Laura Anderson Barbata on Julia Pastrana

The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home is a new book edited by Laura Anderson Barbata and Donna Wingate. The essay collection sheds light on the life of historic sensation, Mexican international performer Julia Pastrana, expanding the story from anthropological and art historical perspectives. The book can also be viewed as a personal story of discovery. Artist and writer Laura Anderson Barbata remembers her own process of starting the project that eventually led to this book. How she got engaged in the controversial subject propels ideas of activism, and a passion to rewrite Pastrana’s history from new humanitarian and feminist points of view.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How did you originally get interested in Pastrana’s life?

Laura Anderson Barbata: In 2003, Amphibian Stage Productions, a theater company directed by my sister Kathleen Culebro, invited me to collaborate with designs for a play that they were about to premiere in New York: The True History of the Tragic Life and the Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, by Shaun Prendergast. This is how I learned about Julia Pastrana. The story, unfolding in complete darkness, details the life of Julia as she traveled through Europe, a performer in a freak show, until her death in Moscow. It also briefly recounts the fate of her mummified body, and that of her baby, until they were added to the Schreiner Collection of human remains in the anatomy department of the University of Oslo. Upon hearing her story, I felt that my duty as a Mexican artist, and as a human being, was to do everything possible to have Pastrana removed from the anatomy collection and returned to Mexico, her place of birth—where she was at the time practically unknown—to receive a proper burial.

After nearly ten years of effort, Julia Pastrana was finally transferred to Mexican officials in Norway; I represented Mexico. After more than 150 years of being exhibited for her unique physical condition, Ms. Pastrana (1834–1860) was repatriated to Mexico and buried in Sinaloa, Mexico in 2013.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It’s been really a longitudinal project for you personally. How did you get others to get involved? 

I was not the first person to request the burial of Julia Pastrana and have often asked myself, why was I able to succeed?  Why did other efforts fail? What did I do differently? I think the answer lies in the fact that I am an artist and therefore my methodology was radically different from all others from the start. My extensive collaborative artistic experiences in Mexico, Venezuela, and Trinidad prepared me for a project of this magnitude that ultimately involved international institutions, government officials, various organizations, and scientists.

LAB: The ten-year plight for Julia’s return for burial began with letters I wrote to the National Research Ethics Committee for the Social Sciences and Humanities, the National Committee for Ethical Evaluation of Research on Human Remains of Norway, the Governor of Sinaloa in Mexico, the Foreign Affairs Department of Mexico, the University of Oslo, journalists, artists, anthropologists, individuals, and various institutions that I reached out to for their professional opinion, advice, and guidance. During this process, they became deeply involved and invested in the outcome. Each one was fundamental for the success of the repatriation and I consider them to be my collaborators.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How many authors are participating in the publication that is coming out now, and what perspectives do they cover from visual and historic perspectives?

LAB: I edited the book with Donna Wingate, and it includes texts by Jan Bondeson, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Grant Kester, Nicolas Márquez-Grant, Bess Lovejoy, and myself. Donna and I researched and selected more than fifty illustrations from the public domain, library collections, archival materials, and works commissioned especially for the project.

Julia Pastrana, book cover.
The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, book cover. 

The authors are as follows:

Dr. Jan Bondeson is a Swedish-born rheumatologist, scientist and author, working as a senior lecturer and consultant rheumatologist at the Cardiff University School of Medicine. Outside of his career in medicine, he has written several nonfiction books on a variety of topics, such as medical anomalies and unsolved murder mysteries.

As an expert on Julia Pastrana, Bondeson contributed two chapters to the book; the first is a general introduction to the story of Julia Pastrana, and the second recounts how he found her remains in the basement of the Forensic Institute of Oslo in 1988, and how his extensive research established that she suffered from hypertrichosis terminalis rather than hypertrichosis lanuguinosa, as previously believed.

Dr. Nicholas Márquez-Grant is a Specialist Forensic Practitioner in Anthropology and Archaeology at Cellmark Forensic Services, Abingdon, UK. He is also a Research Associate of the Institute of Human Sciences, University of Oxford.

