Discussing Laura Anderson Barbata’s Costumes & Transdisciplinary Art Practice

by Colette Copeland July 1, 2022
Sketch of a costume in process

A costume sketch. Courtesy of the artist

Laura Anderson Barbata is a Mexican transdisciplinary artist. As I was researching her work, I wondered about her use of “trans” and how the term differed from an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary artist. As she explained to me, her work embraces “the concept of transcending borders, not just geographic, but also with her medium and techniques.”

For the past thirty years, she has combined her artistic and social practice to create exchanges with various local and global communities. The projects are about bringing communities together over shared concerns, out of a desire to build long-term meaningful relationships. I had the pleasure of attending a production of Amphibian Stage’s Marie Antoinette in Fort Worth, prior to a conversation with Barbata about her use of symbolism in costume design and her overall creative practice. 

 

Colette Copeland (CC): After reading about your transdisciplinary art practice that addresses themes of social justice and the environment within the context of global collaborations, Marie Antoinette seems a curious choice for subject matter. How did this project come about and what interested you about this story?

Laura Anderson Barbata (LAB): I have worked with Amphibian Stage in the past on numerous projects, including The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quijote; The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World; and Leonce and Lena. It is always a great pleasure to work with them. So when I was approached by Director Jay Duffer, I jumped at the opportunity to work with their incredible team. David Adjimi´s script moved me and challenged me to delve into the psychological landscape of the characters, while supporting the narrative through costuming. I am interested in the way clothing and hair can communicate the political, social, emotional, and psychological states of the characters. Plus, I love theater!

Photo of a man dressed in a white costume wearing an elaborate fluffy hat

Production still from “Marie Antoinette.” Photo: Evan Michael Woods

CC: I love what you said about how clothing and hair have the power to communicate on multiple levels. Your innovative, contemporary costume designs added not only to the visual aesthetic of the production, but also to the symbolism of the play. Playwright Adjmi challenges us to think about Marie Antoinette beyond the superficiality of her actions. As Marie struggles in prison, stripped of her royal power, the play examines issues of morality, social class, and accountability for one’s actions. I find it fascinating that you incorporated layering quite literally into the designs. This serves a practical purpose for the actors to avoid time-intensive costume changes, but also functions as a metaphor for the shift in Marie’s character as the play progresses. I am especially enamored with the sheep costume and the brief glimpse of its transformation into the wolf. The cotton candy-colored wigs in the first scene are also fabulous — ridiculous in their height, while also referencing spectacle, the opulent fashion of the time. What concepts inspired you with the costume designs?

LAB: Jay provided the guidance. His vision was for the opening scene to be opulent, to show excess and over-the-top wigs, all of which would be transformed as the play unfolded. He wanted us to be able to witness Marie Antoinette´s unraveling. The costume layering is a very important aspect of the narrative, especially as it is utilized in reverse. We see Marie Antoinette slowly being stripped away from everything as the play evolves–from her three-tiered cotton candy wig to all the layers that compose her outfits. For the opening scene, I was inspired by the excessive sweetness — airy textures and pastel colors of cotton candy — to create Marie´s and her friends’ super tall wigs.

The use of color throughout also has an important role. As the play unfolds, the color palette evolves, slowly darkening, and the color red begins to appear and grow with intensity as Marie´s layers are shed. The Sheep is a fascinating character filled with symbolism. I love the way the playwright transforms the Sheep into a Wolf; and the way Jay directed this scene turns it into a moment of profound psychological and emotional tension from which Marie Antoinette cannot escape. This project began in 2019 and was put on hold because of COVID when all theaters were shuttered. During lockdown, I continued working and developing the designs for this project with the assistance of the fashion designer Matthieu M.

Photo of three women acting on a stage wearing elaborate costumes with tall headpieces

Production still from “Marie Antoinette.” Photo: Evan Michael Woods

CC: It was interesting how you used the color red to add to the emotional intensity as the play progressed. At first, red is only visible through the layers of Marie’s costume, but at the climatic moment of her psychological crisis, her gown is covered with embroidered red flowers. The lighting and sound also contributed to create a palpable tension on stage. I read that you also did costume designs for the Fort Worth Opera. In addition to your work with the Amphibian Stage, what is your connection to Fort Worth and/or Texas? 

LAB: I was invited by the Fort Worth Opera to work on a project in 2019. I was actually the scenographer for the premier of Companionship by Rachel J. Peters, directed by Beth Greenberg. But my relationship with Fort Worth goes way back. One of my favorite collaborators is Kati Culebro, the Artistic Director of Amphibian Stage. She is always looking for creative and challenging projects that can offer a new lens through which we can look at ourselves and our world. She fosters a supportive environment to aid artists in their vision, so I am always eager to work with her. She also happens to be my sister! I have worked with Amphibian as a Costume Designer since the early 2000s. Then, in 2008 I brought my collaborators, the Brooklyn Jumbies, with me to help start Amphibian’s Tad-Poles stilt dance program. Since then, we have performed at public schools, community centers, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and dozens of other locations together. In April of this year, we were part of the Dallas Arts District Changing Perspectives events. 

