Essays

Against a Feathered Headdress: A Tale of Two Performance Festivals and Native American Voices [UPDATED]

The same day that Latifa Laâbissi donned a faux-Sioux headdress at MoMA PS1, Emily Johnson created a collaborative event that championed indigenous voices and values

Emily Johnson (Yup'ik) leading <em>Umyuangvigkaq</em>, a PS122 Long Table and durational Sewing Bee event at the Ace Hotel on January 8 (photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy PS122)
Emily Johnson (Yup’ik) leading Umyuangvigkaq, a PS122 Long Table and durational Sewing Bee event at the Ace Hotel on January 8 (all photos by Maria Baranova, courtesy PS122, unless indicated otherwise)

Two simultaneous performance events on January 8 revealed the gulf that still exists between certain New York art institutions in their approach to genuine collaboration and the failure to be accountable to indigenous concerns. While MoMA PS1 struggled to respond to controversy over the use of a faux-Sioux headdress by choreographer Latifa Laâbissi in her 2006 work Self Portrait Camouflage — in which the artist performs nude while wearing the headdress — across town the Yup’ik choreographer Emily Johnson created a space that centered indigenous voices and values to teach the very lessons that the PS1 curatorial team and Laâbissi could have used. Johnson’s Umyuangvigkaq, or “place to gather ideas,” a Long Table discussion and durational Sewing Bee that was part of Performance Space 122’s Coil Festival, modeled sovereign practice and a respect for local cultural protocol. Meanwhile, at the PS1 performance, which was originally part of the American Realness festival, the artistic right to transgression was pitted against Native American beliefs and values in a false opposition.

Objections to Self Portrait Camouflage, a solo performance by Laâbissi, a French-born choreographer whose parents immigrated from Morocco, were first raised by Rosy Simas, a Seneca dancer and choreographer, in December. Simas saw promotional images of Laâbissi’s performance online and was outraged that a fake piece of regalia held sacred by the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples (collectively known as the Sioux Nations) was being appropriated. In a public letter posted to Facebook she described it as a sacrilegious and “aggressive act of hate speech.” Her letter outlined the traumatic effect of the disregard for Native culture in Laâbissi’s use of the feathered headdress (currently a focus of critiques of cultural appropriation), a particularly charged symbol in light of its cultural relevance to the peoples of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the ongoing struggles against the Dakota Access Pipeline there. Laâbissi’s performance claims to evoke the imperialist custom of exhibiting indigenous people at World’s Fairs and conjure the silent aggressions at the heart of immigrant experiences through tropes of caricature and the grotesque. But the appropriation of headdresses and “playing Indian” in an American context are long-running acts of aggression that, as Simas pointed out in her letter, contributed to systematic genocide and indigenous erasure.

While Natives and non-Natives decried Laâbissi’s lack of sensitivity and foresight, Ben Pryor of American Realness immediately reached out to Simas and began an extensive dialogue. The result was a public response and apology, and American Realness withdrawing its support of the performance. The offending promotional image was taken down from banner ads and Pryor removed the performance from the festival program entirely. American Realness committed to hosting a panel discussion, “Native American Realness,” which took place at 22 Boerum Place on January 7, the day before Laâbissi’s performance at PS1. Rosy Simas and Christopher K. Morgan, a Native Hawaiian choreographer, joined Sara Nash of the New England Foundation for the Arts to discuss cultural appropriation, Redface, and other forms of colonial racism in artistic practice. The panelists took the opportunity to make indigenous values present. For example, the discussion was done in a circle, began with a Native Hawaiian prayer, and participants expressed their lineage when speaking. Morgan told Hyperallergic that he hoped the panel would be like a “drop in the pond that is rippling outward” to the spectrum of non-Native members of the performance community who hadn’t considered such issues up until that point.

Rosy Simas (Seneca) leading discussion at "Native American Realness," organized by American Realness at ISSUE Project Room on January 7 (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness)
Rosy Simas (Seneca) leading discussion at “Native American Realness,” organized by American Realness at 22 Boerum Place on January 7 (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness)

However, PS1’s response to the concerns of the Native arts community was unapologetic. A week after Simas published her letter, she spoke with Chief Curator Peter Eleey and Jenny Schlenzka, associate curator and the organizer of Laâbissi’s performance. After several phone meetings a Skype conversation was arranged between Simas and Laâbissi, observed by the PS1 curatorial staff, so the artist could hear the concerns over her use of sacred regalia. Simas described the conversation as difficult and ugly. It was clear to her that Laâbissi believed that if she could explain her work, Simas would understand and grant her permission to use the headdress (which Simas, as a Seneca woman, could not give). The dialogue between the two ended with Simas telling Laâbissi that continuing to wear the headdress was a colonial act, which Laâbissi insisted she, as a woman of Moroccan heritage, could not commit. “She could not see that acts of disrespect and oppression can occur even when coming from another colonial context of oppression,” Simas told Hyperallergic.

