What would you call dancing?

  • RÉMY HÉRITIER – revue Rodéo n°3 / face A – June 2014

I arrived this afternoon in Third Mesa, the oldest Hopi village.

Oraibi, the place where Aby Warburg stayed, is unrecognizable, of course. Now it’s called Old Oraibi, ever since part of the population seceded after a missionary priest was executed in the early twentieth century. Oraibi is now at the foot of Third Mesa.

Before I came, I imagined the place as a village that had been following the course of American history, preserving its old stones flanked with Subway and McDonald’s neon lights.

The village isn’t easy to describe because it obviously doesn’t have much in common with most other American villages. After seeing the houses in Warburg’s photos, I am able to recognize where they stand, their forms and their height, but my vision is blurred by rubbish and makeshift constructions stuck onto the older constructions.

I decide to join a group of men selling souvenirs. We have a long chat before I pull out my copy of Aby Warburg’s A Lecture on Serpent Ritual. None of them have ever heard of Warburg. They comment on these pictures taken in 1896.

I accompany one of them through the village. We compare the pictures with what we see around us. We compare what these 19th century pictures contain with what we both see here in Old Oraibi, in 2013.

In the time between 1896 and 2013, very few official representations of the village have been produced. There are indeed more recent pictures taken by members of the community, although they have been kept secret since the 1920’s. And there are surely other pictures, just as secret, stolen by disobeying tourists. The entire Hopi community seems to agree on the fact that no picture should ever leave the place.

The story goes that in the twenties, a man with ill intentions secretly photographed and recorded sacred rituals to sell them later on. Feeling betrayed, the Hopi community reacted to his abuse by definitively forbidding any form of recording on their land. A visitor therefore may travel through most of the village, but no material proof of his visit can leave the reserve.

I buy a few objects from the group of village people to thank them for their hospitality, starting with a kachina doll representing a grandmother. It’s the first kachina given to little girls, a simple doll crowned with two feathers. From another man, I buy the representation of a snake with multi-coloured paint on wood attached to a long piece of string. It makes the sound of rain when swivelled around in the air. The sound is then transmitted to higher instances that make rain in return. I tried today. It rained several minutes later. And the seller and I were speechless.

Tonight I’ll be sleeping in the Hopi Cultural Centre, the only motel around.

Once in my room, I feel a strange sensation: what does it mean to be in such a vast place where it’s strictly forbidden to take photos, film, record and draw? I hadn’t thought about it before, but the title of my research, “Perform an object in its absence” had suddenly become extremely significant.

Thinking back to what one of the men had told me: he said a village dweller had sold an original print from 1896 to a European ten days ago. At first I thought I had misunderstood. I asked him to repeat his remark and he did. I told him that I hoped he’d sold it for a good price at least, but he hadn’t, apparently. I couldn’t see how that could happen in such a tense atmosphere, after the sale of a hundred kachinas at the Drouot auction house in Spring 2013. Another question came to mind: how had the photographer developed and printed his image here and how had it survived?

Here, even if the stones are 3000 years old, they’re certainly not the centre of attention (this afternoon, walking through the streets, every step I took had crushed bits of painted pottery). Maintaining culture resides in something immaterial and yet a non-Hopi cannot leave with an image that is not mental.

I can’t take photos of the objects I bought because they’re wrapped up.

I photograph all the objects in my room; almost all have something to do with Hopi symbols in a very “Tourist Board” version. The snake is used in signs as an arrow. There’s even the bible stashed away in the drawer of my night table, in spite of a missionary priest being killed here in the early 20th century.

Next day, Wednesday June 5th, I stop a first time at Walpi to take some notes: Should I find a strategy to memorize things otherwise, by incorporation, or on the contrary should I invent a scheme to forget everything?

I ask this question later on in the morning to the guide I’m visiting the village with. He doesn’t give me direct answer. And so I become more precise: “Hopi country is the largest territory I’ve travelled across where it’s forbidden to use contemporary means of extending one’s personal memory.”  I specify that I’m not discussing the merits of this unexpected ban, on the contrary, it allows me to apprehend my own presence differently, in the sense of “being in the present time.”

Since vision has become secondary, this ban allows me to exist among things. On the mountain I no longer see the mountain. Dancing is an act during which the dancer cannot be his own spectator: he is among things.

Translated from the French by Emmelene Landon

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