Beatriz Santiago MUÑOZ A Universe of Fragile Mirrors
El Museo del Barrio | January 11 - May 15, 2017
The films of San Juan-based artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz are startlingly enchanting. Steeped in the visual traditions of cinéma vérité and postcolonial theory, the filmmaker’s long, intimate shots belie rigorous tactics of destabilization. “We are here united today to undo the moto-taxi, the photocopier, the department of anthropology, and to put the pieces back together some other way,” one of her characters reads aloud enthusiastically in Nocturne (2014), while sitting in a vague, windowless room. Like other films in this body of work, Nocturne was shot in Haiti and performed by local residents, whose words first sound surreal and wryly entertaining. But make no mistake: through her immersive imagery, the artist calls for a paradigm shift in which pedagogies, politics, and oppressive visual tropes are fundamentally rewritten.
A Universe of Fragile Mirrors—the title is borrowed from French filmmaker Jean Rouch—is the artist’s first major touring exhibition in the United States. Organized by the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, the exhibition features seven films and videos dating from 2012 to 2016, alongside selections from the Museum’s holdings curated by the artist: an early, visceral film by Ana Mendieta neighbors a collection of Taíno pottery, some pieces over five centuries old. The installation echoes the interdisciplinary shape of her practice; in San Juan, in addition to her work in film, Muñoz is an educator, writer, and publisher.
Watching one film after the another, one falls so easily into her cinematic worlds, where the mythological is unleashed into the real. Most striking is the artist’s expansive articulation of “place,” a powerful, malleable notion that eschews geographical borders, encompassing time and spiritual trace. In La Cueva Negra (2014), for example, the camera follows two local Puerto Rican boys who walk the artist through their makeshift playground, the remains of an ancient Taíno burial site partly excavated beneath. (As Muñoz explains in the essay “I am going to describe a ritual,” the government began excavations in 1992 only to abandon the project; today, hundreds of skeletons that were unearthed are lost to bureaucracy.) Unlike her other films, in which non-professional actors read from scripts written by the artist, this dialogue feels unscripted, as if the boys are in control. One points to a muddy shore and explains, this is the place where people bring dogs and “tie them to tires.” At this hidden, sacred site, place is defined by the narratives of others, refracted through generations of suspicion and allegations of neglect—even torture. As the boys gesture to one landmark after the other, questions of ownership arise: is this place now theirs? Is it communal? Is it precious? If so, who is protecting it from whom?
In other films, the artist’s decolonialist actions are more explicit. In Post-Military Cinema (2014), filmed on the decommissioned Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, the setting sun flickers through industrial-grade doors long left ajar—a meditative, panoramic reclamation of a landscape of violence. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Muñoz defines the U.S. military’s use of aerial photography as a form of oppression, an illusion through which domination—over land and people alike—is made to appear rational through vertical distance. Muñoz’s films, by contrast, are radically horizontal, the tight focus of her camera restricting our eyes to the faces and bodies of her subjects.
“Before being able to create an image, we have to be able to see,” Muñoz succinctly writes. Still today, large portions of the island of Vieques are inaccessible, visible only through declassified aerial photographs. This, because an on-the-ground perspective would be physically toxic, as the U.S. military has tested military-grade weapons on the land, in close proximity to residents, for over sixty years. And while such toxins remain invisible, vision as a radical gesture—as a way to redefine one’s environment and home—remains key.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.