While PS1changed the promo image from Laâbissi in the headdress to an empty podium draped with a French flag, the conversation largely ended there. Simas began to raise money to fly herself and Dakota elders and educators to New York to address and protest the performance. American Realness and PS1 both contributed some funding, and Simas was able to bring Dakota/Lakota elder Janice Bad Moccasin and Dakota educator Ramona Kitto Stately to attend the weekend’s events. The organizers and artist were silent on whether there would be any change to the performance with respect to the headdress, so a group of Native scholars, artists, and choreographers — many of them in town for for the concurrent Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference — joined Simas to attend Self Portrait Camouflage.

Latifa Laâbissi, Self Portrait Camouflage (2006), as performed at MoMA PS1, New York, on January 8, 2017 (photo by Charles Roussel, courtesy MoMA PS1)

Laâbissi’s performance was a source of surprise, relief, and, eventually, disappointment. She began the piece wearing the headdress and then, for the first time in a decade of performing the work, removed it within the first few minutes of the performance and placed it on the floor in front of the audience. Her body language was suggestive of offering and respect in doing so. It was a clear response to the criticisms she had received, and Laâbissi performed the rest of the work only wearing a red headband that had been underneath the headdress.

The removal of the headdress, though, demonstrated even more the lapse in research and consultation that had gone into the performance. During the ensuing Q&A (a recording of which PS1 provided to Hyperallergic), Janice Bad Moccasin stood to speak to traditional Dakota beliefs and Northern Plains customs. The feathered headdress, fake or not, she explained,  is a very sacred and restricted item to be worn only by men in the Northern Plains tribes. Such a right is earned feather by feather, as each feather represents a great deed. Bad Moccasin acknowledged her respect for the work of the artist and commended her for putting the headdress down. But she explained that it was understood in her customs that once Laâbissi had put the headdress down, by letting it touch the ground, she could not pick it back up. “What we learn is that an eagle feather is so important it cannot touch the ground. If it touches the ground it is a fallen warrior, and you may never pick it up again,” Ramona Kitto Stately told Laâbissi. “It’s important that you don’t use that headdress. It hurts my people. It demeans my people. Please leave that fallen warrior. There is a song that is many years old in order to pick it up and use it in a good way. Please don’t use that.” Such an offense could easily have been avoided had any Plains Indian person ever been consulted in the dramaturgy.

Despite Bad Moccasin’s and Stately’s pleas, Laâbissi, speaking through a translator, said that she couldn’t commit to not wearing the headdress again. When asked if she had been aware of the problematic nature of the choice to use the headdress when she performed Self Portrait in 2014 at Chez Bushwick, she admitted that she had been. Though she claims she didn’t wear the headdress with the intent of triggering violence, Laâbissi retreated to asking whether art has the right to transgression. The transgressions in her performance that are specific to her experience — including being a nude Arab woman and stuffing the French flag into her mouth, which is illegal in France — were thus equated, problematically, with transgressions against a historically oppressed culture and people.

Self portrait camouflage post-performance discussion with Jenny Schlenzka, associate curator, MoMA PS1; Carole Maccotta, assistant professor, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at LIU-Brooklyn; artist Latifa Laâbissi; and translator, at MoMA PS1, New York, on January 8, 2017 (photo by Charles Roussel, courtesy MoMA PS1)

Christopher K. Morgan attended the performance, and during the Q&A he described the conflict he felt about the work. On the one hand, his Western, liberal arts-educated self bristled at the idea of any potential censorship of individual expression. On the other, deeply inscribed in his blood is his indigenous self’s respect for community and sacred symbols. That tension, which Morgan later described as emblematic of a colonial subject’s experience, needs to be critically interrogated in light of the complex political context Laâbissi entered the work into. Transgression cannot be a responsible defense for a lack of research and consideration, particularly from an artist of international renown with major institutional support. “I would hate to see an artist not want to be extreme,” Morgan said, “but at the same time, the depth of research, respect for community, the objects that you are appropriating from, and how you do that is really critical, especially when it is a people who so rarely get to see their own work in their institutions, if at all. It becomes a facsimile of those people.”

