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Ugly truths: Work-in-progress talk performance examines the life of Julia Pastrana • Brooklyn Paper

Ugly truths: Work-in-progress talk performance examines the life of Julia Pastrana

Double vision: Artist Laura Anderson Barbata’s show “The Eye of the Beholder,” having two workshop performances this month, examines the larger-than-life story of 19th-century indigenous Mexican performer Julia Pastrana, dubbed “The Ugliest Woman in the World.”
Laura Anderson Barbata

She’s making a picture that is more than skin-deep.

A new interactive show will look beneath the surface of the 19th-century singer known as “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” The lecture, dance performance, and work-in-progress “The Eye of the Beholder,” at Bric Arts Media on Feb. 15 and 22, draws parallels between the tragic life of Julia Pastrana, an indigenous Mexican woman forced to sing and dance in freak shows around the world, and modern day human trafficking, according to the performance artist behind the project.

“Julia was part of human trafficking. This was a person that was exploited from the time she was born to after her death,” said Laura Anderson Barbata, who lives in Bushwick. “Many people are still exploited the same way, we still have a lot of work to do to address this better.”

Pastrana, born in 1834 in the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa, had two rare illnesses, which caused thick black hair to grow on her face, and her gums and lips to grow thick. She was sold to a circus at an early age, until American Theodore Lent tricked her into marriage. He displayed her around North America and Europe for years, and fathered a child with her to keep the show running, according to Anderson Barbata.

“There are theories that he got her pregnant because he wanted more people for the show,” the artist said.

But Pastrana and her baby died in childbirth. After a doctor embalmed both of them, Lent stole their remains and kept on exhibiting them, to even greater success. The bodies of Pastrana and her baby remained on tour for another century, before going into storage at a university in Norway.

Anderson Barbata heard about Pastrana’s story in the early aughts, and drew a connection to her own childhood, growing up in the same area of Mexico and dancing for money.

“As she was a dancer, I was forced to dance for tourists for money as a child,” the artist said.

During an art residency in Norway, she launched a successful campaign to have Pastrana’s body returned to her native Mexico. Anderson Barbata chronicled Pastrana’s life in a recent book, also titled “Eye of the Beholder,” and began working on the show in 2015.

The show is still evolving, but the workshop sessions will use projections, music, and dance to tell Pastrana’s tragic tale, and also to look at how society judges people by their appearance, said Anderson Barbata.

“It’s about removing labels so that we can be appreciated and understood in a more respectable way and to make our life and our own personal experience better,” she said.

“The Eye of the Beholder” at Bric House [647 Fulton St., between Rockwell and Ashland places in Fort Greene, (718) 855–7882, www.bricartsmedia.org]. Feb. 15 and 22 at 7 pm. $12 ($8 in advance).

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@schnepsmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.

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