Ancestral Memories, Forces, and Bodies: The Work of Raul Moarquech Ferrera-Balanquet
Ancestral Memories showcases selected works from the last seven years (2009-16) by the artist Raul Moarquech Ferrera-Balanquet, a period during which I met the artist and learned to call him a colleague, a collaborator, and a friend. Ferrera-Balanquet’s creative trajectory is rooted in a specific Cuban migratory experience, but one unlike more welcomed waves of Cuban migration onto U.S. soil. The first mass migration was typically of pro-Batista government supporters from 1959-1962, who fled to the US under the assumption that communism would never prevail in Cuba. The second wave of migrants, from 1965-1974, were discontent with the Fidel Castro government and therefore received as “freedom flights” by president Lyndon Johnson’s welcome inauguration. The third wave, in which the young Ferrera-Balanquet left Cuba, received a less inviting welcome. Departing on boatlift from the port of Mariel, more than 125,000 Cubans left between April and September 1980, after Castro declared that anyone wishing to leave to the United States could do so. Ferrera-Balanquet arrived in Miami among thousands of men who did not conform to heterosexual norms and were deemed anti-revolutionary “undesirables” by the Castro government. This diverse wave of Cuban immigrants included gays, lesbians, Afro-Cubans, and ex-convicts, which did not settle well with the elite Cubans from the previous migration waves. It fit even less with Cuba’s institutionally promoted homophobia, where effeminate behavior constituted social deviancy, which was criminalized under Cuba’s Penal Code (1). The works in this exhibition connect this key initial displacement for the artist with historical reiterations of both exile and survival, as manifested through generations of ancestral ways of living, being, and resistance.
Ferrera-Balanquet’s performances specifically contest the criminalization of the body, which was a direct prohibition of corporal gestures, of slight physical movements of expression, and policed with colonial definitions of gendered comportment. His performative movements are less sexual, and more sensuous in that they evoke the senses as sites of knowledge and memories beyond the mortal limitations of the physical. We see this significance in Ancestral Shadows where large photographs capture bodily expressions and ancestral wisdom rooted in the Afro-Cuban spiritual practice of Palo Mayombe, as the artist engaged in the ceremonial practice. Brought to the Caribbean with enslaved Africans from present day Congo and Angola, faith in nature, believe in the ancestors, and ritual ceremonial practices remain central elements in the religion, as well as a respect for the dead who govern the living (2). The spiritual reverence to ancestors is therefore strongly felt throughout the works.
A visual manifestation of such ancestral presence metaphorically appears in Mariposa Ancestral Memory. The multimedia performance pays homage to the artist’s Haitian grandfather and to a long legacy of ancestral migration and exile. In the performance, his gesticulations transcend that which cannot be testified through the senses; which cannot be seen, heard, smelled, or touched with the body. They invoke instead the spiritual strength, creativity, and sabiduria of ancestors past. In one video still of the performance, we see a serendipitous figurative creation of such spiritual testimony. Video displays frame the central floor altar, which the artist circles in movement. At one point he dances his way to the video projector that simultaneously recorded and displayed his movements, capturing an ethereal image: a visual echo of the artist’s body in motion, evoking a spirit-like continuity and presence of ghostly bodies descending into the backdrop.
This visual echo is ever more significant considering the manner in which Ferrera-Balanquet connects his exiled migration on boat from Cuba to the US as a reverberation of the forced displacement lived by the ancestors–enslaved Africans forced onto ships to the Caribbean islands. If an echo is a sound continuously reflected through waves emanated from one initial source, then it could be said that the artist’s forced exile – ignited by the patriarchal and heteronormative homophobia of a class-led revolution that failed to recognize struggles of race and sexuality – is but an echoing sound wave, a lingering trace, of coloniality. Amidst this recognition of the dis-membering affects of the colonial matrix, the body becomes a key site as the physical force that enables a re-membering. In this manner, the show is not about memory in the traditional sense of recollecting encoded and stored information. Instead, the memory becomes one of conjuring multiple ancestral experiences that never ceased to occur, that continue to manifest in new cycles of violence, of censorship, of expulsion, but also of resistance; of connecting dispersed fragments across geographical and temporal sites; of piecing together one’s historical reflection in an ocean still rippling with waves. Piecing together these fragments of ancestral memories and knowledges can never produce a linear chronological structure within the confinement of western notions of time and space. Rather, it requires a muti-faceted sensorial enactment, one which art in its many forms allows.
