By Virginia Arce*
Dusk has come and gone in Highland Park, and I find myself at Collective Arts Incubator waiting alongside a small group of spectators waiting in anticipation for Sheila Rodriguez and her daughters to begin their performance. I know that I am here to bear witness to an act of embodied knowledge transmitting history, affect, and care in the form of braiding hair.
An announcement is made, and the ritual begins. One at a time, Rodriguez begins to braid each girl’s hair while her sisters occupy themselves sewing, drawing, immersed in their own quiet acts of making. I look on rapt, as does the audience, intensely aware of the unique and temporal space we are inhabiting somewhere in proximity to familial ritual. Rodriguez braids each girl’s hair quietly, quickly. No exchange of words is made between mother and daughters — everything is communicated through working hands, in the instinctive tilt of a neck, in pregnant silence.
Now all the girls’ hair has been braided and Rodriguez generously invites members of the audience to take their place. The symbolic charge of her labor is dislocated from the center of collective attention, transformed into an indeterminate energy that exists throughout the room. Now, Rodriguez carefully combs, parts, and arranges strangers’ hair but the silence has dissipated and curiosity and vulnerability take its place. People line up to have their hair braided, to be transformed by and simultaneously become part of a temporal familial tribe.
As I watch Rodriguez create taut, symmetrical patterns with each stranger’s hair, the subject of labor weighs heavily on my mind.
In the affective, fertile space between mother and daughters, the scaffolds of intergenerational memory and meaning-making are built in real time. I wonder… What will Rodriguez’s daughters remember of this? What will time do to this memory of their mother, this labor, these moments in which strangers breached into this intimate space? When was the last time I remember my mother braiding my hair? When did I stop acknowledging it?
I knew that I came here tonight to witness an act of embodied knowledge between a mother and her daughters. What I do not (could not) know until the moment revealed itself to me, was that I would bear witness to a labor that sustains us, that sustained me in the past and that my memory had discarded until this moment, this unlikely return.
For me, the radical potency of what Rodriguez and her daughters have shared tonight is a challenge to remember and reconcile this forgetting with the countless acts of love and labor that binds, sustains, shapes, and heals. It recuperates loving labor back from the recesses of memory and restores its place to the forefront of consciousness.
*Virginia Arce received her BFA in Studio Art with an emphasis in photography at Otis College of Art and Design, and will her MFA in Critical and Curatorial Studies from the University of California, Irvine. She is the Chief Editor for Haunt Journal of Art, a peer-run art journal that provides a platform for speculative writing around theory, criticism, and philosophy.