By Sean Metzger
September 2017, dusk: a black woman, hair sculpted into a high coronet on her head with an eye mask of caked white powder and a shimmery navy blue, floor-length dress with a high stand collar, entered the inner courtyard of the Pico House, a historical landmark and once the most lavish nineteenth-century hotel in what is now downtown Los Angeles.1 Constructed at the behest of Pío de Jesús Pico, a businessman who was also the last Mexican governor of Alta California, the Pico House is now a historic monument that reminds visitors of the complicated colonial dynamics that shaped the history of the state. It also stands near the site where a group of Chinese migrants had been lynched in 1871 during one of the city’s periods of civil disorder. The building thus marks a crossroads, an intersection where racial politics have eventuated across time.
On this particular evening, the woman in question, visual artist and performer María Magdalena Campos-Pons, activated this location as a site of memory.2 However, the historian Pierre Nora, who coined the term lieux de mémoire, tends to privilege the national in his writings, and Campos-Pons shifted consideration away from that rubric. She evoked instead the legacies of the coolie network that once linked California, China, and Cuba. Using a stalk of sugar cane to untangle strips of cobalt-colored cloth bundled together (see the back cover of this issue), she incanted several phrases while engaging in slow, seemingly ritualistic movements. Eventually, Campos-Pons offered several gifts to the audience standing before her. A Cuban woman of Chinese and Nigerian descent, Campos-Pons used cane to evoke the plantation system that brought different sets of her ancestors across the Atlantic or the Pacific respectively to the Americas. Many people in the audience could also point to such conjunctions among their kin, as several of us could trace genealogies to the labor attendant to and surrounding the cultivation of sugar.3 As anthropologist Anna Tsing has written, globalization is a history of social projects that might be traced through the “sticky materiality of practical encounters” that might “give grip to universal aspirations.”4 In this case, the performance referenced the harvesting and shipping of sugary substances [End Page xiii] now and in the past: the manufacture of a global sweet tooth on the backs of African and Asian laborers.5 Campos-Pons complicated the site in which she moved, suggesting how it might have been transected by flows of people and goods that the official narratives of Pico House did not highlight in the colonial archive they detailed.
By conducting this performative opening for the “Circles and Circuits II: Contemporary Chinese Caribbean Art” exhibition with an embodied repertoire that supplemented dominant histories, Campos-Pons identified and helped to construct a community that included a number of scholars, artists, patrons, and spectators invested in the residue of cultural contact across and beyond the Antillean archipelago. Indeed, the artwork and those who produced and/or commented on it addressed questions about Chinese flows in and through the Caribbean from a number of different perspectives: insular (analyzing an individual island or a comparison of islands); archipelagic(following Édouard Glissant’s theorization of rélation and its reverberations in his contemporaries as well as more recent turns); diasporic; and hemispheric.6 All of these ways of seeing Campos-Pons’s performance would highlight specific aesthetic, familial, racial, and regional connections that it rendered legible. Nevertheless, despite the utility of all these methodological approaches, something else seemed to emerge from those moments that none of these analytical tools quite captured for me. For example, Campos-Pons’s multiple minoritarian subject positions as Asian and black and Latinx within the context of the places she has lived (Canada, Cuba, and the United States) opened a different mode of conceptualizing cultural contact, one that evokes both nation-states and regions (like the Caribbean or the Western hemisphere) but also exceeds them. Individuals like Campos-Pons might further identify with multiple diasporas that become meaningful in relation to particular conditions. As one illustration, the Chinese elements integrated into her work trace back to her own ancestry and the opportunity she had to explore it at the third Guangzhou Triennial (2008). As Campos-Pons revealed through her staged actions, the sound of a minority voice depends on shifting contexts that enable one to hear it, including the relative power of nation-states and the soft-power maneuvers that focus attention on, in this case, Chinese Caribbean art.
