On Disturbing History

The history of the United States is considerably short in terms of world history since its founding in 1776. In its 243 years, however, the U.S. has written a historical master narrative with violent ripple effects that continue to make themselves felt in contemporary society. This hegemonic narrative is deeply tied to Eurocentric ideals, as well as to white, male, and ruling class stories. Today, artists are opening up critical conversations that critique this history, thereby creating dialogues about stories that have been excluded. In her ongoing photographic series The Problematics of Passage, New York-based artist Alicia Grullón stages a performative intervention into the mythology and history of the U.S. By placing her body at historic U.S. colonial sites, she invites viewers to rethink these histories through the lens of a woman of color. This revisioning is, paradoxically, both a historical affirmation and a critique of colonial structures embedded into the foundation, myths, and governmental structure of the U.S. When summarizing Andrew Jackson’s presidency, scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us that, “the affirmation of democracy requires the denial of colonialism, but denying does not make it go away.” In the same vein, the presence of women and people of color throughout time may have been erased (or rewritten) in the dominant historical record, however this does not mean that the latter version of events is ‘truthful.’ The presence of Grullón’s body in the photographs highlights this tension––of erasure and the emergence of alternative histories––even as she draws the viewer’s attention to the persistence of systems of oppression across times.

Like oral storytelling, performance actively engages the body and, thus, various forms of memory. Performance is therefore a bodily tradition that has been as used as a form of record keeping. The desire to record the presence of humanity is ubiquitous across time, from a handprint on a cave to the family photo album passed down from our abuelas. As such, war reenactments are significant for the ways in which they tell ‘heroic’ tales from particular perspectives, which are then passed down as ‘facts.’ In The Battle of Brooklyn images, Grullón inserts her body into a colonial re-enactment, and in ways that seem both intentional and sometimes accidental, she ‘plays along.’ Her presence is disruptive, forcing a reckoning for history and calling into question the historical accuracy of the reenactment. As mentioned above, photography records each of her performances, thus creating a new visual record for the alternative histories she summons. In this way, the photograph supports Grullón’s efforts to visualize alternatives, reinforcing her performance through the evidentiary status of the medium.

In the photograph The Battle of Brooklyn, 3 re-enactors and a visitor, Grullón and two reenactors are dressed in colonial militia uniform as they pose with a spectator. The latter is dressed in quotidian symbols of his American identity: a baseball cap with the logo for Route 66, a legendary U.S. westward highway that facilitated suburban expansion from the midwest to the west coast through the early to mid-20th century; and a shirt with a co-opted image of the famed Beatles crossing of Abbey Road, now replaced by the four Founding Fathers and a U.S. flag––an apt analogy for the U.S. triumph of independence from the British. Grullón is sandwiched between these different visual symbols: to her left, the militia that fought for independence, and to her right, the embodiment of U.S. American identity. Inserted between them, her body holds space for an untold story, that of women and black and brown bodies throughout time.

Challenging the notion of Americanness as being exclusively from the U.S., Grullón embodies an intersection of histories that defy the U.S.’ dominant historical narrative. For too often, this  narrative occludes parallel histories of minorities, people of color, and women. For instance, according to military records public on the U.S. Army website, people of color, specifically people of African descent and Native Americans, have fought for the U.S. since the American Revolution, while the oldest records for Hispanics are from the Civil War. That said, this fact is not often seen in historical reenactments or taught in history classes. In the photograph The Battle of Brooklyn, Waiting for Washington, Grullón stands at the center of the image, in line with the audience of a parade. The photograph has been taken from across the road in order to capture the widest range of the sideline. Soldiers in movement blur at the right side of the frame as they march forward. Grullón is looking at us with a delicate smile. It takes a while to explore the image, scanning through the cacophony of flags and spectators. Some faces are covered, bodies’ movements are unfocused, but ultimately, our eyes are drawn to the stillness of a tree’s shadow and the glance that Grullón flashes across the street. Her gaze is strong , grounded in resilience; it draws us in and asks us to consider the significance of her role in this colonial re-enactment.

The placement of black and brown bodies within these white-washed historic settings forces viewers to confront painful histories of enslavement, degradation, and social alienation. In the self-portrait Unsettling the postcolonial condition of my being, Woman holding a balance, Grullón captures her body sitting at the foot of a chimney. The decor around her is 18th century Dutch: tiles with windmills and three wooden clogs strewn across the floor. Her form is nearly out of focus but her gaze is focused. The image is imbued with a kind of mystery––who is this woman and why is she here? For while the photograph seems to capture a domestic setting, it could also be one of forced labor or domestic labor. Her body’s lack of visual focus and her unclassifiability in this milieu hints at histories of erasure, in this case, the erasure of the woman of color’s story. At the same time, the presence of her body in this space recalls histories of domestic labor. Primarily associated with brown and black female bodies, domestic labor also recalls histories of migrant labor. The photograph thus speaks to the persistence of the brown and black female body over time, not only as a domestic or migrant worker, but in ways that demonstrate resilience and the possibility of survival. In this photograph, the visual cues suggest histories of migration and colonial importation: the Dutch tiles around the chimney, the sailing ships, clog shoes, and historical costume. Grullón’s domestic scene therefore depicts a legacy of domestic work in the Dutch context. Her body recalls the sometimes erased presence of black and brown bodies during the colonial period, while simultaneously highlighting the presence of contemporary black and brown bodies that continue this legacy of domestic work, migration, and movement. In the poem “Language Is Migrant,” Cecilia Vincuña describes the movement of survival: “Language is migrant. Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants, cells and bacteria are migrants too. Even galaxies migrate.” Thus, the aforementioned visual clues situate movement as both an act of survival and in terms of the the forced migration that settler colonialism triggered. Today, Grullón’s performance reflects on these multiple movements and pays tribute to the legacy of migration as a tool of survival.

The Problematics of Passage asks viewers to reflect on the multiplicity of different histories that are obscured in U.S. master narratives, and to simultaneously consider other histories––counter-narratives that are also parallel stories. And while violent histories of settler colonialism, slavery, and gender violence underlie these reenactments, Grullón’s work articulates a much-needed critical perspective, as she uses performance and photography to imagine, remember, enact, and capture fuller, more nuanced stories.

Eva Mayhabal Davis has organized exhibitions at BronxArtSpace, En Foco, Expressions Cultural Center, MECA International Art Fair, and Ray Gallery. She was a Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation Curatorial Fellow at the Bronx Museum of Art and an alum of the No Longer Empty: Curatorial Lab. In 2018, she participated in the Art & Law Program Fellowship and in 2019 she was a Leadership Advocacy Fellow for the National Association for Latinos in Art and Culture and a NYFA Leadership Boot Camp participant. She born in Mexico, raised in the United States, and studied art history at the University of Washington. Now based in NYC, she works with artists and creatives in the production of exhibitions, texts, and events. As a cultural liaison, her focus is on supporting equity and social justice values in arts and culture.