CARTAGENA, Colombia- They call themselves the Asociacion de Artista Escemico de Cartagena, but visitors to this city best know them by their trademark black painted faces, black clothes, and black props. They are a troupe of performance artists that mime out caricatures from Cartagena’s history in the streets for pocket change.
Doing their act solo or in pairs, members of this group stand in the street completely still, silent, looking as inanimate as possible — like a statue — until a passerby drops a coin in the receptacle that sits on the ground before them. Then, WHAM! the black faced actor springs into action, doing a set sequence of movements that makes up his show. Depending on what props they have, members of this group mostly act as if they are fishing or cutting wood, and one, who is dressed to suit, does a pirate routine.
I first met the members of this acting group as they were taking a break from performing, sitting in the shade of the city wall of old Cartagena.
“Are you actors?” I asked them, trying to break the ice. The group of eight street performers nodded. I had seen their show before, and was interested if there was a deeper meaning in their black painted faces or in the caricatures they portrayed.
“Why do you paint your faces black?” I asked.
“Because we are mimes,” one of them spoke simply, as though I just fell down to earth from the sky and knew nothing of this odd species I beheld before me.
“Yes, I understand,” I repaired, “but why are you doing fishing and wood cutting acts, does it have something to do with the fact that people from Africa arrived here a long time ago and fished and cut wood?” I asked this question in very askance Spanish.
The mimes just nodded, “Yes, one of them spoke, the people here were fishermen.”
Perhaps I was interpreting the symbolism of the act too deeply. Though these actors could be portraying a variety of characters — as they do in other parts of Latin America — most of them were wearing the same costume and did pretty much the same show which related somewhat to the history of this region. I was wondering if their costuming was an attempt at blackface — a now extinct form of performance art popular in 19th century America — but it was not my impression that this was the influence behind their choice color of face paint.
If there was any deeper significance to the black paint on these actor’s faces it more than likely was influenced by a far older tradition than Vaudeville. Black face painting was something the Spanish introduced to Latin America, a tradition that is still practiced in various celebrations throughout this region. Though I have asked countless times about this aspect of costuming in such performances throughout South America, I have not yet received a response from someone who knew why they still practiced this — or even what it really represents. The blackface tradition in Latin America seems far older than common historical knowledge, and when I’ve inquire about it I am invariably met with a simple shrug and a brisk , “That is just what we do.”
But it was my impression that these mimes were, for the most part, just mimes. Throughout Latin America their brethren paint their faces, necks — every visible pane of skin — with body paint and go into the streets to perform. As I asked this troupe about the meaning of their black faces it was clear that I was looking in the wrong direction:
This troupe does a show for tourists — enough said. The Caribbean coast of Colombia was populated by freed and escaped slaves, and this cultural and racial legacy has lived on. The mimes in Cartagena were just in costume for their performance. Tourists like that stuff . . .
“How many people are in your group?” I asked.
“There are 14 of us,” one of them responded. “Eight of us paint our faces black, four paint their faces white, one is a [Spanish not understood], and one is a pirate.”
Four years ago this acting troupe came together, and since then they have been doing shows in the streets of Cartagena. The members of this group did not seem to be middle class art school students trying to make up some beer money, but young men making a living. Their clothes were a touch worn, their footwear busted up, their acting props and costumes seemed to have been made without much expense. These guys were for real — professionals making a living from their art.
“How much money do you make?” I asked them.
The group shrugged and laughed a little before one of them replied, “It depends on how many tourists there are.”