It was not made clear why the headdress needed to be part of the piece’s artistic transgression. In discussion with Laâbissi after her performance, Carole Maccotta — an assistant professor of Foreign Languages and Literature at Long Island University specializing, appropriately, in colonial literature and cultural appropriation — did not bring up the headdress. Schlenzka herself was not proud to admit in the panel that she had only considered the beautiful aesthetic effect of the headdress and its status as an “overused symbol.” Laâbissi declined to make any statement to Hyperallergic, preferring to let the work speak for itself. However, she noted the centrality of the headdress to the performance in an interview in the Fall 2016 issue of Movement Research Performance Journal:

This dimension of indigeneity is central … . The [headdress] itself is a synecdoche: a part, representing the whole of something broader — indigeneity in this case. Indeed, I am not speaking to the experience of American Indians nor am I trying to draw analogies or equivalences between the experiences of American Indians and those who were subject to French colonial rule. Rather, it is a way of entering into a discursive field, a way of entering into a limited field equipped with visual tropes that are, themselves, loaded with meaning.

But even from an aesthetic point of view that considers the headdress as a visual trope rather than as a culturally specific sacred object, one must consider how the whole range of visual and historical associations impacts the broader audience and interacts with a local context.

There are deeply loaded meanings of the headdress that Laâbissi’s performance and shallow engagement efforts ignore. It is at once an appropriated costume at summer camps and music festivals and a sign of contemporary indigenous resistance in North Dakota; it is a representation of the noble savage and warrior brave topoi that fascinated Europeans and the costume of the commercial endeavors that the likes of George Catlin and Buffalo Bill Cody ran as they toured indigenous bodies around the world. The headdress is part of a history of the display of Others that long precedes and postdates the Human Zoos and Universal Exposition displays to which Laâbissi refers. Most tellingly, the headdress proved so hurtful in the context of the PS1 performance because, as Laâbissi’s chosen representation of indigeneity, it stood for what is so often the very inability of indigenous peoples to represent themselves. The lack of awareness of indigenous contemporary experience in a context normally denied to Native artists (that of a high-profile and well-funded international performance festival in a similarly well-heeled art museum) was represented by a facsimile of a sacred object, a mere copy.

"Native American Realness" discussion with Rosy Simas (Seneca), Christopher K. Morgan (Native Hawaiian), and Sara Nash, organized by American Realness at ISSUE Project Room on January 7 (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness)
“Native American Realness” discussion with Rosy Simas (Seneca), Christopher K. Morgan (Native Hawaiian), and Sara Nash, organized by American Realness at 22 Boerum Place on January 7 (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness)

The reinforcement of such institutional exclusion is nothing new, said Rulan Tangen, a Santa Fe-based Métis choreographer who attended Laâbissi’s performance and then led a Decolonizing Workshop for A Blade of Grass on January 12. “Indigenous people never seem to be invited to the table,” she told Hyperallergic, “it is erasure by absence and intellectual exclusion.” Such a need for genuine collaboration and inclusion will become all the more urgent for Jenny Schlenzka next month when she leaves PS1, where she curated the performance program, to become Executive Artistic Director at PS122. While Schlenzka expressed a deep and humble gratitude to Simas, Bad Moccasin, and Kitto Stately for sharing their knowledge and concerns, neither she nor PS1 offered any apology for the use of the headdress, which presumably will continue in Laâbissi’s future performances. At the post-performance Q&A, Schlenzka admitted that it was a great shortcoming to not see the problematic nature of the use of the headdress.

However, in a statement sent to Hyperallergic subsequently, she defended Laâbissi’s performance as “a stark and highly personal solo performance that draws attention to the aggressions that lie at the heart of the colonial gaze. The questions it raises are important and complex. … I am [grateful] to Latifa for the sensitivity with which she engaged these concerns and incorporated them within her performance.” Whether such a defensive stance will affect Schlenzka’s work at PS122 remains to be seen as she takes over a program that has recently made efforts to engage indigenous artists and communities. Outgoing artistic director Vallejo Gantner and his organization have been in a generative dialogue with Emily Johnson and the Lenape Center for the past year to build acknowledgements of indigenous rights and territories into PS122’s programming. Meanwhile, Simas and other indigenous attendees were left dissatisfied by Laâbissi’s attempts to explain away her use of the headdress and her characterization of the protest and discussion as just a beautiful learning moment. Tangen added: “It is frustrating to see the publicity and notoriety this artist gets for a platform that exploits indigenous images.”

