New YorkEl Museo Del Barrio
Raphael Montañez Ortiz: A Contextual Retrospective
April 14 – September 11, 2022
Raphael Montañez Ortiz is an internationally renowned Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican artist and educator who grew up in New York City. He is the founder of El Museo del Barrio, where his current retrospective demonstrating his contributions to sculpture, performance, film, video, and activism is on view. Scholar Ana Cristina Perry spoke with the artist about his work and life, reflecting on his practice and decolonization; potlatch, play, and psychology; cinema and dreams; the Museum of Natural History; process and the object, and El Museo del Barrio.
Ana Cristina Perry (Rail): I want to start this conversation by thinking about how your retrospective is one of the only exhibitions that has looked at the entirety of your career, rather than just stopping in the mid sixties or the eighties, as with the exhibition from 1988, Rafael Montañez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior, Years of the Psyche. What does it bring out for you, seeing your entire career kind of laid out in front of you?
Raphael Montañez Ortiz: I went to that exhibit in awe, frankly, thinking, “I produced that much work?” I was really pleased with myself.
Rail: The exhibition affirms how central you’ve been to a lot of conversations we’re having today about decolonization, about native cultures and traditions, about the importance of institutions and museums and what they can do and what they often do wrong.
Ortiz: It inspired me to fight it through, to get upstream to where we spawned in that Aboriginal space. I’m always asking, “what kind of things do you do to protect your soul?” Way back then, what Europeans became interested in with their colonizing, bringing back the Aborigine and their loin cloths and spears and feeling—
Rail: Right, that kind of appropriation that’s been the center of all colonization.
Ortiz: Exactly. It’s like “discovering” America. It’s that kind of atrocity. Then saying, “We discovered Modern art. Look at all these wonderful patterns and colors. Aren’t we wonderful?”
Rail: Yes, exactly. Or vice versa. That’s been at the crux of your piano destruction concerts, right? It’s not just about the destruction of this elite object, it’s also about thinking of what other sounds can emerge from it.
Ortiz: Exactly, to become familiar with the sounds of sacrifice.
Rail: ”Sounds of sacrifice,” that’s beautiful. Actually, I wonder if you want to talk backwards and think about your most recent projects, and your investigations into potlatch and the research you’ve been doing? I would love to hear you talk more about how you approached this most recent body of work.
Ortiz: I’ve sort of tilted back to the Kwakiutl. You know, for quite a while I was wondering, “but they’re more materialistic, they’re more concerned with prestige in the material sense. I’m searching for something more profound.” And then I realized when I went through all of that period, with the Aboriginal Mystique, that there must be something going on with the Kwakiutl work—the whole idea of destroying and sacrificing. And then I thought, “but wait, I discovered that they were blessed before birth.” They were blessed before birth, they were protected. Already, the soul protection had been taken care of as soon as the procreation process had happened. The protection was built in. So then they’re moving on to more materialist kinds of ideas about the sacrifice, that it was the ego in the sense of whatever id-ness of it there was within the material world, that it was already blessed with all of the spiritual protections. That’s what I missed.
So then I held a potlatch against myself. I became many characters, many spirits. I would do a Kwakiutl short prayer and a certain drumming pattern and so on. And then I would start using my magic, working in the small world of the dollhouse. I would take all these small little pieces of furniture and break them apart and then I would hold them up and put them in a pile and throw glue into it. I said, “There is my potlatch.” And then I would look at my potlatch, and my potlatch was for a certain tribe that I would then represent like a lawyer. I would represent another tribe, and then I would do another, and I would find another dollhouse with lots of doll furniture and so on. And then I would match them. I would say, “This particular tribal group has won in this situation of sacrifice,” and what it means narratively, and so on. Then I would have another potlatch, and I ended up with about twenty-five potlatches. I said, “I understand potlatch now.” Outside that sacrificial world is a material world.
Rail: One of the things people don’t always see in your work is that you’ve always had this playful side that can get overshadowed by what comes across as very masculine destruction. But there’s some really wonderful archival documents that have these jokes in them. There’s this sort of playful absurdity that comes through in the paper bag explosions. That is one of the things that is interesting to consider within your work, that this destruction isn’t always heavy. There can also be a fun and a playfulness to it. Is that something that you want people to see and to come forward?
