When I write it feels like I’m carving bone.
It feels like I am creating my own face, my own heart.
Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.
This is a story about flesh and bones, but not the usual story that tells you about how many bones there are in our bodies (about 206 as adults) or how to take care of your bones as you age. It is about thinking of the creative process and the production of artworks as a way of forging one’s own skeleton, setting one’s own bones. I follow Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa when thinking about writing or making any kind of art. Art making is an osseous process, the making of our very bones, a sensuous process of self-making and self-transformation. Have you tried to carve your own bones through ink and paper, or the combination of beautiful, vibrant pigments, and oil offered to a canvas, or through carving wood, stone or other materials that move you? I do not mean writing on a diary or doodling while trying to endure yet another faculty or office meeting. When was the last time that you have let yourself be inspired or guided by images that run around in your imagination like horses galloping on a prairie or monarch butterflies migrating, or slowly, deliberately, as if ready to catch prey?
Images become image-animals, living beings that we can love, nurture, fear or inspire many a creative act. Think in images and symbols. Like Anzaldúa, let image-animals guide you and open different realities, as if they were living bridges to other realms. Go with them to the mundus imaginalis, the source of creativity, dreams, fantasies, intuitions, and symbolic events, your unconscious source of creativity. This mundus imaginalis is an alternative conception of the imagination that is not simply imaginary or non-existent; it is another type of reality that seeps in our bones and guides our creative processes. Surrender to your animal-images, spirits of sorts, and let them guide you in your own bone-making. Bones, blood, and guts mix here. Surrendering to these images is gut-wrenching and writing may become like pulling “miles of entrails through your mouth”.
Those of us whose livelihoods depend on the written word and whose connection to the creative process of writing is a constant tug of war between love and hate, renunciation and inspiration, understand how arrebatos (traumatic events/dislocations) such as illness, loss, and depression trigger “imaginal musings” that also lead to whirlwinds of depression, confusion, and creative blocks (Coatlicue blocks). These blocks are then followed by different processes of the imaginary that include political, spiritual, or aesthetic imaginings that allow for the possibility of transformation. As Anzaldúa says, “Without imagination, transformation would not be possible. Without creativity, ‘other’ epistemologies-those of the body, dreams, intuitions, and senses other than the five physical senses-would not reach consciousness.” Yet before such transformation there is anxiety, pain, “squirming”, and coming against many walls. Before we find the backbone to the stories we create with guidance from images-animals, before these images are transformed into symbols, we experience inner turmoils. It is an experience that feels like being left too close to the mouth of an abyss. Will we freeze in fear or jump to our death … or to a new realm of creative possibilities that open up new ways of imagining, sensing, being, and have “conocimiento”, what Anzaldúa describes as a different type of knowing, a higher awareness, that allows for a deeper connection to one’s self and one’s artistic materials? Will we turn into shamans, shapeshifters, who can enact a different kind of seeing, as she says writers-turned-shamans can do?
First, we must find ourselves in nepantla (Nahuatl for “in-the-middle-of”) that is representative of the general state of in-betweenness that characterises those who live in the borderlands, in geographic spaces precariously holding contradictory norms and practices from one or more cultures as well as in metaphorical understandings of a bi-, multi-cultural or alienated existence. It is also where those who are marginalised due to their different social identities (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality, religion, etc.) live. The new mestiza, the subjectivity that Anzaldúa so vividly describes in her famous work, Borderlands/La Frontera, lives, suffers but also has the possibility of artistic creation. While nepantla, the state of in-betweenness or liminality, can be understood metaphorically (symbolic of different experiences of alienation), it is primarily a material, spatial, existential location. It is a space where bodies of flesh and blood live and sweat. It is also at the core of the Anzalduan vision of creativity. It represents a bridge between worlds or “the point of contact between the worlds of nature and spirit, between humans and the numinous (divine)”. It is in nepantla where there is woundedness and dismemberment; where we are pulled apart and start connecting to pain.
Take a look at Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec Moon Goddess that is a deep inspiration for Anzaldúa. In Aztec mythology she is described as having been beheaded by her brother Huitzilopochtli, her body falling and breaking into pieces, and her head thrown in the sky where it became the moon. “To be healed we must be dismembered, pulled apart,” Anzaldúa says. And the shamanic, creative journey thus begins. It is here where the “imaging body”, the “nepantla body” is sensed and animal-images are accessed, held, nurtured, softly touched, or met with horror. It happens in dreams, trances, and ensueños or willed interactions with imaginal realities.
