Looking up for artists that work with communicative bodies, I reminded chilean artist Francisca Benitez. In her work she amplifies the voice of deaf people through a series of performances in which she uses ASL (American Sign Language), involving the community, in public space and in museum context. These series of works function as a call of attention on how discriminative oral language can be to people that lack the hearing sense.
My aunt, the sister of my dad is deaf. She lost her hearing capacity due to meningitis disease when she was six months old. In the time when I was a kid, she frequently came to our house on Sundays for family gathering. I remember how she read the lips. For that reason, we needed to talk with her really pronouncedly and slowly so she could understand what it was said, although I could sense in collective conversations how she got lost. She could also feel vibrations. During one summer we went with her to the beach house. She slept in the room next to my brother, so we should walk quietly at night not to wake her up. “She can feel your steps in the wood” thats’s what my mother said. I don’t see her so often anymore. Fortunately with internet and chat interfaces she is connected and participates actively in social media. We have encountered lately in that virtual sphere.
As I have researched, laws for deaf people in Chile and globally have improved to more integration in different levels. In the last decades, sign language has been recognized in the laws of different countries.
By the time I was a kid and an adolescent, and until some years ago, I was not completely aware of the difficulties that a person with disabilities need to face in daily life. Therefore I ask myself about “normativities” of the language. What I didn’t know for example, and realized after reading Benitez artistic research is that facial expression, unlike in oral communication, is part of the grammar: it is not an exaggeration, it is part of the word. It is not enough to make the sign of “happy,” you have to appear happy to make that sign. This is extremely interesting as the body integrally needs to perform the emotion.
Benitez learns the ASL language of signs in the middle of her artistic career and delivers it, through actions involving herself and other participants, in single or collective actions.
Through her own biographic experience, her father a non hearing person, she realizes the importance of learning other ways to communicate. She didn’t urge to learn it before, as her father was adapting to the situations, more than the context adapting to him.
What I find more interesting and relevant in her practice is how she experience this act as a way of decolonization of the language, of questioning the system of domination in which we live in. And also how society omits disabilities in order to perform unilateral forms of communication. She uses the artistic context as an area of intersection, where people come with a curious attitude. In this environment she triggers in the audience different communication possibilities, through the body, and beyond orality.
Francisca Benitez percibes her work as disruptions, not pretending to give solutions, yet to bring a question to the viewers. I think about solidarity and empathy within this work. And how the artistic practice can be not only an aesthetic tool but also an agency to society integration, by extending language in a post-colonialist perspective.
Francisca Benitez “Son en señas” (2015) Performance. Centro de Arte Contemporaneo Wilfredo Lam, Cuba.