Liliana Angulo: An Afrocolombian Performance  

Zeca Ligiéro | CLA-UNIRIO

The work of Liliana Angulo occupies a special place in the Colombian art world due to its ambiguity and virulence. She works simultaneously with installations, videos, photographic exhibitions, and performances. Taken together, they aim to resonate with contemporary artistic movements, but her themes reflect not only an expression of the feminine confronted with the violence of the globalized world, but also go much further, delving into South America’s history of slavery to engage in dialogue with uncomfortable icons of opression and torture of the feminine body.

What interests her is not the pleasure or delight of self-flagellation, nor the simple arts of body modification, but the marks of imposition of a new (or old) order not desired, defined by the other – the black feminine body manipulated by power and transformed into merchandise. Therefore her subject makes ample incursions into history and anthropology: Angulo examines not only the tribal objects of torture and deformations, but also representations of black people as exotic others. (Figure 1. “Objetos para deformar – Labio” [“Objects to Deform – Lip”]. Self-portrait.)

To clarify this point, Angulo evokes images of a colonial past where a black woman is sumptuously portrayed as a slave mistress. (Figure 2. “Retrato de una negra” [“Portrait of a Black Woman”]. Henry Price. 1852. Province of Medellín. Watercolor for the Comisión Corográfica.) Angulo expounds on this chosen character: “What is interesting about that image are its multiple readings and that it is possible that the woman was not enslaved. The year that watercolor was done, slavery in Colombia was officially abolished, but at that moment many black people were already free through manumission or libertad de vientres.”1 By recreating with photographs the image of that watercolor from the 19th century — one of the rare pictorial representations in Colombian art in which a black woman is not represented with torture objects, in relation to manual labor or as a domestic servant — the artist revisits that past, as if were possible to expose a second skin present in the imaginary of a population that still does not occupy a desired position in the social hierarchy. (Figure 3. Project “Presencia Negra” [“Black Presence”]. “Retrato de Lucy Rengifo, nacida en Medellín” [“Portrait of Lucy Rengifo, Born in Medellín”]. Photograph.)

Another important aspect of the artist’s recent work is a re-reading of the image of black people today, with reference to the fight for the affirmation of blackness in the ‘60s when the hairstyle used by figures of Black Power such as Angela Davis and the Black Panthers became a symbol of resistance. Liliana creates a dialogue with the stereotyped reading of the hair of the Black Power spread by the media in the years that followed. Her creation of grand, exaggerated wigs made from steel wool exposes expressions of rejection of blackness through the prejudiced yet common classification of a black person’s hair as “bad hair” (“cabello malo,” an expression used in Colombia as well as Brazil. (Figure 4. Project “Un negro es un negro” [“A Black is a Black”]. Series “Pelucas Porteadores” [Wig porters]. Wigs made of steel wool.)

Another theme developed within her body of work is the action of giving color to the skin as a mark of race. In her performances, Liliana, an Afro-descendent, paints her skin black, as if doubly reaffirming her color and identity. (Figure 5. “Negro Utópico” [“Utopian Black”]. Self-portrait, domestic actions, figure and background of printed tablecloth fabric, painted yellow skin and wigs of steel wool, etc.) With this intentionality upon her face, she recreates the mask of North American blackface minstrelsyformerly associated with black comedians that Spike Lee showed in his film Bamboozled (2000), and which was appropriated by white comedians like Al Jolson.

With the models she chooses for her work, Angulo finds new meaning like a sculptor molding life, or the director of a performance creating a kind of tableau vivant of the Passion play featuring black female domestic servants. Angulo displays mimetic pictures with frozen actions, like the stations of the cross through which a black domestic servant passes – the iron, the stove, the blender, the duster, the broom, the rag, etc. – while contrasting this with an inexplicable joy. Here her work points at the “common sense” according to which “the black woman is normally a domestic employee and the domestic employee is normally a black woman.” Her clothes are of the same print as the tile of the kitchen, figure and background confusing themselves in their domestic effectiveness of servitude and objects of consumption. (Figure 6. Series “Mambo Negrita.”)

Her work appears like a heterogeneous collection of images and situations of representations of blackness in a kaleidoscope, drawing out tensions and conflicts between gender and representations of race as a stereotype. Her work locates new parameters for an art in tune with the questions of Afro-American and diasporic studies. Its humor is corrosive without being perverse; there is always an epic narrative in which the dramas of the past help to orient us in the present. As the African proverb says: “If we do not know where we are going, we must ask ourselves where we come from."

1 Translator’s note: libertad de vientres was a juridical principle that granted freedom to children born of slaves.

Zeca Ligiéro has a graduate degree in theater direction from the University of Rio de Janeiro UNIRIO and a masters (1988) and doctorate (1997) in Performance Studies from New York University. Currently he is associate professor and dean of the Center of Letters and Arts of UNIRIO. His experience is based in the arts with an emphasis on theater direction, principally in issues of performance, Afro-Brasilian performance and culture, popular culture, and experimental theater. Among his most prominent books are Divine Inspiration from Benin to Bahia (1993, USA); Iniciación al Candomblé (1995, Colombia); Malandro Divino, a vida e a lenda de Zé Pelintra (2004, Brazil); and Carmen Miranda: uma performance afro-brasileira (2007, Brazil).