Critics Page In Conversation
Carmelita Tropicana with Ela Troyano
Wildness and Freedom in Artistic Collaboration
Carmelita Tropicana: Art imitates life, though today a lot is the other way around. You always pushed the boundaries much before I did. You had vision and got us to relocate to the wild East Village in the eighties where crime and drugs made rents cheap and artists came in droves to a neighborhood that looked like a bombed-out Berlin after the war and performance clubs sprung up, operating with no licenses or city permits. In this New York City, downtown at WOW, a feminist lesbian thespian space—Carmelita Tropicana, my persona was born: a composite of my grandmother, a sassy coquette; my mother, a funny sharp witted woman; and you, my sister and collaborator, who “No tiene pelos en la lengua”—fierce.
Ela Troyano: The first time I saw Carmelita perform as Al Dente in a tank top in Holly Hughes’s The Well of Horniness, I felt she was playing our grandfather. I was really engaged with this performance because it was something I hadn’t seen before. She had been Cheetah the monkey as a child, but this was new.
As sisters our starting point in any collaboration is always different, and the boundaries are always fluid. We share family, have a shorthand; others are often amused at our repartee, interrupting, arguing, finishing each other’s thoughts. We definitely share artistic sensibilities. We both gravitate to humor, and we know our idea works when we start to laugh about it. Caribbean humor as a survival strategy, guerilla fighters in the ongoing culture wars. Carmelita’s corset burnt in a fire before the television show? I have to sew plastic fruits on the corset, sprinkle it with glitter, fix it all even as the corset gives off the smell of burning ash.
Tropicana: The hostess loved the corset but wondered where the smell of barbecue was coming from. That was a time of salvaging materials, of dumpster diving, of creating from what there was. I was devastated looking at the burnt sequined bustier but from the ashes rose a more fruited and glittered bustier—your version of Kintsugi—you made it visually more striking, superior, more fruits, more tropical, more camp! I remember the critic Enrique Fernandez calling me: “A Carmen Miranda cloaked in dangerous fruits.”
I found one of our most fun collaborations was the nineties film Carmelita Tropicana: Your Kunst is Your Waffen (Your Art Is Your Weapon). I was having brunch at Mogador and you came in telling me you had a grant for a movie—hallelujah
The film was autobiographical, a day in the life of Carmelita Tropicana, though the humor veiled that. Sometimes even our friends did not understand. A good friend and member of the Lesbian Avengers would not give us a poster for the film…
Troyano: It was actually really disturbing at the time because one of our friends and a close political ally, someone we really relied on, read our script and thought we were making fun, that we were disrespecting the group. This was days before starting to shoot, but we both decided to go ahead with the production, still worried that we might be wrong. It was definitely a risk.
Tropicana: But when our friend saw the film, she liked it. Humor is tricky. And I’m grateful to José Esteban Muñoz, who wrote about our work insightfully and made it kosher for academia. We disidentify and humor is very political and serious business. Our most recent collaboration is a sound podcast, titled That’s Not What Happened (2021).
Troyano: For me, the best writing on our collaboration to date is still by our friend, the late cultural theorist José Esteban Muñoz in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics in the chapter “Sister Acts Ela Troyano and Carmelita Tropicana.” But to address risk taking, wildness, freedom of expression—for me, it’s important to be able to fail, to accept failure as part of the process.
I was mentored by Jack Smith, the legendary filmmaker, known for his infamous film Flaming Creatures. Being around him was to be in a world of shared play. It’s been the same with working with Carmelita, and with our other longtime and early collaborator Uzi Parnes, where ideas rise out of a shared lived experience, often starting with a joke that leads to a new idea. I’m less interested in perfection and more in moving towards a world shared by those in close collaboration. One that is described by José as a collectively imagined utopia.