Production stills from Tierra y Libertad, Kevlar® 2945. All photos courtesy of Nao Bustamante.
This article appears in our 2015 Fall issue, Blood & Guts. Subscribe today!
Performance artist Nao Bustamante has wrapped her nude body in packing tape and climbed a shaky ladder in a pair of chunky heels and a face full of makeup (America, the Beautiful). She’s encased her head in a bag of water—flashing a distorted, troubling smile at the audience—before she rips it open, water everywhere, so as not to drown (Sans Gravity). And in one of her earliest performances, she has strapped a burrito, dildo-style, to her crotch and invited white men from the audience to kneel and take a bite as penance for colonialism (Indig/urrito).
For more than two decades, Bustamante has performed daring, playful, and often uncomfortable work addressing the body, pop culture, and global politics for audiences across the world.
But Bustamante’s most vulnerable moment didn’t come from one of her soul- and body-baring shows. Instead, it came after her appearance on Bravo’s Work of Art, a 2010 Project Runway–esque reality show on which visual artists compete for critical validation. It wasn’t the show itself that bothered Bustamante—the theatricality of reality tv meshed well with the video artist’s oeuvre—but the personal attacks from mainstream media and the Internet that followed.
Bustamante imagined a dress entirely out of Kevlar that could protect her from whatever the world might throw at her. The dress would become the centerpiece of her latest multimedia exhibition, Soldadera, which displayed summer 2015 at the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles. Soldaderas made up unsung battalions of women during the Mexican Revolution of 1910; they took care of troops and often took up arms. Bustamante’s exhibit honoring and reimagining these women included a re-created unfinished Sergei Eisenstein film, interactive photo and video displays, and additional Kevlar uniforms, including a reboza shawl. The project, five years in the making, took Bustamante from the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin to the University of California–Riverside special collections, to Guadalajara, Mexico, where she met with the oldest surviving soldadera. She talked to Bitch about art, history, and envisioning a world without war.
Nao Bustamante’s exhbition Soldadera.
How did the idea for Soldadera originate?
When [Work of Art] aired, I ended up getting a lot of slings and arrows from mainstream media and people online—trolls and that kind of thing—commenting about my body. I just felt very vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t felt previously in my work. I can take it when people don’t like my work, but it was really a different kind of feeling, dealing with all the trolls and a more mainstream audience. I imagined making a Kevlar gown that went all the way up to my head and all the way down to my feet and all the way down to the floor—a kind of talisman to protect me.
Around that time, these curators, Pilar Perez and Marcus Kuiland-Nazario, invited me to participate in a show called “Chewbacca to Zapata: Revisiting the Myth of the Mexican Revolution.” I started looking into the Mexican Revolution, and I found that there had been battalions of women fighters that I had not really been aware of. I had heard stories about members of my family being in the revolution, but I hadn’t heard stories about women taking up arms. The women in these battalions were actually wearing the same kind of dress that I had imagined. I thought, maybe I could make a dress for them as a kind of memorial piece, or time travel to protect these women.
I started getting more into their plight, realizing the terrible, difficult situations they went through. I also started hearing stories of contemporary female soldiers and the kind of atrocities they were facing on the front lines.
The first piece was one single dress, the Edwardian Kevlar fighting costume. After the show, I decided that I would test [the Kevlar gown] against weapons from the era of the Mexican Revolution. I actually went to a gun collector, and we ended up taking the dress out to the woods and shooting it up and seeing what it could handle. Kind of doing our own weapons-grade testing. And the dress—the apron bib, in fact— stopped two 9-millimeter slugs, so it was a reasonably successful dress!
Nao Bustamante inspecting Kelvar uniform.
In the video of that piece, Tierra y Libertad, Kevlar® 2945, we watch you hang up the dress in a snowy wood and then shoot at it. While you’re hanging it up, you say, “I’m feeling more emotional than I thought I would.” Could you describe what you were feeling?
I put a lot of energy into making the dress, and I had been doing all this research on these women’s stories and was feeling an emotional connection to the work they had done.
So when I actually put the dress up to shoot, it became representative of these women. I felt a kind of concern for the dress—out of pure selfishness, like, “Oh my god, I’m destroying my own work”—but also because of what the dress came to represent. There was a kind of kinship between me and these metaphorical or imaginary women who were wearing the dress.
So when I went to hang up the dress, then it was like, “Okay, now we’re about to destroy the dress,” but in fact the dress held up! So that was exciting. In fact, it was elating.
I could hear that elation when you shout, “It stopped it!” I could feel your need to protect these women.
Yes, it was genuine excitement. I thought the bullet had gone through, but then [the gun specialist] pointed out that the slug was embedded in the apron. [It] blew my mind right then and there.
First, that anything could actually stop a bullet. I mean…I think a lot of times we see weaponry as deadly, so the idea that you could create a garment that looks so beautiful, so feminine, and that it could stop bullets—that was revelatory. But also, since doing the project, [I’ve started] working on a documentary about the idea of protection and weaponry. The narrative I’m heading toward is that we actually can’t protect ourselves against contemporary weaponry. The only option now is to move toward peace. So the work is taking a turn toward larger, more universal ideas.
I definitely see some of those dichotomies in the dress: protection and vulnerability, feminine wear and military wear, but especially past and present. Could you talk more about the “time traveling” aspects of Soldadera?
Sometimes people walk into [Soldadera] and they question if something is real or not. I’ve also found that there are people who like to be confused and people who don’t like to be confused—like, there’s people who ask questions like, “Okay, is this from the Mexican Revolution or isn’t it?” or “Did this happen or didn’t it?”—and then there’s people who don’t want to know.