Ironically, it was at the event put on by the organization she is about to take over that Schlenzka and others could have learned what it means to truly listen to and engage with indigenous voices, beliefs, and protocols. Emily Johnson’s Umyuangvigkaq, a free event that took place in the Ace Hotel’s Liberty Hall, created an indigenous space that resulted in a positive discussion of Native and Aboriginal worldviews as they intersect with contemporary art and culture. While difficult moments and points of conflict and tension arose over the course of the six-hour program, the Long Table format proved conducive to shared open dialogue and powerful moments of realization. It was a stark contrast to the hierarchical panel talk-back format used at PS1. A leadership council of indigenous provocateurs led the circle discussion at the Ace Hotel, while the audience was invited to contribute to Johnson’s “Sewing Bee,” an ongoing experiment in public engagement. The patches produced in the group sewing effort are to be part of a 4,000-square-foot quilt used in an all-night outdoor performance later this year titled “Then a Cunning Voice and a Night We Spend Gazing at Stars,” which will combine community action and personal expression through the individual messages written on each patch, storytelling, and First Nations knowledge forms.

Quilt patches sewn for Emily Johnson/Catalyst Dance's "Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars" as part of <em>Umyuangvigkaq</em> (photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy PS122)
Quilt patches sewn for Emily Johnson/Catalyst Dance’s “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars” as part of Umyuangvigkaq

In addition to Johnson, discussion leaders for Umyuangvigkaq included Sm Łoodm ‘Nüüsm (Dr. Mique’l Dangeli, Tsimshian), Lee-Ann Tjunypa Bucksin (Narungga/Wirangu/Wotjobaluk), Karyn Recollet (Cree), and Vicki Van Hout (Dutch/Wiradjuri), and topics ranged from indigenizing the future to research as ceremony. A set of rules structured the conversations. Firstly, a sign by the door declared that, by entering the space, one was acknowledging that one was on Mannahatta in Lenapehoking (Lenape homeland). “This is an Indigenous led conversation and process,” the sign continued, and “you are here to be an active part of the discussion and change and in so you will listen more than you speak.” To that end, only those sitting in the immediate inner circle of the Long Table could speak, while those on the periphery were asked to listen. Participants were free to move in and out of the inner circle as they chose, self-determining their form of engagement. At the end of every session, Johnson gave any Lenape and indigenous people present the opportunity for the last word, and the resulting dynamic was a fluid conversation with a constantly shifting set of voices.

Perhaps the most essential lesson of Umyuangvigkaq was in the first session, “This is Lenapehoking,” an acknowledgement of the indigenous hosting and welcoming protocols that still exist in Lenapehoking, the Lenape homeland of which Manahatta is a part, and all indigenous territories. Hadrien Coumans and Joe Baker of the Lenape Center called in to provide a welcome to their territory and to acknowledge their guests. Mique’l Dangeli responded by gifting the group with a song in her language and the spreading of eagle down, a symbol of welcome and friendship. “What is your responsibility when you are welcomed?” she asked the group, “How can you bring a critical consciousness to what it means to be a guest?” The first step, she and Tjunypa Buckskin emphasized, is realizing that one is a guest in indigenous land wherever one goes. To acknowledge that in the host’s language — Lenapehoking — is essential, as is not asking for a welcome but rather asking what the people need and want as an acknowledgement. Dangeli noted that, as an indigenous person, she embodies and therefore brings her own protocol with her wherever she goes, as demonstrated by her spreading of eagle down.

“We are so often visitors even when we go home,” Recollet noted, drawing on her own experience as an urban Cree woman. In an exceptional moment of learning, an eleven-year old girl summed up what so few grasp in the face of New York City’s conventional characterization as an open-access blank slate of opportunity. “The land does not belong to me,” she said to the group while sewing a patch for Johnson’s quilt, “but I am its. I belong to the land, to New York.” That response echoed Recollet’s primary provocation of the day, which was to ask attendees to counter colonialism with a radical “decolonial love.” How can love be a reorientation that leads to a decolonizing process? How, she and Johnson asked the indigenous participants in the room, can we make colonial pain part of love, and thus love the internalized ruptures of the indigenous self?