CC: Will you please tell us about the intersections of your visual art practice and your costume design projects. 

Sketch of a costume in production

A costume sketch. Courtesy of the artist

LAB: I have worked with textiles for a number of years. I am interested in the metaphors and symbolism contained in weaving traditions, as well as the historical significance of color and dyes.  I also am interested in the way in which textiles move; how a shape can be expanded and take up more space through movement. Textiles and clothing have the capacity to communicate the political, social, emotional, and psychological states of individuals as well as groups. As an artist I love creating works that integrate these histories and readings, as well as the materiality of the medium itself. 

CC: In reading articles about your work, your projects span many years and extend beyond the traditional art context. You’ve stated many times that the work is about building relationships. In the interview you did with Madeline Murphy Turner on MoMA’s site, you speak about “building bridges of dialogue, collaboration and exchange.” Your Transcommunality Project started in 2002 in Trinidad and Tobago, and expanded into Brooklyn, New York, and also into Oaxaca, Mexico. You’ve worked with traditional stilt dancer groups, designing costumes and facilitating cultural exchanges with many performers and artisans. It is compelling to read about these shared and culturally unique practices and the collaborations you’ve fostered. Looking back over the past twenty years, what are some of the most important key-learning moments and/or aspects to this project?

LAB: I believe that one of the most important aspects of my work is reciprocity. In essence, this is at the heart of all healthy human relationships: we nurture, learn, create bridges of dialogue, and as creative people we collaborate. It is through those types of exchanges we that learn from each other respectfully. As I look back over these last 20 years — or 30 years, if you go back to my work in the Amazon Rainforest — I am reminded that the most beautiful thing we can create — and sustain — are collaborative relationships that enable all participants to grow and flourish

CC: Your project Intervention: Indigo, which began in 2015 with the Brooklyn Jumbies and expanded into Mexico City in 2020 just before the COVID lockdown, explores themes of police violence against QTBIPOC people and “demands visibility, recognition and justice for all Afro-descendant and BIPOC communities.”  Please tell us more about this project and your plans for expanding it to other communities.

Image of two individuals performing, one in front of the other

Production still from “Marie Antoinette.” Photo: Evan Michael Woods

LAB: My process is very slow. It took several years for me to go from the idea, the concern, the burning need, to the creation of each individual character and then the collective action of the intervention. Racism and violence towards QTBIPOC people is ongoing. Sadly, for this reason, Intervention: Indigo continues to be relevant. The project has been exhibited in numerous venues in cities across the United States and Mexico: Brooklyn, New Orleans, Albuquerque…In each of the museums, the work has been accompanied by an extensive outreach and education program. I am currently working on taking all of the experiences I have learned from this project and using them to expand it. It is our responsibility to raise our voices against all forms of discrimination and violence. We cannot — must not — remain silent. 

CC: I agree that outreach and educational programming is crucial to sustaining lasting change in the community. The intervention brings initial awareness, but change happens over time. Art can be such a powerful tool and catalyst in this process. You are about to embark on a project in Chile. What will you do there?  

Photo of a performer on stilts in a plaza in Oaxaca

“Transcommunality,” 2012, Laura Anderson Barbata in collaboration with the Brooklyn Jumbies and Los Zancudos de Zaachila. Zaachila, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Marco Pacheco

LAB: It is a very exciting project that we have been working on for several months with LA_ESCUELA. I am honored to have been invited to teach a workshop and work with Ciudad Abierta, the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaiso, and the School of Architecture and Design and Film School of the University of Valparaíso. Over the last few months, we have been creating networks of dialogue between communities from the mountain range all the way to the fishing village of Valparaiso. As a collective project, we have been working with community groups, environmentalists, activists, artists, and public schools to create platforms for dialogue to address pressing environmental challenges in the area.

In addition, we will symbolically represent this dialogue and collaboration through a three-day, 75-kilometer sculptural procession with community participants and students from the various collaborating universities who have constructed giant moving sculptural shapes inspired by nature. The processional walk will originate at the mountain range and make its way to the sea, with intermittent stops at schools and community centers where various activities will take place.   

CC: This sounds like an amazing project — working collaboratively with so many disparate groups towards the common goal of creating solutions for environmental changes. Thank you for taking the time to speak about your practice with me. 

 

Marie Antoinette ran from June 1-26 on the Main Stage at Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth.

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