His text addresses the history of collections and the anthropological framework of the nineteenth century; the ethics surrounding human remains; the case of Julia Pastrana’s repatriation and its significance; witnessing Pastrana’s body in the chapel during the repatriation process.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is Professor of Women’s Studies and English at Emory University. Her fields of study are feminist theory, American literature, and disability studies. Her work develops the field of disability studies in the humanities and women’s and gender studies.

Dr. Garland-Thomson’s essay considers the ways that the public display of Julia Pastrana both reinforces and challenges the lines between the self and other, human and non-human, ordinary and extraordinary, that such spectacles rely upon. By analyzing how Pastrana’s display and recent repatriation and burial in Sinaloa invest her body with different meanings, it traces the processes that socially mark human bodies in order to reveal and explicate the inner workings of representational systems, such as race, gender, ethnicity, and disability.

Grant Kester is Professor of Art History, and Director of the University Art Gallery at the University of California, San Diego. Kester is one of the leading figures in the emerging critical dialogue around “relational” or “dialogical” art practices.

Dr. Kester’s text discusses how European colonizers were unable to attach specific meaning to the objects they acquired through colonization and thus developed larger meanings for art more generally. Recovering Pastrana’s remains becomes an act of restitution that encourages a confrontation with the historical status of “stolen” objects and encourages a renegotiation of and reconnection to the understanding of the past.

Bess Lovejoy is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.
Ms. Lovejoy’s essay contextualizes Julia Pastrana’s afterlife by considering a number of other notable individuals whose bodies have been preserved in museums. Like Pastrana, many of these individuals possessed bodies that differed from the European norm, either because they were born with physical abnormalities or because they were of non-European ethnicities. Her chapter considers how scientific and ethical considerations complicate the collection and display of such bodies, and how some of these bodies have been the focal point of successful repatriation campaigns, while others have not.

Laura Anderson Barbata
My essay describes my own journey: the process, challenges, and partnerships that were formed as I worked for ten years for the repatriation of Julia Pastrana.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your own artistic research work on Pastrana has included performative phases, how are you implementing this approach on the book?

LAB: While Julia Pastrana was billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World,” what is most important to mention is that she was a gifted mezzo-soprano and dancer—she was a very successful performer during her lifetime. Julia Pastrana’s life story and the fate of her body after her death (including her successful repatriation) brings to light issues that remain deeply relevant: beauty, ownership, science and racism, commercialization, objectification, exploitation, human rights, public versus private, international law, colonialism, sexism, respect, responsibility, indigenous rights, memory, sensitivity, the physical body, and the spiritual body.

In order to unpack all of these subjects, I felt that they must be addressed through different mediums. First, it was important to create a publication to gather the most significant material concerning her life with critical essays from different scholars. Donna Wingate and I worked on this book for over four years—researching archives and discussing the various lenses through which we could gain a deeper understanding of Julia Pastrana. At the same time, our goal was to present a full account of Pastrana as a person, a woman, and an artist, with the dignity she had been denied during her life and after her death. The book includes images of my artworks—works on paper and performances—based on the story of Julia Pastrana.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How would you describe the cultural life in Mexico at the time of Julia over hundred years ago? Also, what was the context that she was surrounded by that addressed her as a celebratory oddity? 

LAB: Julia only lived in Mexico for the first twenty years of her life. She was born in 1834 in the State of Sinaloa, and according to popular legend, was born in the indigenous village of Ocoroni—or thereabout—in 1834. Today Ocoroni belongs to the municipality of Sinaloa, in the state of the same name, and is located in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

In the decades of the first half of the nineteenth century, Mexico was searching for its own destiny and independence. Since the establishment of the first settlements by European Hispanics in the sixteenth century until the early nineteenth century, the territory of Sinaloa was mainly a mining state. The population, therefore, settled in the mountains and in the valleys. Mining camps and towns were established throughout Sinaloa for the search and exploitation of metallic resources that were coveted by the monarch of Spain.