Then the border artist arises as a radiant moon rises in an ultramarine night sky. The border artist has “multi-subjectivity” and creates works influenced by journeys in in-betweenness and the sense of disorientation that this state brings. Hybrid imagery arises from their works and is able to produce “counter art” that questions dominant paradigms, thus opening the possibility for decolonisation and resistance. Border artists, says Anzaldúa, bleed, eat, sweat, and cry mestizaje; it is the heart of their art. In being aware of their own histories in the borderlands, moved by animal-images that carry within them not just the artist’s unconscious states but also a connection to a particular cultural past, border artists create autohistorias, a way of making one’s own history, of carving bone. Autohistorias or autohistories involve using one’s experience in the life of the in-between in order to narrate one’s history from one’s point of view rather than from the perspective of the dominant group whose stories involves shaming, denigration, abjection, and disgust of those who live in nepantla. While autohistorias are for Anzaldúa visual narratives, she emphasises the written word, what is written with red and black ink, that is, with blood. Yet, it is in nepantla where the artist turned shaman can denounce “ego-heroics” or a solipsistic understanding of self and have the possibility of creative spiritual transformation, not one in which we find a traditional understanding of god and religion but in which we find different ways of seeing, understanding, creating, sensing, being, transforming and resisting.
Anzaldúa’s contribution to aesthetics becomes clear and is crucial here despite the fact that she is not a known figure in the context of contemporary philosophical aesthetics. In the Anzalduan aesthetic vision, aesthetics is necessarily intertwined with the personal, the political, and a material spiritual that can be accessed through words on a page, but also paint on canvas, fingers on strings, or whatever material is chosen in the process of artistic creation. I like to read Anzaldúa in light of the early Greek view of aisthesis or sense perception, of the way in which we can sensuously capture the world and how such perception can be engaged in art-making that becomes a laboratory for self-making, as Paul Ricoeur thought of novels. Alexander Baumgarten, Immanuel Kant and other eighteenth-century thinkers developed a more systematic account of the aesthetic, an aesthetic whose hallmark would become disinterestedness such that even now so many philosophers cringe at the thought or even the suggestion that art is connected to race, gender, politics, to life, to flesh and bone, and that we can talk about the way we are moved by sense perception that is not connected to an “art object” that has been institutionally recognised as such.
Yet, I follow Anzaldúa’s vision, and like she follows her own animal-images that allow for bridge-crossings to artistic processes and worlds, I follow her flesh-and-bone aesthetics in which everyday existence in nepantla leads to creative acts of self-disclosure and transformation, and wish to develop a notion of autoarte. Like border art, the production of border artists that Anzadúa admires, autoarte arises out of the turbulence, dislocation, alienation, and ruptured existence that a life at the limen generates. Like the process of creating autohistorias, autoarte involves creative expression that is informed by one’s own everyday experience as well as one’s cultural intersubjective influences, those arising from various sources ranging from the unconscious to more explicit, conscious, intentional cultural norms, practices, histories, stories, and relationships.
If animal-images call me in my dreams, I will let myself surrender to that unknown, unconscious reservoir that has a predilection for the night. But I will also follow the sensuousness of the materials themselves, the way in which linseed oil mixed with oil paint turns that already soft material into silk that calls to be touched. Or the arrangement of wood fibres that suggests a particular form that already moves within my flesh. My senses are to remain open, expecting themselves to be touched and called to create if not a work of art, a work of me, a creation of my own bones, a putting myself in a map that perhaps was not drawn with an acknowledgement and respect for my existence and those who are like me.
Anzaldúa’s account of authohistoria emphasises the relationship between body and narrative and thus she writes cuentos as well as more theoretical writings in order to exist as well as to transform herself and honour her mestiza heritage. Autoarte highlights the sensuous process of materials beyond the written word; it remains bodywork. As Anzaldúa reminds us, “For only through the body, though the pulling of flesh, can the human soul be transformed. And for images, words, stories to have this transformative power, they must arise from the human body –flesh and bone — and from the Earth’s body — stone, sky, liquid, soil.” Autoarte as an aisthesis of the limen becomes a praxis of self-making, a necessary praxis for those who inhabit the in-between and experience alienation and marginalisation due to their social identities. Audre Lorde says that “poetry is not a luxury”; neither is autoarte beyond the word. Like the character of Rebeca in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude that carries with her a bag filled with her parent’s bones, we carry our life experiences of liminality that allow us to produce works that, as Anzaldúa says, need to be bathed, dressed, and fed. That is, they are works that are alive, that represent our very selves.