|Choreographer Rosy Simas|
(photo courtesy of the artist)
On Sunday, January 8, MoMA PS1 and the American Realness festival will co-present Self Portrait Camouflage, an hour-long performance by France's Latifa Laâbissi, a dance artist raised in France by Moroccan immigrant parents. Curated by Jenny Schlenzka, the work is described on the festival's website as a use of
"tropes of caricature and the grotesque to conjure the silent aggressions and tensions at the heart of some immigrant experiences. Performing the piece naked, in bright spotlight against a sterile white backdrop, fully exposed to the world, Laâbissi becomes an object to be gazed at, studied, and scientifically dissected—evoking the imperialist custom of exhibiting indigenous people at World’s Fairs. Against the backdrop of recent anti-immigrant populism in the U.S. as well as the rest of the Western world, Laâbissi’s themes of 19th century representational politics and marginalization acquire new relevance."Minneapolis-based choreographer Rosy Simas, who is Native American (Seneca, Heron Clan) addresses Laâbissi’s performance in the following statement posted last evening on Facebook. I have reached out to Ben Pryor, American Realness director and curator, for his response and will report back to you once I have heard from him.
December 12, 2016
Dear MoMA PS1, American Realness, and Latifa Laâbissi:
I am writing to express my utter disbelief and outrage at the proposed production of Latifa Laâbissi’s Self Portrait Camouflage for the American Realness program. In the eyes of the Native American community, this production is an aggressive act of hate speech, cultural appropriation, and sacrilege.
My name is Rosy Simas. I am Seneca, Heron Clan. I am the fifth great-granddaughter of Cornplanter, the chief who negotiated with George Washington. My whole family line is of negotiators who have worked to create more understanding between our peoples.
I am a Minneapolis-based dance maker, a moving image maker, a performer, teacher, and an activist. I am a nationally known artist who has toured all over the U.S. and Canada. I am a Guggenheim fellow, a Native Arts and Cultures Foundation fellow, a First People’s Fund fellow, and a McKnight fellow. My work is currently funded by NEFA National Dance Project and National Performance Network Creation Fund.
So I am speaking to you as an expert in the field of choreography and as a practicing cultural artist.
I want to explain as best I can why the production of Latifa Laâbissi’s Self Portrait Camouflage is traumatizing to Native women, disrespectful to Native peoples, and an act of white supremacy at MoMA PS1 and the American Realness Festival in NYC.
I am also going to tell you what can be done on the part of the presenters and the artist to apologize for this atrocity and where you can begin to reconcile.
The description of this work says it is highly personal and that the performer is nude throughout the piece.
She is not Native American, yet the only thing she is wearing is something sacred to Native culture, a Native American headdress, the scared symbol of the Sioux Nations (the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples). Obviously the headdress is fake. Laâbissi would not be allowed to own sacred eagle feathers. Any artist of her stature SHOULD have taken the time to research the subject matter. The production has already been touring for some time now; in fact, this is the second presentation in New York City. The artist has had years to learn about Native people and sacred Sioux headdresses.
Second, the work cannot be highly personal when the weight of it is in the images. She wears the headdress through the whole piece. There is nothing highly personal in the appropriation of a sacred object of another people.
This is America. We are the First Americans. We are Native Americans. And there is nothing real in a non-Native choreographer pretending to be Native on stage. So this is not only offensive — but it is about as far from “American realness” as you can get.
Why would MoMA PS1 and American Realness want to add to the systematic genocide and erasure of Native people? Because that is what this production does.
Why doesn’t the artist draw from her own cultural experience if she is making a highly personal work?
European settlers, American culture and Hollywood has historically objectified, sexualized, and exotified Native women for hundreds of years. It is common to see the sexy mostly nude “squaw” sometimes with a headdress at Halloween, in pornography, in advertising and marketing. We have been and are still treated as if we are just a historic people of the past.
One really must be out of touch to not know that thousands of Native women have been missing in Canada and the U.S. The rape and murder of Native women has been devastating to our people over the past few hundred years -- and it continues today.
So when I see these images of Laâbissi, that is what I see. I see a non-Native woman in a fake headdress performing naked. I see a mockery of who Native women are. And I see a stage reserved for whiteness excusing itself from responsibility because it is an international person of color performing this mockery.
These images are traumatizing to Native people. Imagine what it triggers for Native women who have been raped and the families of those women who have been murdered and/or are still missing?
Images like this remind those women, remind all of us Native Americans, that we don’t matter and we do not even exist in your eyes.
What needs to happen next:
1) A public apology from the presenters and the artist needs to be issued immediately.
2) This performance should not go on as planned. Laâbissi needs to take off the headdress minimally. A cancellation of the production would be better, and in its place, a public forum led by Native artists on our work should be held, in which stereotypes and cultural appropriation can be dismantled.
3) A commitment from MoMA PS1 and American Realness to present and support contemporary Native American artists.
If this production proceeds as planned and advertised, MoMA PS1 and American Realness can expect a loud, sustained, and highly visible protest. As demonstrated by the Standing Rock Water Protectors in recent months, Native Americans will not quietly tolerate and accept the theft of our territories, the violent rape of our land, the appropriation and profaning of our religious beliefs, and colonization of our bodies.
Please contact me directly so we can begin to correct this injustice and work toward authentic reconciliation.