I think that we can’t always know—and I think the same thing happens in history. For instance, in the historical accounts of the Mexican Revolution, although there are accounts of women fighting—being part of battles, the supply line, medical staff and caretakers and soldiers—they’re not represented visually overall, not in famous photos or historical frameworks.
So at the show, the dress has now been sun-damaged, it’s been shot at, and it’s lying in a vitrine—it really has this sense of being a relic. And people say, “Is this dress from the Mexican Revolution?” I mean, it can’t be—Kevlar wasn’t invented then—but it does have a kind of sense about it. It’s Edwardian looking, it’s sort of tattered, it’s brown because the Kevlar turns brown as it gets UV light. So the dress itself has taken on some kind of status.
We also have old photography that I was inspired by from the University of California–Riverside [photo archives] as part of the show. So when I say “time travel,” I don’t necessarily mean going back to the site of the Mexican Revolution. I mean, there’s a part of the Mexican Revolution that we still carry with us and will carry with us into the future. There’s the idea of time being all-present. Not linear, but more like an open field of time where we’re standing in one place and can look around us and see in every direction.
Speaking of the fluid nature of history, it seems that within the popular imagination, soldaderas have been mythologized throughout time in various ways. Do you think this romanticization takes agency away from them or erases the real violence they experienced?
I think that the sexualizing of women has happened throughout different wartime efforts—giving the boys out in the field “something to look forward to” or “something to dream about.” It’s a cultural phenomenon that soldaderas are presented as very sexy revolutionaries. They’re depicted in these flimsy white peasant shirts, usually they have a Mexican sash, their hand is firmly planted on the flagpole, their hair is blowing in the wind, and they usually have these giant hoop earrings on. I’m not saying that being a revolutionary isn’t sexy, I’m just saying that the way she is represented is not very practical for the field!
I mean, I’m a big romantic—I love romantic images. But I do think it takes away some of their agency and some of their realities and hardships. Maybe we’d rather remember them in a lighter, more playful space, but the reality is that it was a hard-fought revolution. It lasted 10 years, there were many different factions, and the women were engaged in every aspect: from fighting to supplying the troops to caring for the sick to burying the dead to birthing children. They foraged for food, they hunted, they carried whole households on their backs. They were also grieving. And they were fighting for something bigger than themselves—the idea of coming out from under tyranny. And they did it all under very desperate circumstances. They’re wonderful examples of strength and fortitude. In that way we can look to them, gain strength from them, and give them their rightful place in history.
Still from Chac-Mool, featuring Leandra Becerra Lumbreras.
What was it like meeting Leandra Becerra Lumbreras, the last known surviving soldadera?
I traveled to Zapopan, which is near Guadalajara, Mexico, and filmed [Lumbreras], who at the time was 127 years old. She passed March 19, 2015. It was a really amazing and beautiful experience to be in the room with her. We were with somebody who was there, who led a brigade, who “fought with her tortillas,” as she liked to say, as opposed to fighting with guns. She brought that with her into the present.
We had the most astonishing time being with her and ended up including that experience as part of the exhibition. There’s some of her needlework in the exhibition; she used that to support her family after the Mexican Revolution, and the family gifted us a couple of those pieces.
There’s also a video piece called Chac-Mool, it’s named after a pre-Columbian figure who is said to be between the realms of the living and the dead. A chacmool is always in a particular position, it’s sort of on its back with its knees up and it has a container on its lap. Leandra was in this same position when we filmed her, where she was sitting with a cookie tin on her lap that she liked to play, and she would pound out this really persistent rhythm. And every once in a while, she would stop and boss somebody around or talk to them about food, or there were these ways in which she was kind of reenacting these moments in her life. It was really pure poetry in the way that she would bang out these rhythms, then come to the surface and speak about something, and then go back to her rhythm.
I read that when you talk to younger audiences, you ask them to think about a world without war.
And it’s shocking to me how few people can imagine that. So then I start asking, “Why do we experience war, then? Who is fighting these wars? What are we fighting for?”
[With Soldadera] I wanted to have another way to talk about war because I feel like we’re so desensitized to the subject. Making art about contemporary wartime may not engage as many viewers as I’d like. But making a piece that’s more fantastical, about these women from the past—there might be enough distance there to think about war differently.
I think about what they were fighting for and I think we’re due for a softer revolution here in America. I wouldn’t want any civil war or armed struggle to erupt, but I do think that we have more to fight for here as well. I’m hoping for some kind of second Enlightenment in my lifetime, where people can put aside the smaller, petty things—the concerns about the self and about the ego, the creature comforts—and really pull together on some larger issues. I’m hoping the work can open doors to a lot of different discussions.
This past year, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz made headlines for Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), where she carried a mattress around campus—even walking across the stage to receive her diploma—to call for the expulsion of her alleged rapist from the university. It’s not often that a work like that gets coverage outside of art and feminist media.
I think it’s great. More people understanding different aspects of performance art is only a positive thing. I love her mattress piece, it’s really a strong work. And it’s very interactive—other people began helping her carry the mattress around, they mobilized around her. I think it’s a very powerful gesture.
I think, in a way, it’s the best aspect of performance art: a gesture that mobilizes the community and actually makes a statement and brings attention to an issue. I applaud her.
I have noticed that performance art has gained more attention in the mainstream. A lot of times it’s a butt of a joke—like, how many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? I don’t know, I left the room. [Laughs.] But I think it’s really cool. I like that celebrities are getting into performance art. I think that it’s all fair game. If you want to call yourself a performance artist and make performance out of it, I say, go for it. The more, the merrier.