Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Encountering "Guintche"

We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas....
Carlos Santana thus quoted Herman Hesse's Demian on the cover of his 1970 hit album Abraxas, where he also displayed an unforgettable hallucinogenic vision by Mati Klarwein (1932-2002). Klarwein's art also graces the gatefold cover of Bitches Brew, the innovative Miles Davis album released the same year, and observers of both albums will note something that the two have in common--on the back cover of Abraxas, three imposing, richly-decorated African dancers whose visages appear to reflect ecstatic states of consciousness; on Bitches Brew, a similar single figure.

In 2002, I finally discovered the living origin of these extraordinary images when the Brooklyn Museum presented Passages, an exhibition of photographs taken in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. I was struck by the photographs of men of the Wodaabe--Saharan nomads--elaborately gussied up in beads and face paint for the Yaake charm dance, exaggerating their height, their widened eyes, their distended, pearly-white grins to attract potential wives. I don't know if Klarwein had ever seen Wodaabe ceremonies or only photographs of these rather feminized men going about their mating ritual, but they reside in his art.

I saw them, again, as I watched Marlene Monteiro Freitas, an artist born in Cape Verde, perform her unbelievable solo Guintche last night at Abrons Arts Center (part of Queer New York International Arts Festival).

Marlene Monteiro Freitas in Quintche
Photo: João Figueira

Of course, they are not the only beings channeled through Freitas' body as her feather-wrapped pelvis rapidly rotates nonstop for a solid, astonishing 30 minutes to propulsive drumming, her red lips distend like a ragged gash, and her face seamlessly flashes through zillions of expressions--fiery-eyed, cross-eyed, teary-eyed, shifty-eyed, on and on. Many fierce spirits--Kali, Oya and so many more--announced themselves to me. A fellow audience member saw Josephine Baker in all of this, hips awhirl, mugging--a possible influence that Freitas sort of acknowledged while firmly deflecting the notion that her Guintche character--which she has called "a rebellious and unapologetic creature" and others have called "demented" and "indomitable"--was meant to be anyone in particular.

Really, Guintche, the alarming apparition who emerges from a smoke-filled theater, should be allowed to come differently, distinctly to each beholder lest we (typically) detach and distance ourselves and evade Guintche's power. We are at ritual. Let the ritual do its work.

When Guintche and that relentless drumming eventually release you--and the post-performance Q&A moderator, Aaron Mattocks, described this well--the stillness in the room, the stillness of the pelvis and the sudden absence of sound, creates physical, aural and mental whiplash. Or, no: Think of The Exorcist (1973--and, yes, I know, it's Memory Lane Day here at InfiniteBody) and Linda Blair's slackened body slamming down on her bed when the demon releases her. (I think I remembered that correctly....) Guintche continues for, perhaps, another twenty minutes with Freitas engaging in a kind of self-puppetry that, while sharply done, doesn't quite have the same slaying force of that initial half-hour.

Freitas is a wonderfully strange and magnficent performer, and it's a shame that QNYIAF gave us only this one chance to see her.

Queer New York International Arts Festival runs through Friday at Abrons Arts Center and other locations. For a schedule of upcoming events and tickets, click here.

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