Revisiting Negrita: Conversation with Liliana Angulo

Veronica Wiman

In the midst of a warm and beautiful summer in the Swedish countryside, I get the opportunity to return (at least, in thought) to Colombia and reflect on work I did there between 2007 and 2011, especially my interest in women’s issues. The exhibition Negrita at EAC-Espacio Arte Contemporaneo at Museo la Tertulia is one of the exhibitions. Suggesting and realizing the exhibition in Cali Colombia in 2011 obviously came with a certain amount of self-doubt. I still ask myself who I am to curate such an exhibition and to bring this topic to surface. Furthermore, what did it mean and create in that moment in time and place? I asked participating artist Liliana Angulo if she wanted to share some of her reflections with me.

While Liliana Angulo was finalizing her video Visiones, and I was continuing the long-term work with the playground La vida es un teatro in Nashira, the eco-farm for women an hour north of Cali, Angela Y. Davis visited Colombia. La Toma, a mining excavation town in the neighboring region of Cauca, where Davis came to support the Afro-American communities who had been living there since 1636, and who are now struggling for their land and culture. “What I call the prison-industrial complex allows us to see clearly how racism is used to generate profit. In fact, the relationship is evident here in this mining region, where the commercial mining interests promote a kind of racism that will produce huge profits,” says Angela Davis of her visit. A sense of meaning awoke in me, and I wanted to seize the moment, bringing together Liliana Angulo’s work and Coco Fuscos work, entitled a/k/a Mrs. Gilbert.

In Negrita, I invited Liliana Angulo to show the Mambo Negrita series as well as her video Visiones and Coco Fusco’s a/k/a Mrs. Gilbert on the FBI search of Angela Y. Davis. In Cali I mostly saw black women cleaning houses, and sometimes passing by chanting out their sales of avocadoes on Sunday mornings. The class, gender and color of skin segregation was both obvious and normalized for me. This is slavery (officially abolished in Colombia in 1852), and sexism… how shall I handle and live in this? troubled me. Such an experience had already occurred during my first visit to Cali in 2007. I was visiting my dear friend, whose maid was truly loved and whose bean preparation was unmatched. But, the maid would sit on the back patio having her lunch while the group sat at the served table elsewhere. I asked very carefully about this, and I felt their confusion and shame. Another day we biked up the river, passing a famous restaurant, Cali Viejo, in a farm with gates and guards protecting the entrance. Upon entering, we were taken back in history to around 1850, set within a colonial style finca where large black women dressed in colonial fabric served us (and other non Afro-Colombian people) cold beer and tostadas.

Liliana Angulo, Mambo Negrita , 2006.

Liliana Angulo’s work and the Mambo Negrita series tell us much about the colonial past and femininity confronted with violence through icons symbolizing oppression and torture of the feminine body. An important meaning in Angulo’s work is also the rereading of the image of black women today. Mambo Negrita is a portrayal of a slave mistress and the exotic, sexy other. Dressed in the pattern of a kitchen cloth, bursting in both laughter and aggression, she waves various kitchen devices. The female figure also alludes to the cartoon Negra Nieves by Consuelo Lago, which follows every day in the regional daily paper of Cali El Pais. In this work, Angulo points to the common perception that “the black woman is normally a domestic employee and the domestic employee is normally a black woman.”

Veronica Wiman [V.W.]: What has been the public response inside Colombia, and outside of Colombia, to the Mambo Negrita series and the video Visiones?

Liliana Angulo [L.A.]: My work has responded to very specific moments in time. Mambo Negrita has circulated more and it had always raised questions on historical representations related to colonial imaginaries of race, also in addition to touching on the insertions of those ideologies in contemporary life. As we move to a more politically correct use of images and language, the images of the series have gotten a different reading. In the USA, people associated them with the stereotype of the “Angry Black Woman” which is not very prevalent in Colombia. The reading of the spectators completes the images, responding to the kind of representation or racism that is more common to them.
The video Visiones is about “La Negra Nieves,” a character that is very well known in Cali and Bogota because of its circulation in major newspapers in those cities. However in other regions of Colombia “Nieves” is not very popular; its influence is related to the Pacific region where there are more people of African descent. The video presents “La Negra Nieves” as a case study. Paradoxically among the black community, “Nieves” has been part of the visual imaginaries that manage to circulate, and people have either criticized or loved the icon. It also talks about the lawsuit that tried to ban the cartoon and questioned the legitimacy of the authorial voice. The video digs into the personality of the white woman cartoonist and her relation to the black character persona. The event helps to contrast issues of race, class and gender and subtly addresses a more complex conversation on representation.
The responses to the video have been positive in the sense that international audiences have become more aware of the problematic differences and struggles that are part of the social order in Colombia.

