In Brutal Ordeals, a Performance Artist Embodies the Oppressed

Confronting you head-on are a hanging flag, and a man in danger of hanging.

The flag, unfurled vertically between two white structural columns in a gallery at El Museo del Barrio, resembles the stars and stripes of the United States, except the blue and red are black, and the white has been dyed a gristly pink — stained with blood, according to the exhibition materials, given by undocumented immigrants living in New York.

The man is Carlos Martiel, an Afro-Cuban performance artist known for putting his body through grueling, painful trials while audiences watch. He’s not actually present in El Museo del Barrio: A large monitor leaning against the back wall, aligned with the flag, plays footage from a 2022 performance titled “Cuerpo” — body, in Spanish. Martiel is naked except for a rope, looped around his neck and attached to the ceiling of a gallery. A handful of people take turns shouldering his legs and propping up his back while he grimaces in the noose.

These are the two strongest, most unsettling artworks in Martiel’s first major survey, also titled “Cuerpo,” in New York City, where he’s lived since 2012. The words “undocumented immigrants” in the written description of the flag work, “Insignia VII,” charge it with violence. The noose performance is tense, dynamic and uncertain, even from the safe distance of a video. You are dared to deny the suffering of the artist, or of those he stands for.

A view of “Cuerpo: Carlos Martiel” at El Museo del Barrio. The flag resembles the stars and stripes of the United States, except the blue and red are black, and the white has been dyed pink.Credit…Matthew Sherman/El Museo del Barrio

The 16 performances represented in the gallery by videos, photographs and drawings include more than a decade of ordeals of endurance and self-mutilation, in which the often-stoic artist evokes the brutal history of colonialism, racism and enslavement. Martiel doesn’t intellectualize slavery’s wake; instead, he makes it terribly present, in the body of a living person: his own.

A video of the earliest piece on view, “Prodigal Son,” from 2010, shows the artist pinning his father’s Cuban military medals to his naked chest. For “Continente,” from 2017, Martiel had nine small diamonds embedded in his skin, then he lay supine in a New York gallery while a white man sliced them out. In images of every successive work, you can see the marks left on Martiel’s body by the previous ones.

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