Instigating Histories: The Work of Mapa Teatro
By Betty Marín
A black man wears a white woman’s mask with a disheveled wig and a pink dress. He is suspended to a large wooden platform, which sits almost fully upright. The performer wields a long black leather whip against the platform repeatedly for hours. Each time the whip hits the surface, it causes a thunderous sound. The sound reverberates throughout the large hall where the performance is taking place. The audience looks on, often flinching at the sound of the whip hitting the surface, at the marks made with each lash. On the other side of the platform is a small installation and projection of a video giving context for his dress and actions: a carnival-like tradition in a small town in Colombia. Guapí is a place that, based on its strategic location on the Pacific Coast of the country, is itself a prisoner and victim of the drug war. This manifestation of the “The Holy Innocents” in 2003 at The Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space is part of a series of works by Mapa Teatro, a collective who uses theater, performance, and installation to create complex visual narratives. The works ask open-ended questions about local and global issues that the artists have experienced directly. In this case, they are aiming to create reflection and conversation about the context of the drug war in Colombia, but also to instigate questions more broadly around the relationship between race, violence, and celebration.
Founded in 1984 by Swiss sibling team Rolf, Heidi, and Elizabeth Abderhalden, the collective is based in Bogotá, Colombia, where the artists grew up. Rolf and Heidi lead the collective, which also includes collaborating artists. For their one-month residency at 18th Street Arts Center in July 2015, they were joined by Colombian artist Ximena Vargas and Mexican artist Juan Ernesto Diaz. The residency at 18th Street Arts Center serves as the initial research phase for a later commission to be featured in a joint exhibition between 18th Street and LACMA. “A Universal History of Infamy” is curated by LACMA’s Pilar Tompkins Rivas, Rita González, and José Luis Blondet and is a project of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an initiative of the Getty with arts institutions across Southern California.
The work of Mapa Teatro is created in response to the issues they face daily as individual citizens of Colombia, where the presence of the transnational drug war is part of quotidian experience. This pushed them to look more closely at the different facets of violence that are typical to their national condition. One of the communities they encountered through their research was Guapí, an isolated Afro-Colombian town on the coast which is a key point of transit for drugs traveling north to Central and North America. The presence of both guerrilla and paramilitary forces has intensified in this community, as cultivation and drug routes have shifted to this region in the last 15 years, due in part to U.S. funded policies. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in particular have borne the burden of these shifts. Resistance to traffickers and paramilitaries, based on the murders they have committed there, has entered into community traditions, in particular the annual festival held during the Christian holiday of the Holy Innocents.
Mapa Teatro found that the Guapí tradition blurred the line between violence and celebration — an unlikely relationship they hoped would help them understand some of the war’s contradictions. The local men dress as women, wear masks, and wander the streets whipping the legs of their fellow townspeople, who are not in costume. “The spirit of carnival is transgression, and in the festival of the Holy Innocents, various types of mixed transgressions are presented,” says Vargas, speaking to the crossing of both race and gender boundaries. The festival repeats every year so that those receiving the lashes have the opportunity to strike back at those who did the lashing in the previous year. While historically women have not participated in the festival, they are beginning to do so as well. The ritual actually comes from the time of slavery, when the enslaved were allowed to dress as their mistress, and take the role of oppressor during the Holy Innocents holiday. “To feel the whip again is very important for the memory on the bodies of the Afro-descendants, in homage to their ancestors who were whipped, hit, and injured,” Rolf says. Through the practice they achieve “a great sense of renovation, re-actualization, reactivation, of the historical or cultural memory that permits an exorcism and absorption of the current situation [in which] that region lives.”
The idea that such violence could also be liberatory, along with the powerful images created by the masked men of color in dresses, captivated the aesthetic and social mind of Mapa Teatro. They shot footage of the festival and used it both as research and material to produce a full-length play called “The Holy Innocents.” The play uses Heidi’s real-life birthday — coincidentally on December 28, the date of the Holy Innocents festival — as the pretense under which a white Colombian woman enters a town inaccessible by most roads, and one to which she had no prior relationship. Mapa Teatro develops a fictional narrative of a naïve tourist who decides to celebrate her birthday in Guapí, and does not understand why she has been whipped like all of the locals. At the close of the play, she eats her birthday cake and wonders why she was not spared. She tells the audience that when she asked this of the person who had whipped her, he simply responded, “Because you are innocent.”
