Summary of Coco Fusco
Indigenous people on display in a large golden cage, the artist lying in a coffin, an abusive drill sergeant commanding prisoners in orange jumpsuits, and recreations of union-busting activities on CCTV, are just some of the striking and intensely political images that make up Coco Fusco's intertwined practice of art and activism. Across all the varied mediums in which she works her art interrogates the systems of contemporary power that impact and restrict the lives of people 'othered' by the society they live in, whether because of their race or ethnicity, nationality, class position, gender, or the intersections between them.
Working as an academic and writer as well as an artist, Fusco's work is both playful and funny and critically rigorous. It foregrounds the ridiculousness and absurdity of racism and colonialism whilst making serious challenges to the way that modern Western societies (particularly America) might wish to see themselves on the global stage. This is part of an overarching commitment to interrogations of identity and notions of the self, urgent concerns in the modern world.
- Fusco uses her artistic and critical practice to destabilize systems that regulate, divide, and exploit people within contemporary societies, with a particular focus on the experiences of Latin American and Cuban people. This includes challenging restrictive notions of power, race, gender, and history through performance, video, and images that make the viewer question their own culpability or unconscious biases.
- Fusco's work exists in dialogue with her career as an academic and cultural commentator, speaking directly to and drawing reference from cultural and social theory and historical artistic practices. Her work explores legacies of feminist body art of the 1970s, for example, by borrowing strategies and concepts but updating and/or developing them to speak to her unique and subjective position as a Latinx woman.
- Collaboration is an important characteristic of Fusco's art. Many of her best-known artworks are made with other artists, including Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Nao Bustamente, and her solo work regularly features volunteers and other performers (including her students). This use of other bodies in relation to her own gendered and racialized body can be read as both an expression of community and shared experience and a challenge to everyday interactions and pressures of racial and gender identities.
Important Art by Coco Fusco
Couple in the Cage: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (collaboration with Guillermo Gómez-Peña)
In this seminal performance, Fusco and Mexican-Chicano artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña dressed up in a stereotypical and hyperbolic "native" garb (including a grass skirt for her and a beaded outfit and feather headdress for him) and spent entire days in a cage, presenting themselves as an anthropological curiosity from an imaginary "undiscovered" island called Guatinau, in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to the "native" garb, the couple also wore contemporary clothing items, such as designer sunglasses, a Mexican lucha libre facemask, a leopard print bikini top, and Converse low-top sneakers. The performance, which was enacted in cities in Europe, Australia, and the U.S, was intended as a satirical criticism of the Western world's views of people that are culturally/racially "other", and particularly of the role that "scientific" institutions like museums have played in developing and perpetuating colonialist cultural stereotypes. It was also inspired by the historical tradition of displaying humans for the sake of entertainment (as in circus "freak shows" or previous "human zoos"). The performance was filmed by El Salvadorian-American director Paula Heredia as part of a documentary titled The Couple in the Cage (1993).
In the space of their "human zoo", the artists had several objects, both stereotypically "indigenous" and common objects from contemporary Western society, with which they interacted. For instance, they typed on a laptop computer, sewed voodoo dolls, and watched television. Audience members were invited to learn more about the "natives" by reading about their rituals and traditions in pseudo-scientific texts and diagrams that accompanied the performance, and were also welcome to interact directly with the artists. Volunteer students and museum employees also participated, by "feeding" the "captives", escorting them to the bathroom on leashes, and offering audience members further explanations of the couple's customs and daily habits, further validating the fictitious premise that they had volunteered as "representatives" of Guatinau. The couple remained almost entirely silent, with Gómez-Peña periodically reciting "traditional stories" in a made-up nonsense language in exchange for money.
The artists' performance stood on its own as a powerful critique of colonialist attitudes in the West, drawing influence from James Luna's performance Artifact Piece (1987/1990), in which he lay motionless in a loincloth in a museum display case, surrounded by objects that related to his native heritage, as well as "non-native" artifacts from his life, like Motown records. However, Fusco and Gómez-Peña's performance gained further significance from the (at times shocking) reactions of the audience members and other members of the public. Before the first performance at the University of California-Irvine (which was scheduled to coincide with the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas), the Health Department of UC-Irvine contacted the artists as they had misunderstood that they were anthropologists bringing in "real aborigines" whose feces could be a health hazard. At that same performance, one woman requested a rubber glove so that she could fondle Gómez-Peña's genitals.
