Nude Artist Wears Headdress, Producer Apologizes, Creates Native Program

French artist Latifa Laâbissi performed nude wearing a Lakota Plains-style faux headdress and force fed herself a French flag

After a performance at New York's MoMA PS1 in Queens on January 8, a program coordinator has apologized to the Native American community after attendees at a performance were shocked and enraged by a performance of the French artist Latifa Laâbissi, who wore a Lakota Plains-style faux headdress entering the stage, placed it on the floor, then performed nude. The independent festival performance was entitled “Self Portrait Camouflage

The performance was part of MoMA PS1's "Sunday Sessions" program, and was also to be included in the independent performance festival “American Realness."

During the performance, which has traveled internationally, Laâbissi —who was raised in France by Moroccan-born parents— enters a white stage, nearly nude, wearing only the faux headdress and a small scarf-like French flag. She writhes on the floor, contorts her face and force-feeds herself the flag. 

At the Queens performance, Laâbissi entered the stage wearing a headdress, which she placed on the floor. She conducted the rest of the performance without the headdress.

Seneca dancer Rosy Simas, who arranged for a group of Native people to attend the performance to protest, says she was outraged at the production, and later wrote an open letter on Facebook expressing her disbelief.

Simas’ letter reads in part:

“I am writing to express my utter disbelief and outrage at the proposed production of Latifa Laâbissi’s Self Portrait Camouflage for the American Realness program...I want to explain as best I can why the production of Latifa Laâbissi’s Self Portrait Camouflage is traumatizing to Native women, disrespectful to Native peoples, and an act of white supremacy at MoMA PS1 and the American Realness Festival in NYC.

She is not Native American, yet the only thing she is wearing is something sacred to Native culture, a Native American headdress, the sacred symbol of the Sioux Nations (the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples).

European settlers, American culture and Hollywood has historically objectified, sexualized, and exotified Native women for hundreds of years. It is common to see the sexy mostly nude “squaw” sometimes with a headdress at Halloween, in pornography, in advertising and marketing. We have been and are still treated as if we are just a historic people of the past.

One really must be out of touch to not know that thousands of Native women have been missing in Canada and the U.S. The rape and murder of Native women has been devastating to our people over the past few hundred years -- and it continues today.

So when I see these images of Laâbissi, that is what I see. I see a non-Native woman in a fake headdress performing naked. I see a mockery of whom Native women are.”

Nude French artist Latifa Laâbissi performed in a faux headdress - Screen capture

Nude French artist Latifa Laâbissi performed in a faux headdress.

In addition to Simas, other members of the Native community were also in attendance, including Mestiza performance studies scholar and artist, María Regina Firmino Castillo, Educators Ramona Kitto Stately and Janice BadMoccasin and award-winning music artist Tony Enos among others.

After the performance, Laâbissi answered questions through a translator. In a Facebook post, Castillo writes that Laâbissi cited the use of transgression, “as a powerful tool in the hands of artists seeking to engage both the political and the poetic.”

Castillo wrote that artists who engage in political critique, “have a responsibility to do the research, to imagine how our work is experienced by multiple audiences ... Otherwise, you alienate the audiences who might most deeply engage with your work.”

Crow Creek Hunkpati Cultural Keeper and Dakota/Lakota Winyan Janice Bad Moccasin also commented on the performance.“I was invited to address cultural appropriation to the audience and performer in the post panel discussion. I strongly asserted the Chief’s headdress is a culturally restricted sacred item that must be worn by the men only who had earned the right to wear such an adornment of honor by their people.

Most importantly, portraying an image of a naked woman with a headdress dancing is an oppressive assault to the sacredness of our Native American women, promotes negative stereotypes and causes to our women being sexualized instead of honored.”

An educator of Native youth, Ramona Kitto Stately sent comments she originally posted on Facebook to ICMN.

“No one else can tell our stories ... No other group can speak for us, our voice is strong today. We struggle, if you struggle Latifa Laabissi, then stand in your own power, but leave our native people out of your ridiculous and bizarre (and probably money making) naked dance. Why is this lateral oppression okay in this arena?”

Musician Tony Enos told ICMN, “According to Laâbissi, a lot of her performance is based on transgressions against government and power. Which, ok I get that. It's illegal to use the French flag for performance. But why would you purposely hurt an oppressed people by doing something disrespectful? That war bonnet is not for you to do as you please.”

On January 5th, Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor, the producer of the American Realness series, published a public apology. Additionally, Pryor revealed a new program event, Native American Realness, as part of the American Realness 2017 discourse series, happening on Saturday January 7th.

He wrote in part:

“When I first encountered the project, I saw it as a work from a Moroccan-French Arab woman that focused on immigration and had resonance with marginalized communities around the world. I failed in my process of critically examining and understanding the complex implications of presenting this work through the lens of ‘American Realness.’ My actions were unconsidered and this failure speaks to the genocide of Native American / Indigenous / First Nations peoples across the US and around the world, as well as the attempted white-supremacist erasure of these people, their history, cultures and sacred objects.

“I acknowledge and apologize to Native American / Indigenous / First Nations communities and Latifa Laâbissi, her collaborators, and my colleagues at MoMA PS1 for this failure and its particularly egregious nature as a festival that aims to illuminate authenticity and critical examinations of American-ness; as a program that prides itself on being a space for marginal identities; as a white male curator with no history of presenting work by Native American / Indigenous / First Nations people; in the face of Native American struggles and resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

In addition to the Native American Realness event which will be headlined by Simas who started the protest, Pryor also wrote in his letter about the Umyuangvigkaq: PS122 Long Table and Durational Sewing Bee, January 8th 11:30am – 6:00pm at the Ace Hotel New York (20 West 29th Street, Manhattan) as part of PS 122's Coil Festival 2017. “Umyuangvigkaq is a place to gather ideas where indigenous people, artists, art, methods, and audiences will be celebrated.” The event was presented by Emily Johnson and PS 122's Coil Festival.

According to Enos, Laâbissi did alter her performance by appearing in the headdress, then setting it on the ground. “When we asked her not to wear the headdress, Laâbissi said she would consider it, but probably wouldn’t stop.”

Laâbissi is scheduled to perform “Self-Portrait Camofluage” on January 19th and 20th in Paris, per the website.

Self Portrait Camoflauge - still on schedule in Paris - Screen capture

Self Portrait Camouflage - still on schedule in Paris.

Though Laâbissi has always previously performed wearing the headdress, in this performance, the artist put the headdress on the ground shortly after the beginning her presentation. Stately says placing the headdress on the ground was an insult.

“As for putting the headdress down on the ground, I explained to her and the audience that those eagle feathers represent the life and achievements, rites of passage that the person wearing it has accomplished in "HIS" life. We have rules and protocols about the treatment of these sacred items. Once an eagle feather touches the floor, it is a wounded warrior.

We have very old songs and ceremony that have to be done before picking up this wounded warrior, but once picked up it does not get returned to the owner. It must be gifted to another person who assumes the honor of caring for it.

“I explained the oversexualization of women causes Native American women to be 4 times more likely to be raped than any other group. Many people in the audience thanked me, they said they didn't know. Many people were crying.

“After the event, Latifa came to me and I told her face to face, ‘Do not wear that headdress again and I will assume you were ignorant of the meaning. But, now you know and if you continue, this sacred item will cause harm. Now you know.’ She got the hell out of there then...she was done talking to me.”