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Painting the Planet: Lita and Jasmine Albuquerque

While the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale recently closed—and with it, Lita Albuquerque’s collateral event, “Liquid Light,” a multi-dimensional experience featuring the world premiere of a film of the same name and starring her daughter, dancer, and choreographer Jasmine Albuquerque—their filial collaboration is the continuation of a decades-long partnership that began, well, in the womb.

“Transparent Earth”. by Lita and Jasmine Albuquerque. Photograph courtesy of the artists

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Indeed, according to 76-year old Lita, who is represented by Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach and Los Angeles’ Kohn Gallery (where the film was screened during June of this year and from September through October), exploded onto the California Art Scene in the 1970s as part of the Light and Space movement. Garnering accolades for her art works pertaining to mapping, identity and the cosmos—and all executed in natural landscapes—Lita maintains that her partnership with Jasmine began pre-natally, with her daughter then born in 1983.

That project was “Abhasa,” with a projection of the earth on Lita’s pregnant belly that ultimately resembled the center of the galaxy and was surrounded by stars. Since then, mother and daughter, both Los Angeles-based, have worked together numerous times: “Spine of the Earth” (2012), mounted as part of the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980,” took place at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook in Culver City and featured some 300 people clad in red and walking down a staircase; “An Elongated Now,” another large-scale performance piece took place between the Laguna Art Museum and that town’s Main Beach in October of 2014. Then there was “20/20: Accelerando.”

A performance and video installation at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art, the 2016 work traced the relationship between humanity and the cosmos, and followed the journey of a 25th century female astronaut, Elyseria, who came to the earth in 6000 BC to seed interstellar consciousness and teach humans the language of the stars.

Lita Albuquerque, “Stellar Axis,” Antarctica, 2006, Ross Shelf, Antarctica. Photograph by Jean de Pomereu

That space gal, of course, was Jasmine. The following year, as part of Desert X 2017, Lita, whose numerous honors include the sixth International Cairo Biennale Prize (1996), a National Science Foundation award for “Stellar Axis” (2006-2007) and a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship, created the performance installation, “hEARTH.”

Jasmine was not only the model for the life-size cerulean blue sculpture that rested on a bed of crushed marble, but she also choreographed the accompanying dance for herself and two others, which this writer described as being, “part Kubrickian, part Wilsonian (as in Robert), with a nod to Isadora Duncan.” In addition, the work featured 15 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale who, moving ceremoniously, gave voice to composer Kristen Toedtman’s lush score featuring a libretto by Lita.

On her own, Jasmine, who in 2010 co-founded WIFE (now disbanded), the all-female trio with an otherworldly presence and movement style, has also choreographed music videos for St. Vincent, Devendra Banhart and others, as well as having done movement direction for Rihanna and Beyoncé. With her 6-foot-tall frame and size 13 shoes that she routinely purchases at drag queen shops, Jasmine is a formidable presence, one who earned a degree in history from UCLA, before training in contemporary dance at L.A.’s Edge Performing Arts Center, and in Budapest, Hungary.

Jasmine, who also teaches, recently choreographed “Human Measure.” Created and directed by visual artist Cassils, the work was performed at REDCAT and Canadian Stage after its premiere at Home in Manchester, England, and included an all trans cast of dancers.

Jasmine Albuquerque. Image courtesy of the artist

Inextricably bound to each other by more than blood, this rare mother-daughter art duo—and their family—suffered the unimaginable, though, when, in November of 2018, the Woolsey fire destroyed their compound in the Malibu hills. A nine-structure property that Lita had shared with her husband, Carey Peck and their four children since 1990, the grounds were reduced to ashen rubble.

Lita’s studio and some 1,000 archived works, including photographs, paintings, sculptures and writings, went up in smoke. Fortunately, Jasmine, who was eight months pregnant at the time and also living on the premises, was able to save some of Lita’s hard drives, including the unedited film, “Liquid Light.”

I caught up with the pair by Zoom before Lita left for Venice and the closing of the Biennale, and Jasmine, recovering from Covid, had her hands full with her nearly four-year old son bopping in and out of view. The three of us chatted about a range of topics, including their process, the filming of “Liquid Life,” and the challenges and rewards of working together.

It seems as if you both, like phoenixes, literally rose from the ashes and are doing some of the most important and meaningful work of your careers. Lita, when did the journey of the 25th century astronaut begin?

LA: That began on a massage table in 2003, but not with Jasmine. I was being worked on and felt this presence next to me. I looked over and, in my mind, it came to me. She started speaking to me, and after that, I went home and wrote 60 pages of text about that. I sat on it for a long time and around 2014, I remember telling my studio manager, Marc Breslin, “I’m going to kill myself if I don’t use this text.”

