Susana Pilar in Conversation with Thomas J. Lax
post (ed. Nene Diallo and Sarah Lookofsky)
The Museum of Modern Art, 2020
The Museum of Modern Art, 2020
Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo (b. Havana, Cuba, 1984) describes her work across photography, video, and performance as a preoccupation with creating “symbolic solutions and personal responses” to the history of violence against women. MoMA curator Thomas J. Lax sat down with Pilar to discuss her artistic formation; her use of family lore and fabulation in her interventions into the silences of the state archive; and her interests in science and digital technology.
Thomas J. Lax: My dear, let’s start from our beginning. We met in Havana, where you live and work, about a year and a half ago. I was visiting on a MoMA research trip, led by my colleague, Inés Katzenstein. We visited the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), which was formed after the Cuban Revolution and has five different building complexes, one for each discipline. Its campus was once a golf course for the country’s elite. This is the school you attended in the 2000s. Can you talk about what that experience was like as someone working in performance and video and invested in black aesthetic practice?
Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo: Yes, for me, the education system in Cuba had a great effect on my work. At the beginning, I was studying in San Alejandro, where we had a more technical approach. We would start in the first year having general training in all the media—drawing, sculpture, painting. In the second year you would pick one. I started in painting. I had three teachers who were very important for me—painter Inés Dario, who was also my mentor of my graduation diploma, together with painter Rocío García and Florencia Peñate, a professor of art history. I was focused on addressing violence against women in Cuba, which is a problem nationally as well as in my family. One day, Ines was looking at some of my paintings and drawings, and she said, “Do you think this is enough for you, for what you are trying to express?”
I started going to the Institute of Legal Medicine, researching the cases there and making photos of many of the victims who had died because of violence against women and making photos of my body, using my body as a way of denouncing these cases. I was working with photography on my own and with the encouragement of my teachers, but we didn’t have a formal photography class.
After that, I went to the ISA, the university art institute. There, I was in dialogue with students in music, theater, dance, cinema, because it’s one big university with different faculties. I could make an open call for other students to participate and collaborate. Plus everybody is together in the dormitories so when there was a party, I would see friends, filmmakers, dancers, musicians.
I was continuing working in photography, and at a certain point, consciously or not, I started performing in my photos. I was doing a lot of work based on imitation, recreating traffic accidents for example, which I organized with permission from the ministry of transportation. I also had the help of my sister, who is an actress and would help me do makeup or take the photos.
TJL: Was there an opportunity either when you began at San Alejandro or when you got to the institute for an engagement with feminist thought or black theory, two parts of your work that are important?
SPDM: Officially there is not a class for feminism or black feminism or black studies in Cuba. So I think I just got there on my own, through the different situations I was confronting in my daily life. The closest we had was Arte Africano, African Art in the third or fourth year. It was a class about traditional African art, nothing contemporary, going to lectures or the museum and looking at objects like masks or a few paintings. You looked and the teachers lectured. These were the colors. This was the size. This was the wood. But you didn’t get inside the work to talk about its function or feeling in how the class was structured. It was very, how can I say—
SPDM: Yeah, formal. You didn’t really get it from behind, you know. I realize now that it was like studying Renaissance art or any other history as just a form, but not really asking what is making this form, what is behind it. In addition to this, it was mainly research on your own or exchanging information with other students. Some of the most important things when you are studying is meeting the people of your generation. I would say my consciousness about practices of feminist thought and theory came from talking with other students. Oh, you know this book? You get a better sense of what you are doing, and then you realize what you are doing is connected to others.
TJL: I can relate to that. I want to first fast forward and then we can go back. I’d like to talk about the exhibition of your work in 2015 that the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes organized, Un chino llega a Matanzas, or A Chinese Arrives in Matanzas. Because in that project, there seems to be two components of what you’re describing right now. On the one hand there is research in the archive, a scholarly approach to making work, and on the other hand, something more personal, an investigation of yourself as embedded in the experience of others. Can you talk more about this project and how it came about?
SPDM: Un chino llega a Matanzas was in an exhibition at Galleria Continua in Havana, and then in a group exhibition at Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana this year. It started from a curiosity when I was younger and my grandmother would tell me that her grandfather was a Chinese immigrant. She would show me photos of my great grandmother who she resembled. I realized I wanted to do something with that because it not only related to the history of my family but also to Cuba’s racial mixture, a result of slavery and colonization. During this period, Chinese migrants were forced to work in inhumane conditions. They got a small payment, which was almost nothing. They worked and lived with people of African descent because they were in the same social class. And so they mixed culturally and also socially, which means that today you have a lot of families in Cuba who, like me, are black and Chinese.