Here, I take Campos-Pons’s embodied engagement with her heritage and the larger structures of migration that have shaped it as an iteration of what I term “minor Asias.” Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih’s edited volume Minor Transnationalism argues compellingly for the need to explore what they called the “transversal relationships” [End Page xiv] that move above and below the scale of the national, and what one might call the “continental.”7 In a more recent gloss on the legacy of this work, Shih has written of “the alternative circuits of knowledge through the minor-to-minor transnational relationalities that have been erased, or at best ignored, in history.”8 The performance at Pico House pushed in this direction, although Campos-Pons did not engage in some spectacular reclamation. Consistent with her live art more generally, she did not have her show advertised. Campos-Pons told me that she does not want to confuse her performance with entertainment. Instead, she intends her performances to provoke consideration of the “mystery of oneself and others” and to work against recuperative logics that are often harnessed for capitalism.9 Minor Asias attempts to provide a theoretical framing for this kind of performance practice and the ways in which transnational circulations have produced Asia anew in an era of globalization, not as its handmaiden, but as a means to think through its elisions and contradictions.
In full disclosure, my quest for such a paradigm emerged in part from seeing Campos-Pons’s artwork as a way to fuse and advance several of my own scholarly concerns in my first and second books, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race and The Chinese Atlantic: Seascapes and the Theatricality of Globalization. In other words, her work provides a model to think about the surface encounters produced through transnational flows of aesthetics, ideas, goods, money, and people, and to think about shifts of scale from an individual to populations. The performances of Campos-Pons provide a corporeal vehicle for conceptualizing new ways that Asia might produce meaning intra-regionally as well as more globally. In this regard, Campos-Pons’s work as an instantiation of Minor Asias revises earlier constructions like the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere imposed by Japan to the Asian Values discourse deployed by Malaysia and Singapore. Rather than hegemonic discourses of political strength and capital accumulation spreading out from a center, Minor Asias promises to expose more lateral configurations that link phenomena that have either been historically repressed (like the coolie network) or that have only recently (re)emerged, such as the presence of what we would today call “gender nonconforming artists” from Korea.
To guide us to such phenomena, I turn once more to Campos-Pons. The front cover of this issue of Theatre Journal is her El Mensajero (The Messenger, 2011). The composite image consists of twelve large-format 20”x24” Polaroids.10 The artist herself appears [End Page xv] in a dress she procured, with her body turned away from the camera. The silhouette she enacts might remind viewers of the work of her fellow Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta as well as the family portraits of Carrie Mae Weems, with which Campos-Pons’s body of photographic art has been compared.11 Campos-Pons’s photo performance also riffs on her own work—specifically, the creation of the character FeFa (“FeFa stands for ‘familiares en el estranjero’ [FE] and ‘family abroad’ [FA]”) that Campos-Pons introduced into her oeuvre in 2012.12 In El Mensajero, Campos-Pons poses in an outfit designed to reference Chinese imperial robes. The numerous red-crowned cranes on the fabric as well as throughout the image connote longevity and prosperity specifically within Chinese mythology, but also across other Asian mythic traditions. Within Daoism, cranes also indicate transformation; in Japan, orizuru, or paper cranes, frequently connote peace. Given that FeFa frequently appears as a herald, this messenger likely brings similar tidings.
However, the female image of El Mensajero also amalgamates cultural practices that move beyond a geographically bound understanding of Asia as a reference point. The white makeup that covers her hands and that is a signature in her performances comes from Campos-Pons’s home province in Cuba. Critics have read her application of it as a local accommodation of Santería rituals that use cascarilla (eggshell powder) to purify bodies of negative energy and ward off harm. Birds have also featured in Campos-Pons’s other series like Nesting(2000), in which the artist’s own braided tresses and extensions become the raw material for various avian creatures to construct a home. Building on such designs, FeFa has appeared with elaborate birdcages as headdresses. In El Mensajero, the floral crown with translucent veil is slightly more modest, but it still implies organic matter that might link back to particular places where such things as particular species of flowers might be sourced, even as the image as a whole decontextualizes them. This new feminine figure, then, might suggest an African trader in a world of Asian signifiers, as much as an Afro-Asian-Cuban artist in some American studio, as much as a vehicle of syncretic spiritual traditions from various parts of the world. How audiences identify with what they see depends on the lexicons to which they have access and their capacity to imagine the combination of these artistic components constructing non-hegemonic visions of Asia, visions that prioritize purposeful affiliation and the messiness of cultural mixing.