V.W.: How would you like the work to be received and with what possible impact on society?

L.A.: Generally my interest has been to insert questions or intervene in specific moments in time. My perception is that the impact of the work is very limited if it just stays in the contemporary art circuit. For that reason, in my artistic practice I have developed broader relationships with people in the black social movement, and who actively produce and participate in collaborations with social organizations for black women.

V.W.: Angela Y. Davis asks, “How do we imagine a better world and raise the questions that permit us to see beyond the given?” Feminism is one answer, I believe. Browsing news these days from various sources in 27 degrees, I am caught between “Feminism never happened” and “to be attentive to your child’s needs is seen as a failure.” The first quote comes from Germaine Greer, who was commenting on the then-current state of feminism and the need to redefine and regroup. Young women today dont want to be associated with feminism. Men are even less tolerant of feminist discourse today since women have entered even a larger part of what have traditionally been men’s worlds. Successful women are evidently being harassed to a greater degree through today’s social media. The second quote is from Helena Granström, a poet and writer commenting on the current political debate in Sweden around gender equality politics and the feminist party’s agenda. It’s basically about “improved” gender equality politics, where changes in parental leave insurance towards an individualized insurance that gives the mother “the chance” to return to work as early as possible. Children’s need to develop attachments to one primary parent as well as their wish to nurse and be close to their mothers, a biological anachronism, is what is in the way for the feminist project, says Granström. If feminism is yet to happen and this is how politics define feminism and strategies suggested for an equal and liberated female society, it must be elsewhere than in the Western world where I as a women and a mother should feel liberated and “in place”.

Where do you see feminism today in Colombia? What does this mean in practice, and politically / theoretically?

L.A.: Thinking about feminism in Colombia means fighting the racism, classism, sexism, and gender violence that are at the base of our colonial and patriarchal society. That fight is to transform the macro-structure that justifies the abuse, the torture, the displacement, the murders, the exploitation and the invasion of ancestral territories.
There is a significant effort on the part of women of African descent to debate and bring to their reality the discussions on feminism, and specifically of Black feminism, in order to have a theoretical understanding of the conflict that includes women’s bodies and intimate spaces.
There is also a lot of networking being done in order to give visibility to the achievements and spaces that queer, indigenous and black women have conquered in the social movement. However there are always challenges in the relationship between male activists and traditional feminist counterparts. Part of the discussion also problematizes the historical approaches of Eurocentric feminism over womanism in the understanding of the struggles of women in Colombia.

V.W.: What impact do you think the exhibition had in Cali?

L.A.: I think it was important in the sense that even though Cali is one of the cities in Colombia with the largest urban population of ethnically African people, there are very few spaces for the circulation and discussion of the issues that were on display in the exhibit.
The Museum has isolated itself from the reality of millions of people in conditions of inequality and poverty and remains symbolically the place of “high culture” for the elites. There is everything to be done at the museum—not just in Museo La Tertulia—in order for it to be an institution that responds to the situation of the majority of the people in Colombia. However I think the initiative of bringing to the museum issues that have been traditionally excluded is very valuable.

V.W.: In my curatorial introduction I expressed faith in artistic expressions and gestures, saying that this problematic situation can be made visible, open to discussion, and will hopefully change one day. Liliana beautifully says: “I believe that the agency that art has is the way in which artistic practices act on the intersection between life and power. I think that these practices operate on everyday life, have the potential for subverting meaning and can transform the spaces of circulation of cultural production into spaces for the appearance of the subject.” When Liliana also pointed to the problem of Eurocentric understanding in local struggles, it evidently involved me. Perhaps my ignorance and naiveté as a foreigner empowered me to address a topic that is not part of my culture. The social power embedded in my skin color, cultural origin, and education is obviously a key to making use of the newcomer’s foolishness. In the end, my hope is that my Eurocentric misunderstanding and clumsiness can be valuable in evoking accurate questions and responses on a local level.