In Madrid, where over half of the audience members believed the artists to be "authentic" Amerindians, businessmen made mocking ape noises at the artists, while teenagers attempted to burn Gómez-Peña and convince him to drink a beer bottle filled with urine. At Covent Garden in London, a group of neo-Nazis rattled the cage. When the performance came to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., one concerned museumgoer even called the Humane Society for help in freeing the captives (only to be told that human beings were outside of their jurisdiction). At all of the venues, a large proportion of audience members believed the fictitious display to be real.
Performance - Various locations
Stuff (collaboration with Nao Bustamante)
For this work, Fusco and her collaborator, Chicana artist Nao Bustamante, performed a series of comedy sketches centered on the themes of food and sex. They did so to explore various forms of tourism-related consumption in the USA and Latin America and the real implications of touristic consumption on women in "destination" countries. These sketches aimed to "convey the everyday nature of sexual harassment and employer exploitation that Latin American women experience at the hands of the tourist industry". The artists explain that "The way the US consumes cultural identities and Latin American natural resources is countered by its fear of the 'other' which it perceives as a savage cannibal." During the performance, a bunch of bananas sat in a bowl on a table at the center of the stage, intended as a reference to "the stereotype of Latin America as a politically unstable, hypersexualised and easily influenced region".
Fusco elaborates further, stating that "Stuff is our look at the cultural myths that link Latin women and food to the erotic in the Western popular imagination. We weave our way through multilingual sex guides, fast food menus, bawdy border humor, and much more. [...] If food here serves as a metaphor for sex, then eating represents consumption in its crudest form. Cultural consumption involves the trafficking of that which is most dear to us all - our identities, our myths and our bodies. Stuff is our commentary on how globalization and 'cultural tourism' leave Latin women little choice other than to satisfy consumer desires for 'a bit of the other'."
In developing these sketches, Fusco drew upon the experiences of women from her homeland of Cuba. As she explains, in the 1950s, Cuba "gained a reputation [...] as an international whorehouse", and in response to the economic crisis in the country in the 1980s and 1990s, the country "reverted to sex tourism as a strategy of survival". In preparation for this performance, she travelled to Cuba to interview women who worked in the sex industry there. Fusco and Bustamante then travelled to Chiapas, "the center of indigenous-culture tourism in Mexico", where they interviewed women and children "whose livelihoods are linked to their daily contact with foreigners".
Performance - Various locations
Better Yet When Dead
Between 1997-2000, Fusco developed a number of performances that focused on the theme of death and burial in order to explore the oppression faced by Latin American women. The first of these was Better Yet When Dead, which involved Fusco laying motionless for hours in a coffin. She was specifically inspired by the way in which the deaths of important Latina artists (like Frida Kahlo and Ana Mendieta) led to a significant increase in their popularity, As Fusco put it, she wanted to examine "why Latino cultures [...] are so fascinated with female creativity once it has been forever silenced," adding that "[...] it is almost as if a violent death makes [women artists] more acceptably feminine". Says Fusco, "I was drawn to this subject by several factors. Though Latin America hosts an exceptional array of cults to virgins and female saints, it is still a terrain where women do not exercise control over their bodies", going on to explain that they "only gain power over the collective cultural investment in their bodies when they die spectacular deaths, particularly if they die young." The work was performed at YYZ Artspace in Toronto, Canada, and at the International Arts Festival of Medellin, Colombia.
Fusco explains that, "In developing this piece, I studied the practices of contemporary penitentes, read the poetry and theological tracts of Christian mystics, and studied anthropological writings on the activities of cloistered women in Mexico and Peru in the 17th century. Their daily routines were punctuated by the continuous performance of faith. The highly regimented schedules of these women resembled those of many performers who were pioneers in the field of body art in the 60s and 70s." The pioneers Fusco references here likely include Marina Abramović, Gina Pane, Ana Mendieta, and Carolee Schneemann.
Fusco noted significant differences in audience engagement between Canada and Colombia. In Canada, the response "was on the whole much quieter, much gentler", and "very few people" touched or spoke to her as she lay in the coffin. In Colombia, on the other hand, it is typical for people to engage more with the dead. Says Fusco, the Colombians "on the whole were much more physical and playful in their responses. People spoke to me constantly; mostly issuing compliments about my body or about how quiet I was. One woman came back each day and read me a poem about death. Others left me notes, poured wine onto my lips, kissed and dropped flowers into my hands."
