In the winter of 2010, in a dimly lit exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, we witnessed an ethnographic diorama that contains a human figure wrapped in a buffalo skin cloak covered in hand-drawn patterns. The figure stands in the corner of the monochrome box, between a display window and walls dappled with artifacts, blocks of text, and drawings of scenes from “Plains Indian life.” We only see the top of the figure’s head. The rest of its body, including its face, is wrapped in the drawn-on cloak. The figure, turning toward the corner, seems to be hiding from our view. That is our gut feeling — we don’t know for sure. In all honesty, we’re quite disconcerted by the scene. And worse, there is a sense of eternal stasis because the figure is a mannequin and nothing ever moves. Our gaze remains unreturned as if we are looking through a two-way mirror, observing, self unseen, shameless and safe, or as if we and the mannequin are completely oblivious to one another. More importantly, we are invited to believe, here in the context of a museum of natural history, that we’re looking backwards into an accurate long-gone past, a time when the actual people, one of whom this mannequin supposedly resembles, were still undisturbed: “wild” and authentic natives. Two young children are looking at the diorama and talking to each other: “Is he dead?” “No, he’s just frozen.”
This short exchange between the two children flies like a punctum out of the image advanced by the museum in service of Western supremacy narratives and cultural power relations. What we witness in the moment the two children talk to each other is how the mannequin becomes talkative too. It provides or even creates various narratives that enable it to manipulate, transform, and even subvert its own thingness and temporality. It is frozen and therefore impervious to the blows death deals normal mortals. Perhaps these mannequins are superheroes with gaze-related powers. If they are frozen, can their gazes freeze too? Is that “freezing” gaze actually just a pulling of our attention insistently yet gently into dialogue with it? Or dare we look at it at all? In one glance, what we are looking at is a painted replica of a plaster cast of an Apache held as a “prisoner of war” in an old colonial Spanish fort in St. Augustine, Florida in the late nineteenth century. But what else can we see in other glances? The figure, the mannequin, the doll, the model, the copy, the imprint, the forgery, the representative — it holds the power to fashion its own readings, beyond the descriptive text that the museum wants it to recite. Did we just see it twitch?
What is the difference between seeing and witnessing? According to the author and anthropologist Michael Taussig, witnessing involves bafflement and a strong need to call on the spirits of that which one witnessed — at the very least, the need to catch a memory. While seeing happens at face value, witnessing tries to go deeper, though it might not make it because that which is witnessed always resists recognition and interpretation, drifting deeper into literally unfathomable waters. What we witness, we carry with us like a drawing in our sketchbook, a drawing that is never finished. Drawing a scene one witnessed becomes a way to deal with what one saw, to grapple with it, cope with it, find out what it’s connected to, what’s behind it — and most importantly, to be able to speak to it. By making a drawing, we are making time, time to enter into dialogue — or maybe dispute — with our surroundings. The drawing we make might familiarize us with a strangeness unexpectedly depicted in it. It might also cause that little perpetual shock that occurs within the delay between the translation of one’s surroundings into the drawn image, and the evolution of that image’s reading. The drawing has a bond with what it depicts and can therefore affect the reality depicted.
In Drawing for Witnesses (Are they dead? No, they’re just frozen), Pente and Wheeler create an installation as a starting point for a range of performances interrogating technologies of the ethnographic gaze and display while altering and expanding the installation step by step in the presence of witnesses. During the different activities the installation changes its focus addressing geography, archeology, memory and storytelling by using acts of drawing, poses and gestures, collage-making, tableaux vivantes, imperceptibly slow movement, and other devices.