Following the above logic, Campos-Pons’s messenger might guide us to our first essay. Ali Na’s “Siliconicity: Yozmit and Performing a Trans Asian Horizon” investigates the performances of Yozmit, a trans* Korean artist whose work incorporates siliconicity (a reading and performance practice that relies upon the materiality and metaphoricity of silicone) to articulate new iterations of queer futurity, or what Na more specifically elaborates as a “trans Asian horizon.” The use of plastic surgery within Korean beauty culture has become commonplace. Na presses on this assertion, asking what happens when an artist deploys the now mundane use of silicone in Korea not to enhance the feminine, but to hold it in abeyance. Building on the use of one’s own body in performance (somewhat akin to the techniques of Campos-Pons, but with a more extreme process and results), Yozmit destabilizes the human body as given, organic material. Exposing culture and gender as radically malleable through technology (and [End Page xvi] an accompanying bit of gumption), Yozmit illustrates the power of minor Asia (or a minoritarian Asian) to challenge dominant assumptions that structure gendered lives.
Chiayi Seetoo’s essay “Between the Visible (youxing) and the Invisible (wuxing): Zhang Xian, Zuheniao, and the Minor Performance Praxes in Contemporary China” follows, reminding us that the radical is always contingent. Her essay returns us to some of the initial theoretical writings by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri on Franz Kafka that ground Lionnet and Shih’s notion of minor transnationalism. Moving from Deleuze and Guattari’s emphasis on national consciousness as arbiter of the minor, Seetoo shifts more generally to power relations in order to think beyond the minor in ethnic terms. She looks instead at what she calls “minor performance praxes” in China with a spotlight on Zhang Xian and his direction of the collective Zuheniao. Illuminating specific examples of their work—Tongue’s Memory of Home (2005), Left Cheek (2007), and Stupid, Dance! (2010)—the essay argues that Zhang’s work exposes the micropolitics of individual subjectivities during a period between the hegemonic socialist-state production system and the rule of hegemonizing market forces that have more recently taken hold in China. Minor here does not challenge China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han, in terms of its centrism; rather the minor offers alternatives to, on the one hand, the aesthetic practices thought appropriate to state ideology and its mundane materializations, and on the other the pressures of global capitalism on the arts.
While both Na’s and Seetoo’s essays think with their respective artists to discuss how performance practice might be generative for creating new ways of inhabiting the world, the third essay in this issue reveals theatre’s capacity to limit minor expressions. Asif Majid’s “Imagining Bradford: Islam, Space, and Anxiety in Multitudes and Combustion” offers a lucid analysis of two contemporary British plays, Asif Khan’s Combustion and John Hollingworth’s Multitudes, through Doreen Massey’s theorization of space. Majid links the plays because of their portrayal of the industrial city of Bradford as a site of multiculturalism and a civilizational clash between the West and Islam. The plays render the dynamism of British Muslim life static, thus furthering a number of Orientalizing effects that the essay elaborates.
If one of the problems of depicting Bradford is the reduction of the multiplicity of its South Asian populations to the Other, the final essay in this issue attempts to find a new discourse for approaching the articulation of cultural affiliations and cultural specificities within settler colonial and neocolonial relations. In “Decoloniality and Contemporary Asian Theatre in New Zealand,” Cynthia Lam and Rand Hazou discuss Asian Kiwi theatre-makers and the ways in which selected performances articulate relationships to land and to Indigenous Māori. The analysis focuses on three productions—Renee Liang’s The Bone Feeder, Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen’s The Mooncake and the Kumara, and Alice Canton’s OTHER [chinese]—that each address different facets of migration history. The essay offers a decolonial approach that interrogates the relationships among Asian, Māori, and white populations in Aotearoa during the last several years.
