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Photo by Rob Bartlett

'Pieta,' a performance by Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, creates a space for radical empathy 

Holding action

My mother used to hold me in her lap nightly, cradling my small body in her arms, protecting me from the world's indifference. At some point, probably during the self-conscious years of early adolescence, these gestures of closeness became less frequent, reserved only for the most joyous or traumatic moments, when my need for grounding warmth overcame my performance of teenage aloofness.

Orlando-based artist Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz is responding to our current moment of collective mourning and trauma by opening her arms to the community in Pietà, a performance at Knowles Chapel as part of her Reinas (Queens) series of work, which offers a space for grieving and a gesture of comfort to those most closely affected by contemporary tragedies both personal and political.

Michelangelo's Pietà, the famed Renaissance sculpture portraying a mourning Mary with her son Jesus' limp, lifeless body draped across her lap, is a source of inspiration for Raimundi-Ortiz's performance. The artist will re-enact Mary's gesture of mourning, cradling 33 individuals (people of color and members of the LGBTQ community, specifically) in her arms for three minutes and 33 seconds each, the repetitive action referencing the repeated violences against these communities: "This keeps happening and happening and happening," she says in a phone interview.

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In the Reinas series, Raimundi-Ortiz confronts her own anxieties by performing queen-archetype characters, creating elaborate costumes and situations to reflect her insecurities and fears. For Pietà, the artist channels the Virgin Mary as an archetypal grieving mother, in response to our current cultural milieu. "I am afraid of what has been happening to brown folks," says Raimundi-Ortiz, "both young and old people of color who are brutalized, and their family members [who] are treated like they deserve what they got. There is a sense of collective mourning and fear that every person of color feels for their child. Every parent is terrified for their child."

Amy Galpin, curator at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, says about the performance's current relevance, "This project was born from a want to address police brutality and the disproportionate manner in which people of color are victims of this type of violence. People of color have long experienced unjust treatment from law enforcement. ... Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin are names that are all too familiar and evoke tragic violence."

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Raimundi-Ortiz will be accompanied by an a cappella performance by the UCF gospel choir, setting a mood of reverence, as well as some spoken texts and wide-ranging music selected by DJ Stereo 77, creating a soundtrack of struggle, resilience and hope spanning generations. Further anchoring this performance in community collaboration, Raimundi-Ortiz worked with designer and fellow UCF professor Kristina Tollefson to create her costume, inspired by the carven robes draped around Michelangelo's Mary, in a "communion of mothers discussing and consoling." While anchored in grief, Raimundi-Ortiz says the project is also connected in a gentle way to her understanding of motherhood, and the role's associated embodiments and instincts. She is interested in physical contact, in bringing the iconic mother figure, Mary, to a place where she can be touched and physically present.

Physical contact, intimacy and touching have been important components of previous performances by Raimundi-Ortiz. In Hush (seen in both New York and South Korea in 2011), the artist lay in a bed placed within the walls of a gallery for four hours, inviting visitors to lie with her, an incredible experience of intimacy in a public place. Raimundi-Ortiz says that in her approach to physical presence, she is "almost the opposite of" performance artist Marina Abramovic, best known for her stoic performance piece The Artist Is Present, in which she sat silently across a table from participants, who were asked not to touch or speak to the artist. Raimundi-Ortiz wants to touch the viewer, in hopes of achieving empathy through closeness.

Art is a forum in which symbolic gestures are granted heightened meaning, and deep self-reflection is encouraged. This is a space for politics and also for affect – a consideration of how our emotions direct our actions. As our newly instated executive branch seeks to retract protections of those most vulnerable and marginalized by systemic oppression, there is a need for recognition of this as the violence that it is, and to respond with action as well as radical empathy.

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