EAST WIND: Damming Evidence

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BY MIYA IWATAKI

Prologue: My Asian Women Writer’s group took a field trip to the Hammer Museum to see “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985.” It was a vast, impressive exhibition unfolding in seven sprawling chapters. In our time there, we barely saw three chapters, and a trip back for the full exhibit may be in the making. 

I was most taken by the explosive, larger-than-life video shot in 1978 and projected onto a huge wall just inside the front door. As you enter, Afro-Peruvian poet Victoria Santa Cruz ignites the “Radical Women” exhibition with her powerful spoken-word poem “Me gritaron negra.”  It is a purging of her pain as a lonely 7-year-old who was shunned by playmates after a blonde white girl refused to play with her because her skin was black. 

Hers is a commanding, unforgettable performance backed by a chorus of three women and three men, one with a cajon, a wooden box drum, who drives the rhythm. With African-rooted choreography and body language, her pain and anger are heightened into rhythmic clapping and intensified chanting of “Negra” or “Black” until it ultimately becomes a chant of “Black” liberation. There is no revolution without evolution, Santa Cruz says.

1960-1985 was a key period in both Latin American history and in the development of contemporary art.  Fifteen countries are represented in the exhibition by 120 women artists and collectives, with more than 280 works in photography, video and other experimental medium. The works that we saw were very reflective of the political and social change during those years. A fascinating and comprehensive wall text offered a 25-year timeline of political and social events in all 15 countries; each list began with the date women won the right to vote. Interestingly, Uruguay was the first country.

“Radical Women” is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA (Latin American & Latino Art in LA), the citywide Getty initiative. It is free and runs through Dec. 31.

The Hammer Museum is a remarkable state-of-the-art museum, but I also wanted to visit a community art space to explore local artists’ participation in the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. So two days later, I checked out Commonwealth and Council, my niece Ana Iwataki’s new exhibit space. It was an equally compelling experience.

The exhibit featured  artist and environmental activist Carolina Caycedo, who was there. She took me through her collaborations with indigenous riverside populations in Latin and Central America, and her findings on the socio-environmental impacts of dams … which I knew nothing about! Over the years, she had engaged in fieldwork and research; gathered testimonies, film footage, artifacts. These elements formed the basis for her investigation and exhibit — which is a visual and visceral indictment of the destructive ramifications of development … and of dams.

The result, “El Hambre Como Maestra/Hunger as Teacher,” is part of Caycedo’s ongoing project “Be Dammed.” I learned so much from Carolina, and was very moved. The following is a prose poem dedicated to her.

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“To Drive Away Whiteness/Para alejar la blancura” (2017) by Carolina Caycedo.

“Who taught you to fish?”

“Hunger taught me to fish.” (Raimunda Silva)

Today I experienced art. “El Hambre Como Maestra/Hunger as Teacher,” an exhibition. A part of Carolina Caycedo’s ongoing project “Be Dammed.” A sensory experience of  exquisitely knotted fishing nets. Collected from various cultures. Symbolic evidence celebrating the survival of indigenous traditions. Creative collages and correlations with the past, the present, and the struggle for the future … for life, for freedom, for self determination. Art with impact. Visual. Emotional. Substantial. Intersecting.

Visual. The exhibit flowed out of a collaboration with the artist and indigenous riverside populations’ ongoing struggle for survival. Their stories of resistance. The real-life metaphor of the dam. A Kogui indigenous spiritual leader (Mamo Pedro Juan) described a dam as cutting off the connection between bodies of water and communities. (A separation of the human and the natural.)

Emotional. Water so vital to life. Water Protectors, indigenous people fighting the environmental crisis, fighting poverty, fighting oppression. Spawning a resistance by those most affected. Last year, almost 185 environmental activists killed from Colombia to Brazil to Honduras. Like Berta Caceres from Honduras and Nilce de Souza from Brazil — two Women Warriors killed. Now memorialized in a collective portrait.  Along with Water Protectors Zoila Ninco from Colombia and Raimunda Silva from Brazil, who continue their fight.

Substantial. Damming used as profit motive. Damming causing environmental incisions. Damming creating class divisions. Damming as a tool. The sledgehammer used in Latin and Central America for development at any cost.

Intersecting. Damming as forced relocation of riverside populations. Just like the seizure of agricultural farmlands, and forced relocation of Japanese Americans during WWII. Damming as “environmental gentrification.” Damming as eviction of indigenous people/natural inhabitants from their land. Like eviction of rightful artist residents from an area now deemed profitable by developers. Damming, the power struggle over water. And the ruthless drive by profit motive to direct its flow. As L.A.’s own history is steeped in the deadly fight for water and power.

Visual. Emotional. Substantial. Intersecting. Damming evidence. In this showing, I experienced the Artist’s soul.

GAMBARE!

“El Hambre Maestra/Hunger as Teacher” at Commonwealth and Council, 3006 W. Seventh St., Ste. 220, L.A. 90005; [email protected]         

“Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985,” UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Info: (310) 443-7000,  www.hammer.ucla.edu.

Miya Iwataki has been an advocate for communities of color for many years, from the JACS Asian Involvement Office in Little Tokyo in the ’70s, through the JA redress/reparations struggle with NCRR while working for Congressman Mervyn Dymally, to statewide health rights advocacy. She also worked in public media at KCET-TV, then KPFK Pacifica Radio as host for a weekly radio program, “East Wind.” She can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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