2020 will likely be remembered as a year in which our understandings of human connections have shifted with the rise of COVID-19 and the reactivation of Black Lives Matter protests on a heretofore unseen scale. In curating the essays for Minor Asias and placing them in dialogue with the work of María Magdalena Campos-Pons, I insist on Minor Asias as an intersectional and transnational critical paradigm. Especially during the current collision of the pandemic with calls for racial justice, we need such [End Page xvii] frameworks to help elucidate the complexities of racism and inequity. To further such ideas, I have curated several conversations with performance-makers in the online-only supplementary material to the journal. Sarah Lewis-Cappellari engages Campos-Pons to contextualize her work in more detail and add the artist’s own voice to the introductory comments I have offered here. In a separate interview, David Yee, the artistic director of fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company talks with me about coalition building before and after the pandemic, given that fu-GEN had to postpone a major festival and conference originally set for this past May. I also have the pleasure of sharing with readers my discussions with performance artist, activist, and elected official Kristina Wong. Although Wong’s theatrical tour was also cancelled, she adapted by creating the Auntie Sewing Squad, which has responded to the pandemic by creating thousands of masks for those who need them and sending supplies to several Hopi and Navajo seamstresses. Our wide-ranging conversation covers this transition as well as other aspects of her career, including issues from anti-black racism within Asian American communities to teaching children about social justice.
In addition to these explicit engagements with the theme of Minor Asias, our book review section also features material that advances this special issue’s topic. Tarryn Li-Min Chun’s discussion of Rossella Ferrari’s Transnational Chinese Theatres explores relational structures and, in some ways, expands the specific case study that Chiayi Seetoo’s essay offers (the review also includes a great playlist that readers can access via YouTube). Taarini Mookherjee focuses on Aparna Dharwadker’s A Poetics of Modernity (a massive text that offers a selection of Indian theatre theory from India from 1850 to the present), which answers the call in Majid’s essay to have a more complex understanding of South Asia. Dharwadker’s ambitious text includes work translated from ten languages emphasizing the continuities and disjunctions among different traditions. Lisa Morse expands the geographic contours of Minor Asias with a look at Jennifer Goodlander’s Puppets and Cities; the text examines southeast Asian puppetry across Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Ashley Thorpe lends a critical eye to Nancy Yunhwa Rao’s Chinatown Opera Theater in North America, which further tracks the reach of Chinese theatrical work in disparate locations across not only the United States, but also Canada, Cuba, and Mexico. Rao’s work further destabilizes a notion of hegemonic Chineseness with a focus on Cantonese opera; the hubs of performance that she analyzes returns us to the Caribbean examples with which I began.
The performance review section also increases the range of Minor Asias. Vivian Huang’s appraisal of Celine Song’s Endlings brings readers back to Korea, where gender is also a focus, albeit in a very different manner than Yozmit’s performances. Jenna Gerdsen’s take on Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl considers topics such as collaborations among Asian diasporic women and anti-black Asian racism. As our interviews have also suggested, theatre and performance practice are actively creating work that might productively contribute to Minor Asias as an analytic.
As a last note, I would like to extend heartfelt thanks to all the contributors, reviewers, and especially the editorial team of E.J., Patrick, Jason, Margherita, Bob, and Carla. Special commendation is also due to D.J. Hopkins, ATHE’s outgoing Vice President for Research and Publications. We have collectively produced this issue working through an extraordinarily difficult and uncertain period. I have been reaffirmed through this process that, when we work together, we can persevere through the most daunting of times. [End Page xviii]
1. Those familiar with this artist’s oeuvre would immediately recognize hair as an explicit signifier, particularly in relation to work from the series “When I am Not Here/Estoy Allá.” She has discussed its significance in one of her interviews; see William Luis, “Art and Diaspora: A Conversation with María Magdalena Campos-Pons,” Afro-Hispanic Review 30, no. 2 (2011): 158.