Also in 1997, Fusco enacted a second performance focused on the idea of death. It was titled El Ultimo Deseo (The Last Wish), and was her first performance in Cuba. As in Better Yet When Dead, this performance involved Fusco laying motionless in the setting of a staged Catholic wake. The title of the work referred to the artist's grandmother's (unfulfilled) last wish to return to her homeland of Cuba to be buried there. Another work by Fusco that dealt with the theme of death was El Evento Suspendido (The Postponed Event) (2000) for which she was buried up to her chest in the lawn of the Havana gallery El Espacio Aglutinador.
Performance - Various locations
Bare Life Study #1
In the early 2000's, Fusco, like many Americans, became aware of shocking news stories of abuse and torture of prisoners at U.S. Military facilities (like Guantanamo Bay) at the hands of American soldiers. Fusco was particularly shocked by the accounts of female soldiers who used their sexuality to "humiliate" and "break" prisoners accused of being Islamic fundamentalists. She wanted to understand this phenomenon, and also to make art about the war, as she found it surprising and disappointing that very few artists in America were addressing the war in Iraq in their work.
Fusco thus developed Bare Life Study #1 in order to explore "US military prisons as sites of intercultural encounters", and the "'theatre of combat' between America and its 'others'" being played out inside the walls of these prisons. This performance, which was staged in front of the U.S. consulate in São Paolo, Brazil, involved fifty drama students dressed in typical orange prison jumpsuits and shackles, carrying out a group enactment of prisoners cleaning the floor with their toothbrushes for hours on end (just one of the many acts of cruelty reported by the news media). Fusco played the role of prison guard, dressed in military fatigues and shouting at the group through a bullhorn.
Fusco then created another performance work that dealt with the same topic as this work, which was titled A Room of One's Own: Women and Power in the New America (2006-08), for which she costumed herself as a female U.S. military interrogator and presented a military-style briefing on "the rationales for using sexual innuendo as a tactic for extracting information from Islamic fundamentalists". She states that "The four years that I spent working on military interrogation enabled me to bring a conversation about the war into the realm of art, and into the realm of performance. The pieces became ways for me to open up discussions about performative practices that are neither traditional theatre nor art, but that contain elements of both."
Performance - São Paolo, Brazil
Observations of Predation In Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist
For this work, Fusco dressed up as Dr. Zira, the chimpanzee psychologist and veterinarian from the science fiction film Planet of the Apes (1968) and gave an academic lecture discussing human behavior from the perspective of a non-human. Fusco explained that "Studies of animal behavior often focus on aggression and predation. We tend to think of predation usually in terms of the hunt for prey - carnivores attacking other animals to feed themselves. But in a broader sense predation means 'to plunder,' and in animal psychology it is understood as goal-oriented aggression for the accumulation of resources. Dr. Zira comes from the future and focuses on our species' drive for status, territory, and material." The work carried an additional meaning, as "The history of colonialism in Western culture is a long story about who gets to be fully human; subordinated humans have frequently been caricatured as apes".
By Fusco's own admission, this work was closely related to Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992-94), the performance work she carried out in collaboration with Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Writer and curator Wendy Vogel notes that "By enacting roles with highly-charged connotations - a 'heathen,' in the case of the Amerindian performance, or an ape - Fusco anticipates strong reactions from institutions and audiences alike. Her humor and parodic skill have steered her works from being read as pedantic."
Performance - Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, New York
Tin Man of the Twenty-First Century (collaboration with Chico MacMurtrie)
This work was Fusco's first foray into public sculpture, and was created in collaboration with New Mexico-born installation artist and sculptor Chico MacMurtrie. It takes the form of a ten-foot-tall Tin Man (as from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz), with the face and hair of the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, who was in office at the time. Fusco says of her inspiration for the piece, "Immediately after Trump was elected, an old argument was resurrected against arts funding. There were also many attacks on opponents of Trump's policy, directed at artists, activists, Congress, and the press. This made me think of two things - the cultural policies of authoritarian states, and the kind of art that authoritarian governments sponsor." In the end, she decided to represent Trump as the Tin Man because he "has no heart and needs oil".
Fusco explains that "The sculpture offers a satirical commentary on America's most talked about public figure, calling on audiences to consider the role of monumental sculpture in representing history." She also says, "The 2016 election was a watershed moment. I sensed that our country would be changed forever. Not every artist wants to respond to what happens in the political arena, but in the course of history many have done so, and I embrace that venerable tradition."
