Conjuring Stains: (Re)activating an Anarchive of blackness in Everyday Life
Presented for NYU Performance Studies: 2020 Graduate Thesis Symposium
New York, NY
“To resist you must exist”
Latino Community Foundation, #Census2020 campaign
“The names by which I am called in the public place render an example of signifying property plus. In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness”
Hortense J. Spillers
What does it mean to fill a box? To have ink stain drag across paper; for the click clack of keys paired with the snapback of a computer mouse to create, conform, or justify existence? What does it mean to exist in racial categories? If a census document allows me to fill whatever box I please, how might one become a marvel of their own inventiveness? In an exploration of these questions, I elect to expand on an archive of conjure as it relates to the afrolatinx ghostly matters found in Latin-American caste paintings and today’s modern censuses.
When cargo ships set sail for a New World, captains created capital out of human bodies. Captains/New World Administrators, perhaps not knowing black bodies were replete with flesh, put pen to paper and birthed the colonial subject. Castizaje began as various racial groups settled in their respective colonies and New World officials now found themselves navigating a racial fog. A fog made up of religious vapors, gaseous tension, and what seemed like condensed pollution. The architects of this great new space responded to mixed groups by erecting a scaffold for purity. The assembly of casta systems was influenced by Iberian concern of mixing blood. Having lost foothold of Spain in the fifteenth century, Jewish and Moorish civilizations of the sixteenth century faced scrutiny over a limpieza de sangre, a cleansing of blood, which unfolded into a practice of converting bloodlines into religious categorization. Further, as reigning Christian thought could not be separated from matters of science and community, monogenism, the thought that all humanity shares Eve and Adam as common ancestors, pressed a burden on the Bible to explain characteristic differences. Pressumming man’s skin was naturally pale, darker skin color was thought to be a biblical curse; how else might one explain why black skin did not revert to whiteness in cold weather? Black bodies were seen as less pliant, therefore considered less affectable by humoral imbalances. The caste system’s framework for purity ultimately created an unsteady scaffold for categorization and combination.
Emerging in the 1700s, the modern census framework for race evolved from casta systems departing the Old World and docking themselves to the Americas and the Caribbean. As New World colonies were ordered to complete population counts by reigning parties, racial nomenclature turned into a form of racial management. That is to say, it’s not enough to know who’s there, but how many of you? A colonial, “who all gone be there?” Across the Americas, censuses became a way of taking stock and surveilling populations. In a practical sense, the census functions to track, define, oversee shifts in population, and distribution of funds. However, the statistical (re)creation and demarcation of colonial subjects contains a residue of caste paintings; an ink made of ghostly matter. There is blood here. A haunting historical impression which highlights the social traumas and experiences that animate everyday life. Turning flesh into numerical body, most of the information collected in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua counted only free nonwhites as esclaves were still seen as commodity; The United States included slaves in their censuses as they were considered a part of the household. However, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama went a different route, creating a “free people of all colors” category that drew no distinctions between blacks and racially mixed people.
During the 1980s and 1990s, black movements in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama, pressed governments to acknowledge racial differences amongst minorities. Under pressure from local movements and international agencies, Latin-American administrations ultimately agreed to add questions regarding afro-descendants to their censuses. Colombia and Uruguay included those questions in the 1990s; Ecuador and most Central American countries in the 2000 census; Argentina, Bolivia, Panama, Peru and Venezuela in the census of 2010 and most recently Mexico in 2015. Chile and the Dominican Republic are currently the only Latin-American countries with no concrete plans to canvass their afro-descendant populations. In the 2000’s countries began adding a fill-in-the-box option for racial questions. .
The haunted history of the census and caste paintings is the fuel to this fire. A particular flame that in order to make best use of I must reinvent what Erin Manning calls an “anarchive, a repertory of traces of events. The traces are not inert, but are carriers of potential. They are reactivatable, and their reactivation helps trigger a new event which continues the creative process from which they came, but in a new iteration.” Anarchives recognize a state of becoming; a pliant body which transforms as it goes up in flames.
In order to appropriately acknowledge afro-latinx existence as already being in resistance, I must make use of my personal archive of conjure. Operating as a process of “creative resuscitation,” I reinvent a method of staining traced down through a practice and study of everyday life; something gained by cooking, laboring, and accompanying one another. This critique aims to (re)member the terms used to scaffold black publics and releases them into a spillage of flesh. These practices of the rituals of everyday life offer an alternate way of existing; one that acknowledges the familial, spiritual, and scholarly forces available for layering logics of gathering. The conjuring is the work; it pulls together immaterial and material resources to weaponize interdisciplinary ways animating life. The (re)activation I take part in creates material artifacts with and for the dead in order to acknowledge an intergenerational trauma that comes with labeling, or staining the body. Blackness here represents a spillage; an overflow of “the things made in excess of time, and over time”. It further recognizes that while the blood residue of stocktaking, categorizing, and labeling can not be washed away, it can be played with, disidentified into fashionable mess.
Using poplar wood retrieved from art canvas frames I make activated charcoal to reframe what was once contained into a more expansive set of materialities. I do this in private, semi-public, and public spaces over the course of nine days to (re)enact a novena, the Catholic ceremony of nine days of prayer for the dead; a gathering for and with the dead. By unsettling a traditional novena with conjure, I aim to subvert the religious aspects that lay within the foundation of census documents and archives. I do this by burning and dying material objects to re-render the energy of the moment. The terms written on the dress, my blank canvas, are all pulled from casta paintings and Latin-American census documents. The haunting is (re)activated by a Fanonian “Ahi te estas” “There you are”; that is, there is a hailing into mourning. The language that appears are all categories that have been used to label the black body. Mestizo, lobo, afrodescendiente, all terms pulled from various caste paintings and censuses. Written last is a black checkbox with a fill-in-the blank section, a detail which affirms, cleansing, mourning, and staining are inexorable in the process of reinvention. Further, washing the dress in charcoal activates a new transcript of blackness, one that flows and suspends categorization to further make sense of the textured fabric of everyday life.