Nothing is known about Julia’s parents or siblings, and there are no documents of her birth or baptism. It should be noted that the Office of Public Records (Registro Público) had not yet been created in Mexico; it was legally established on January 27, 1857. Little is known about her childhood, although it is said that an uncle took charge of her after the death of her mother, and in an effort to make a quick buck, sold to her to a small traveling circus—the kind that occasionally passes through these remote villages. Sometime around 1836 until April 1854, Julia was a maid in the residence of Mr. Pedro Sánchez, who had been in charge of the government of Sinaloa from September 28, 1836 to June 3rd, 1837. It is possible that he purchased Julia from the circus that had exhibited her throughout the northwest of the country.

We believe that her training as a mezzo-soprano and dancer began when she lived at the governor’s house, and he likely presented her before audiences. She spoke four languages: English, French, Spanish, and Cahita, her native tongue. She was taken to Guadalajara to perform in 1854, and news of her reached the United States, as we found in an article in the New York Post. This must have been what sparked the interest of the American Theodore Lent, who worked for Barnum and Bailey and later became Julia’s husband. He traveled to Mexico to meet with Pedro Sánchez and Francisco Sepulveda to discuss a business venture that involved the sale and purchase of Julia Pastrana.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: As a phenomenon she became extremely internationalized so to speak. How would you explain this to contemporary audiences, from the perspectives of art, science, and women’s history?

When Julia Pastrana left Mexico and traveled to the United States with Francisco Sepulveda to meet Theodore Lent to complete a business transaction between Sepulveda and Lent, Theodore Lent secretly convinced Julia Pastrana to marry him, and he immediately became her manager. He presented her to audiences and billed her as the Bear-woman, the Nondescript, the Ape Woman, the Female Hybrid, the Wonderful Hybrid, and Baboon Lady, among other sobriquets.

LAB: Julia Pastrana was taken to perform in Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York, among other cities. After a number of presentations in the US and Canada, Lent decided to take his show to Europe. They traveled to London, and extensively throughout Germany, Poland, and Russia. Julia Pastrana’s shows were very successful, and newspapers throughout Europe wrote about her.

Julia Pastrana’s story is a reminder that what happened to her is not an experience exclusively from the past—today there are far too many cases of exploitation, abuse, neglect, cruelty, human trafficking, and discrimination. Julia Pastrana is a reminder that we urgently need to forward women’s rights, indigenous rights, children’s rights, and eliminate human traffic to start. We must end gender discrimination, defend the rights of people with differences, protect religious choices and end the voracious dehumanization of people in the name of political, commercial, religious, and scientific purposes. For me, it means that I continue working on the topics related to her, the injustices she lived and how they are still relevant today.

LAB: Among the works are: a performance piece that is continually evolving, a series of zines that address different topics related to Julia Pastrana such as: repatriation of human remains, museum ethics, exhibition practices, the objectification of people and women, human traffic, beauty and the commercialization of women’s bodies, feminism, animal rights, love, circus arts, among others; in addition, we are working towards an Opera about Julia Pastrana in collaboration with the artist collective Apparatjik, Concha Buika, and Void Design.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you think she is appreciated in Mexico today, and how will the book contribute to that?

LAB: The repatriation of Julia Pastrana sparked a great interest worldwide and in Mexico. Since Julia Pastrana’s repatriation there have been at least three plays written and performed in Mexico about her, and I understand there is a feature film in development by a Mexican director. I have also learned about a woman’s health center that opened recently in Argentina that is named after Julia Pastrana.  Because of my work on the repatriation of Julia Pastrana, I recently received an award by the Instituto de Administración Pública of the State of Tabasco, Mexico for the Defense of Human Rights.

It is clear to me that all of these responses show that Mexico is embracing Julia Pastrana and is working towards restorative actions for her memory, for the promotion of dignity and justice, and in humanitarian efforts to defend the rights of all.

