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Venice Biennale 2011: Denmark's Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen

The Danish artist, exhibiting at the Italian art festival, talks to us about freedom of expression and the complexities of gender in her performances

Often ranking number one in the top ten of the Worldwide Press Freedom Index, Denmark established a long-standing reputation for freedom of speech. It was only natural then that freedom of speech was turned into the main focus of this year’s Danish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Conceived as a complex and ambivalent issue, freedom of expression is analysed from different points of view concerning limits of freedom of speech and freedom infringements, but also decency, tolerance, property and morality. The resulting exhibition, entitled “Speech Matters” and featuring 18 international artists, including Czech Jan Švankmajer and American Robert Crumb, showcases thought-provoking creative forms of resistance.

Among the artists exhibiting their works at the Danish Pavilion there is also Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen with a performance entitled “Afghan Hound” exploring gender in cultures where men and women are segregated. Clad in a hybrid costume, the artist presented during the opening days of the Biennale a highly theatrical performance on the Speakers’ Corner of the para-pavilion built by Thomas Kilpper. Through her songs Rasmussen questioned race, culture, religion and nationality, delivering one of the strongest live performance of the Biennale opening days.

Dazed Digital: The main theme of the Danish Pavilion is freedom of speech, what does it mean to you?
Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen:
I am truly devoted to the exhibition topic. I have dealt with this topic in previous works and I think it is a complex and urgent matter. Freedom of expression is essential for artists and for the art making process.

DD: How did your project “Afghan Hound” start?
Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen:
The scepticism towards the Arabic world and Islam has personally triggered me since I was a child. I was born and lived in the Philippines until I was 8. Then, I was told about the brutal, violent Muslims causing the problems in the country and the terrorists acts by The Abu Sayyaf. Now I live in Copenhagen in a neighbourhood where many Arabic people live. The alienation towards this part of the world is something I’ve always wanted to investigate. When I got invited to do a performance for “Speech Matters” my immediate idea was turning into a mouthpiece for people with no voice.

Through my piece I am revealing stories about complex gender constructions empowered by a social order rather than by a personal choice of the individual. The Afghan stories totally captured me since the separation of gender and male dominants is extreme over there and the male dominants are rooted in an old and long tradition that cannot be dissolved suddenly by a revolution or a Western intervention. If the West wants to help we must understand this and support the civilians, not their dictators.

DD: One of the songs that are part of the performance includes quotes from Afghan writer and activist Malalai Joya, what fascinates you about Joya’s works?
Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen:
Last year I was invited by DOX:LAB to be part of Copenhagen Documentary Festival to do a collaborative film with an Afghan filmmaker and Kabul-based artist Mariam Nabil Kamal. Unfortunately it was cancelled, because we couldn’t get her out of Afghanistan. My research about Afghanistan started then. Malalai Joya is an amazingly brave person and a fighter, her language is precise and poetic. Imagine how it would be to live your entire life in a country that only experienced war. I am not sure if I would have the courage to be in the opposition.

DD: The costume for your performance at the Biennale is very important since it symbolises sexualities and identities: what inspired it?
Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen:
The inspiration for the costume came from the tradition of Afghan hound racing. The costume is made of black hair that covers me from top to toe like a burqa. Normally, hair is hidden behind the burqa, but, in my performance, it is worn on the outside.

DD: What does the hair represent?
Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen:
The hair illustrates hidden and shameful sexualities. The hair moves around my body during the performance in which I impersonate 3 ½ different genders. In the first part of the performance I am Malalai Joya, though her name is an alias to protect her family, and I’m wearing a burqa made with hair, so her identity is hidden. In the second part I’m a warlord wearing a kaftan and the hair transforms into a huge beard; in the third part I turn into a Bacha Bazi, a boy forced to dress and dance as a girl who dances at men’s parties where no women are allowed and who is also a sex slave.

The hair is this case goes between the legs as if it were a skirt and the kaftan becomes a blouse. The last person I impersonate is a woman, a Bacha Posh, who in her childhood was forced to dress as a boy because there were no sons in the family. When she becomes a woman, she must again change her social status and loose her freedom.

DD: Was the performance you did during the opening days a way to reach out to people who may be interested in other forms of art such as music and do you feel that through your performance you can also break social barriers?
Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen:
I would like my works to reach out to a broader audience beyond people interested in art. Music is an immediate expression that captures people, everybody can indeed relate to sound. The most important thing for me is communicating a story that must be told. I do think this is a way to  break social barriers as well, since you don’t need an art education to enter my works as I try to uphold the immediacy and presence in my pieces.

DD: What kind of feedback did you get from the people visiting the pavilion?
Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen:
The feedback was great. Visitors understood the strong, powerful, daring and uncanny works linked with the main theme of the pavilion and the complex topic behind my piece. This was great since I think is important not to be misunderstood especially when you are using stereotypes to illustrate specific characters.