A quick scan of Jose Torres Tama's Faubourg Marigny home reveals a method -- and message -- to the scattered madness of colored chalk, canvases and other tools of his art. An incomplete portrait, commissioned by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, of Rose Nicaud, a self-emancipated 19th century slave who bought her freedom by selling coffee on the riverfront, sits below a dark vision of the AIDS crisis. The portrait is titled Love in a Time of Play. Videotapes capturing Torres Tama's staged performance art pieces, such as The Intervention Project, a damning mockery of racist Southern chain gangs, are stacked nearby.
Though educated in New York City-area art schools in creative writing and drawing, the constantly touring Torres Tama has, since moving to New Orleans 20 years ago, become well known for his performance art. While the medium might vary, Torres Tama's themes of social justice, racism and being an ethnic outsider in pursuit of the American Dream remain true to form.
"In the drawings, poetry and performance art that I pursue, the work always has some commentary," says Torres Tama, who immigrated from Ecuador to New York as a child with his mother. "It's commentary that explores social conditions, with an appeal to artistic form and style."
Torres Tama's "style" has clearly found its home in performance art. The raw, visceral qualities of the form provide the perfect vehicle for his deft blend of anger and optimism. "Torres Tama treads that dangerously vague turf of performance art gracefully Š with dexterity and daring," The Village Voice once observed.
"Performance art is the bastard offspring of the one-night stand between visual art and theater," Torres Tama says. "My background in writing and visual arts evolved into performance art."
Torres Tama's motivation to combine his message with a desire "to advance the form of performance art" is evident in MediAmerica, an ambitious project that debuts this weekend at Ashé Cultural Arts Center. As director, Torres Tama describes the work as "exploring big media's effect on race relations, gender issues and the search for the American Dream." To accomplish this feat, Torres Tama conducted a series of workshops with local artists from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages and races. He calls the push for a diverse cast "a personal initiative" to shake up the status quo among a local arts community he finds disturbingly segregated. Plus, the array of ages and skin tones brings an artistic appeal.
"I'm working with the artists to create the body as symbol, a sculpture as representative of humanity," Torres Tama says.
To establish this desired effect, Torres Tama worked closely with the ensemble, a mix of poets, writers, musicians and visual artists with no experience in performance art. While each participant wrote their own dialogue for MediAmerica, as director, Torres Tama strived to create in each his sensibility of movement as taut with energy and symbolism. Torres Tama achieved this goal, says Valentine Pierce, an African-American poet appearing in the work.
"[Torres Tama] created a language of movement in us," Pierce says. "It really enhances the piece."
In one segment, Pierce circles around Andrew Doss, a younger playwright who in MediAmerica represents white male privilege but desperately wants to break free of this stifling symbol. Doss is in a park, swinging a baseball bat. Pierce walks up, snatches the bat, a tool of play, and transforms it into a weapon, a tool of protection, a move inspired by the realities of her childhood growing up in the Desire housing projects.
While the two actors wrote their lines and together improvised the scene, Pierce says Torres Tama instructed them on the movement, and how to bring deeper meaning beyond the action's surface through posture, gesture and demeanor.
"I've always enjoyed Jose's works because he deals with very intense issues, very personal issues," Pierce says, adding she's seen his performance art for years, in venues ranging from French Quarter streets to the Contemporary Arts Center. "I've loved (creating performance art) because it's where you take a chance on things you've always wanted to but weren't ready enough or bold enough to try."
Pierce's other segments deal with racism within the black community. Other topics explored in MediAmerica are gentrification, rape and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, a segment where the movement is set to music by Jen Douthwaite, a classically trained violinist playing what Torres Tama describes as a "haunting" version of "America the Beautiful." "I've chased the American Dream," Torres Tama says. "As a Latino, I've faced some serious difficulties. But I've transformed myself into an artist. As an artist, I'm using the language of the dominant culture to confront its discriminatory practices, its racial inequalities. It's a language to cultivate one's voice, one's ideas, but in an engaging, artistic manner."