Aluminum and Steel - John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida
Biography of Coco Fusco
The artist known as Coco Fusco was born Juliana Emilia Fusco Miyares in 1960. Her mother, a Cuban exile, had fled the Cuban revolution earlier that same year, with the specific goal of giving birth in the United States so that she could more easily obtain immigration documents herself. Fusco had two brothers, one of whom died in the 1980s while serving in the military.
Fusco's father, who was Italian, passed away when she was young, leaving her mother to raise three children on her own. She says of her mother, "She really put a lot of emphasis on stability, respectability, and financial security." During summers, her mother sent her to Miami to spend time with female family members, which she considered important as Fusco had no sisters. During High School, Fusco was interested in dance and theatre, but her mother pushed her towards a profession such a medicine or law and didn't support her interest in the arts, warning her that she was "gonna end up unemployed, drinking cappuccinos on the Lower East Side."
Through her mother's efforts Fusco grew up with several strong female role models, particularly her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother was born in Oriente Province, Cuba, in 1902, and orphaned at a young age. She learned to sew and began to do it professionally at the age of thirteen in order to support herself and her younger siblings. She married at the age of twenty and had five children. Fusco's grandmother continued to work tirelessly as a seamstress whilst also putting up with constant abuse from her husband. When her second daughter (Fusco's mother) turned seventeen, she encouraged her to leave town and make a life for herself elsewhere.
Fusco's mother went to Havana where she studied and worked until she was able to pay for her mother and siblings to join her there. Says Fusco, "Eleven years later my mother boarded her first plane and went to the United States with twenty-five dollars and a suitcase of clothing my grandmother made for her. Nine years after that, she sent for my grandmother. In all my childhood I never heard her express regret at having left."
Education and Early Training
Fusco received a BA in Semiotics from Brown University in 1982. She entered Brown at a time when student activism was on the rise, with her peers protesting on campus against issues like nuclear power and the U.S. involvement in Central America. As a result of her experiences Fusco developed her own strong sense of political engagement and committed to representing it in her academic and artistic endeavors. Fusco's time at university was also informed by her experience growing up in an educational system that sought to minimize discussion of individual and collective experiences of suffering, in favor of the promulgation of a narrative of a "forward march toward progress". This often failed to address the nuanced and complex reality of social and political history, particularly in relation to systemic and deeply engrained issues like racism.
Fusco joined Brown's Semiotics program during its early development. She explains that it "was the channel through which all this new left thinking, poststructuralist thinking, was entering the university and entering academic studies, so it was very exciting, it was like being on the beginning of something, on the cusp of a wave". Her classmates there included film director, screenwriter, and producer Todd Haynes, novelist Rick Moody, investigative journalist Kate Doyle, and film producer Christine Vachon. One of Fusco's most influential professors was Argentinian writer and artist Leandro Katz, for whom she later worked as an assistant.
As a student, Fusco became very interested in the theoretical work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. However, she wasn't able to engage with postcolonial studies in school as, at the time, there was strict disciplinary policing that marked it as the domain of anthropology. Nevertheless, Fusco joined a reading group after school, studying texts by scholars like French West Indian political philosopher Frantz Fanon, and other postcolonial theorists. At this point she developed an interest in suppressed collective histories, as well as the visual artifacts (such as photographs) that have been used by colonized peoples. She began to write for publications like The Village Voice, The East Village Eye, Afterimage, and Art in America.
After Brown, Fusco received an MA in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University in 1985. Following Stanford she began to create art in a more serious and sustained manner, particularly exploring performance as a way to "make sense out of the clashes between cultures" that she experienced as a Latinx woman in the United States. During this period she met many collaborators and kindred spirits. This included a group of Cuban artists, which included painters José Bedia and Flavio Garciandía, and curator Gerardo Mosquera, who were visiting the U.S. She developed a relationship with many of these artists and began traveling to Cuba regularly to work with artists there (until about the mid-1990s when she stopped due to the post-Cold War political and cultural climate).
As a young adult, Fusco moved out of her mother's house to a cheap apartment on Bank Street. In 1987, she then moved to another inexpensive apartment in what is now East Williamsburg, where she worked day jobs to support her artistic pursuits. She recalls that her first desk job as a fact-checker for The American Lawyer magazine was "pretty horrific" due to the "toxic" and "repressive" work environment. She says, "I talked to lawyers all day long and discovered how aggressive and argumentative they can be."
