“This is a primer for those ready and sturdy enough to take real action.”Dennis Hiebert, Geez magazine
Performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco started their “The Couple in the Cage” tour five hundred years after Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. For two years, they travelled through various Western metropolises, presenting themselves as undiscovered Amerindians from an island in the Gulf of Mexico that had somehow been overlooked for five centuries. They called their homeland Guatinau and themselves Guatinauis.
Exhibited in a cage, the couple performed “traditional tasks,” which ranged from sewing voodoo dolls to watching television. A donation box in front of the cage indicated that for a small fee, the female Guatinaui would perform a traditional dance (to rap music), the male Guatinaui would tell authentic Amerindian stories (in a made-up language), and they would both pose with visitors. At the Whitney Museum in New York, sex was added to the spectacle when visitors were offered a peek at “authentic Guatinaui male genitals” for five dollars.
Next to the cage were two official-looking guards ready to answer visitors’ questions, feed the Guatinauis, and take them to the bathroom on leashes. In addition to the authority of the guards, an institutional framework was evoked by didactic panels listing highlights from the history of exhibiting non-Western peoples and a simulated Encyclopedia Britannica entry with a fake map of the Gulf of Mexico showing Guatinau.
Aside from the authority provided by the various museum venues, everything on display was blatantly theatrical and clichéed: the Guatinauis had their skulls measured, were fed bananas, and were described as “specimens,” among other things.
The performances were filmed and compiled in a documentary titled The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey. Whereas the couple was the object on display during the live performance, the audience became the object on display during the documentary. While Fusco and Gómez-Peña adopted the roles of the caged natives, they were simultaneously scrutinizing the audience’s responses. And what they found was surprising: Despite their intent to create an over-the-top satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive Other, it turned out that a substantial portion of the audience believed in the authenticity of the Guatinauis.
In an article about the performance, Fusco argues that the audience’s immediate response reveals their fundamental beliefs: “In such encounters with the unexpected, people’s defense mechanisms are less likely to operate with their normal efficiency; caught off-guard, their beliefs are more likely to rise to the surface.”
Seemingly making the same assumption, the documentary presents the audience’s reactions as indirect proof that racist beliefs — non-Western people are primitive, inferior, and essentially different from Western people — permeate our postcolonial society. Whether or not this is true, The Couple in the Cage persuasively argues that colonial ideas continue to influence our approach to non-Western cultures.
It was nearly impossible to respond “appropriately” to the display of the caged couple. What would have been the ideal audience reaction? To laugh? To appear indifferent and stone-faced? To turn away in disgust? Interact with (or try to free) the couple? There seemed to be no appropriate response, even if the audience caught on to the inauthenticity of the Guatinauis and got the ironic critique of similar displays from centuries past.
The Couple in the Cage was an ironic reenactment of the imperialist practice of displaying indigenous peoples in public venues such as taverns, museums, World Expos, and freak shows. By performing “The Couple in the Cage” in various museums, Fusco and Gómez-Peña were exposing the racism, colonialism, and voyeurism of the frame in which they appeared.
The performance is an example of silent eloquence. It said it all — colonialism, primitivism, the myth of the noble savage, exoticism — without explicitly stating anything. Viewers were left to draw their own conclusions.
Before the audience could fully digest and come to terms with the show, their responses (via video) were turned into a show for another audience.
When the audience seemed to enjoy the same colonial exhibition practice that the performance meant to critique, it added some unintended irony. Yet Fusco and Gómez-Peña were quick to seize the audience’s misinterpretation and turn it into the focal point of the performance.