During this period, those in power used techniques to erase your past, to erase your history so that you had nothing that you could hold onto, so you were more vulnerable. I went to the state archive in the city of Matanzas, hoping to find information about my great-great-grandfather who was Chinese. I realized that black people and Chinese people in the archive were only numbers. This amount of Chinese people entered the port. That amount of black people docked. And if you would see a name, it was only related to something negative, if somebody was a criminal, for example, or if some person committed suicide. There were a lot of suicides. Only then did I find a name. When I saw this situation, I thought okay, there is nothing I can find here. There is no trace, no track. And the same with my African ancestors: there was nothing.
So instead, I went back to the oldest member of my family. My grandmother’s cousin is 98 and his memory is amazing. He told me we had ancestors in Congo, others in Sierra Leone. He told me about the specific goods sold by people on the Chinese side of our family. Through that oral history and family memory, I got something of our history. But in the actual archive, the colonizers took everything from us.
So what I decided to do was write a poem, an ongoing poem for my great-great-grandfather. I used silk fabric, meters of silk, on which I wrote the poem. I used silk because silk was part of the exploitation of Chinese people in Cuba. It was inspired by what I could get from my family and from the archive where I couldn’t get much. The rest I pulled from my imagination. If the only story to tell was the story that the Africans were brought to Cuba as slaves and then we had to follow this and that rule, and we suffered and so on. I know there is a story of suffering and sadness and darkness, but I’m sure there are also some other things, some beautiful things. So, I was thinking, if the only story we got left is this, me as an artist, I have the license to create, base it on a little bit of the research, and create some stories for my great-great-grandfather. So in the poem, I was just writing everything I thought that could be… I was just filling it with my imagination. It’s an ongoing work. Whenever I research or find something new, I continue writing the poem.
TJL: Beautiful. Thank you for filling in the space between different forms of knowing that exist outside of official history and are transmitted from one generation to another. Maybe we can now go back a little bit to this moment right after you finished school to the work El escándalo de lo real, or The Scandal of the Real, which you made between 2006 and 2007. It’s a work for which you used in vitro fertilization (IVF) to become pregnant using sperm you sourced from a deceased person. I think there are some continuities between that work and your later work. Both share, on the one hand, a search for science and truth and, on the other hand, a belief in what you cannot see, how to use knowledge and also destroy knowledge by believing in what can’t be seen. Can you talk about this incredible work?
SPDM: To start with, this work involved a personal decision that I made as a woman: that I have the right to procreate in a non-traditional way. People were saying, This is not art. You’re not respecting the Catholic religion or that people should date before they should decide to have children. I had a lot of conflicts with my friends, with my family about this work. I almost got kicked out of school. There was even a meeting of professors to put me out of the university. In the end, they let me stay in school, but I couldn’t get back to work for a year after. Also some scientists coming from a medical point of view had ethical issues with this work. I was doing research in the Institute of Legal Medicine, and found out that spermatozoa can stay alive for 72 hours. But some questioned whether it was right to take sperm from a person who could no longer consent to becoming a donor. But for me it’s not any different from art, religion, or even nature. The limit between life and death is malleable. When life starts and ends has different interpretations. It’s a process. And there are things that we are able to do between the two states.
I ended up miscarrying after a month. I think it was the stress, the pressure of the whole thing. I was holding onto my own thoughts that I have the right to use my body to procreate in a way that I would decide. Other people decide to have a baby in different ways; my decision was to have it this way. I was not saying through this action — I call it an action, more than a performance — that the baby was going to be an artwork. It was only a result of an artwork. The work was my attempt to say that life is not separate from death.
TJL: Can you talk a little bit more, Susana, about the way in which the work lived as an artwork, which is an extension of this idea? On the one hand, you’re making a real claim about the blurriness between life and death, which is a position that emerges from many belief practices including those common in the black Americas and also of Chinese folks in diaspora. And on the other hand, you have this clarity around what the work is and what the work is not. This tension seems to be expressed not only in time, but also in terms of material and medium. How did you consider all of this in terms of how the event would be represented?
SPDM: Well, both the donor and I had a lot of tests, and before he passed away, he said he wanted to be considered an anonymous donor. I started in August, September, and we managed to do the fertilization in January. So it was a couple of months of going to the doctor, going to consultations of all kinds, so when the person passed away, I had been seeing a gynecologist for months. I was in a paradoxical situation with documentation: I had a lot, but many of the doctors didn’t want their names involved in the action, which I understand. But at the same time, I was facing a lot of pressure from the art world asking, Where is the documentation? I even remember a conference I went to where they were talking about documentation and then they were putting El escándalo de lo real as an example of the documentation they needed for proof. I was thinking then, the art world is always looking for an object, always claiming something physical. Why can’t art be something that is there but that you can’t touch or see? I was thinking, the action is something microscopic that happened inside my uterus. There is no documentation of this, even a photo or a scan is a kind of abstraction. After months of me insisting and checking, working with the doctor, I managed to get my medical files and then I had to black out the names, sadly. Then I was showing this as the documentation and people were like, Okay, fine. But I still think this is actually not the action. This is just an object to make the art world a little bit satisfied or happy. But for me, it’s problematic. Why are people asking to show this when it’s something that you cannot see?
