A conversation between Marsha Pearce and Luis Vasquez La Roche
Marsha Pearce: Hi Luis, how have you been coping during this time? I know this is a particularly charged question for you as you’ve been completing graduate study at VCUarts, in a city that was once the capital of the confederacy for much of the US Civil War. A recent article by Vozzella and Schneider for The Washington Post observes: “No state has more statues to Southern leaders than Virginia, home to the former capital of the confederacy. And no city faces a more tortured reckoning with them than Richmond, that capital, where its most famous monuments are not tucked away in parks here and there, but showcased on a National Historic Landmark street built for that very purpose.”
How, then, have you been processing your context?
Luis Vasquez La Roche: Hey Marsha, thanks for asking how I’m doing, and thanks for including me in this series of conversations. I think that is a complicated question to answer. The amount of uncertainty surrounding everyday life cannot be put into words. The Confederate monuments are just one of many moving pieces here in Richmond. COVID-19 cases are still rising. International students were almost deported by ICE. The death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the many Black lives taken by the police. The violent and oppressive reaction of the police and the government against the Black Lives Matter movement. The repeated acts of violence and murders against transgender people like Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, and the list goes on. It is impossible to think about each one of these separately.
To tell you the truth, it was truly amazing to see five monuments come down in Richmond by the hands of the people. After the Governor and Mayor of Virginia promised to take down the rest of the monuments, they diverted attention from real matters like defunding the police, police brutality, and mass evictions. I am happy to see them come down, but the other side is there are a lot of unemployed people and people are being evicted from their homes. It is strange to witness a monument coming down, while on the other side of the city, people are clashing with the police because of eviction laws. We are in this in-between space where COVID-19 cases are rising, and the country is reopening and easing up on preventive measures, forcing folks to go back to work, and a lot of people are getting sick. It is bittersweet.
Something I appreciate is how people have reclaimed the space where the monuments are. The roundabout where the statue of General Lee stands was renamed: Marcus David-Peters circle. David-Peters was a teacher who was killed by Richmond Police while he had a mental health emergency in 2018. Also, most of the bases have been covered with graffiti. People have created altars and have projected on the monument the words BLM and images of Harriet Tubman, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, amongst many others. Again, it is great to see them come down but let’s not forget there are over 200 symbols of the Confederacy throughout Virginia.
You recently activated a new performance work titled OYA-9394. With this work you make interventions in public sites dressed in a spacesuit – it seems to reference an Afrofuturist discourse. Is this work attending to survival and spatial concerns, as they relate to Black and Brown people? Does the title draw on the Yoruba Orisha Oya? I would love to hear about this work.
The concept for OYA-9394 began with me reflecting on Octavia Butler’s Parables series (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents), Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and my current reality as a Black person. I began reading Butler’s book in January, and while reading the book and comparing it with what was happening, it felt prophetic. I began thinking about space exploration and who it benefits. In Parable of the Sower, the character Lauren Olamina says: “As far as I’m concerned, space exploration and colonization are among the few things left over from the last century that can help us more than they hurt us.”1 I interpret Olamina’s words as hope for human beings to be able to survive extinction, but I think space exploration is something meant to benefit mostly White folks – people with wealth and power. You might say I am not very optimistic but it is a matter of observing what is happening around us every day. Capitalism keeps pushing the limits of what this planet can withstand.
The population keeps growing, cities are expanding, but I believe we should scale down. If some day part of the human population leaves earth there will not be much left for the ones who are left behind. We would need to develop further methods of survival. As I continue to reflect on Afrofuturism and alternative futures, what keeps coming to mind is the development of space(s) that are inclusive, the destruction or restructuring of capitalism, and the decolonization and unlearning of many beliefs that have brought us to where we are today. Many times, I have tried to imagine what the world would look like without capitalism, and even today, I have difficulty envisioning what that might be.2 As I look at my past and my present, I cannot think about utopian futures.
Therefore, focusing on the idea of a dystopian future, I consider the OYA suit a type of armour, a protective suit made with materials I can find on earth. The prototype is assembled from three chemical-resistant overalls, an acrylic dome as a helmet, and a waterproof backpack. In the second prototype, I use shock survival blankets to create the overall and AC aluminum tape. In this version, I cover my helmet to conceal my identity with a black veil. I recently walked the Slave Trail in Richmond dressed in the OYA-9394 suit, and I made offerings along my path.
The name of the suit does draw from the Yoruba Orisha Oya. Cuban writer Pedro Pérez Sarduy says: “rituals are the communication vessels with our origins.”3 In recent works, I attempt to bridge my art practice with part of my beliefs. A text I keep coming back to in the past few months is Martine Syms “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto.”4 It really helped me shape my ideas around Afrofuturism. I was also lucky enough to meet and be in a show with Alisha Wormsley. Something I constantly think about after talking to her is healing and self-care – something very important to keep present in these times.
You mentioned capitalism – I want us to talk about that. As we consider injustices of subjugation across the globe, capitalism features greatly in the conversations. I believe you tackle this subject head-on in your performance work Bricks, Palm Oil, Gunpowder, and Lemon. What can you tell me about this work?
