Above: Minneapolis artist Rosy Simas wrote an open letter after spotting the show's promotional photos on social media. (Photo by Jerry Holt, Star Tribune)
It all began on Twitter.
Local choreographer Rosy Simas saw a tweet congratulating New York’s American Realness Festival curator Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor for booking a great line-up. She was considering a trip east and hoped to attend the event, which opened Thursday and runs through January 12.
Simas was then stunned to see a promotional photo of Moroccan-French performer Latifa Laâbissi naked and wearing a traditional Native American headdress.
Laâbissi’s show, “Self Portrait Camouflage,” is scheduled for Sunday at MoMA PS 1, a venue affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art. At the time Simas viewed the image, it was part of the ongoing partnership between American Realness and the Brooklyn-based performance space.
Simas, who is Seneca with ties to the Allegany and Cattaraugus Reservations in New York state, is a Minnesota-based artist and activist who speaks out when Native American culture, traditions, stories and objects are misrepresented by non-Native people and appropriated for uses unrelated to their intent. She was surprised that American Realness chose this particular piece.
So Simas wrote an open letter to American Realness, MoMA PS 1 and Laâbissi. She called for a public apology, cancellation of the performance and a commitment to present more Native American artists. “I see a non-Native woman in a fake headdress performing naked. I see a mockery of who Native women are. And I see a stage reserved for whiteness excusing itself from responsibility because it is an international person of color performing this mockery,” she wrote.
This is not a new conversation, nationally or locally. In 2014, for example, playwright Rhiana Yazzie led a protest against the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” for its sanitization of Jackson’s legacy when it was performed at the New Century Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. Simas' Facebook page became the site of renewed dialogue following her letter. She promised protest if the performance went on as planned.
After receiving the letter, Pryor contacted Simas and they talked at length, which led to additional conversations with MoMA PS 1 Chief Curator Peter Eleey (former curator of visual arts at the Walker Art Center) as well as associate curator and organizer of the performance Jenny Schlenzka. She also had a Skype call with Laâbissi via interpreter.
Simas, who viewed a recording of the show (created in 2006), found that although everyone took her concerns seriously the conversations were frustrating, especially when Laâbissi proved unwilling to see the problem. According to Simas, “She sincerely believed that if she could explain the piece to me then I would understand it.”
Attempts were made to obtain comment from American Realness and MoMA PS 1 but no response was received as of the most recent publication.
Meanwhile, Simas received a public apology letter from Pryor on Thursday stating he would withdraw American Realness as the “contextual framework” for Laâbissi’s performance at MoMA P.S. 1. The show will still go on, but solely as a MoMA PS 1 production.
As for Laâbissi, she has decided to perform with the headdress on Sunday. Simas will attend the show with Native Hawaiian artist Christopher K. Morgan and local Dakota/Lakota healer/elder Janice Bad Moccasin as well as Dakota educator Ramona Kitto. They have promised to engage in the post-show discussion. Simas and Morgan will also participate in a panel discussion this Saturday titled “Native American Realness.”