Nubia; a performance
about my grandmother
a capstone by Valentina Vela Giraldo
Nubia; a performance about my grandmother is a performance and installation work created from original material, archival footage, and objects from my maternal family. The project began as an exploration of pain. I had for some time felt an excruciating ache in being identified as Colombian. In the year I spent in New York, USA, I felt trapped in identities defined by others. I was 'Latino,' 'Latin American,' 'Spanish,' 'Spanish-speaking,' etc. Sitting at a bar, a man once complimented me by saying, “Colombian women are so beautiful.” I didn’t see myself in that sentence. I felt objectified, trapped and dominated; forced by the colour of my skin and the language in my head to behave in a certain way, to perform a beauty, an exotic persona, a character in a hierarchy of races and cultures that I was not prepared to play. I felt paralysed as I realised I had no language of my own. My English was borrowed and my Spanish was imposed, I was a brown-skinned woman at a bar with no heritage, no history, and no roots to hold on to.
During the 2014 Hemispheric Institute Encuentro in Montreal, Canada, I witnessed a performance by Chilean performance artist Gonzalo Rabanal that brought all my anxieties around language and heritage to surface. I was speechless, enraged, and deeply upset by his piece. In it, Rabanal performed with his father and daughter and told a history of pain and invasion in Chile through his family stories. After wrestling with the piece, I realised that my anger towards it came from the tangible gap between my Colombian family and me, a gap Rabanal did not have. This gap was most evident in the difference in spoken and embodied language between my Spanish child identity and my English adult identity, and it surfaced every time I was identified as 'Latina' and asked, “Why don’t you have an accent?” Deepening my sense of detachment from a 'Colombian identity,' I realised that my concept of what it means to be a “Colombian woman” existed only as childhood memories of the women in my family. It was only through these women and their embodied and spoken language that I would be able to reclaim my heritage. Of all of them, my grandmother Nubia was the one of whom I had the most memories. Her position as family matriarch held our Colombian family together until the day she died in 2005. It became clear to me that my pain was directly related to the death of my grandmother and my separation from her matriarchal home when I left Colombia in 2001.
I decided to return to Cali, Colombia, the city where I was born, and search for the tools to purge my pain. I looked for them in my mother tongue, in the words of my aunts, great aunts, family friends, and in the grave of my grandmother. But instead of pain, I found peace, belonging, and love. I discovered a different texture of my relationship to that place, those people, and my family. I had returned to my country as a grown woman, and was now able to sit at the grownups table, drink the coffee without sugar, and speak Spanish with the other women.
In the performance, the manifestation of memories and dreams about my grandmother reimagine my identity as a Colombian woman and more importantly, as a member of my grandmother’s lineage. In the Spanish words, the smell of coffee, and my family’s objects, I connect to my history, and my heritage is materialised. The 48 hour durational piece takes place in Abu Dhabi, UAE. It is housed in an apartment within NYU Abu Dhabi Residential Colleges in Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE. It is apartment 617 in building B of community A1. The apartment has a kitchen, a living room, a main bedroom, a side room, and two guest bedrooms. For the purposes of the piece, each room holds a different meditation on memory. In the space, tangible elements work as totems connecting ideas and bodies through time and memory. In this way, my grandmother becomes the house, her death is manifested in the field of coffee beans I once dreamt of, a memory of blood exists as earth and plants, my birth lives in a sowing machine, time is a game of Parcheesi, and my mother’s imagined death is my performance.