Ortiz: I think at each level there’s different aspects of the psyche. One of the things a lot of people don’t understand about the Aboriginal culture is that the id is the ego of the Aboriginal culture. That’s why, cognitively, it’s iconic. With icons—that’s where the id resides. And so whatever romantic feelings should be inspired by the Aboriginal culture, that would be exactly the id content finding narrative space, that bounded space within the culture process itself and the creation of culture. The whole idea of being civilized was to take that id and form it into these geometries that then became the ego and superego. The thing is that within Aboriginal culture taboos are very powerful. Letting go of the id was considered a very dangerous thing to do. And so that id then had to be in the sense transferred. Religion has tried to do it in all sorts of ways but it leaves out the physical activity itself as the sort of dominant place where information would be transferred psychosomatically. So all of these rituals and activities were a psychosomatic process that brought about that transformation of the id.
In other words, consider the argument that asks why the Aborigine would hold on to the bow and arrow and the canoe. I mean, when they went out there to meet Columbus, one of the shamans must have said, “Oh shit, we’re fucked.” [Laughter] It’s because the id was inhibiting a lot of the potential of the prefrontal. The id was acquiring more of the power of the prefrontal to serve it. So whatever amount of the prefrontal the Aborigine allowed to move forward in service of the id had a lot of taboo, a lot of boundaries. That’s the thing to understand. That the levels of Aboriginal sacrifice and ritual move within the idea of how much of the id would come to serve the entire psyche, by dominating the prefrontal development.
There was this issue for nearly two million years: the bio brain system architecture permitted certain processes to be maintained psychologically, which is, you know, psychosomatically. The id was still dominating within the idea of sacrifices, within the idea of reconciling oneself with all these forces—like tornadoes and tsunamis and earthquakes—so that if you were doing wrong, you know, your parents would slap you, or God says, “Well, alright, you screwed up so here comes the tsunamis.” That’s the id dominating the psyche. That’s the important key, that to what extent the Aborigine taboos called the prefrontal development to serve the id versus the cultures that collapse into the id so that the id is radically dominating all of the prefrontal potential, then you get all of these horror shows that happen. Rituals become suddenly extreme; there’s torture, and all of that is with the id dominating in order for the prefrontal potential to then do all of this designing.
My work addresses how our id affects narratives, and how those narratives influence patterns of life and death and the notion of the danger to the soul. The danger to the soul is always the id. And so those cultures that maintain the id in a structure that was less successful (in the sense of warfare) were the ones who then could move on. I went through exploring all of the relationships of the id that were more dangerous but civil—if you can think of the notion of civility within instability. The progress then would be these little villages and ponds, that’s where you want it. That’s where you want to go with the material world. You want the ego and you want the superego to dominate. You don’t want the id to dominate the prefrontal development because that’s when you get all of these fiendish kinds of things. The prefrontal brain was just as developed two million years ago as it is today. There’s no difference between the bio brain system architecture of the Aborigine and the bio brain system architecture of the people of the present.
Rail: So much of your work is about breaking down narratives within movies. I think about your film The Kiss from 1986—that what’s supposed to be this romantic quell as they meet together becomes really uneasy because it feels like you can’t actually move forward. The narrative isn’t moving because these motions just keep getting repeated. So they are films, but they’re fragmented like dreams or memories.
Ortiz: Well, the idea is to make you familiar with releasing yourself from time and space and the notion of time and space, which happens in all dreams, but we don’t quite experience it. Sometimes when you dream you’re trying to run and you’re in a bottle of honey. Sometimes you can just let yourself go into the running and actually run backwards or run forward. There are exercises. In other words, there is a performance. There’s a daydream and a sleep dream structure of performance, and the idea is to release from the time and space of the narrative. You might think it’s going forward, but it’s going backwards, or vice versa.