Mapa Teatro plays with the idea of innocence and naiveté on different levels. “Innocent are the civilians in the context of war,” Rolf says. Heidi represents the largely innocent Colombian population that suffers daily in the drug war regardless of their direct involvement in its criminality. This includes the people of Guapí. To perceive how Mapa Teatro address naiveté, it’s important to understand the local context. In Latin America, the day of the Holy Innocents is acknowledged by some in the same way we acknowledge “April Fools’ Day” in the U.S., through pranks and practical jokes. Through this lens, we might understand Heidi’s character as duped into participating in a violent tradition that she did not fully understand. On another level, her experience as a white woman, “innocent” to a tradition embedded in slavery, also demonstrates a dangerous level of naiveté in which privileged members of the public are not willing to appreciate the severe levels of violence that different communities in Colombia experience, even today.
This complexity is in part founded in Mapa Teatro’s positioning as artists, as both insiders and outsiders. The Abderhaldens have spent a substantial part of their lives in Colombia, but also carry Swiss passports in addition to their Colombian documents. To be Swiss and Colombian offers them distance from both the Latin American and the European contexts in which they find themselves. It allows them to be critical in a different way than a native Colombian might be, to a situation of conflict that has plagued the country for 50 years. This was especially clear in “A Decent Man’s Address.” It forms part of a trilogy of works, “The Unaccounted,” looking at different facets of the drug war, and of which “The Holy Innocents” is also a part. The performance presents a fictitious speech given by world famous drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. To refer to Escobar as “decent” plays off of the way the drug lord notoriously once described himself to the press when questioned about his then alleged criminal activity. Mapa Teatro incorporates a rumor as the genesis of their play that at the time of Escobar’s death in 1993, a speech was found in his shirt pocket and then classified by the CIA for 18 years. In his speech, Escobar revives a conversation on the global legalization of drugs by offering it as a solution, after detailing the failures of the so-called war on drugs. Mapa Teatro expected that a Colombian audience would be ready to engage in this conversation. Based on the audience’s ambiguous response — silence rather than applause — the artists realized that they were actually unclear whether Colombians were interested, or alternatively, completely opposed to this area of discussion. While Mapa Teatro felt free to present such a topic, they then understood that some of the issues they are working with are still taboo, even in Colombia. Ultimately, their goal was not to present answers or to be didactic, but to create an “experience that will affect on the level of sensations, to make bodies vulnerable,” describes Rolf. By presenting work that allowed for a visceral response from the audience, as opposed to an intellectual one, the artists are creating space for those who have experienced the work to then seek their own route for further exploration and learning.
This speaks to Mapa Teatro’s working process as well, which proceeds from investigation without designating a linear route to a specific outcome. While in Los Angeles, they have used their residency at 18th Street to explore openly, without a prescribed agenda. Starting from a curiosity about the myth of Los Angeles, centered on the film industry, they have used the resources of the UCLA Film Archive, the Getty Library, and other cultural institutions and art sites around Los Angeles to learn about the city’s history and mythology. They have reveled in the opportunity to explore creating work outside of the Colombian context with which they are so familiar. The Los Angeles they have encountered has been somewhat familiar in its Latin-Americanness, as well as in its international character. Vargas says that it’s almost impossible to feel like a foreigner based on the number of immigrants here and how they have shaped the city. “L.A. is a place where migrants reproduce their own systems based on their places of origin and do not allow the city to homogenize its inhabitants,” she observes. While feeling somewhat at home in this respect, they also admit being in awe and somewhat perplexed by the city’s inconsistent architecture and the unique and rich mixes of commerce, housing, and entertainment in places like downtown. They continue to sift through the city’s largely complicated geography and history.
