Colonialism and the Question of Power as seen through Heredia’s “Couple in a Cage”

A cage in a museum.

Museum-goers encircle the cage, staring at it with intense curiosity, amusement or repulsion. Each person reacts differently to the cage, for behind the bars stands a man and a woman wearing what spectators are describing as ‘tribal’ clothing. They are presumably an undiscovered tribe: the Guatinauis. The only thing is that, they are not really from Guatinau because it doesn’t exist, and the cage is not part of some live exhibit but rather it is part of an artistic piece. “Couple in A Cage” was a performance by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, directed by Paula Heredia. It was about how colonialism represents the colonized, the other, by way of cultural stereotyping and objectification. Diana Taylor writes about how “native bodies can only be seen or heard from the perspective of the ‘discoverer’” (Taylor 162). Within the framework of a performance, “the native is the show; the civilized observer is the privileged spectator” (Taylor 163). Couple in a Cage is ultimately a performance that seeks to reexamine the meaning of power between the colonizers and ‘the other’.

When looking at how colonialism relies on performance to sustain it as a system of domination, costume and set design of the performance has to be discussed. Guillermo and Coco were dressed in a combination of leaves, a Mexican wrestling mask and sunglasses. Couple in a Cage highlights how the other is exoticize-d. Ngũgĩ asserts that often times the invisible is made visible through performance, yet to what extent is this statement really true? If ‘the invisible’ are made visible through the eyes of the suppressor, then they still remain invisible. The viewer is free to judge and define ‘the other’ in a way that elevates the viewer. Couple in a Cage was about examining “the way history and culture are packaged, sold, and consumed within hegemonic structures” (Taylor 164). The performance itself was intentionally exaggerated; the actors wore costumes that would stereotype them as ‘primal’. This included gold bracelets, a feathered headpiece and leopard-print mask worn by Guillermo, and a skirt made from leaves worn by Coco. However there was an interesting juxtaposition in their costumes and props as they wore sunglasses and would interact with a keyboard and radio. One might say that the addition of these accessories and props was to comment on the influence the colonizers have on what is seen as ‘primitive’ cultures. The inclusion of these items subjects ‘the other’ as being under the colonizers. However it could also be seen as a way to bridge the gap between the ‘natives’ (performers) and the audience by making the statement that just because they are different does not mean they are inferior. They use the sunglasses and they operate with a computer and so ergo, they must be ‘just like us’.

The cage itself is both a prop and part of the set. It seeks to create a virtual separation between ‘us’ and ‘the other’ – the performers and the spectators. This is also seen through language. Museum guides, who were also part of the performers, would refer to the couple as “specimens”. They would inform the audience of their ‘primitive’ way of life. The use of a cage with bars dehumanizes the individuals on display. It is interesting to consider the performance could just as easily taken place in an alternative museum style of exhibition, such as behind a glass wall. However the bars not only represent imprisonment and how individuals are dehumanized when the colonizers seek to represent them as spectacles, but it also serves to convey the threads of similarity that run between different cultures. A spectator can pass their hand through the cage and interact with the performers, and the performers in turn can make contact with the spectators. When the spectators would want to take a photograph, it was not uncommon for the performers behind the cage to mess the hair of an audience member.

Louder and louder
I hear the screams of power
The screams of power
All I hear is our
Need for power
Our greed for power

Split.

To make the choices
To hear the silenced voices.

Craving, yearning,
To be heard.

-Harshini J. Karunaratne/Sep 15 2015

Colonization takes advantage of language to convey power. A performance like Couple in a Cage reemphasizes the ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them’; the superior and the inferior; ‘primitive’ and ‘civilized’. Language also exists on a visual level through the display of costumes and the construction of the set. Couple in a Cage is not only about pointing out how people can be misrepresented and objectified, but it is also about reversing the power between the colonized and the colonizers, the spectators and the performers. Ultimately the performers are also watching the audience. Though they may be behind a cage, they are not powerless.

Bibliography:

Ginsberg, Elisabeth. “Case Study: The Couple in the Cage.” Beautiful Trouble. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
Heredia, Paula. “Documentary-The Couple in the Cage.” Vimeo. N.p., 2014. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
Taylor, Diana. “A Savage Performance: Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s “Couple in the Cage”” TDR (1988-) 42.2 (1998): 160-75. JSTOR. Web. 11 Sept. 2015.
Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ Wa. Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. Print.
Wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

 

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