Guillermo Gómez-Peña & James Luna: Smithsonian, 1993

“The Shame-man meets El Mexican’t at the Smithsonian Motel and Golf Course.“

(Performing in Museums of Natural History)


         Native American performance artist James Luna and I have known each other since the mid-90s. Our work is stylistically very different; James practices an aesthetic of simplicity, whereas (according to critics) the style of my performance work is  “excessive” and “neo-baroque.”  But we share similar political and theoretical concerns: We both theorize our own artistic practice; we are both critical of the way indigenous and ethnic identities are portrayed by mainstream cultural institutions and commodified by pop culture, tourism and self-realization movements; and we both utilize melancholic humor and tactics of “reverse anthropology” as strategies for subverting dominant cultural projections and representations of Mexicans and Native peoples. 
         My friendship and conceptual kinship with James has engendered many projects. From 1993 to 1996, he and I engaged in one collaborative project per year under the title “The Shame-man meets El Mexican’t at [name of the host organization].” One project in particular stands out for me…. 
         
From my performance diaries:  
         It’s Friday morning. Luna and I share a diorama space at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. We are inside an ethnographic prison cell. I sit on a toilet costumed as a mariachi in a straightjacket with a sign around my neck that reads “There used to be a Mexican inside this body.” I attempt unsuccessfully to get rid of my straight jacket in order to “perform” (“entertain” or “educate” my audience). A Mexican waltz mixed with rap contributes to the pathos of my tableau. Meanwhile, James paces back and forth, changing personae. At times he is an “Indian shoe-shiner”, offering to shine the shoes of audience members. At other times, he becomes a “diabetic Indian,” shooting insulin directly into his stomach. He then transforms into a “janitor of color” (like most of the janitors in this, and other US museums) and sweeps the floor of the diorama. Hundreds of visitors gather in front of us. They look very sad.. Next to us, the “real” Indian dioramas speak of a mute world outside of history and social crises. Strangely, next to us, they appear much less “authentic”. The visibly nervous museum staff makes sure the audience understands that “this is just performance art…and they are famous artists. 
*****
         James and I have been rehearsing our next “intervention” at the Natural History Museum. The piece consists of a selection of irreverent monologues, songs, dances, and staged conversations that problematize our bittersweet relationship with mainstream cultural institutions. This time the performance will take place in the main auditorium. It’s 10 p.m., and James and I decide to take a break in our dressing room. Roberto and our producer, Kim Chan, are with us. James lights up some sage. I light up a Marlboro. Minutes later, several security guards break in and try to bust us for “smoking dope.” When they finally realize it’s just sage, they feel embarrassed and leave. I write in the margins of my script: “The performance is never over for us. No matter how much we understand that ethnic identity is a cultural and ideological construction, and that as performance artists we have the power to alter it at will, nevertheless, we are always confronted in the most unexpected moments by the guardians of fetishized identity and the enforcers of stereotype.” 
         When Aleta Ringlero, the curator of Native American art, finds out what  happened, she gets furious, calls each and every Smithsonian undersecretary, and let’s them have it. James, Roberto, Kim and I prefer to have a drink at a bar. It’s just another day in our neverending pilgrimage towards the end of Western civilization.

source: Pocha Nostra