Mother Death in the Narco-War: Violeta Luna’s “Requiem for a Lost Land”

by on Feb.21, 2013

On her website, Violeta Luna offers the following description of her arresting performance piece “Requiem for a Lost Land”:

Requiem is a performative intervention by way of ritual, to remember the killings committed in the “war on drugs” initiative from the central government in Mexico.

The bilingual title makes reference to the bi-national reality of the “war against drugs.” Requiem is an attempt, from the space of performance art, to open with a coroner’s knife the very same discourse of death broadcasted by those in power under the guise of “national security.” Inside its rotten entrails, we re-discover the daily suffering of the common citizen, the most affected by a vicious and pathological decision of the state that has nothing to do with his or her well-being, and much to do with some of the darker designs of power that Mexico has seen in its history, with unconditional support from the US.

Through Luna’s ritual, a kind of Mother Death emerges as a simultaneously contemporary, prophetic, and ancestral figure:  her head leaks the blood of narco-victims (estimated to number from 60,000-100,000) so that the fluid becomes her own, the motherland’s, and Mother Earth’s.  In the performance I saw at the Hemispheric Institute’s Encuentro, Luna even distributed soil to audience members.  Much in the same way that Raúl Zurita’s poem continues to be scrawled into the Atacama desert by villagers, the audience spread the soil within the piece’s cocaine border in what amounted to an ongoing, ever-repeating burial rite performed on contaminated, militarized land.  

If Luna’s vigorous hair-brushing recalls Marina Abramovic’s “Art Must Be Beautiful,” her white dress and body paint also bring to mind the film Ringu and its female ghost who calmly, if eerily, brushes her hair before climbing out of a TV screen to murder viewers.  Through B-movie theatrics and dramatic gesticulations, Luna and her cage of hair break open the self; her spastic art of dying, gathering, and spawning agitates us into mourning.  While Mother Death’s hands seem to scurry on their own accord when they place photographs in her hair, their occult power takes on the drug cartels’ practice of dismembering victims.  In this sense, Luna’s theatrics also match, and repurpose, the hyperbolic show of force demonstrated by the Mexican state’s public killings and use of torture.  The absorption of blood and faces in Luna’s strands condenses this brutality to which the broadcasted politicians, Mexican and America, lay claim.  While the declaration “the United States of America” robotically blares, former President Felipe Calderón states, “It will take time, it will take money, and unfortunately, to our big sorrow, it will take human lives.”

It is noteworthy that the competing soundtrack to this political speech is María Rivera’s poem “Los muertos” (trans. here by Jen Hofer).  Siding with poetry, Luna’s Mother Death spreads the plight of the madres de los desaparecidos whose offspring were disappeared in dictatorships all the way to Guadalupe, Juárez, and other places stained by a bi-national pathology of violence:

“they are called
cries of children on dirt floors,
light flying over birds,
flight of doves in the church,
they are called
kisses at the edge of the river
they are called
Gelder (17)
Daniel (22)
Filmar (24)
Ismael (15)
Augustín (20)
José (16)
Jacinta (21)
Inés (28)
Francisco (53)
among bushes,
in ranch gardens
hands tied,
in the gardens of houses with security systems,
in forgotten spots,
disintegrating silently,
they are called
secrets of hit men,
secrets of slaughter,
secrets of policemen,
they are called cry,
they are called fog,
they are called body,
they are called skin,
they are called warmth,
they are called kiss,
they are called hug,
they are called laughter,
they are called people,
they are called pleading,
they were called me,
they were called you,
they were called us,
they are called shame,
they are called cry.

There they go
their breasts bitten,
their hands tied,
their bodies burnt,
their bones polished by desert sand.
They are called
dead women nobody knows nobody saw being killed,
they are called
women who go to bars at night alone,
they are called
working women who leave their homes at dawn,
they are called
burnt to ashes,
thrown away,
they are called carne, flesh,
they are called carne, meat.”

By gushing open bloodlines and tapping into the collective potential of grief, “Requiem” threatens to turn all who behold into mothers of the disappeared.  The piece’s fake bloodbath and mothering of death reorients creation, insisting on the latter’s vitality and materiality within death’s shadow, the “carne, flesh, meat” of state-sanctioned violence we must somehow birth.

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