Discussion at <em>Umyuangvigkaq</em>, a PS122 Long Table and durational Sewing Bee event at the Ace Hotel on January 8 (all photos by Maria Baranova, courtesy PS122)
Discussion at Umyuangvigkaq, a PS122 Long Table and durational Sewing Bee event at the Ace Hotel on January 8

The importance of finding love in the relationship to land and ceremony emerged from Johnson’s provocation “My Dad Gives Blueberries to Caribou He Hunts: Indigenous Process and Research as Ceremony.” Johnson told the story of the first time she witnessed her father hunt a caribou and ritually feed it blueberries at its moment of passing. The event, she reflected, was an important personal realization of the links between survival, providing, and ritual. “How can we bundle for the future?” Recollet asked, referring to sacred medicine bundles. Dangeli responded that indigenous people have always done just that — changed and adapted. “Whatever comes next,” Dangeli said, “will continue to be indigenous, will be the future.”

That Johnson’s event overlapped with Laâbissi’s performance was unfortunate, because it forced many of Johnson and Simas’s colleagues to choose between an inclusive dialogue and the need to provide witness to and support against a traumatic offense. “As indigenous people we couldn’t even have the luxury of sharing the Umyuangvigkaq space where Indigenous worldview was central,” Tangen said, “because some of us had to go deal with what shouldn’t be happening in the first place — allowing one of the most vulnerable populations in our country to be hurt by such artistic entitlement to creative license to appropriate. It felt like a missed opportunity for MoMA PS1 to share space and collaborate.”

Johnson herself had engaged in dialogue with Pryor and Schlenzka in tandem with Simas. She expressed to them that she felt Laâbissi’s event should be cancelled, but she also did not want to detract from the positive message of her own event. Nonetheless, she told Hyperallergic, perhaps the weekend provided a somehow meaningful and beautiful synchronicity. “Why was it that our event,” she asked, “created intentionally to confront invisibility, to focus on (and to bring to light for some) the continuation of Indigenous aesthetic, invention, ceremony, [to consider] research and process as ceremony, and building true ally-ship — was happening on the same day as this other performance, seemingly at odds with every single intention of Umyuangvigkaq?”

Quilting for Emily Johnson/Catalyst Dance's "Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars" as part of <em>Umyuangvigkaq</em> (photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy PS122)
Quilting for Emily Johnson/Catalyst Dance’s “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars” as part of Umyuangvigkaq (photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy PS122)

Several of MoMA’s performance curators were in attendance for Umyuangvigkaq, possibly signaling a coming reckoning with previously marginalized artists and subjects. Yet the weekend’s events made clear the need for New York art institutions to take up the call for decolonial love and critical acknowledgement of their duties as guests on indigenous territory. So many Native artists and activists work in New York who could have quickly taught PS1 these lessons, and there is no longer any excuse for keeping indigenous people off the staff and excluded from the programming of major cultural organizations.

Whether Laâbissi has learned that there does not need to be a false opposition between transgressive artistic freedom and an acknowledgement of indigenous values, beliefs, and ongoing political struggles will be seen this week. She is scheduled to perform Self Portrait Camouflage again in Paris on January 19 and 20. But Johnson is hopeful. “I want the discussion to spark change on our stages and in our world,” she said. “I want it to be a place where Indigenous voice, work, deep research, and emotion is heard; I want it to generate an understanding previously incomprehensible to non-Native people; I want it to create relationships with present bodies; and I want it to be a place where healing can be and start. I hope we continue.”

Update, January 18: On Tuesday morning, Laâbassi posted a letter addressed to Rosy Simas on her public Facebook page. A French version of the same letter, which is dated December 2016, appeared on the event page for Laâbassi’s forthcoming performance in Paris sometime after January 8. Laâbassi purportedly wrote the letter prior to her MoMa PS1 appearance and waited until after her performance to release it in order to “let [her] work speak first.” In the letter, she defends her use of the headdress, saying:

The signs and symbols that are visible in this work are not used with ignorance; I am aware of their symbolic and political connotations. Know that I deeply respect the struggles that you have resolutely fought for years. The use of the indigenous headdress is not naïve; it is present in the piece as a primary symbol to evoke the importance of the people who underwent mass murders; it is not used as a grotesque costume; it is not intended as a tool to play on blasphemous exoticism, nor is it intended to legitimize a cause that I feel solidarity towards, but which is not historically mine. I in no way seek to embody a Native American in this piece and I believe that no spectator could mistake my performance for this.

Simas told Hyperallergic that she only learned of the letter’s existence earlier this week when a friend sent her a link to it, but that Laâbassi never sent it to her directly.

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