It’s also good to just make friends with the tiger who is going to hurt you, going to gobble you up. In your mind, you say: “Well, go ahead. You’re going to serve me. That’s the arrangement.” Your brother and sister say, “So what happened with the tiger? What happened with the monster?” And if you’re four years of age, explaining the whole thing, and you’ve seen little animals being born because you live in that kind of environment, you become familiar in a psychosomatic sense in service of empowering yourself, because that’s the agreement you’ve made with your creative self. And if it doesn’t empower you, you don’t have to discuss that with your brothers and sisters.
It’s like when you want to get the healing information from the herb. Why did you pick out this herb instead of that herb? Well, that one’s immature; it’s not going to give you all the information. But that one was mature, that one gave you all the information and you got all the information, and did you use it yet? And you say, “No, I haven’t tried to use it.” And then you get empowered by the idea that you can now talk to herbs, you can talk to monsters, and so on, and so on. So you’re empowered by the situation that appears to disempower you. That’s the argument also for the importance of the process. The object is just a monument.
Rail: The object is a monument to the process, and the importance of bringing out those kinds of cultural, personal relationships with objects. To that end, thinking about objects, I was wondering if you could talk about your experience with natural history museums? I know Boricua—Aqui y Alla was at the Museum of Natural History in 1971. You’ve investigated the way natural history museums display objects and relate to culture. I’m curious to hear you talk more about your experience both enjoying and possibly criticizing these spaces.
Ortiz: The Museum of Natural History is one of my favorite places. I mean, believe it or not, my friends and I used to hitch on the back of a bus crosstown and then we’d catch another bus and we’d end up in Central Park, and then through Central Park—you know, throwing things in the lake and whatever—to the Museum of Natural History.
Rail: Your own little chaos before you get there.
Ortiz: Right. Exactly. And at the Museum of Natural History we’d all look at the monsters and everything and all of the bones. That stuff used to fascinate us. I always wandered to the place where the big monsters were, and all the bones that were caught in the mud and were preserved. That’s an important part of being connected. I wanted to be connected to the ancient part of us. And I saw the chimpanzee story of us evolving into sapiens sapiens. That was important to me to have that connection. That was important education for me, to understand that we have something to do with evolution, that whole anthropological attitude. I caught on to that early. You know that, yes, we’ve evolved, and in evolution we’re like a new model each time. And there were about sixteen models of us that failed. You know, just failed, because the bio brain system architecture needed a little more adjustment. And that with those adjustments came greater potential. Finally, to sapiens sapiens. So that’s what that was about. They became places, but not the Met.
Rail: Its partner across the park?
Ortiz: Right. The Met made clear to me, like whenever they were working with silver and gold and all of those, and working from a block of marble carving these figures out, and the argument was that it was there waiting to be released. Someone was giving a lecture on Michelangelo’s angel assembly and they were talking about the block of stone and how the angel was somehow in there, and the angel spoke to the artist and the artist was releasing the angel. I already had these kinds of narratives that I held on to, so when we climbed over the fence in the big yard next to the house, when we climbed over and threw rocks at the glass, for me, I was releasing something from the glass.
The idea behind chopping up the films was that there was something happening inside that scene and I had to open it up, to get inside it. I found that from the hints I got from the movie that I made in the in the fifties, Cowboy and "Indian" Film, (1957–1958). The idea of chopping it up in the Aboriginal sort of place I wanted to be in and again, Hollywood was a clue. Because there was a Hollywood movie where there was somebody playing the tom-toms and it was going to heal this particular Aborigine who is wounded. Hollywood, in a sense, was my first therapist.
Going to the Museum of Natural History was always enlightening. It was always educating, especially when you went to the dioramas. There was a caveman and a woman, huts and so on. It was so photorealistic. That helped also in carrying these ideas into a deeper sense of cognizing, of moviemaking in my imagination.
Rail: There was no sense of the human element of most of the material at the Met because the works are removed and isolated. They’re often mostly displayed for aesthetic kinds of traces. And at that time they didn’t have any of their collection of West African or Oceanic art because that didn't arrive until the late sixties, when Rockefeller donated his collection. So it was very Eurocentric, more so than now. And this is something I don’t think I’ve ever asked you is how Boricua Aqui y Alla came to be at the Natural History Museum instead of El Museo del Barrio? Was it an effort on your part? Or was it a connection that you made?