2. Historian Pierre Nora argues that a site of memory, or “lieu de mémoire,” designates “any significant entity . . . which . . . has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community”; see Nora, Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, vol. 1: Conflicts and Divisions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), xvii.
3. I knew many of the audience members’ ethnic backgrounds, because the gathering brought together many people I already knew, including several folks who had participated in the work group “Performing Asian/Americas: Converging Movements” convened by Beatrice Glow, Lok Siu, Alice Jim, and Jack Tchen at the IX Encuentro (2014) held in Montreal. I had also been commissioned to write for the Circles and Circuits catalog; although the list of participants had not been finalized at that time, I had familiarized myself with many of the artists in advance of the opening.
4. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 1.
5. My thoughts on sugar have been greatly augmented by the work of Sarah Lewis-Cappellari; she is exploring the world’s sweet tooth as focalized through art in her dissertation “Tasting Race: On the Performance of Sugar and the Alchemy of Sweetness.”
6. I have elaborated many of these paradigms in a series of overlapping writings. My first turn toward the “minor” was published as Sean Metzger, “Chineseness in Caribbean Cinema,” sx salon 17 (October 2014), available at http://smallaxe.net/wordpress3/discussions/2014/10/22/chineseness-in-caribbean-cinema/. At the same time, I was working on developing the seascape as an analytical frame; a preliminary version of that idea also appeared in 2014 in an edited collection (Hilary Kahn, ed., Framing the Global [Bloomington: Indiana University Press]), but was further developed in my monograph, The Chinese Atlantic: Seascapes and the Theatricality of Globalization (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020). My collaborative investigation of insularity also surfaced in 2014; see Sean Metzger, Francisco-J. Hernández Adrián, and Michaeline Crichlow, “Islands, Images, Imaginaries,” Third Text 28, nos. 4–5 (2014): 333–43. For a précis of my thoughts on diaspora and Asian American hemispheric analysis, see the theoretical overview section in my “Unsettling: Towards a Chinese/Cuban Cultural Critique,” Cultural Dynamics 21, no. 3 (2009): 318–20. For more recent iterations of archipelagic thought, see Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens, eds., Archipelagic American Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
7. Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih’s edited collection Minor Transnationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005) thus offers a paradigm that does not fully align with Lisa Lowe’s exceptionally productive work The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), which is nevertheless useful to invoke here given its concerns with transnational exchange and relationships facilitated in particular through the coolie. Minor Asias also flags scholarship in transnational Asian performance studies from “Minor-Native” epistemology in Eng-Beng Lim, Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias (New York: NYU Press, 2013) to elaborations of method (Hentyle Yapp, Minor China: Affect, Performance, and Contemporary China in the Global [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021]).
8. These thoughts were part of her reflection on a special journal issue that considered the afterlives of Lionnet and Shih’s work; see Shu-mei Shih, “Afterword: A Poetics of the Minor,” Cultural Dynamics 32, nos. 1–2 (2020): 132.
9. María Magdalena Campos-Pons, personal communication with the author, June 7, 2020.
10. On the use of photography in the oeuvre of Campos-Pons, see Lisa D. Freiman’s “María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Everything is Separated by Water” and Okwui Enwezor’s “The Diasporic Imagination: The Memory Works of María Magdalena Campos-Pons,” in Freiman, ed., María Magdalena Campos-Pons: Everything Is Separated by Water (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 12–62, 64–89.
11. See Freiman, 30; Enwezor, 83.
12. “Becoming FeFa,” Atlantica 57, available at http://www.revistaatlantica.com/en/project/becoming-fefa/.