What we then see in works like Writing Otherwise, is the archive, the footprints of such a journey; an intellectual journey paved on a spiritual path into the subconscious in the form of rigorous investigations into language, history, and ancestral philosophies. This is how I’ve come to see the artist, constantly surrounded by spiritual beings, or ancestors, whose guidance he continuously calls upon. They don’t need to be seen, heard, or touched, but in a moment of recognition, their presence is acknowledged through his creative processes. I’ve witnessed how he recalls his own dialogues with his ancestors, asking them for guidance, or at times confronting them with frustrations at moments of loss. They always respond, and Ferrera-Balanquet is able to decipher how and when they do so, materializing their messages into creative physical and sensorial artworks. The ink drawings for instance, draw on indigenous Kairibexeri [Taino] imagery and West African writing, and provide for an amalgam of corporal and spiritual experiences incapable of representation within the confines of paper. They become intervened and performed sites of knowledge and thought in contrast to the ocular western alphabetical systems. In the process of their creation, they function as performative rituals that connect ancestral memories from Africa, the Caribbean, and the US, as geo-political embodiments moving through multiple migratory, geographical and temporal points.
Ferrera-Balanquet’s journey therefore does not begin with his migratory experience from Cuba. Rather, as seen in his hand made book Kubaxeri, a visual narrative documenting his migratory route, there are multiple points of convergence that evidence a cycle, rather than a linear beginning and end. These overlapping struggles are mapped in various points of the artist’s life and connected to ongoing social struggles for migrants, LBGTQ communities, and people of color. It is why in Marisposa Ancestral Memory, we see a scene of Angela Davis discussing the Black Panthers’s self-defense plan in reaction to police brutality and criminalization of black bodies, and why in Nomad Dreams/Sueños Nómadas we see an ex-gang member recall his migration from Merida, Yucatan to escape police persecution and the control of gang leaders who forced him to kill and destroy others, like a “trained dog.” It is also why in the experimental video, Soldados de la Memoria, the Classical Maya period, the colonial period, and contemporary Merida, intersect into an overlapping time frame that shows the continuity of racial socio-economic barriers initiated with colonialism. They exist today in the form of AIDS, gender violence, hate crimes, and socio-economic limitations, but are rooted in a cololonial history maintained through institutions of governance, law, and knowledge.
Video, video-performance, and video installation, specifically allows for experimentation with such temporal and spatial notions and marks a crucial aspect of Ferrera-Balanquet’s artistic trajectory. Having arrived in exile to the US amidst a 1980s wave of multiculturalism debates and emerging gay right movements, television and video were among the preferred mediums for a generation of artists reflecting on the current times (3). For a recently arrived Ferrera-Balanquet, it became a new lens with which to consolidate the politics of gender, sexuality, and citizenship with displacement, and one he explored and developed while at the University of Iowa, where he received an MFA in intermedia arts in 1992. The university’s program was already proven to facilitate investigation into indigenous cultures and Afro-Cuban religion, where another young Cuban migrant, Ana Medieta, also received her artistic training a few years prior. Amidst this community, Raul employed new media technologies, known for its aim of democratizing the arts, and extended this to marginalized experiences and voices, resulting in a wide trajectory of video art spanning over two decades.