So, we started with one project, “Particle Horizon” [the complement to “An Elongated Now”]. There was a cast of my body in blue floating on these solid cubes [and] I looked like I was floating in space. In another room there were three gold leaf suits—my space suits—but at that time, I wasn’t thinking astronaut, but it was a precursor.

JA: They were oversize, large suits that had gold leaf that hung from the ceiling and they were very powerful; they looked like they were floating.

“Particle Horizon.” Photograph by Eric Stoner

The companion piece, “An Elongated Now,” featured a performance that started at sunrise with a handful of people and grew over the course of the day to number several hundred—all wearing white, except for Jasmine, who wore red—with each person wielding a small blue light.

LA: I was coming out of a project at Craig Krull gallery, where I was the character without really knowing that. I brought in the plinth, the plaster figure floating on top of 10 tons of salt and there were projections of stars, the South and North pole and the equator. There was a voiceover for “Particle Horizon” that Jasmine and Marc spoke. It was the first time I used the text.

And outside was Jasmine’s completely choreographed piece, “An Elongated Now.” I had wanted everybody to go down the stairs where the Laguna Art Museum leads to Main Beach and look at the sunrise, then look at the noon sun, then look at the sunset. Jasmine said, “Mom you have got to be kidding,” and I resisted her, but it’s all about doing this collaboration, so we just ended up [at] the sunset.

JA: We had a lot of adrenalin and you gave them the okay to go way before we should have. All these volunteers stood there for 45 minutes or an hour, and we had told them it would be 10 minutes. I weaved in and out of the people, and I have to give these people credit, because they stood there in complete silence. Some were not trained and they did an incredible job.

Jasmine, with “hEARTH,” you were the model for the centerpiece sculpture that took 14 hours to create by putting you in a unitard and covering you in Vaseline. To say the process was torturous is an understatement, and after some 20 minutes, you had to get up and move your body, with the sculptor ultimately having to put 19 body parts together.

JA: In “hEARTH,” it was painful, but people thought it was an actual body, and I was pleased with the way it came out.

“Transparent Earth.” Photograph courtesy of Lita Albuquerque

In 2018, you two collaborated on, “Transparent Earth,” a piece in Switzerland as part of Art Safiental, one of 14 artworks aligning with the vertical nature of the Swiss Alps.

LA: That was the first time we did 3-D scanning using Jasmine’s body. We paid attention to her hair, and what she looked like when she was naked and had it fabricated in Switzerland by the fabricators Urs Fischer uses. We sent them the paint and they painted it and had to carry her up the mountain, two hours east of Zürich. It’s one part of the piece and I think I met someone who will fund the second part, which will be the same sculpture, but mirrored.

Then there was Desert X Al Ula in 2020 in Saudi Arabia, where Lita created “Najma (She Placed One Thousand Suns Over the Transparent Overlays of Space).”

JA: For “Najma,” it was way better, because it was 3-D printed again, and my part of it, the scan, took 15-20 minutes. But we had to get the pose approved by the prince. He’s also an artist and we were having hour-long conversations with him and it went to many different places. [Ultimately] I sat in my pose and she sits on top of a rock.

LA: It was more sculptural than performative. It’s two miles long and in the very first part of it, we had ninety-nine blue circles of powdered pigment along a two-mile stretch of valley. I thought of doing her praying, but sculpturally, that didn’t look interesting. We went back and forth, because she had to wear an abaya. But the fact we were accepted was historical, because there had never been a figurative sculpture since the time of Muhammad in 700 BC.

JA: I get messages almost daily from people who live in Saudi, thanking me for having that piece there. The sculpture’s a little bit bigger than life and it’s really beautiful to see all these women coming to see it, being there and melting away all the weird stereotypes of a Westerner. Women took off their headscarves, they made dinner for us.

LA: I was stopped at a light one morning thinking, “They’re going to murder me,” but they asked, “Do you need help?” It was such an amazing experience with them, to get those perceptions out of our systems.

“Najma (She Placed One Thousand Suns Over the Transparent Overlays of Space).” Photograph by Lance Gerber; courtesy of Lita Albuquerque and Kohn Gallery

After “Najma,” came the pandemic. And now . . . “Liquid Light,” the second film in a planned trilogy, shot by David McFarland and edited by Nicole McDonald. Can you talk about the work, from the filming, which you did in Bolivia, including at the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni—all before the Woolsey fire—to the finished product?

LA: I spent a lot of time writing about the female astronaut, Jasmine [Elyseria], who was coming back and wanting to express the language of light. She picked South America, Bolivia, in her understanding of the earth’s history. It had been the site of ancient civilizations, gold was sacred, but that wasn’t taking into consideration the pillage and how people related. So, the film becomes about her inability to communicate and their inability to respond, including being unable to respond to the spiritual.

JA: Bolivia is very vibrational; you can feel the energy. There were also political protests going on when we were shooting and we had to drive 17 hours to the next location. The salt flats felt like barnacles. They were not smooth and were definitely hard on my feet. I kept making rotations and circles with my feet, trying to soften those barnacles.

LA: When we were shooting, it seemed more cosmic, and that’s what people respond to. Jasmine’s choreography was absolutely magnificent, since it came out of a very difficult period for her [as] she had recently gotten divorced. It was emotionally heavy for all of us.

“Liquid Light,” collateral Event of 59th La Biennale di Venezia, Biennale Arte 2022; Presented by bardLA, Los Angeles, California. Curated by Elizabeta Betinski and Neville Wakefield; Photography by Ugo Carmeni, Venezia

Part of the film was shot at Lake Titicaca, where the Incan creation myth of rising from the waters began.

LA: Yes, this is a site where there had been UFO sightings since the Incas, so all of that was going on at the same time. There was a lot of mystery that we didn’t really know about, but could feel it.

The two of you are also in a scene together at the end of the film, with you, Lita, appearing as a kind of guiding ghost figure to Jasmine.

LA: That was a surprise to me, because I wanted another dancer and that didn’t happen. I really wasn’t thinking mother and daughter.

Talk about perfect casting! In any case, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention your other daughter, Isabel Albuquerque, who occasionally assisted you behind the scenes and is now an acclaimed sculptor in her own right. Her solo exhibition, “Orgy for Ten People in One Body,” is at Jeffrey Deitch in New York through January 28. And your son, Christopher, a teacher, has also aided you in, among other places, Saudi Arabia and Venice and is a frequent traveling companion. As you were raised in Tunisia, North Africa and Paris by your single mother, Ferida “Fred” Hayat Albuquerque, and are the granddaughter of the Tunisian singer, Smarda the Jewel, you’re planning on doing a work about your matriarchal lineage.

LA: My children’s creativity has always been in my life. It’s beautiful and it becomes intergenerational. We’re planning to work together on the Tunisian piece [and] bring my granny’s music [to life] through visuals and dance. It makes sense to do that in the motherland—that lineage. Isabel is a big part of that, as well as Jasmine.

Ah, yes, the mother-daughter bond seems to be forged in steel, but these relationships can sometimes be fraught: What are some of the challenges of working together, and what are the rewards?

JA: For me it’s been our process. Mom likes to know every detail, she wants to write everything out and have every part explained. I’m the opposite; I want no information, I want to go from my gut. It’s become a beautiful point between us—a middle ground. Sometimes it’s difficult because we’re related. I’m thinking, “Are you the director now or are you my mom?”

That gets wishy-washy and I have to separate the two. Are we in work mode? How do we make this a clear distinction? We’ve gotten into a beautiful flow and I think we really get each other now and respect each other’s differences. I did a few collaborations in the past with her and thought, “This is it. I’m done.” And here we are making stuff!

LA: I’ve learned what an extraordinary performer Jasmine is, but I had to learn that. I had to understand that she’s not being moody, she’s getting into the character, she’s performing and she’s serious about being a performer—and seeing that manifest into character. But that line between mother and director is a fine line; I had that with my mother. I had to learn what it’s like to have to work with quote, unquote, talent. It’s so elusive; it’s so precious.

JA: You’re getting better. Now you just have to trust that you have an amazing team working with you, that they’re good at what they’re doing. You don’t have to oversee everything. You have the greater vision, so trust all the departments now that we have the dream team.

But Bolivia was really challenging for us. You were having a hard time taking my pain from the divorce. I kept thinking, “This is my pain, not your pain, so stop.” There were so many crazy moments during that trip, but it brought us closer to each other. Now we’re at a different level, because we’ve been doing this for almost 40 years.

LA: I’ve learned to let go and that totally enhances things. When I let go, it comes to life. The difference between being a visual artist versus more of a director and the conceptualist, is everybody’s talent. That’s what’s so beautiful. What I love so much is to see the expression coming from all the different [artists], whether it’s music, sound, costumes.

Isn’t there, perhaps, one thing you do control?

Color is something I do control a little bit. When I started doing my ephemeral pieces in the desert, what drove me was color. That’s always been a big interest of mine. That’s another language. That is what I love about performance and film—that it’s collaborative and that’s fantastic. We really respect each other and I feel incredibly grateful that we work together. This is a complete feeling of being blessed.

To think that the loves of my life—my children—and I, with their talent, that we can do something together. There’s nothing better. And because there’s so much love back and forth, I feel deep gratitude that I’ve been given this beautiful gift.

JA: I’m so lucky to have you, too. You’ve painted the planet, and I’m coming along with you. I’ll go big with you, mom.

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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