By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
By Zachary Wigon
By Scott Foundas
Gomez-Pena's "Borderstatis: The Many Lives of an End-of-the-Century Bandit" shows the performance artist wearing the many masks of stereotype that the dominant culture affixes on Latinos. He is the Aztec cosmic warrior, dressed as Montezuma with a ray gun; he is a Zapata-like bandito; he is the dangerous, dark, menacing inner-city gangbanger. Throughout "Borderstatis," Gomez-Pena's dry wit and lucid irony make for an entertaining mix, but the work is remarkably poignant as well. The anger of the piece gives way to melancholy: the realization that the situation of racism dooms us all to an ironic stance.
Montano's "Seven Years of Living Art" is perhaps the work most threatened by the cursory observation. Montano is known for marathon projects that dissolve boundaries between life and art: In one performance she was bound to another artist by a rope for one year. In "Seven Years," she follows the chakras of the body as defined by kundalini yoga, from the chakra at the base of the spine (signified by the color red and connected to one's sexuality) on up to the seventh chakra at the top of the head (signified by the color white and connected to spirituality). To each of the seven chakras Montano devotes a year of her life. She wears only red, for instance, during the first year devoted to the first chakra, sits in a red room a number of hours each day and, she remarks without further explanation, has a year that is abundantly sexual.
The literalness of Montano is often tiresome (must that which is so potent as metaphor be made so physically plain?), yet of the works shown in this series, hers is one I suspect will be most talked-about. As Montano dissolves the line between art and life, so too she erases the divide between acts that might be called courageous and those that might be thought absurd. Her narrative passes into our conversations, into our thoughts and dreams, our own impermanence rendered and given attention.
-- Eddie Silva
Dec. 10, 1998, marks the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The Webster University Film Series celebrates with a screening of Poverty Outlaw, an unforgettable glimpse into poverty's human face.
The time is now. The place is Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood: once bustling with factories, now in ruins. Some residents left to look for work elsewhere -- with who knows what result. Others stayed. Poverty Outlaw centers on those who stayed, especially the anonymous narrator. Her story gives this nonfiction film its shape. Its energy and momentum come from the welfare-rights union she helped organize. Its drama comes from the most basic struggle to survive.
Kensington could be anywhere in the world that has lost its economic base of mine, factory, slaughterhouse, steel mill or auto plant. Poverty Outlaw's narrator tells about growing up in Kensington before "the fall." Both her parents worked; together they provided a secure life for their children. When Kensington "fell," she found herself desperately poor. Her ex-husband vanished, leaving her to support two children on a minimum-wage job -- if she could find one.
Like many working-class people who had always worked, the narrator never expected to end up on welfare. With food stamps and Medicaid, the family was better off than with a no-insurance minimum-wage job, but they still could not live. Women who hadn't lost their looks could earn extra income as prostitutes. Others woke up not knowing how they would feed their children each day. Most somehow became "outlaws" to survive. One man devised a new hookup after the electric company cut his power. This film shows compellingly how poverty wastes and misdirects human potential -- to everyone's loss.
The narrator tells how she helped form the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. With poverty their link -- and raising children their common goal -- the poor ironed out their group differences and learned to work together. The story's pivot is a summer when they also lived together in a "tent city" with only a fire hydrant for water. Evicted for falling behind on the rent, they asked the city to let them move into abandoned buildings. They also wanted a long-vacant government building for a child-care center.
Poverty Outlaw's most distinctive feature is that a poor person tells her story and describes Kensington from her own viewpoint. The film also shows Kensington from her viewpoint. I was impressed with the energy, intelligence, love and commitment behind the union. I am haunted by the narrator's voice -- and most of all by all those faces. How different poverty looks in the abstract and in a single face.
Plays at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at Webster University.
-- Susan Waugh
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