Ortiz: El Museo del Barrio didn’t have that kind of budget.
Rail: It was a big show.
Ortiz: It was my project, and it was a big project. It was the first project that would transition out of the people’s culture, people’s culture being the apartments, the whole economic, social narrative, how it realized itself, what we would discuss over a meal or shopping at the mall, at the supermarket, or follow a family to a baptism and marriage and all of that. I had five photographers including myself shooting images with nice Nikon 35-mm cameras.
Rail: Yeah, in color too, right?
Ortiz: In color, yes, and shooting for an animation process wherever possible, in other words, doing sequential shooting. I designed it so that it had about eight screens.
Rail: And there were mirrors too, a whole circle—
Ortiz: Right, and because of the whole relationship I had to the Museum of Natural History as a child—that just seemed to be the place. When my mother would take me she liked to spend all the time walking. But in the process, she would talk to me about the Arawak and about the Taíno, she would talk to me about the migration out of Africa, all of those aspects.
Rail: It’s an essential narrative.
Ortiz: Yes, I would say the narrative is even inevitable. The question is, are we in charge of the narrative or not? This is why when someone says, “Ah, it’s a habit, a habit.” Yeah, you could say doing an expressionist painting over and over again is a habit. Let’s say with de Kooning as an example. I’d say this implies a certain kind of cognitive process. There’s a narrative that’s written here, that that we can simply say, oh, it’s an expressionist painting. That’s what expressionist paintings look like. Everything appears to be falling apart. It’s bleeding, shedding—
Rail: Devolving in some ways through paint.
Ortiz: Yeah, but I mean, classicism didn’t do that to women.
Rail: It did other things to women, but not that.
Ortiz: That’s true. The art process is a double-edged sword. It is the process that is the beast in us, and it is the process that is the angel in us.
Rail: Process as being the key thread there.
Ortiz: Right, process. And to understand that within it, the narrative doesn’t remain abstract. The language our psychosomatic process speaks is universal. When someone comes up to you and smiles, if the id is leading that smile, run.
Rail: Your work is not necessarily about the final aesthetic object. It’s about the process we undergo to get there. That’s one of the things I want to highlight from what you just were talking about: the centrality of process for your entire career, from your beginning in art education at Pratt and carrying through in the writing of your dissertation, and in the performances, just how central process is to your career.
Ortiz: Yeah, it’s a doing.
Rail: It is a doing. It’s an action, and that also is a way of moving away from that centrality of the final object that museums and collections and galleries want to hold on to
Ortiz: Well, I agree and disagree.
Rail: How so?
Ortiz: I believe the object is important, otherwise history would have—
Rail: Nothing remains.
Ortiz: History is just an endless supply of little cues that we decipher. Culture is an object. It’s a history, and to what extent do you put together all these pieces? Pretend you’re watching evolutionary anthropologists putting together little pieces of a pot and someone says, “what, what are you doing?” And you say, “this pot is significant of an important culture, important history and important to our existence as a species.” And he says, “Oh, we’re past that. It’s time to examine DNA.” So someone who is taking a little piece of pottery, artwork is like that. Artwork is not working with the aesthetic frameworks that are being pulled together with the DNA.
The differences that we see in cultures, it’s DNA. So you think, wait a second, does that mean that this person is still a chimpanzee brain? No. It means that those areas of the brain from that time are the focus of the psychosomatic fluxes. The arcing of little electric stuff between synapses. It’s DNA. When someone says, “Those people! Those people!” and somebody taps the person and says, “I just completed your DNA. And you’ve got a lot of relatives over there who you’re throwing rocks at.” It’s hurting a lot of your DNA. You’re battering it, you’re bruising it, killing it, your DNA. “Yeah,” you say, “but they don’t have any pots that make any sense to me.” But I say, “they have the same DNA as you, any thoughts on why they chose to run around naked? What’s that about? Having your same DNA, and you have the clothing? What do you think?” You can create an artwork that really opens you up to your roots, you know, upper levels into your bio brain system.
