by Joanna Lugo
bell hooks once wrote, “There is a particular knowledge that comes from suffering. It is a way of knowing that is often expressed through the body, what it knows, what has been deeply inscribed on it through experience.” As a performer in Kate Gilmore and Heather Rowe’s exhibition Only In Your Way, I was both honored and burdened to be a physical labor representative of a larger reality of the corporeal oppression that women often experience in everyday life.
The first time I entered the catwalk, the presidential inauguration had just occurred and the Women’s March was upon us. The political climate was, and still continues to be, toxic and detrimental to marginalized groups in our society. With the state of our world in mind, I began the physical and emotional journey of performing in Only In Your Way.
The most grueling aspect of the performance happened on the catwalk while listening to the repetitive sound of Whitney Houston crying out, “I will only be in your way.” This statement – coupled with the physicality of walking for four hours while holding an awkward sculpture and interacting with structures that had reflective materials displaying fragmented versions of the body – caused a negative reaction within me and served as a constant reminder of the labor of being a woman. Often, we are fed this very narrative that as women we are not to take up space, not to speak out, and not to be an obstacle in anyone’s way. For me, the emotional and mental challenges I experienced during the performance brought me back to a space of inferiority.
But that was not the end of the story for me. I returned to the space armed with positive and powerful words to combat negative tropes and to use performance art as a form of activism. One way I coped with the time was to think of the catwalk as a deconstructed labyrinth. Many believe that modern day labyrinths are sacred mazes on a path to self knowledge, self discovery, self love, and enlightenment. When in the maze, you are encouraged to enter a meditative state by repeating a mantra. After hearing the aforementioned strong and sometimes negative or burdensome message, finding encouraging texts became imperative. To combat the phrase, I chose a few different positive mantras, memorized them, and recited them to myself throughout the piece. Some included:
I am strong.
I am valuable.
I am empowered.
I am love.
I am a goddess.
More complex mantras I chose included selections from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet” that focused on my current personal life experiences:
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Rest in reason and move in passion.
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Self is a sea boundless and measureless. I have found a truth. I have met the soul walking upon my path.
The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.
Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart.
Finally, remembering that we [the Only in Your Way performers] were in solidarity together, though apart in our performances, was so encouraging to me. I feel privileged to have performed with such strong and courageous women. I am empowered by each of them and hope in turn they were empowered by each other!
Joanna Lugo is a queer Latina performance artist based in Denton, TX. She received her Master of Arts in Communication Studies with a focus in Performance Studies from the University of North Texas, and plans to pursue her PhD in the same subject matter. She is one of fifteen performers in Kate Gilmore & Heather Rowe: Only in Your Way.