WHICH WAY TO LOOK?

In part the audience’s confusion, discomfort, and dialogue derived from our uncertainty about how to regard the performances. We were confronted with events that were “indigenous” and that were “performance” –two words which at times signal mutually-exclusive forms of reception. The audience in general, adopted a detached, aesthetically-motivated, way of regarding “art” (Alpers, Baxandall) during the performances of the Kaiapó and Maxacalí. Kirstenblatt-Gimblett explains with respect to cultural performances, “[a]udiences who have learned the pleasures of confusion from their experience with avant-garde performance are prepared to receive performance forms from other social and cultural worlds as if they had emanated from the avant-garde itself” (1998:205). However, while treating the performers as artistically coeval, this spectatorial stance bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a different way of looking at indigenous performances that is currently eschewed by liberal Western academics.

The prototypical modernist scenario is the encounter with the “Other” –of a different gender, race, class, and/or culture –who represents what is disavowed from, and yet ardently desired by the modern, bourgeoisie, masculine Self. In the industrialized West, indigenous peoples became common objects of scientific inquiry, artistic inspiration, and prurient interest. World Fairs featured live human displays, modernist artists went Primitive, and the fields of anthropology and psychoanalysis were born to investigate the geographically-distant Other and the Other within. Liberation from the strictures and alienations of rational bureaucratic modernity could be achieved vicariously through the consumption and domination of radical alterity (Clifford, Deloria).

This paradigmatic way of regarding and relating to indigenous Others draws heavily on what Diana Taylor calls the “discovery scenario.” This scenario bifurcates the intercultural event into two roles –spectator and native. “We,” she explains, “those viewers who look though the eyes of the explorer, are (like the explorer) positioned safely outside the frame, free to define, theorize, and debate their (never ‘our’) societies. The ‘encounters’ with the ‘native’ create ‘us’ as audience just as much as the violence of definition creates ‘them’ –the primitive. Needless to say, the colonizer suspects that he does not understand everything; not all is transparent…. However, domination depends on maintaining a unidirectional gaze, and stages the lack of reciprocity and mutual understanding inherent in discovery.” (16)

Modernity is also considered the harbinger of indigenous performance for the entertainment of tourists and paying audiences. Science and leisure are ideologically opposed and differentially valued domains in the industrialized West; however, in practice, scholars and tourists have shared eerily similar ways of looking at native people. Modern-era social scientists fought to distinguish legitimately scientific displays from side shows and popular film (Griffith, Kirstenblatt-Gimblett:1991). Cultural performances created for the purpose of entertainment and/or remuneration are devalued as having vulgar motives and “staged authenticity” in contrast to the pure realms of scientific edification and spontaneous, authentic cultural expression. Paid indigenous performance signals inauthenticity (irrespective of the people’s performative traditions, which may include remunerative or entertainment genres) because it indicates the penetration of Western commodity relations into the primordial world –exactly what the modernist presumably wished to escape through consuming cultural alterity; tourists and anthropologists required ever more remote peoples to satiate their desire to consume “culture” (Clifford, Maccannel, Phillips). Yet Indigenous people have had to adapt their expressive forms to fit the expectations of consumers with different value-and-belief systems to successfully participate in an intercultural, if unequal, exchange with them (Graburn, Price).

Now, the authenticity-demanding, alterity-seeking scientific and cultural voyeur gazes are no longer considered the morally superior ways of looking at indigenous people among educated humanists. Employing the rubrics of Orientalism, Primitivism, Exoticism, Scopofilia, etc. contemporary cultural critics have deconstructed these historical ways of looking (for example see Clifford, Mulvey, Said).

A number of well-established, critical approaches could be applied to the indigenous performances in the courtyard. All seem woefully inadequate. Although the history of colonial and modernist representations certainly informs contemporary genres of representation and performance, as well as those of interpretation, the premature deployment of this theoretical arsenal may not adequately address the situation we encountered at the encuentro. I would argue that disparaging the performances as modernist spectacles and colonialist relations of domination would do a grave disservice to the intentionality and agency of the performers –who have insight (albeit to different degrees) into the culturally-specific expectations of their audiences --as became more apparent in the performances of Luisa Calcumil, Petrona de la Cruz Cruz, and Isabel Juárez Espinoza.