I cannot speak about Bricks, Palm Oil, Gunpowder, and Lemon without mentioning a parallel piece I have been working on called The Impossibility. I have used palm oil in several works. Palm oil, combined with gunpowder and lemon juice, was poured over slaves to cover bruises and marks before they were sold.5 There is an interesting layering that happens here with palm oil as a commodity but also the enslaved as a commodity. Previously, in a performance, I covered my body with palm oil. The obvious next step was to create casts in an attempt to merge these two – efforts explored in The Impossibility, which is a monument I recently created. While walking in Richmond, I started picking up bricks to use as a base to place my casts. Part of my research led me to the history of the brick in the US, where slaves would harvest clay from the James River in Virginia to make bricks.6 Based on the research I decided to create a monument, where the casts would lay on top of another to impart the sense of a pile of bodies. Eventually, these palm oil body casts melt and disappear. The large cube/base made of 1000-1400 bricks is the only thing that would remain, giving the sense of a removed monument.
In Bricks, Palm Oil, Gunpowder, and Lemon I activate the material through a performance where I build the wall’s foundation with the bricks I collected and use the palm oil, gunpowder and lemon mixture as mortar. Then I select a person from the audience to complete the building of the wall. The wall must be constructed in its entirety by one person. The individual chosen to build must be a white male. The final artwork version is a collapsed wall, no matter at what stage the performance ended. The wall is never meant to remain standing. The artwork is located in the interaction between the audience and me. The building of the wall becomes a mechanism to speak about ideas of free labour (emotional and physical), capitalism, and the sharing of labour. I repeatedly push down the incomplete wall until it gets fully built as an analogy of the ongoing collapse and reconstruction of capitalism – over its very debris. Capitalism is driven by a long history of gentrification, racism, and exploitation.
I’ve seen a progression of your work since you started graduate school. I remember your telling me that you took a performance class with Guadalupe Maravilla. Your practice now embraces the performative. How do you understand the role of performance art? What is its significance to your developing practice, and how is it shaping your ideas?
My practice was characterised by video, drawing, and installation. When I started graduate school, my practice took a turn to sculpture and performance. I became interested in the history of materials. In 2016, in the itinerant seminar in Beta-Local Puerto Rico, one of the things we regularly spoke about was what was native to the land and what was not. I began to research what else was brought from West Africa.7 That is how I developed an interest in palm oil. I initially created text drawings, but I realised the material had more potential than just being a 2D representation. I paid attention to the smell, texture, experiencing how it changes colour over time, and how it solidifies and melts according to the temperature. So, I began creating these works where people can do more than just admire them.
Performance becomes an opportunity to share my relationship with my works, to activate the audience’s senses through sounds, smells, actions, movements, and words. Guadalupe’s class was such a tremendous help, especially since I have never done performance in the past. What was also very helpful was all my other colleagues taking the course. All of us created a safe space where we could be vulnerable and experiment without holding back. Trust was such a large part every time we got together. I was also lucky to have a great graduate committee . We had really great conversations. They challenged my ideas to make sure I was thinking about every detail of my performances. When I am creating work, I don’t necessarily set out to make a performance. Still, performance seems to make its way into whatever I am making.
You spoke a bit about your piece The Impossibility, which is a monument. How are you thinking about monuments in our present context? What are your thoughts on monumentality in the Caribbean? I recall your work El Amarillo Representa el Oro (The Yellow represents the Gold), which advocated an ephemeral or intangible monument.
Part of my thesis touches on this subject, but before I came to graduate school I was already thinking about people’s relationships with monuments and memorials in Trinidad and Tobago. I have been closely following what is happening with the Christopher Columbus statue in Port of Spain and I’ve been reading the different points of view from people on social media to the Spanish Ambassador in Trinidad. My position when it comes to monuments is to take them down – all of them. I am not sure if a monument does what it is expected to do, but I also believe there are more productive ways to commemorate or remember something historical. I believe revising the way we teach certain aspects of our history is more important. There is a need to revise how history is written; what is included, and the things we have decided to omit. 90% of everything I created in the past two years does not exist anymore. I am still wrestling with the idea of what it means to create something that might outlive me. I think people like the idea of being remembered long after they are dead, but we are all here for a split second. I like the idea of my work only having a limited lifespan. I don’t want to die and leave all my junk for the next generation to figure out what to do with it.
- Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2019.
- Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010.
- Sarduy, Pedro Perez. “In Living Memory: The Commemoration of Slavery in Cuba.” Facing up to the Past: Perspectives on the Commemoration of Slavery from Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Oxford: James Currey, 2002.
- Syms, Martine, “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto,” Rhizome, accessed May 13, 2020, https://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/dec/17/mundane-afrofuturist-manifesto/.
- National Park Service. Low Country Gullah Culture: Special Research Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement. (Atlanta, GA: NPS Southeast Regional Office, 2005), 20.
- Palmer C Sweet. “History of the Brick in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.” Dept of Mines Minerals and Energy, August 1998. https://www.dmme.virginia.gov/
- Judith A Carney and Richard Nicholas. Rosomoff. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africas Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2011), 7.
Stay connected with Luis Vasquez La Roche: