artist convo: Eva Margarita
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
The following transcript is from a January 2021 conversation about all things ritual, conjuring, performance/performativity, art-making, and so much more. Thank you, Eva, for being part of my living archive of knowledge!
Bio: Originally from South Central Los Angeles, Eva Margarita is an Afro-Latinx performance artist and scholar. Situating herself at the intersection of rhetoric and performance studies, Eva Margarita’s work explores conjure, ceremourning, and ritual performance. Her critical writings investigate diasporic sociological haunting with the intention of unsettling colonial forms of gathering.
Maegan: I saw you do a lot of ritual performance, so I was excited to talk to you!
Eva: Yes, I do a lot of ritual durational performance. I've certainly written a play or two, some poetry about brujería, but I find I'm much more comfortable in durational performance.
Maegan: Why is that?
Eva: When I think about ritual, I think about gathering. When we look to conjure, we're also conjuring a gathering, and it often isn't as scripted as traditional theater. When we're in the live and we're also conjuring a gathering, what we're thinking about is accompaniment. “I don't need you to advocate for me. I need you to sit with me, to sit with us.” I find that durational performance creates an appropriate entry point, be it an hour-and-a-half to 12 hours. How long can you sit with something that is difficult? How long can we sit with a ritual or with something that is ultimately going to bring some type of purpose, be it to the event, to the ritual, or to our lives? Either way, we are still conjuring and accompanying one another.
Maegan: I saw the word conjure all over the place when I was trying to Internet stalk you. Can you talk a little bit more about what attracts you to that word and how you define it ?
Eva: To me, conjuring is a purposeful subversion of energy. It is a melding of spiritual, scholarly, and creative realms in order to best unsettle whatever is happening in that moment. Whether that is to work with ashes to unsettle grief or to cook activated charcoal for nine days, it's subverting the energy of the moment so that we can use it in other ways. I like to think conjure does all those things. It combines realms, but it's also very much about the energy of the moment.
Maegan: While we're thinking about energies, the next thing that pops into my head is your relation to the audience and spectators.
Eva: It's so funny to think about, because what was what was theater a year ago? What was performance, a year ago? Pre-Covid it was very much about connecting with the audience. Maybe we would have eye contact, maybe it was a clear invitation to join me to do something, or at the very least, I would write some like mad poetry and get into people's faces. But now the audience is the spectator, the spect-actor. Not in the same way of Augusto Boal -- well, maybe it is, actually, because Boal's spect-actors recognize their responsibility to do something for that performance. So if anything, I feel like we're conjuring or working with spect-actors, specifically when we work with brujería or witchcraft or conjuring.
But the entry point is so different. Now that I do all these performances at my house, it can't be a one-way stage-performer energy. Instead, it’s “How are you continuing to accompany me on this journey?” I never want the spectator to feel like they're surveilling me. I want them to feel like they are joining me for this performance, so often my own camera angles are meant to really work with that. I have goose-neck tripods so that I can set cameras at a realistic eye-level. The camera’s not just in a corner looking at the whole room. It's very purposeful and very intimate, so that even when we're looking at a pot, it should feel and look like we're actually looking in that pot. It's not to consistently surveil, but to constantly ask the audience to accompany me.
Maegan: That's so useful! I always appreciate insights into the process of translating something that's rooted in magic or spirituality across screens. It seems like it should be impossible. It's not, but --
Eva: It’s only seemingly impossible. But it is a lot of work!
Maegan: I should probably backtrack and learn more about you. I just got so excited to jump into ritual! I'd love to know about your entryway into performance. And I know you're also an academic, so perhaps you can speak to the how those things intertwine in terms of your evolution as an artist.
Eva: Wow. Who am I? I think it's important to note that I am an Afro-Latinx artist. My mom is from Honduras and my dad is from Guatemala. My dad's family is where I got most of my spirituality and what I like to think of as everyday conjuring, or everyday subversion moments. It’s about how every day we use energy really purposefully at specific times. Some of that is through cooking. For instance, it’s about learning that when I use salt, I have to pour it in my left hand with my right hand, and I've gotta pinch it and do it this specific way, and when I'm done I have to clap my hands, and if I don't clap my hands, then it didn't work -- none of that none of the flavor's there because I didn't clap or dust my hands off in it. And that was only told to me once, one time. A lot of times, that's how my family taught me how to cook. When I learned how to make Guatemalan tamales, which take 12 hours, my aunt only showed me once, and she said, "You better pay attention, because I'm not doing this again." And often, it's recognizing the energy that is at that moment, at that time, and telling us that whatever it is, whatever we're doing, it's happening here and now. I need you to pay attention, really pay attention to how everything continues to not just layer on top of each other, but how they commingle -- so that when we need to commingle later, when we need to bring in that energy or that memory, whatever it was that my aunt was doing at that time, I know how to do it. So that's part of where my background in conjuring began: in cooking and learning these very specific ways of layering flavors and layering energy.
And then as an academic -- I mean, I went to community college. I went to Los Angeles City College for a few years and I was on the speech and debate team. And when I was doing speech, my coaches encouraged me to talk about the things that I know best, which was about being an Afro-Latina and being chastised for being a Black Latina. And also for believing in conjuring and believing brujería, which oftentimes was silenced and put in a in the back corner locked in the closet, just as the memories of our Black grandmothers had been. So in speech and debate, which was a very academic type of performance where I was doing duo and dramatic things, I was writing about brujería, I was writing about being Black. It gave me my first entry point to perform with that energy. There were times I was with my duo partner doing a piece about brujería, and you swear we were levitating -- like the whole room like shifted with us. That was so incredibly powerful. So when I went to NYU for performance studies, “I was just like, well, what do I know? I know how to do this.” So I immediately went to conjure. I immediately went to cooking. I immediately went to, “How do I make activated charcoal? How do I really think about Blackness? How do I think about making Blackness?”
So I thought about all these symbols and signs into relations that often were in cooking, but also often in cottonwood, in all of these things where we don't realize that Blackness is all around us. For instance, to make activated charcoal, I used canvas. If you pull off the canvas, there's wood. Most canvases are made out of poplar wood, which, funnily enough, also held Black people up in different ways; Black people spilled over onto poplar wood in different ways. So when I when I started to think about how Black people spill over, I thought about cooking, I thought about Blackness, I thought about subversion, and I thought, “what else can I do with this?” So it's going to the things that I know best.
Sometimes it's an invention or a reinvention. My mom always used to tell me, "Don't go inventing things today" -- and there I went, every day, inventing something new, a new way to do something, even now as an adult. It’s just so powerful for my mom to have said that to me my whole life. Don't go inventing things, you just invent new ways to FUCK SHIT UP. And I'm like, yeah I do. Even now I think about invention, I think about reinvention. How can we continue to reinvent ourselves with the energies of the moment?
Maegan: How day you make space in academia or in theatre institutions, which are not often not welcoming to spirituality and empathy, for this kind of work?
Eva: You've gotta play their game, just a little bit. I'm very much a critical theory person in terms of academia. So I'll write about conjuring Black stuff as my master's thesis. Like, how do I subvert the census? For me, I tend to route things in history, so that when I need to bring in Michel Foucault or Solimar Otero , when I want to talk about Archives of Conjure, I can do that. I can show you that it is rooted and that everything continues to evolve in these spaces. And if anything, I can show how, at least it in terms of conjure, which in my case is rooted in AfroLatinidad, I can show that root, which means I can show where it goes. An advisor of mine calls it Mangrovian, after mangroves, which grow at the at the side of rivers in these entanglements. And that's just it. We have to give way for the entanglements. We have to show the entanglements to recognize that out of there can grow something so beautiful. So for me it's rooted in history. Once I find that really niche thing, I can then hit a theory, and then I can push off and say, "This is why it fuels my fire." Then I can shift it. Even in academia, I still subvert things all the time. I'm lucky that at UT Austin, specifically in rhetoric and language, my advisor had previously written about conjuring and sociological haunting, which is what I write about. So many people have written about haunting and conjuring, and I often go there. If that means defining the difference between an archive and a repertoire, so that I can push off the repertoire, then let's do that. Because witchcraft and magical happenings are rooted in embodied practices, and that's the only way that we can continue to pass them on: to embody them and to show others or to gather in that practice.
Maegan: Thinking about embodied practices, I know that you're also a poet and you obviously have an interest in rhetoric, so I'm wondering how that plays into the decisions that you make with the rituals that you craft for your performances. What magical roles do body and text play?
Eva: What's funny I don't even think about the text until later. I love a good artist statement, but it's all formulated after the embodied practice. I also love language, but I know that when I perform, it's best if you just shut the fuck up so that we can pay attention to what's going on. I often feel like the rhetoric, the language is what allows me to play the game, but it also allows me to recognize the power of language and the power of being able to switch it and flip it and let it do something else. I don't think it's by accident that Zora Neale Hurston writes Of Mules and Men, and in there, in the text, is the recipe. In the text is the conjuring. In fact, in the text is the glossary that has all the words that tell her what to do and how to do it, and tells you how to do it.
Words have their purpose. They certainly do. But also, thinking about the words lets me think about what would happen if we didn't have the words. What if we look at the things that they represent? I mean, Karen Barad and Jacques Derrida, they show us that words have way too much power. Words bring us to symbols which bring us to these very narrow ways of thinking. So part of studying the texts and studying the words is about thinking, what if I didn't use those words? What if I broke the words? What if that signature wasn't really that signature anymore, and we came to it in a very lived practice kind of way?
Maegan: What goes into your decision of what to bring into a public space? When you're looking at spiritual and sacred practices, how do you go about sharing them?
Eva: That's a good question, because I keep thinking about how we cannot continue to make the same colonial movements that have been pressed upon us. So we can't just force it. We have to use the things that we have as best as we can, which is why, even when we think about camera angles, we have to think, how does this work as an accompaniment? How does this work as a camera angle and not a surveillance? How do I make this feel like I'm not forcing you to do this, but I'm inviting you to join me on this? It's a real specific entry point to recognize that I'm going to take part in a decolonial act, in an anti-colonial act. When it comes to the public, I'm like, “I hope you all know what you're in for. If you're not, you're gonna learn today because I'm not gonna do it any different.” I actually talked to Bonnie Cullum at the Vortex about this. She was talking about how sometimes with witchcraft or magical happenings, you have to let people know that it is an invitation. And if that's not something that you're here for, then maybe this isn't for you. Not everything is for everybody and that's okay. Ideally, when we're in an online space, you can just click out. But if it is for you, when you find yourself somehow enthralled in a gathering and you can't help but to feel it, then we invite folks to continue to move with us. And that's about moving with and not moving for. Don't do this for me, do this with me. Accompany me. Just sit with me for as long as you can. I invite you to sit, to gather in that silence, to recognize that in that silence there are echoes of trauma, of magic, echoes of hope that happens when we gather, when we choose to gather in this way.
Maegan: Can you brag for me about the magical pieces that you're especially proud of?
f Ours! This performance took place New Year's Eve/day. It started at 11pm and went on to about 12:30. So this performance... man, I fucking loved it! I really wanted to conjure a gathering -- not just a coming together, but a coming together in our grief. Let's come together in an acknowledgement of our mourning, which we've all been doing all year. The idea started swirling around in August, but I was at a friend's birthday when it all came together: I was talking about buying all these candles, and he said, “Maybe you should crowdfund it. If this is a big piece about accompaniment, then maybe the accompaniment comes in the candle, in having people donate the physical candles. In that way, we all join you.” (Remember to thank your friends when you need them to bounce ideas off of!)
I really I needed for us to acknowledge the loss of Black lives, the loss of time, the loss of a sense of normalcy, the loss of whatever we thought was. To acknowledge all of that. I wanted to collect an overflowing amount of candles -- candles that overflowed in the sense that they went in and out of different rooms in my home; they went out the door, down the lot past my brother's house, in front of my mom's house in the yard, to where there was an enormous spiral of candles all lit up. In total I collected about $1,300 and we bought 750 candles total. All the candles were purchased from mom-and-pop shops corner stores. Everything was community based because I really, really wanted this to be communal, for this to be a constant accompaniment in in our grief, but also in in a gathering of community.
So we bought the candles and a couple fire extinguishers, just in case, and on New Year's Eve, I set them all up and then we lit them one by one. The candles were lit as fireworks were going off in my neighborhood. I wanted the mics to stay on the entire time, but some of the fireworks were so big that we had to cut them here and there -- but you can still hear the fireworks, you can hear all the sirens. You can hear everything, because that's also another type of accompaniment. It recognizes that conjuring works on a multisensorial level. It is certainly kinesthetic, and it is certainly about touch, it is about seeing about seeing the fire, but it's also about what you can hear. As silent as I am, the world is still going on. The world is still lighting fireworks for the next transition.
And so we did it. I did briefly catch fire towards the end, really briefly -- but I completed every spiral. Every candle was lit. And then at the end, I walked the biggest spiral nine times to recognize the navigation that we are doing. It feels like a swirl, it feels like a spiral, every time we recognize our grief. But that's not to say that the recognition, the acknowledgement of mourning cannot spark some sense of hope. All these candles sparked hope. They quite literally sparked a light. Black rooms just lit up. Visually, it worked out so perfectly. And I love that each candle has its piece, just like each Black life we had we lost this year had its piece. Each part was a fragment in the greater whole, and it felt incredibly dizzying at times. But the more we sat with and the longer we sat with it, the more hope was felt, the more we acknowledged that grief and that mourning. It happened together. And we unsettled it. When you light white candles in mourning, you leave them on in recognition of the dead, and this was for and with the dead, allowing them to move in and out of the domestic space in the same way that grief did throughout this year -- but this time we used it differently. And that was a little light of ours.
Maegan: That's beautiful. I love that your work acknowledges the complicated-ness of grief and hope and how they're all layered together. Congratulations!
Eva: I love that piece. And then Salt Fat Ash Heat -- that was an endeavor. It's a 12-hour performance where I cooked with my father's ashes. I like pulled the bone pieces out of the urn, then I ground the ashes in a molcajete and with a mortar that was passed down from my grandmother. I cooked three dishes and then I ate my father. The dishes that I made were tamales, rice and beans, and frites, which were some of the last three meals that he asked me to cook for him. I took this endo-cannibalistic approach, which is where you when you digest or eat someone from your own community, ideally your immediate family or your immediate community. It was cathartic. I cried a lot. But it was also to unsettle that grief, to let folks know that this is done with love. In the same way that life pounded this man down, I pounded it down with love. I pounded it down and I made something that I knew he would have liked. By eating it, it's subverting this energy, shifting it; instead of being for a loss, I let this be about transition. I let this be about processing, quite literally -- by the body processing it, I say that this grief no longer has that same power over me. I now have power over it.
I'm incredibly proud of that one. That was a 12-hour performance, and then there's also a soundscape. The performance is unlisted on YouTube because an archive of conjure works with the things hidden in plain sight. Otero writes that in Archives of Conjure. It's the things hidden in plain sight. So let the video be enlisted. Let folks stumble upon it somehow. But also, it's like learning how to cook. You had to be there to be there. If you knew about it and you didn't come, that's because you didn't want to come. I'm only going to tell you once, and I'm only going to do this once. I'm not going to do this again and I'm not going to continue to let people hit play all the all the time, because you're not going to get that recipe all the time.
Maegan: I'd like to ask on behalf of our Coven, are there words you would you like to offer undergraduate theatre artists? Maybe something that you wish you'd known many moons ago.
Eva: It's okay to ask for help. It's okay to say “I don't know.” It's okay to come to the Coven or a group of folks that you're comfortable with and say, "Hey, are you lost, too?" I've found that most people are also lost. Imposter syndrome comes from not only pretending not be lost, but also not being willing to ask, "Hey, are you also not okay?" There's a lot of power in that. You can find comfort in just being lost together.
Also, asking for help when you need it. Working in the time of Corona, there was this big pressure to do things on our own, to do things from home. There was this message of "You can figure this out, you've got it." But the fact was I did not have it. I did not know what was going on. For "Salt, Fat, Ashes, Heat," I would not have thought about decolonial camera angles until I talked to my friend Bre who is a director and who works with haunting. I wouldn't have thought that this could be surveillance. Sometimes with these art projects, you might need to talk about it with people who might be able to give you the idea that you need. It's when we think we can go it alone that we find ourselves most lost in a sea of darkness, but in the echoes that come chiming in the darkness come our friends, come the ghosts that we thought we left behind. And to acknowledge them is to realize that we have some hope, some sense of navigation.
So yeah, being willing to ask for help, and recognizing that the help comes as graciously as someone can offer it. Sometimes it's not all that we think it's going to be, but that's the best that someone can do at that time, and it's a help that we didn't have before.