Anyone entering the rotunda of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History on Saturday was confronted with a temporary "exhibit" that, as the day went by, elicited equal parts amusement, anger and confusion.
Just to the left of the elephant stood a huge gilded cage, with padlocks on the door, in which were displayed a man and woman billed as "undiscovered aborigines" from the island of Guitinau in the Gulf of Mexico. He wore a feathered headdress and mask, sunglasses, patterned shorts, a chest plate hung with silver beads, and leather boots; she was adorned with green and yellow face paint, a long black wig, sunglasses, a grass skirt, a leopard-print bikini top, assorted necklaces and headbands made of shells and teeth, and black sneakers. They spent the hours pacing back and forth, eating fruit and drinking Coke Classic and Poland Spring water, experimenting with the playthings in their cage -- a laptop computer, a boombox, binoculars, a VCR and TV showing "Dances With Wolves."
Docents stationed in front of the exhibit invited spectators to have their picture taken with the couple (and receive a Polaroid souvenir), to request a native dance or story (her dance turned out to be a listless back-and-forth bouncy affair, his story an unintelligible outpouring accompanied by the handling of a rubber snake). They also encouraged people to avail themselves of the printed information under a pair of glass pedestals at either end of the cage.
"It's very important to read the material to get the anthropological context," one of the docents announced repeatedly, alluding to a semi-impenetrable text chronicling the history of "aboriginal samples" in circuses, zoos, museums and fairs beginning with Columbus, who displayed an "Arawak from the Caribbean ... in the Spanish court for two years -- until he died of sadness." What she didn't explain was that she herself was a performer, and that the "aborigines" were in fact performance artists Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco, presenting the D.C. premiere of "The Year of the White Bear," one of Gomez-Pena's "counter-quincentenary" projects.
Those who recognized the "exhibit" as both fiction and political commentary could not help but be astounded by the artists' accomplishment. But after hearing several perplexed museum-goers ask questions like "Is it real?" "Are they actors?" "Why are they in a cage?" and "How can they exhibit people like things or artifacts?" -- and listening to the "docents" keeping up the fiction and chatting with these frustrated observers as they walked away -- I wondered about Gomez-Pena's ultimate goals. If educating the average citizen about 500 years of cultural wrongdoing was part of the plan, I'm not sure he succeeded entirely.
Gomez-Pena and Fusco will perform "New World (B)order," a companion piece to "The Year of the White Bear," Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. at Dance Place. Both works were commissioned by the Washington Performing Arts Society and GALA Hispanic Theatre.