Laura Anderson Barbata started her international stilt-dancing collaborations in 2001 in Trinidad and Tobago, and since then has forged links between communities in the United States and Mexico. A traveling exhibition focused on the precarious performance practice opened earlier this month at BRIC House in Brooklyn.
“I want to think of the stilts as a metaphor of looking at our society from an elevated perspective, and how all of us collaboratively can learn, respect, and also enjoy this coming together of cultures,” Barbata said in this discussion with Brooklyn Independent Media. Transcommunality: Laura Anderson Barbata, Collaboration Beyond Borders fills the gallery of the recently opened BRIC House with 20 towering stilt-dancing costumes stretching up to 17 feet tall, along with photographs, videos, and sculptural pieces.
Previous iterations of Transcommunality were staged in museums in Mexico, where the Mexico City-born, New York-based artist still spends much of her time. The looming outfits, with fabric from West Africa, Mexico, and Brooklyn, aren’t as thrilling in the gallery as when they’re inhabited by the moko jumbie stilt walkers — where the tassels and swirls of colorful fabric come to kinetic life — but they are beautiful to examine up close. Likely most familiar to an NYC audience are the super-tall businessman suits parading in the corner, created for Barbata’s 2011 Occupy Wall Street collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, a stilt-walking group that regularly appears in the West Indian Carnival. Much of the stilt-dancing has a vibrant energy of fun, yet it’s also vital as a tool of protest, a cultural community practice, and in some parts of the world a spiritual tradition.
While ongoing participatory art initiatives are Barbata’s major focus, one of her most significant advocacy projects was in the repatriation of the remains of Julia Pastrana. Pastrana was exhibited in her lifetime in the 19th century as “the ugliest woman in the world” for the dense hair that covered her body, and her corpse was preserved after she died in 1860. Barbata worked to get the body returned from Oslo, Norway — where the remains were held by a research institute — so that Pastrana could finally be buried in her home country of Mexico in February of 2013.
This isn’t immediately connected to the stilt-dancing, but both of the projects have an assured confidence in art as a means for social change. The exhibition at BRIC, which you can explore from the floor of the gallery or view from the cafe up above, may feel static compared to the videos of the performances on the wall, but it’s interesting to pause and more quietly think of how reviving traditions and getting groups involved in international collaboration could have a real impact on sustaining cultural traditions.
Transcommunality: Laura Anderson Barbata, Collaboration Beyond Borders continues at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn) through August 31.