Rail: Right, it needs to go deeper. That makes me think about research. Another thing that I see in a lot of your work is the importance of research, and the deep historical narratives in either the imagery you pull out the theater debris, and the destructions of the Indies, and all of those images, but also that very real violent history of Columbus that your more recent—and a lot of your older work actually—has thought about. Could you talk more about the importance of that research and the importance of your art uncovering and also engaging with these longer histories?
Ortiz: Well, that’s like the idea of the object. They become the fetishes. There are these moments in history that we’re supposed to celebrate, whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur—whatever celebration a culture offers offer us. They are part of the ennobling of faulty cognitive-ness. And because it continues to reaffirm itself—for example if someone tells a lie over and over, what causes someone to believe it? You say well simply because it is repeated over and over and if it wasn’t the truth, why would someone repeat it over and over again? That’s the best way to condition a lie, to repeat it over and over again.
This is one of one of the dilemmas in art, it’s being taught the same way over and over, empty of foundation really, because the foundation is always viewed as some kind of Eurocentric revelation. And it isn’t. It’s arcane, anthropological. It’s evolutionary if you understand bio brain system architecture and how that enables the ability to cognize and what coding is engaged in is at the center of your cognitive-ness, and then how that affects the meanings which you have no idea about, because it’s no different than going into a country and hearing a lot of melodic tones and some are rough and some are harsh, and you have no idea but everyone smiles at you.
That’s why it’s important to do the research, to try to unravel how the id is operating within the cognitive-ness. How is it serving the prefrontal potential for the conscience and for an affirmation of life? I mean the whole idea of family is very important for me and the idea of love is very important. You could say look, these are two tigers and look at how friendly they are, and cuddling and they’re really interested in family and everything. No. It’s not the same idea. They’re not, they have no conscience. This virus that’s infecting us all, there’s no conscience there.
Rail: Because the moment of connection, that moment of seeing those relationships and possibilities with the makers, with the histories, with the memories that are imbued within those objects, is that one of the things that led to the founding of El Museo?
Ortiz: Yes, and to start right at the ground floor. At “the folk’’ level, and give that integrity. We have all sorts of museums, craft museums, we have all kinds of folk, culture museums, and they move into more complex levels, into galleries that also then serve a lot of the folk culture, of all of the crafts and so on, and how then they move up into more complex levels of cognitive-ness. Until finally we’re talking about “Hey, I call that Cubism!” and someone says, "Yeah, but look 1500 years ago. You see the work in these woven fabrics, these aborigines, and we call them uncivilized and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And here we are, believing we discovered what they were doing, although all we see is a surface image, without understanding the cognitive processes that were driving that work and its aesthetic and all that it was saying and potentially able to say, in narrative. So the object is important, but not by itself.
Rail: It needs to be in relationship to both the processes and also the cultures and histories and psychosomatic impact.
Ortiz: Exactly, to make an impact on life itself. To what extent do this culture and its rituals affirm life when they give life? To what extent was protecting spirit causing men to take so much life? Why? When the spirits are more important they’re more valuable, right? What’s missing in the process? And so in art there’s a lot that’s missing. A lot of it is just designs. We could say that’s what happens to a lot of people in their day to day lives. It’s just design.
Somebody is going to say “Geeze, that’s an ugly design.” And somebody else says, yea, look at that design, people are going to trip over everything, it’s a design flaw. "I won’t wear my mask!" it’s a design, and the narrative is screwed up. They’ll say “you’re screwed up!” and they’ll prove it to you by holding out a gun and shooting it, and then they’ll say “I have the right to not wear my mask, even if I take you fucking life!” They have this idea within a narrative of freedom, free will, what happens to free will when it gets all messed up in there? When the id is just sort of dominating. You can say, “well, we have a society that doesn’t educate its people, it just sort of fills them with all sorts of biases and prejudices without explaining anything about the importance.” And they say, “Yeah, it’s our DNA.” One of the first thing we learned was that, hey, we’re all common, you know, out of this soup. It’s called gene juggling. It’s a great circus, the gene juggling circus. There’s a lot of DNA and it is juggling all over the place. It’s a whole different kind of thing when the purpose of your artwork is to mature cognition. How can you teach art so that it matures cognition? Maturing cognition also matures our interpersonal processes, which taken together are called society. It’s all interwoven.