Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Artist Interview, From the Archive: Roberto Sifuentes

In 2003 I interviewed interdisciplinary/performance artist Roberto Sifuentes at his studio in lower Manhattan for a project I was making called The National Identity Project, in which I captured stories from people who experienced street violence post-9/11 because they were presumed to be Arabs. I met Sifuentes through his then-wife, Lián Amaris, a fascinating artist in her own right, who was a colleague during my Masters at NYU. She overheard me talking about my idea and said, "Ha. You should talk with my husband." Sifuentes is a core member of La Pocha Nostra, Guillermo Gómez-Peña's techno-art/performance ensemble. La Pocha Nostra has done some fascinating work post-9/11 on the dangers of ethnic profiling and the blurring of Middle Eastern and Chicano identities in the imagination of western authority. I'm posting this because I think it is even more relevant now than it was four years ago.


  1. Interesting interview. I'm wondering whether there's anything specific in the US that makes it more relevant now than four years ago.

    To explain: I've not much idea what life is like in the US. I'm across the pond in London. Here, I would say there has been a pretty big general rise in racism over the last few years, with the post 9/11 surge in Islamophobia kind of cross-fertilised by other developments that are more local to the UK - such as the mainstreaming of politics once associated mainly with the fascist BNP. Our charming Labour government bears a heavy responsibility for much of that. Increasing amounts of "Britishness" rhetoric has stirred up some serious shit...

    There has been a noticeable escalation in political rhetoric aimed at Muslims, profiling by the police (and "justification" of it in the media) and individual racist attacks and incidents.

    The people targeted here tend to be identified (accurately or not) as Muslims rather than people from the Middle East. Increasing amounts of racist political rhetoric/police activity/street racism have been directed at areas with sizeable Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities in particular.

    There are plenty of examples of racism being directed at people suspected of being from the Middle East - obviously evil! - turbanned Sikhs etc etc too though...

    The big antiwar movement here offset all this to some extent - it was very mixed and consciously anti-Islamophobic - but the movement has declined from a 2003/4 highpoint in the past few years.

    And recent escalation of the war on Afghanistan into Pakistan seems to be making things worse still.

    Sorry, that's a bit long!

    (think I may only be able to post with old blogger account - new site is www.runoverbythetruth.com)

  2. @red one
    Thanks for the link, I like your blog. When I was in London a few years ago I stayed in the East End and was struck by how integrated the South Asian food/culture was in pubs and on the street there. But then I am comparing it to other places on the continent like Austria and Norway, where I felt like the antipathy toward South Asian/African/Middle Eastern populations was palpable... So I appreciate your perspective. What you describe certainly echoes my experience as a New Yorker. The reason I am running this interview now is that I think the violent extremes of that terrible time just after 9/11 have become normalized.

  3. Well to a great extent, your experience of London was pretty representative. London is very multiracial, very mixed and is not teeming with street racism. On the whole it's a good place to live - I don't want to give you the wrong idea. (And if you were in the East End proper you would also have been close to the heart of London's Bangladeshi community centred on Brick Lane.)

    But outside the cities, it can be a very different story - often very white areas where black or Asian people or other minorities can feel quite isolated. Or like in some of the Northern towns where there may be a large Pakistani population and a large white population, say, but housing and schools often not very mixed.

    But racism is on the rise. A lot of that is the government and police thing. But even in Hackney, east London, where I live, which is hugely mixed - the local school will have kids who look like the world and speak 100 languages - and traditionally a pretty strong anti-racist climate, you are starting to get incidents... a friend with a hijab hassled in the park, a mate of mine who told me a couple of years back he was suddenly getting lots of room on the bus (potential bomber, obviously). I asked him, in Hackney? And he said yes. And that is like a throwback, maybe 25 years in racism terms. For some time, you wouldn't have expected that kind of shit round here. You are right, I think, post-9/11 the norm has shifted.

    So not Norway, but heading in the wrong direction. Noticeably and scarily.

    (I got here originally from racialicious, where I've always enjoyed your comments. It's good to see you blogging.)


  4. @red one
    Thanks for your comments. Actually Latoya from Racialicious didn't give me much choice: get to blogging, said she.

    I appreciate hearing about London because I think that, like New York it is a yardstick for the larger world. Things here got bad very fast and never really returned to pre-9/11 comfort levels for Arabs and Muslims.