In December 2019 I was honoured to host MPASTURAVACCHE: The milk-suckling snake (2019) – a one-to-one performance created and performed by Jatun Risba– at my space The Room, in Tottenham Hale, London. Risba states her own motives and intentions in texts related to this performance, but I prefer to attempt to convey my reactions as they came to me at the time.
The audience booked a time slot individually with the artist, and it was decided that a knock on my front door would mark the conclusion of the previous visit. I applied for a time-slot myself, and at the time appointed I duly knocked on the door to the studio.
I entered a space blacked out except for the light from projections or from equipment utilised by the artist. I was handed a headset for virtual reality with thermal vision, however, I entered the space without wearing this, and I could see the artist, naked, standing in a bowl, wearing a large horned helmet, but the first thing that struck my eyes was a projected text trembling on the floor in front of me:
For I am the snake that is the beginning and the end of the human.
I am the most venerated and most despised cow,
I am the whore, the Negro and the Madonna,
I am the virgin and the widow,
I am the mother, the father and the rejected daughter.
I am my grandmother’s bare arms, the meaning out of my grandfather’s breasts.
I am sterile and bloodless, yet fertile,
I am an unnameable creature, married and single,
I am the one who gives birth and the one who never procreated,
I am the one who consoles from the pains of delivery and dying.
I am a bride and a groom who have no possessions.
And my sex nourishes my augmented sense, my dilated sensations,
I am the Cow of God,
I am the foot of my husband’s plant,
And he is the son who I’ve rejected.
Always respect me,
For I am the shameful and the magnificent one.
The text intrigued me. It was both sublime and abject. As I was taking it in, I looked up, walked through the projection, approached the artist. I looked closely, as if I were examining a sculpture in that dark space. Her tongue never ceased flickering in and out of her mouth, her wide open eyes followed my eyes and constantly regarded me. There was also a constant smile. The effect was as paradoxical as the text. The artist was an oxymoron: a contradiction in terms. The terracotta bowl, filled with earth, in which she stood, made her powerfully “grounded” while the big horned helmet gave her head a mightiness, but this in turn drew attention to the vulnerability of her breasts, the provocation of swaying hips and her vulva. I put on the thermal vision headset. At first I was disorientated, since I had no idea what these were: yellow, red and orange colour oozed together. Then I began to get my bearings, and aimed these googles in the direction of the performer, aware now that I was performing with her. In thermal vision her body appeared to me as a primitive archetype, a blurry vision of orange and yellow. The vision swayed. I sensed the sinuous articulations of the spine. There was a voluptuousness to the image. Now this primordial vision, generated by modern technology, raised her hands. She touched the horns of her helmet. Twin circles framed her head. I sensed her through her heat.
The performance made an impression. I found myself examining my own reaction as if it were part of the performance, I felt ancient mythic truth covering me like a fluorescent shawl generated by the most modern means, I felt an erotic urge to take advantage of the subject’s vulnerable nakedness, coupled with an internal warning not to transgress. I wondered how different this performance would be for me if I were a woman – or a child. It reminded me of how, when I was seven years old, I had gone into a tent at a fair where a naked woman stood motionless behind a gauze, the first woman I had seen naked apart from my mother. How fantastic it would have been, had I entered that tent, and experienced this current vision of sensuality fused with power.
Jatun Risba’s weaving together of art and science is highly original. That she uses modern technology to pitch her audience back into a primordial world, where woman is snake, where communication is heat, where audience and icon become seemingly umbilically joined in the performance of their own privacy is remarkable. Through her performance she reinstalls in our mind that there are other powers as formidable as mere brute strength; powers which feminism sometimes disparages as irrelevant to some notional conflict between the sexes. I think this is where the oxymoron makes itself felt: the power of Aphrodite is equal though dissimilar to the power of Aries. There was indeed something powerfully beautiful about this performance.
Anthony Howell, December 2019