Remembrance: A Ritual at Washington Square Park
Over the past several years, my practice has expanded to include ritual enactments. The rituals I create venerate the spirit realm and are deep reflections on the dead in relation to past and present injustice. These written reflections will reveal the origins, and growing significance, of performance in my practice.
My introduction, in graduate school, to the work of Adrian Piper and Ana Mendieta had a lasting impact. Their conceptual and performative work intrigued me and pushed me to rethink the potential of visual art. At that time, my experiments with performance-based pieces, some of which drew inspiration from la santa cena (holy communion) and esta lucesita (a church song- This Little Light of Mine), were connected to my strict Pentecostal upbringing. Those highly animated memories, interwoven with personal traumas, surfaced in my early work. Elements from my experience growing up Pentecostal continue to be important to the rituals I create today even though I no longer follow any organized religion.
My present rituals are based on my first performance around my sculpture, Veneration and Clairvoyance, created in 2016 with the feminist collective “Yeah That’s What She Said.” The foundation of that group show was “…the feminist tradition of investigating the corporeal.” I developed a daily ritual while living with my piece that revealed how my movements around the work were vital to its function. I began to sit facing it while in meditation and discovered it was important to align the sculpture with the cardinal directions and burn sage inside its core. Changes in the final exhibition venue, that might have damaged my fragile work, motivated me to take this piece outside to enact my performance. Once I began, I shut out my surroundings and silenced my voice until finished, and from the beginning, I felt it was important for me to offer symbolic tribute to indigenous people, presence, life, and land. This, my first ritual, ended with a prayer specific to bodies- living and dead- and imagining a better future for the bodies reflected and imagined within the glass panes of the sculpture, and so, each consecutive ritual must have a prayer inspired by the ritual’s concept.
At the beginning of each ritual, I place specific objects in alignment with the cardinal directions. My rituals contain symbolic elements, such as the movements and use of plants, and contain pieces of the original sculpture, Veneration and Clairvoyance, which includes a vertical, hand-framed, glass pane that I continue to use because of its reflective surface. My rituals are spiritual offerings. I perform them with reverence by preparing my body for the movements through fasting. As a child, I witnessed my parents fasting for specific religious occasions. This practice feels natural.
Remembrance, the ritual I performed at Washington Square Park, was my contribution to Reimagine End of Life (Fall, 2018) a citywide festival created to encourage dialogues about death, dying, and living fully. My research included books in the NYC Public Library Collection, such as, Around Washington Square by Luther S. Harris, the website of archaeologist Joan Geismar, and a walking tour with Black Gotham. Remembrance addressed the past injustices that linger in the park and acknowledged the human suffering brought on by those injustices. My performance was a way to summon better ways of thinking, and being, human. The ritual was presented in memory of Rose Butler, an enslaved young black woman whom, after being accused of stealing, resisted injustice by setting fire to her owner’s home. In 1819, Ms. Butler was hanged at the gallows that once stood inside what is now Washington Square Park. I offered a bouquet of Mugwort, Lavender, and Aloe encircled with chalk and the words “Rose Butler, 1819- May your strength guide us.” Remembrance is also dedicated to the many who died of Yellow Fever and were buried below the park in a Potter’s Field, a mass grave for the homeless, poor, forgotten and neglected. In the early 1800’s, to prioritize raising property values, mayor Philip Hone led a successful campaign to cover the burial grounds without removing the bodies. Such histories are not evident anywhere around the park and stand out as an injustice further emphasized by the monumental Washington Square Arch.
On the day I performed Remembrance, I wore the clothing worn to my mother’s funeral. I did this out of a need to remember a great loss that continues to shape my life and work. The date of the ritual, November 3rd, also influenced what I wore because it was so close to my mother’s death 13 years earlier on December 3rd. The loss of my mother led me into a lifelong contemplation of death and the spirit realm.
I often think about injustice, human suffering, and the unrecognized or forgotten whom may have died or are buried anywhere my feet land. I brought an offering of medicine in the form of a medicinal bouquet that contained Common Boneset, Milkweed, Cattail, and Mugwort, for the bodies buried beneath Washington Square Park. Plants are essential components of my rituals. I have a deep curiosity about and affection for them.