TJL: And it seems that your approach and belief system, your refusal to prove something according to a flawed definition of what is real and your faith in the reception of a work as it exists through oral dissemination or through self knowledge, as opposed to official forms of documentation, is something that recurs in other projects of yours. I’m thinking of Anexión oculta, or Hidden Annexation which is also related to these questions. Can you just talk about how this has kind of continued in other projects?
SPDM: For Anexión oculta, I put myself inside a table in my house. It’s a table you can open. I would go inside and my legs would hang out and then my mom would sit on the other side of the table. From these actions, I would create photographs. People would ask me, Oh, this is Photoshop, how do you go through there, do you really get inside the table? Even when you are there with a camera, performing for the camera, people question the result.
I had a similar experience in a recent video I was making this year at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. The video is called Resistencia or Resistance, and to make it, I attempted to stand still as this stream of high-pressure air tried to knock me down. In this case, I wanted to prove that I was there resisting something invisible. You don’t see the air, but you see the body is resisting something. How can you prove that you were really doing this performance and you were not pretending? I could also simulate it and the results would be the same. But for me, I like to do the process because I enjoy it. It gives me a lot of feelings, it puts me in a state. It would be boring just to pretend to do something and then show the results.
TJL: But there is a way that this emphasis that you place on process also establishes another kind of relationship between yourself and your audience, and the trust and antagonism that is created there. Your work, Immaterial Domme or Immaterial Dominatrix from 2012/2013, is another moment where I sense this relationship between the performer and the audience, albeit here mediated through an avatar. But what happens in that process is the playing out of a contingent, entangled relationship.
SPDM: Dominadora Inmaterial features an avatar in the website Second Life named Flor Elena who is a financial dominatrix for slaves who pay to serve her. Flor Elena doesn’t really need them or anything from them because she actually doesn’t need the money, but she deserves the money as compensation for her work. When I was building Flor Elena, I realized that the clients would feel more and would be more willing to serve Flor Elena if she had a website that catalogued all the things that she was doing to her other servants through videos, photos, transactions of what she was buying with the money, etc. I put everything on her website, and then clients wanted more, and more people came. In this way, documentation was really important for… I wouldn’t call them an audience, but active participants. Documentation was really important for the interaction with the submissives because it was the proof. And also for the art world, too.
At a certain point, I couldn’t understand why people were as committed as they were. I was thinking, why do people want to do this? Why do they want to serve me when they don’t know who’s behind this avatar. They don’t know who I am. I could be five different people, or a corporation even. I was asking myself, what makes you follow no matter who is behind the computer? What is it about this symbol of power that they’re trying to relate to?
I remember I had one submissive who didn’t want to tell me what he did for a living. But I knew he had an important position, and that the salary of many people depended on him. He had so much pressure to be on top or to be the boss that he would then need to rely or submit his power to somebody and Flor Elena was that person. For him, it didn’t really matter who was behind the avatar; giving over to the symbol of power was enough. I found other submissives. I would log in, then all of a sudden there would be 20000 Linden dollars, which are used to buy and sell goods and services online, in my account. When I looked, I saw an avatar I didn’t know who was sending money and a note saying, I saw your website and I think you deserve this, plus I need a release. I wasn’t even having a dialogue with this avatar. People need this symbol of power to worship, and money is a way to do it through a simulation of real life. For people who have this fetish of financial domination, money is a way to show the exchange of power. So it’s no longer about money, it’s more about how I can show you that I am giving you my power in this mediated form because there is no physical contact.
Being in the digitalized world that we are living in today, there is also a lot of alienation. A lot of people also feel that they can express themselves more through social media than in real life. Having three or four avatars in Second Life, you have a chance to create or reinvent yourself all the time. Flor Elena was a way to research that aspect of the digital world through this performance or action when I was doing my postgraduate studies in New Media between 2011 and 2013 in Germany.
TJL: What’s important to me about casting these relations in this other realm is that it shows how many forms of labor are still part of the afterlife of slavery’s economy, but don’t get named as such, be it sexual labor, reproduction, or caregiving. These forms of work that are imagined to be immaterial are in fact totally embodied and form the fundament of what we understand to be all kinds of material labor.
SPDM: One more thing. When I created Flor Elena, I made her a black woman and made her a little thick. I was trying to respond to myself. All the submissives, all of the slaves, were white. I never got approached by any black avatars even though I saw a lot of black avatars, men, women and gender non-confirming people in Second Life. They mostly had white submissives and not the other way around. This is an experience for which I don’t have the explanation. Is this their way of trying to reinvent history through Second Life, in other words, reverse the history of slavery through Second Life? Is this a means for people who are trying to use Second Life to release those things? I don’t have the answers yet.
TJL: Thank you so much Susana for this beautiful conversation, for your openness, and for your generosity.
SPDM: Thank you. Really happy to be here with you.
To learn more about Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo’s work, please visit her website at susanapilardelahantematienzo.blogspot.com