Munch and Learn Recap: 'Performance Art' with Richard Lou

Richard Lou was born in San Diego and spent his formative years living between there and Tijuana, Mexico. Lou’s art is based in photography, installation and performance. Much of his art explores issues that relate to the politics and identity of the border between the U.S. and Mexico. His talk today focused on his performance pieces. 

An early piece, “Border Door”, 1988, gave Mexicans at least a symbolic, way to enter the U.S. with dignity rather than ducking under barbed wire or crawling through drainage pipes. The door would only open from the Mexican side. He then, as a performative element, went to working class neighborhoods in the area and distributed keys. This element was documented in photographs along the way. This documentation is the only way to make these performances anything but completely ephemeral.  

Another project that dealt with border issues was Border Sutures.  This piece involved putting large “staples” on the border in order to heal the wounds between Mexico and the United States. 

Richard Lou has also made himself the canvas for art in Headlines (1992) which was in response to the anniversary of the “discovery” of America by Columbus. In this piece Lou addressed “the issues of the conquest and the Americas”. Each month he would shave his head and have a different person draw pictures or write phrases that dealt with issues of conquest. He meant for these images to be a catalyst for conversation but soon learned that the shaved head and “tattoos” played into the ideas people have about dark skinned men, especially bald and tattooed men, being “scary” and “weird”. People began to avoid looking at and talking to him. “As I lived with these graphics/text on my head, negotiating through my everyday activities, such as grocery shopping, eating out in public places, renting videos, freeway driving, teaching at Mesa College [San Diego], neighbors, family outings, I escalated a perceived threat. As people of color, the dominant culture perceives us automatically as a threat, and as a large bald person of color with graphics/text drawn on my head that anxiety is heightened.”   


The perceptions of the dominant vs. the non-dominant race were further explored in Los Anthropolocos, or “the crazy anthropologists.” These Los Anthropolocos organize digs at “Colorless Empire” sights, in a fictional future where the white race has all but disappeared and been replaced with the Chicano, United Aztlán. The archeological sights produce artifacts such as Barry Manilow albums, by the way.  These “scientists” eventually find evidence of previously thought extinct, colorless people living in nearby woods.  Since everyone knows that the colorless are attracted to country and western music, the Los Anthropolocos  play the music through loudspeakers and put out glazed donuts as bait. They eventually catch their prize, and plan a tour to show off these savages just as whites did as recently as last century. At the 1893 and 1904 world’s fairs in Chicago and St. Louis people were brought in from other parts of the world to be elements of “living exhibits” and in the early 1800’s a South African woman named Saartjie Baartman was toured around Europe to show off her “otherness” which translated to them as her “savageness”.  

Richard Lou’s move to South Carolina to attend graduate school and then to Memphis to serve as Chair of the Art Department at the University of Memphis gave him a whole new set of social inequities of black and white that were reminiscent of border issues. “The border is wherever we are. Being part of a subjugated group, [oppression] becomes easily identifiable for us within a larger racist society.” 

The performance piece, ReCovering Memphis: Listening to Untold Stories (2009), was performed at, the then named, Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, and provided “counter-narratives and definitions to the symbol of white supremacy that is embodied in the Confederate equestrian memorial of Nathan Bedford Forrest at Forrest Park”. Different speakers from different backgrounds told their stories as counter stories to the one told by the monument to Forrest. Between each story, Gloria Lou and Jon Lewis sang and played spirituals while boxes were stacked. Each combination of boxes had a different design and resulted in the view of the statue being blocked from the viewers, therefore, interrupting the narrative that was being broadcast by the statue every minute it is in view of the public. 

-Linley Schmidt, Public Programs Coordinator

Direct quotes came from American Studies Journal Article, Border Consciousness and Artivist Aesthetics: Richard Lou’s Performance and Multimedia Artwork by Guisela Latorre. 

Posted by Chantal Drake at 12:06 PM
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