The invitation to do a project in Los Angeles is intimately tied to Mapa Teatro’s creation story, and to the early works that cemented their collaboration. Almost 30 years ago, they performed a theater piece, “Casa Tomada,” in Manizales, Colombia, where curator Blondet first experienced their work. The experience “continued to resonate for many years,” says Rolf, quoting Blondet’s letter of invitation to the residency. “Casa Tomada” (“House Taken Over”) is based on a short story written by Argentine author Julio Cortázar, which tells about a brother and sister who live in a large house that is taken over piecemeal. “It’s our foundational story, because it is a pair of siblings,” Rolf says of the work. In this play, they decided not to use dialogue, but simply sound and movement. This is representative of the work that Mapa Teatro has always done, not falling into a traditional play format, but being more of hybrid form, blending performance art and theater. Rolf describes their practice as not “simply theater — it’s in between theatricality and performativity.” While in the past, they might have questioned naming something either theater or performance, the work “no longer has rigid walls and we are no longer worried what label is given to it,” Rolf maintains. Their interest lies in presenting work in order “to feel there is no division, but only movement,” Heidi says.
Heidi and Rolf continue to perform and develop together with this in mind. However, the two-person collaboration is only one layer of the many levels of collaboration that are essential to Mapa Teatro’s way of working. “The specific work that we do is always to produce community,” Rolf says. Whether working exclusively as a collective or in partnership with an outside community, creating positive and fluid working relationships is key. “Sometimes they are experimental temporal communities, with actors, with non-artists, and others in the art world,” he says, mentioning the diverse groups with whom they create. This was the case in Guapí and in other collaborations: with prisoners in the work “Horacio,” or during their multi-year project series with the people of the historic neighborhood of Santa Inés-El Cartucho in Bogotá. Like working internally within the group, Heidi says that when entering new communities “the first gesture is to create a space of trust, and not of usurpation.” To usurp would be to take full control, to call all the shots. Instead they choose to create a ground for shared decision-making.
A key and constant community for Mapa Teatro in the last 10 years has been located within academic institutions. Rolf and Heidi have been working as teachers in the Masters Program in Live Arts that Rolf developed a decade ago at the National University of Colombia, where he had been teaching for the previous 20 years. Heidi says that while she was initially not interested in teaching as a part of her career, through her involvement in the Masters Program she “understood that pedagogy could be territory for creation and experimentation.” The collaboration with their own students has been crucial to how they have continued to develop as a collective, including serving as a space to initiate and try out ideas. Rolf sees the connection and exchange between the people in the Masters Program and Mapa Teatro as “a single terrain.” Mapa Teatro’s relationship to collaborator Vargas is a great example of this connection. She began as a student of Rolf’s, then shifted to working with Mapa Teatro, then joined the Masters Program, and continues to work with the group after 15 years. The Masters Program also functions as a built-in system that allows them to look back on past work and pass it on to new generations. Heidi describes this as “a space of transmission and a way to keep alive the reflections with other artists about everything Mapa has done in the last 20 years, and now 30 years.”
The interest in teaching also came from understanding that at a practical level as artists, they needed to know “from what they would live,” Rolf mentions. “Part of our questioning was: How are we going to create a project based in creation, where we can be free and totally autonomous?” Rather than relying on the television industry as many of their peers in theater had done, they chose the route of education. Though not extravagantly paid, it would allow them to continue their work in the way they wanted, without having to depend on it financially through ticket sales from performances. Also in line with their choices to be artists outside of typical modes of survival in Colombia, they have chosen to work within what they call “a laboratory of artists,” instead of a standard theater company. They share a physical space in Bogotá since the year 2000, which like the Masters Program allows them to work together, reflect, and test ideas.
Between the four of them, Mapa Teatro used their studio at 18th Street in a similar way — as a collective space for research, questioning, and imagining. Having just returned to their home community in Bogotá, they look forward to developing work with new communities and sites in Los Angeles to engage in dialogue, exploration, and discovery.