***

The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey HomeAvailable through Art Book/DAP http://www.artbook.com/9780692762189.html

More on Laura Anderson Barbata

Artist website: http://www.lauraandersonbarbata.com/

Training artists for innovation: Competencies for New Contexts

photo: Wilma Hurskainen: “He Doesn’t Like Water”, 2012

The book Training artist for innovation: Competencies for new Contexts was published in 2013, (the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts in Helsinki in Finland). It discusses the topic of artists who are trained for creating innovation in various contexts outside their own artistic practice. The book is  based on a  project, which  gathers together different agents in European countries, who are leading artistic innovation. Kai Lehikoinen and Joost Heinsius are the editors of the book.

The book-project brought together artists, companies, organizations, universities and cities, which have experienced artists working with them.  The idea for the publication came from the challenge that both society and businesses need new solutions and interventions, as they face changes.  Professional artists with artistic interventions can respond to challenges of today, bringing in new questions and ways of thinking. Artists “offer contradiction, as well as confrontation and friction, and they provoke new ideas.”  

Training Artists for Innovation: Competencies for New Contexts argues that artists who take the challenge for artistic interventions need specific training to establish their artistic know-how for new contexts. Artistic competencies can be trained, so to speak. Innovation can occur where artists, with their own practice and methods, contribute to the arts sectors and organizations, to the business world and sectors, where societal policies are made. The book responses to a framework of European context, but the idea can be shifted to other parts of the world.

A very basic question; are artists not innovative by nature, opens up a dialogue between artists and new contexts.  According to editors Heinsius and Lehikoinen, “A gap has risen between the arts and society that needs to be bridged and closed” .

Art can intervene not only on the walls of office spaces, but it can come to peoples’ working life as well.  This statement is inspired by models learned from community art, and by the experience coming from social and health sectors, where art has always been respected as part of human life.  The new innovation comes in the intersection, where businesses and organizations want to raise their creativity,  and understand their creator capacity in conjunction to human-based factors. As the book shows, the arts can add value, for example, by  bringing in emotional and aesthetic dimensions. Artistic interventions can boost creativity and raise energy, bring in new ways of listening, managing, and interacting with others. The book emphasizes that the term artistic intervention is understood as “interdisciplinary professional practice that takes places in business settings and involve professional art-making and creative arts practices”.

What are, then, the issues that interventions can tackle? Topics and issues of course vary, and depend on each context. Artistic interventions can be connected to strategy and concept development, to work processes, to team-building and social interactions, and to public relations, for instance. In the level of cultural policy, the arts have a key role, together with other creative sectors, to add into the diversity of society. In a larger societal (European) policy level, the following seems very relevant and welcomed, when thinking of the creative economy:

“At the national level, the starting points differ from country to country.  In some countries, it is the perceived gap between the arts sector and the rest of society that needs to be acknowledged – that is, the need for the arts to appear as relevant to other sectors in society. In other countries, innovation development welcomes the arts as the perception of shifting from technological innovations to social innovations and creativity.”

Training Artists for Innovation: Competencies for New Contexts  is a book that asks a relevant question of,  how to do it with the arts. It gives several examples of the relevant competencies that artists can embody for their interventions. Gerda Hempel and Lisbeth Rysgaard,  from Danish Artlab, write in their chapter Competencies – in real life, about their own model of working with artists and businesses.  What they suggest is that artists need to manage a variety of specific tasks that relate to understanding the culture of the organization: such as developing and describing the concept, knowing how to sell and negotiate, and,“how to engage and conduct the process, how to extract learning and evaluate, and how to support the implementation within the organization.”

Their chapter reveals that when artists share a common denominator, the artistic base, methods and tools vary in different art forms. For example, a violinist in the opera house has a different approach than an avant-garde performer who works in an experimental performance space.