Fusco's artistic practice continued to develop in the early 1990s, with a series of projects created in collaboration with friends and peers, often centered around performance or live interaction with an audience. Several of these key pieces, many of which are those that she is now best known for, such as Couple in the Cage: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (a collaboration with Guillermo Gómez-Peña) toured extensively between 1992 and 1994, providing her with a global profile within the art world. The success of these performance projects led to further collaborations and opportunities to share her work. Fusco's art began to be presented around the world, including in the 1993, 2008, and 2022 Whitney Biennials, and the 2015 Venice Biennale.
The works that Fusco toured around the world also included a series of projects concerned with death and femininity, such as El Ultimo Deseo (The Last Wish), where Fusco staged a full Catholic wake with herself in the role of the corpse at the 1997 Havana Biennial. In Rights of Passage (also in 1997) Fusco dressed in the uniform of a South African police officer at the Johannesburg Biennale, signing 'passbooks' for the audience that admitted them to the work. These suites of works established key themes and strategies that continue to be deployed across Fusco's work today, including the display of a live body in place of a dead or absent one, and the use of uniform and/or costume to inhabit and subvert roles representative of state authority.
This international success also led to further teaching and publishing opportunities, a parallel and intertwined career Fusco continued to maintain alongside her work as a performer and visual artist. She has published a number of critical essays and books focusing on the relationships between gender, race, colonialism, and power structures in Latin America and across the globe, and has taught at Temple University, Columbia University, Parsons School of Design, and MIT. She received a Ph.D. in Art and Visual Culture from Middlesex University in 2005.
Fusco has one son, Aurelio, whom she adopted in 2005 when she was forty-five years old. She explains that, "I imagined myself having children at some point in my life from when I was very young, but I also had a very strong desire to finish my education and develop myself professionally. I didn't want to stop doing that in order to have children." When she reached her forties, she felt ready, and contacted New York's Spence-Chapin Adoption Services. The vetting process took about a year. She states that "You really have to look at yourself very carefully and understand what's involved and what the particular challenges are before you can begin to make yourself available as a candidate."
During her first year of motherhood, she was able to take a sabbatical and maternity leave in order to travel the world with her baby and bond with him. Once she returned to work, Fusco was concerned about the "psychological damage" her absence could do to her son. As she explains, "I'm a single mother. I can't always leave him with someone else, because it's really bad for him. Kids know and feel the difference between being cared for by family or by others and fear of abandonment is a real issue." Fusco highlights the difficulties of single parenthood (particularly in New York City) and how incompatible parenting can be whilst trying to maintain an academic and artistic career (a career that is itself a political point about burdens of expectation and social pressure to conform). She has called motherhood "the greatest performance" of her life.
Fusco is currently based in New York. In addition to her scholarship and art making endeavors, she is also a vocal advocate for free speech for artists around the world, like American painter Dana Schutz and Cuban rapper Maykel Osorbo, who face censorship and punishment from their governments and communities.
The Legacy of Coco Fusco
Coco Fusco's Performance art serves as an extension of her academic research and writing, and of her social/political activism. In her performances, she manages to explore the nuanced realities of lived experiences of racism, oppression, postcolonialism, sexism, and violence, in a thoughtful but tongue-in-cheek manner. Her use of her body to reveal these issues through racialized and gendered reactions to it has seen Fusco's practice have become a central example in the development of Performance and live art as an area of academic study. Of particular note is the way that her use of her own body represents the voices and concerns of marginalized peoples. Writer and curator Wendy Vogel calls her "one of the artworld's foremost champions of free speech". Fusco's critical work has extensively documented performance from Cuba, the Americas, and other countries that have otherwise been ignored or under researched by Western academics, with her book Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas (2000) a major text for performance studies at universities across the globe.
Fusco's direct influence can be seen in the work of fellow Cuban Performance artists Tania Bruguera and Hamlet Lavastida, who also use their own bodies as a tool of artistic activism and explore issues related to colonization, subjugation, oppression, violence, and opposition. Both Bruguera and Lavastida have been arrested and imprisoned by the Cuban government because their art has been viewed as a challenge to the government.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Coco Fusco
- Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba
- English Is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the AmericasOur Pick
- The Bodies That Were Not Ours: And Other WritingsOur Pick
- Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the AmericasOur Pick
- A Field Guide for Female Interrogators
- Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989, Exhibition Histories Vol. 2
- Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self