In the middle of a large garbage dump, surrounded by fog, a figure in a wide pastel pink skirt and long braids dances a vidala, a form of traditional poetry accompanied by music typical of Argentinian folklore.
It's Bartolina Xixa, the Andean “drag folk” character created by Maximiliano Mamaní, who reassesses Argentinian northern folklore from a gender perspective and aims to decolonize it with a focus on indigenous peoples.
In their most recent work, “Dry Little Branch, the Permanent Coloniality,” the artist chose the open-air dump setting of Hornillos, located in the Quebrada of Humahuaca, a region declared as a cultural and natural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2003.
The vidala has plenty of symbolism. Composed by singer-songwriter Aldana Bello, the lyrics explore the topic of mining exploitation and atrocities perpetrated against Indigenous communities:
This vidala I'm singing / Is bleeding with grief and pain / The injustices of centuries / Still stand fierce […] In the Andean zone there are mining [companies] / They pollute dreams / Water, land, everything / [everything] that surrounds them.
Mamaní was born in Jujuy, located in far northwest Argentina, and grew up in the neighboring region of Salta. They study Anthropology at the National University of Salta and work as a professor of folk dance.
With Bartolina Xixa, Mamaní challenges stereotypes found in folk art, in which gender roles perpetuate binary structures that leave out a range of identities. As Mamaní points out in an interview with the Argentine site VOS:
I perform Argentine, Peruvian and Bolivian folk dances. I like folk music, which is why I had the need to reflect on it and on my position as a gay man in it, as I was being denied the opportunity to express myself when it came to build a choreography and make a partner dance…
And they add:
I realized that the same thing was happening to many others, because folklore has been designed from a heterosexual point of view. Certain attributes are given to the male figure, to the gauchos [for example], such as strength, firmness, and courtship. He is the one who leads. Women, meanwhile, are submissive, complacent.
A tribute to an Aymara heroine
Mamaní's social questionings are not limited to the world of folklore — they also address the tendencies that dominate global aesthetics with which “drag” is approached, an aesthetic that the artist says is linked to stereotypes of Western cultures’ notions of the feminine.
Their drag character is a departure from that tendency: Inspired by Bartolina Sisa Vargas, an Aymara leader who rebelled against the Spanish empire and subsequently captured, tortured and murdered in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1782, Mamaní pays tribute to this Andean woman, the “cholita” — “a hardworking woman, head of her household, who goes out to work every day, and who has ties to her family, her community, her ancestors, her traditions.”
In an episode of the podcast “Relatos Disidentes” or “Dissident Chronicles,” from the Salta-based portal, VóVè, Mamaní describes his character:
I usually say that I lend my body to Bartolina Xixa. [A character that] was born from the urgency of being able to think of other ways of doing folklore, another way of understanding identities that cross my own experience and that cross a whole group's experience.
Challenging the construction of Argentine masculinity and the “LGBT-norm”
Mamaní's activism and militancy appeal to social networks — especially Facebookand Instagram — through which to convey provocative messages. The best example is a Facebook post that became known as the “gay kiss,” which went viral on the platform in November 2018.
They shared the post during the pre-game soccer match between Boca Juniors and River Plate soccer clubs, featuring images of Mamaní kissing another man in front of the convent, San Bernardo, in Salta, while wearing the shirts of the rival teams. They declared it the “Super Classic Gay Kiss”:
An extract of the text in the post reads:
The super classic Gay Kiss. We're black, we're from the slums, we're from the countryside, we're poor. We don't have the stereotypical slim body, we're the face that coloniality refuses to acknowledge. We're fags, empowered and subaltern, away from the steretypical “classic” gay [man] […] We live our lives in spaces and memories that are always silenced by the heteronorm and the LGBTnorm […] An Argentine clssic is not Boca vs River. An Argentinian classic is seeing we're stigmatized, insulted, expelled (from our lands), hated, killed.
The post attracted all kinds of reactions and comments of support, rejection, ridicule, admiration, love, and hate from users. Global Voices spoke with Mamaní about the post via WhatsApp:
An interesting thing was seeing how they were attacking us by saying we were not Argentinian […] What they were trying to say is that the face of Argentina is white, is heterosexual, and has no brown or indigenous attributes, nor it has any sexual diversity.
Mamaní acknowledged that he is cautious when he publishes on social networks, aware of how it exposes them to attacks and intolerance. But they do not let attacks and negative criticism interfere with their main goal to disseminate artistic work through their drag persona, Bartolina, in the spirit of environmental, social, political and gender activism.
Mamaní also stressed how they are constantly challenged within the “drag queen scene” and LGBTQ communities of Argentina. Their way of expressing diversity from a “peripheral perspective” — away from the urban centers of power, Mamaní says, is questioned by choosing, instead, a drag character from the aesthetic of Bolivian indigenous culture:
It is not the same to be a white gay [man] from the city than a brown gay [man], with body that is not normative [according the dominant idea of beauty], with an indigenous face, who lives in a community far from all capitalist culture. [Being] gay, poor, from the working class… all of that defines and differentiates [our social] structures [and experiences].