Artlab founders and consultants Gerda Hempel and Lisbeth Rysgaard bring in the artist perspective of working with businesses. They open their Artlab Entrepreneurial Model (that is based on their 12-year experience in the field) and reflect this in relation to real artists, who they interviewed. This shows how artistic interventions function from the artists point of view. The model itself is like a metaphoric artistic house, which includes 4 interactive work spaces and a storage. Its aim has been to help professional artist who want to go entrepreneurial and find new job opportunities, or look for new management skills for their career. The house allegory with 4 spaces  includes: The Shop/Back office, The Workshop/Development, The Scene/Artistic intervention, The Shop/Front office, and Storage/place for new ideas. Artlab’s  model functions as a visual guideline to see  parallel tracks. It offers artists a tool to plan and prioritize their work.

Training Artists for Innovation: Competencies for New Contexts has a message for everybody working in creative industries. It offers chapters with real examples, and discusses  how real artists have solved their tasks, approached different organizations and worked with businesses. The book is a guideline to discussing competencies that artists need in order to work with various sectors.  It clearly opens a discussion, which goes to two directions. 1. Artists need more than ‘just’ their own artistic skills and competencies to go outside their craft. 2. Yet, artist have special skills and innovative qualities that (only) come from their artistic work and expertise.  To bring these two to meet; some common ways can be created.

In summary, artists need special qualities to work with organizations and companies; this includes knowledge of those cultures. They should have pedagogic competencies to set up methods and approaches for intervention. Artists also benefit from research competencies to find information, and to critically view the information and other collected material. What artists also should learn about, are skills in project management and marketing. 

(The book Training Artists for Innovation: Competencies for New Contexts is licensed under Creative Commons as BY/NC/ND, and it can be downloaded from the page/click the book’s link)

Feeling good about my environment

I was tuning into Björk’s Joga, looking at videos of Icelandic landscape and thinking about the affective aspects of our environments. Where we grow up, the landscapes that we get used to, has an impact on us. I strongly believe that landscapes shape our emotions and our approaches to different environments.

When I think about some of Björk’s own comments about the environment she grew up in, I feel the same way as she does about the North. We should reconsider the Arctic resources and the Northern environment, and take climate change more seriously. Rapid climate change would be huge threat to our landscapes, and even change our feelings about them. I recently learned about a new book, which speaks about the unspoken sites of the climate change process. “To Cook a Continent. Destructive Extraction and Climate Crisis in Africa” is a book by Nnimmo Bassey.

Bassey writes about Africa, where nature and natural resources have been traditionally considered a blessing. His insight is that by using the nature in a wrong way can turn it into a curse. Bassey accuses global North for taking raw materials from Africa. This also means that when the wealthy economies are consuming fossil fuels, indigenous forests, and commercializing the global agriculture, those economies also destruct their own sense of the good. Our question should be, how to maintain our responsible approach to nature and environment? Perhaps one way is to keep enjoying the nature, and also bring that sense into our designing.

The human aspect in the community development is a central part of the contemporary design of environments. A new and innovative design-thinking considering public spaces is now more focused in the ‘good-feeling’ aspect that can be attached to making the spaces. Adding dimension of ‘feeling good and happy’ recreates the interiors and designs to fit better in our lives, and to serve us better as communities. Design education at its simplest comes with a recognition that people want to feel good, weather they are in their work offices, at home, or visiting serving centers and service points in public spaces.

Also, another important question is, what is my favorite place and environment? And, how do I define the good feeling attached to my favorite environment?  I consider a human component to be the core factor even when it comes to a work environment. Feeling good would come with additional space for interaction, which would bring awareness and a sense of collaboration. My experience of my favorite environment is attached to my own memory of different places, which I have visited in my life. Then, the collective images surrounding places shape my feelings about them. In retrospect, my feelings about different environments is influenced by various representations about them.

In modern design the interiors and exteriors can change my perception of my surroundings quite significantly. How I experience the space, of course, depends of my age, size, and my habitat. I have become nostalgic about the childhood landscapes that my family used to visit. Calling those national parks also my favorite places on this earth makes me rethink how important they are today. Feeling good and remembering the favorite places is one way to respect the future of our environments and the nature.