Plants on the sides of roads and overgrown areas always capture my attention. Eupatorium Perfoliatum (Common Boneset) is a plant native to New York that can alleviate some symptoms of Yellow Fever. I identified this beautiful plant in a field upstate, then learned that it grows at the Highline’s Northern Spur right here in Manhattan. Continuing on, I gathered Milkweed from a grassy area off an entrance ramp to the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway. Its resilience, and toxicity, in a city of steel and concrete, inspires my reverence. Cattail, an amazing native plant used to treat wounds, grows by ponds and can also be woven. Mugwort grows in abundance on Governor’s Island. During my residency there, it commanded my respect as I used it daily to scrub my hands clean under water. These plants symbolize strength and resistance.
I often envision the Cartesian Plane juxtaposed with the Cardinal directions. Drawing chalk lines that form an axis marking the cardinal directions is an integral part of preparing my rituals. During Remembrance, I acknowledged the Lenape people by writing along the chalk lines the words Lenapehoking, Manahatta, Sapokanikan and Manette, Lenape terms referring to pre-colonial sovereign lands and a stream. I offered tobacco seeds using my left hand as a symbol of resistance and meditated on a longing for things to be given back and for things to be put back as they were. Wild tobacco, a sacred medicinal plant that has been desecrated, once grew in this park.
There are many layers to the history of Washington Square Park included in my ritual. The surrounding area of the park was once referred to as Land of the Blacks, an autonomous black community located near Minetta Lane. In the 1640’s much of the area was farmland granted by the Dutch to a few African-born enslaved men, we know a few names such as Anthony Portuguese and Manuel Trompeter.
The maracas, güiro, and tambourine, instruments I played throughout my childhood, become sacred objects when used during my rituals. For Remembrance, the tambourine symbolically marked my veneration and connection with the spirit realm. Lifting and dragging the Remembrance Shroud marked a transition into leading a procession around the southeast corner of the park into a tree grove. While under the tree grove, Lucha, a drummer I commissioned and a practitioner of Lucumí, played a rhythm that symbolizes mourning on a barrel-style drum common in Puerto Rico. This was an important collaboration and the first ritual where I invited viewers to contribute. I also commissioned the artist, Lorie Caval, a practitioner of Capoeira, to play the güiro while I performed movements with the tambourine to a song from my childhood emanating from a speaker. Some of my movements came out of my experiences in the Pentecostal Church. The song that played was by Marino, one of my father’s favorite Puerto Rican evangelical singers. I was also moved by this song as a child. As I created the ritual, that song came to mind and fit well with my sentiments- La Gran Tribulación (The Great Tribulation). Growing up, there were constant reminders of the coming of Christ and the end of the world as written in the Book of Revelations. Instilling fear was a big part of my religious upbringing. The lyrics of “La Gran Tribulación” created an image of injustices already endured and a way to channel anger and arouse resistance in oppressed people. Through the words of the song I picture the many people that have screamed, cried, and lamented over witnessing their loved ones die because of illness, murder, enslavement, and genocide. Visualizing the malice of humanity is overwhelming. Through the ending prayer for Remembrance, I summoned a healing of scars inflicted by injustice.
There is also the story of George Washington, The namesake of Washington Square Park. Since Washington is considered the father of what became America, for my ritual, he became a vessel for white supremacy. I felt a need to contemplate a healing of the mind from white supremacy. On the arch Washington holds a book that reads “the end justifies the deed” in Latin. Those unsurprising words are also enraging.
The ritual, Remembrance, addressed various aspects of the history of Washington Square Park’s location. My performance offered a prayer towards rectifying injustice. People need to be held accountable for their actions and all humanity needs to learn from the past. In writing this, I reflected on the significance of performance as a practice that has allowed me to step back into myself. By this I mean that performance and ritual have been part of my life from the moment I was born and perhaps even before. My childhood was full of the performative as experienced through Puerto Rican Pentecostalism and an animated Puerto Rican and Peruvian family. My reflection includes acknowledging my ancestors, accepting my humanity, and attempting to define meaning in the midst of perpetual injustice. Remembrance will serve as a starting point for new work that will further explore concepts motivated by discoveries like the history of Washington Square Park.
“For those whose bodies have suffered and continue to suffer the violence of injustice, illness and neglect-
I pray for you and I pray for a land on which injustice is healed.” Elizabeth Velazquez, 2018, Remembrance.