradjuri) and scholar Joseph M. Pierce (Cherokee), was billed as a “ceremonial enactment of our ancestral beings-with,” a durational and participatory event in which the wounds we carry, however painful, could also be understood as thresholds to cross into new relations with ancestral knowledge, in defiance of the boundaries of settler society. The day prior, Cherokee elder Joan Henry had lit a ceremonial fire in the courtyard hearth. While it burned throughout the weekend, it was a breathing acknowledgement that this gathering was occurring on Lenapehoking, the territory of the Lenape people.

Saturday afternoon, Yup’ik dancer and choreographer Emily Johnson, who has been a driving force in establishing what has now been a January tradition for the past four years (and the third hosted at Performance Space), led a movement performance that signaled one of several opportunities for attendees to get down on the ground and reestablish contact with the land. Making kin, Johnson explained, holds both a ritualistic and pragmatic aspect. At one point she handed out a six-page “Family Emergency Preparedness Plan” detailing the items and actions necessary in the case of a “grab and go” emergency; we did not need to be reminded of the fires currently raging through Southeastern Australia. I tucked away a copy in my pocket, next to a bundle of seeds I had been gifted.

Lukás Avendaño presenting La utopía de la mariposa (The Butterfly’s Utopia), 2019. Performance Space New York, New York, January 11–12, 2020. Photo: Blair LeBlanc.

The audience swelled for Saturday evening’s “Shadow Songs and Root Mirrors,” a concert featuring performances by Laura Ortman, Elisa Harkins, Demian DinéYazhi´, and Kevin Holden. Ortman, of the White Mountain Apache tribe, was one of the standout artists in last year’s Whitney Biennial, and opened the evening with her astonishing improvisational violin work on live loop delay. Next were Harkins’s winsome songs reviving Cherokee and Muscogee Creek languages, accompanied by electronic disco music and her Kate Bush-worthy dance moves, followed by SHATTER///, an intense display of audio pyrotechnics by DinéYazhi´ (Diné) and Holden (Diné, Irish, German, Norwegian). It was the angriest work of the weekend, with the volume turned up to earsplitting levels. At one point DinéYazhi´ shouted, “YOU WANT ME TO PLAY INDIAN?” The performance culminated in the duo breaking an assortment of offensive Native figurines, and Holden smashing his guitar as the coup de grâce. Their anger felt wholly understandable, insofar as the ongoing dispossession of settler colonialism has meant that survival can never be taken for granted by Indigenous people.

Indeed, it felt cathartic to exit SHATTER/// into the solemn, incense-filled foyer for the beatific, processional “experiment” that immediately followed: Ixkin: Kaxb’ichil, Xamal, Ootzaqib’al: (ThreeStones: Wound, Fire, Knowledge), a collaboration among Tohil Fidel Brito (Ixil Maya), Amaru Márquez Ambía (Quechua), and María Regina Firmino-Castillo. Ixkin was conceived as a calendrical response to Cicatrix 1 (all that was taken/all that remains), a work Norman staged last year at Performance Space and for which he had one hundred and forty-seven incisions made on his back in remembrance of the number of deaths of Australian First Nations people while in state custody over the past decade. Exploiting the coincidence that last year’s Cicatrix had occurred on the Ixil Maya calendar’s day of sacrifice, and that this year’s gathering began on the day of knowledge, Ixkin invited participants to write their wounds onto paper and offer them to the fire. As we held hands around the flame in which the wounds were ceremonially transfigured and listened to Ambía’s sonorous violin, I was struck by the numinous entanglement of what Norman has called “ancestral ceremonies and healing technologies from and through the body.”

Sebastián Calfuqueo, Iñche ta kangechi (I Am the Other), 2020. Performance view, Performance Space New York, New York, January 11–12, 2020. Photo: Blair LeBlanc.

Whether it was Mapuche artist Sebastián Calfuqueo’s performance using hair pieces to spell out pre-colonial names for nonheterosexual identities (Iñche ta kangechi [I Am the Other], 2020), Joshua Whitehead’s hi-tech Indigiqueer poetics, or Avendaño’s incandescent utopia-making for butterflies, the weekend turned Performance Space into a magickal space for feminist, queer, and trans worldmaking. Insofar as a theme emerged over the course of this multi-threaded and polyvocal weekend, it was the vibrance and range of Indigiqueer artistry and expression.

With the creation of such an intentional space came an inevitable question: Do I belong here? What am I entitled to know and what am I not? When might my participation cross a line? As the Inuit artist Holly Mitiquq Nordlum tattooed their friend and collaborator Melissa Shaginoff (Ahtna / Paiute), they discussed the ethics of sharing a traditional practice publicly, and the acquisitive desires that can circle around Native aesthetics. One of the points that emerged: The distinctions between traditional and contemporary Indigenous art are often made and policed by nonindigenous institutions, and must be fiercely resisted by Native artists. To the extent that it set its own terms for renewing and remaking tradition, “Knowledge of Wounds” was thrillingly defiant.

“Knowledge of Wounds” took place at Performance Space New York in Manhattan from January 11 to January 12.