I found this architecture book from St. Mark’s Bookshop

What a nice thing to find out that St. Mark’s Bookshop can celebrate its upcoming 34th anniversary with victory.  Cooper Union agreed to a new one-year lease to reduce the bookshop’s monthly rent, this was necessary so that the bookshop can continue serving the Lower East Side community (and other visitors as well).  Every signature did count, I was one among the 44,128 on the online petition. The organization behind the action is the Cooper Square Committee, and for over 52 years it has ensured that the diverse community of Lower East Side may continue to bloom.

The bookshop has become my favorite, it is a smaller scale, and yet, the books that the store carries makes it really a big bookstore. Among subjects of philosophy, arts, religion, psychology, social sciences and so forth, St. Mark’s Bookshop carries great books about architecture and design. I found one of my favorite architecture books from their selection.

‘The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida’s Haunt‘, is a book written by architecture professor Mark Wigley (1993, paperback 1995, The MIT press).  The following theme of ‘the image of the house, and the visitors in the house’ offers a good puzzle for reading architecture from more deconstructionist points of view. In the narration, “it is the spacing that makes the architecture possible even while, or, rather, only by, violating its apparent order” (1995, 219). The sense of space, the rhythms of spacing, come about with the visitors, the house guests. It is the visitor, when entering the space, who brings forth the laws of the house by his well-rehearsed behavior, or by her disruption of the space. What is compelling in this puzzle is that, especially the ill-behaviored guest actually provides the law of the house by her disruption of the space; whereas architecture itself stands for the all-too-welcome house guest, who would guarantee the space.

The idea of the inside and outside of the space, the house and the architecture is interesting, because it seems that the outsiders would create the space/architecture when entering into it. Fascinating thinking. This can be applied to considering our contemporary architecture as well. A question would be, how can we as diverse communities share the same urban public spaces that we use, when in fact each of us perceives and experiences the ‘same’ spaces so differently? From Derrida’s point of view, perhaps, the idea of the ‘same’ space sounds to be false, since the visitors, outsiders (we), who, each time while entering it, actually make the space?  So, the urban environment would also be experienced by and as diverse encounterings and as the spacings, which show the urban environment as possible. The book offers us a puzzle, which can go on and on.

…back to the St. Mark’s Booshop: Join the Victory Celebration and the St. Mark’s Bookshop in their 34th anniversary, on Thursday, December 1st, 2011, between 5:30-7:30. The address is 31 Third Avenue (corner of 9th street).

Arctic sensing/design senses

It is almost twenty years now when Danish author Peter Høeg published his novel (1992) Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, in English Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1996 in English). I could not at that time understand all the possible turns and meanings that the novel encompassed but was still very thrilled by the beauty of the snow. In the book, the character Smilla has an extraordinary ability to understand all types of snow, and name them.

What was so thrilling for me was the idea of snow being so central to one’s experiences and consciousness. In Finland (Norway, Sweden, Russia), the indigenous circumpolar Sami People, had hundreds of words for snow in their language defining the qualities of snow. Their traditional way of life included reindeer herding, and nomadic lifestyle was dependent on the snow conditions in pastures especially in winter. People knew how to define the snow.

In the arctic, the sensing of nature is important. I was growing up in a close relation to the nature. The aesthetics of snow come to my sensing of art and design. Shaping snow into ice and experiencing it in the landscape.

Another creative, artist Marc Chagall took inspiration from snow and wintry landscapes. One of his signature paintings is Over Vitebsk. The beauty of the painting is in the flying figure, and in the silent houses below him. Everything seems to be resting in the quiet of snow, yet there is an undercurrent movement. Chagall is having a nostalgic dream and sees his past hometown in a picturesque image full of movement and life.

I saw couple of recent Chagall shows pondering the corpus of his works. How little I knew that he had created so diverse collections in the United States.  I went to Philadelphia twice in the summer and saw the exhibition where curators wished to frame Chagall next to his fellow avant-garde Parisians. Again, Chagall’s presence in Philadelphia was surprisingly vivid.