Performative Faiths - Santas del Pescado

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Growing up in Venezuela, my grandparents had altars in dedicated rooms in their homes, and they lit candles throughout the day for the “ánimas benditas,” souls in limbo that had not yet transcended into heaven. Popular traditions embracing the dead, like this one, are widespread and commonplace sources of hope in Venezuela, primarily for those living in the most impoverished and violent communities, whether in city barrios or in rural communities, where untimely death occurs often and unjustly. In Caracas cemeteries in the most crime-ridden areas, people pray to the santos malandros (“holy thugs”), a sect of outlaw saints with a large cult following, such as Ismael Sánchez, known for performing crimes of generosity not unlike Robin Hood. These saints derive from the spiritist faith, part of Venezuela’s María Lionza religion, which reveres a mestiza goddess of the same name and borrows from colonial Catholicism, as well as Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous faiths. “María Lionzeros,” those who practice the religion, embrace death through many rituals, including ones by which religious leaders invoke and embody the dead.

Popular beliefs and santos that keep death at the forefront, similar to the ones in Venezuela, are embedded in the social fabric across Latin America. The artists’ works selected for this series reinterpret the rituals of these faith-based traditions. In the process of making consistent, Guillermina Buzio examines the tradition of altars dedicated to those who have suffered tragic deaths throughout Argentina. Nela Ochoa fictionalizes her own experience of faith-based rituals while growing up in Venezuela by subverting Catholic gestures in que en pez descanse, or “may [they] rest in fish,” a pun on the popular myth that if one bathes in the ocean on Holy Friday one will turn into a fish. In Exercises in Faith: Embrace, Julieta Maria questions sacrificial offeringsby literally taking the life of a fish by intimately embracing it with her hands. Through their performative actions, the three artists explore popular traditions that give people hope in the face of death in Latin America.

the process of making consistent, Guillermina Buzio, 2009, 05:55.

the process of making consistent is a video performance in which the artist sits naked in a set that recreates a “Gauchito Gil” altar located near the site of her mother’s accidental death during Argentina’s dictatorship. The artist describes this performance as “healing and painful,” evoking both past and present traumas. In it, she remains motionless as her friends and strangers adorn her with photographs, trinkets, and prayers, emulating altars devoted to those who have died tragically. The work also weaves photographs of the Gauchito Gil altars, a gaucho (cowboy) outlaw figure widely revered in Argentina as a saint, and videos of the Crogmañon Altar, an altar for the 194 people who tragically died in a nightclub fire in Buenos Aires. At the bottom of the screen a text scrolls of invented prayers, as well as written wishes, through which the artist commemorates her loved ones.

que en pez descanse, Nela Ochoa, 1986, 16:35.

que en pez descanse is a surreal video work modelled after the artist’s childhood. All of the characters have cult-tendencies, except for the main character who is distrustful and apprehensive of the society’s rules. The characters perform odd choreographic gestures that are slightly “off” from the traditional gestures of the Catholic faith. For example, instead of “crossing” themselves with their right hand, they do it with both hands; instead of kissing the small cross made by their index and thumb, they put their hand into their mouths; instead of taking communion wafers, they ingest a whole live fish. The title is a pun using the word “pez” meaning fish, instead of “paz,” meaning peace, and directly translates as “may [they] rest in fish;” it is also a reference to the popular belief that if a person bathes on Good Friday, the day commemorating Christ’s crucifixion, they will become a fish.

Exercises in Faith: Embrace, Julieta Maria, 2011, 06:00.

Exercises in Faith: Embrace is a video performance in which the artist sacrifices a live fish that was destined for human consumption and decontextualizes the purpose of its life by killing it for the sake of art. In this “exercise in faith,” she exercises her control and power over the fish by holding it in her hands and hugging it carefully against her chest until it slowly passes away. In the middle of the video, the action subtly starts to replay backwards, so that if looped, the fish will remain in perpetual agony. This can be an incredibly difficult performance to watch, as one observes the artist inflict death upon a live animal during what is usually an act of care – a hug or “embrace.” The artist explores how “faith” and “trust in god” are used as coping mechanisms for living, even though death is our eventual destiny.