Members of the Brooklyn Jumbies, a stiltwalking dance troupe, will participate in STRUT! on May 2.
After donning white gloves, Laura Anderson Barbata and her students enter a climate-controlled classroom in the School of Human Ecology to examine an array of hats pulled from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Barbata, who is wrapping up a semester-long residency at the UW Arts Institute, marvels over the hats, noting the embellishments, shapes and craftsmanship.
“They are embedded with so much information,” says Barbata, a renowned transdisciplinary artist who this semester taught a weekly evening class called “Community Arts Practice.” She encourages the group to think about how the hats might translate into ideas for costumes and headpieces for STRUT!, a community celebration and procession she helped organize for Madison’s Capitol Square on May 2.
Few people know that the UW’s new School of Human Ecology building houses such an impressive textile collection. But Barbata has shown that she excels at making such connections, including with her weekly “Community Conversations,” which have brought together dancers, musicians, visual artists, arts leaders, activists, stilt walkers and educators.
Carolyn Kallenborn, who is on the faculty of the UW’s design studies department at UW, first encountered Barbata’s work at an exhibit in Oaxaca, Mexico. “I had this immediate reaction,” says Kallenborn. “I just wanted her to come play in our sandbox because we have a really great sandbox.”
Born in Mexico City in 1958, Barbata now splits her time between Brooklyn, N.Y., where she has an art studio, and Mexico City, where she is an associate professor of social art at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado “La Esmeralda” (founded by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera). She is a member of Mexico’s National System of Artists, and her paintings, drawings and installations are in major collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But she is equally well known for her long-term projects like “Transcommunality,” which began in 2002 in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The project focused on moko jumbie, traditional West African stilt walking. The art is beautifully chronicled in the 2013 book Laura Anderson Barbata: Transcommunality: Interventions and Collaborations in Stilt Dancing Communities.
“Intervention: Wall Street,” one of Barbata’s best-known public art performances, involved a collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies, a stilt walking drum and dance troupe. During the 2011 Occupy protests in New York’s financial district, the diminutive Barbata strolled and danced in front of the Jumbies, who wore enormous business suits and danced on sky-high stilts. She passed out chocolate coins to onlookers, who were both bewildered and delighted. Barbata says she works with stilt walkers and is learning to walk a tightrope, but does not perform on stilts: “I feel it is important for me to be on the ground. My role is to be the bridge — the link between people on the ground and those on stilts.”
In February, three members of the Brooklyn Jumbies visited Madison to participate in workshops, performances and classes. Although they had never worked with a choreographer before, they teamed up with Chris Walker, the dynamic dance professor and choreographer at the UW, who is currently teaching a course in African masquerade. Walker says they took the traditional moko jumbie movement vocabulary and contemporized it. “We had quite a bit of fun,” says Walker. “It was a true sharing. They left with some specific tools and skills and gave some to the Madison community.”
Dancers in a workshop hosted by Laura Anderson Barbata prepare for STRUT!
Barbata is a respectful and curious observer, which may be why people are eager to participate in her projects. “One of the things I find so exciting and beautiful about life is that each individual has so much inside, so much knowledge,” she says.
On a trip to Venezuela in the early 1990s, Barbata traveled to the Amazon region where she became fascinated with the indigenous Yanomami tribe’s collaborative approach to canoe making. She told them she wanted to learn how to build canoes and asked what she could offer in exchange. They said they needed paper. She said she would teach them how to make paper. Then, she told them, “You can tell your own story in your own words.”
Barbata says that she “never excelled” at canoe making, but the papermaking and subsequent bookmaking project was a success. Only 50 copies exist of the handcrafted book, Shapono, which won a “best book of the year” award in Venezuela and is housed in major libraries around the world, including the Library of Congress.
The May 2 STRUT! event is the culmination of Barbata’s residency and her “Community Arts Practice” course. She says the event “has put into action new relationships that are enriching for all parts.”
“Laura’s art is really about engaging and collaborating with existing artists, performers and cultural groups,” says Laurie Rossbach, art studio manager at the Madison Children’s Museum, which is a partner in the event.
“STRUT! is not intended to be kind of parade that you just sit along the sidewalk and watch,” adds Rossbach. “STRUT! is by and for the community. We are encouraging everyone to come out and join the parade.”
The museum will be lending masks, puppets and decorations, and is promoting fun DIY projects outlined on the STRUT! website, including making a shaggy skirt out of recycled materials. The Handphibians, Black Star Drum Line and Forward! Marching Band will provide live music, and everyone is invited to dance or march along with the Jumbies and at least 40 local stiltwalkers.
The UW’s Walker says he is eager to see “all the different communities in this wild, beautiful city get a chance to express themselves and strut their stuff.”
Although Barbata’s residency is coming to a close, she hopes the collaborations she fostered through her college course, lectures and workshops will endure after she is gone. “Ideally, this exchange of knowledge and this exercise in reciprocity will have a long life. That’s very important for me.”