As executive and academic director of the biennial and interdisciplinary experimental laboratory, Arte Nuevo InteractivA, video art and new media became an important tool for interlacing what appears to be dispersed and unrelated fragments of history through spaces of artistic collectivity. We see this in Nomad Dreams / Sueños Nómadas, but especially in projects like Merida T’Ho_MX, where the artist uses the wireless network established in four public parks of Merida to blur the boundaries of the public and private in relation to human experience and personal narratives. It specifically critiques the regulation of space, from its colonial roots to the exclusionary aspects of new media in its English dominance and government-controlled data. The multimedia work was inspired by the ancient Mayan Book of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, in which the ancient Maya explain the cyclical concept of time as practiced with the Mayan calendar, where time does not follow a western linearity but instead is renewed in a new era, or cycle (4). This temporal amalgam was the driving force in Merida T’Ho_MX, where public space becomes a platform for the personal narrative, one performed in real time while simultaneously recorded and projected via technologies, and one that occupies both physical, virtual, and digital spaces. As such, the work highlights the new digital typologies of the city beyond the limited and restricted Cartesian space, instead connecting multidirectional flows of cyberspace with migration (5).
In this creative process of the last seven years, of remembering the physical, spiritual, and epistemic violence enacted upon the enslaved and colonized by the colonial matrix of power, Ferrera-Balanquet joins ancestral memories and struggles with the contemporary social movements of migrants, radical thinkers, indigenous and afro descendants (6). In this manner, Ancestral Memories does not bring the past forward to the present; it does not merely evoke previous conditions and remembrances. Such colonial logic of thinking implies a binary in the past and present, an additional temporal border. On the contrary, the reiteration and recurrence of violent displacement and criminalization of bodies, exposes the cyclical repetition and points of reiteration of coloniality as continuously lived in multiple generations of ancestors.
This is especially clear in the Cimarronaje series. Cimarronage was the state of mind of the enslaved Africans brought to the Americas who in acts of self-liberation, escaped haciendas, the landowners and slaveholders, by retreating into hidden territories to build collective communities of resistance, where they lived as outlaws. Slave owners named them Cimarron, from the Taino word si’maran’, meaning ‘the flight of an arrow.’ The series of watercolor and ink drawings on paper, illustrate abstract portraits of intellectuals and philosophers as contemporary Cimarrones and Cimarronas. The portraits composed of forceful jagged lines superimposed onto watercolor stains and Mpembas markings, include Angela Davis, Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, Martin Luther King Jr., Sylvia Wynter, Malcom X, José Martí, and the Haitian Voudou God, Papa Legba. The Mpembas markings, signatures in the form of triangles, crosses, and arrow shapes, summon protective forces as practiced in Palo Monte rituals that call upon the ancestors, especially apparent in the Malcom X portrait.
What Ferrera-Balanquet privileges in Ancestral Memories are the ancestral forces of liberation, resistance, and decolonization, as they manifest today in the struggles of our communities: the migrant, the refugee, the exiled, the discriminated and outcast due to imposed colonial notions of race, gender, or sexuality. The last seven years of works show that despite the physical, spiritual, and emotional displacement and pain we inherit through coloniality, the Cimarron state of mind persists, allowing for continuous building of new collective communities of liberation and decolonization.
(1) Julio Capó Jr. “Queering Mariel: Mediating Cold War Foreign Policy and U.S. Citizenship among Cuba’s Homosexual Exile Community, 1978–1994.” Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Summer 2010), pp. 78-106. 83
(2) Meighoo, Sean, Case, Frederick Ivor, Taylor, Patrick. The Encyclopedia of Caribbean Religions. (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield University of Illinois Press; 1st Edition (August 30, 2013): 656-661.
(3) See, Lucy R. Lippard. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. (New York : Pantheon Books, 1990), and see Cat Hope and John Ryan, Digital Arts: An Introduction to New Media (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).
(4) Juan José Hoil and Ralph L. Loys. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967).
(5) Raul Moarquech Ferrera-Balanquet. “Merida T’Ho_MX: Exploring locative media in a Latino territory”, Public No. 40, Toronto, Canada (2010).
(6) For more on the colonial matrix of power see Aníbal Quijano. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America” Nepantla: Views From the South No. 533 (2000).