As an interdisciplinary artist and a Stony Brook University MFA program alumna, Verónica Peña expresses through her art what is not right in her world as a way to empower herself.
Peña is dedicated mainly to performance art through the use of her body. To do that, she is not afraid that others may perceive or look at her body in an inappropriate manner.
“I have been sexually harassed a couple of times in a number of contexts,” Peña said.
As a teaching assistant at a university in Spain, her professor would stroke her face and call her beautiful. While Spain does have a touch-friendly culture, Peña realized after some time that she was not comfortable with this unprofessional behavior.
Despite the unwanted behavior she has endured, she is not afraid of allowing herself and her female performers to be vulnerable in their public demonstrations.
In one of Peña’s performance art pieces, “Mirror Eyes,” staged in Times Square, her performers were covered in white makeup and clothes and decorated in black patterns to evoke the disappearance of the performers from their personal identities. The actors in this interactive performance stayed completely still as they held poses, and made gestures that ranged from friendly to actions condemned by society. The audience was encouraged to step in and pose in the scenario created by the motionless performers. In one group of actors pretending to stone a woman, one lay defenseless on the floor while others were standing around her in attacking poses. Heroic bystanders interposed their bodies between the victim and the attackers. Yet there were others that wanted to be the attacker.
“Rarely do I face sexual harassment in the middle of my performances. But for this particular piece, one of my performers got slapped on her body by an audience member,” Peña said. “It was clear this was inappropriate as she was in tears after the performance was over.”
At the scene, police were watching over the performance, but an assault like that slipped away without repercussion.
In her street performance “The Garden Of Earthly Delights,” based on the Hieronymus Bosch painting of the same name, Peña explored the erotic and sensual liberty that Bosch evoked in his painting. In the performance, she lay in the middle of a busy promenade in nothing but a nude bodysuit and mask covering her head. In the current culture, she was unsure of how that liberty would be perceived when women’s bodies are commonly refined to unnatural proportions in the media.
For this particular piece, Peña was wary of whether she wanted to keep the video of the performance online because of the visual of her as a naked, susceptible woman. “Someone could easily corrupt the intention of that image,” Peña said. “That is just a reflection of how we view sexuality.”
Peña loves to explore how people interact with each other and the social constructs of our world. But there are pieces that she performs that are just for her own exploration. In her performance “The Substance of Heaven,” Peña submerges herself in a tank filled with a green liquid for six hours. Although she never revealed what exactly it is, the liquid slowly solidifies, allowing Peña to sit completely still in the tank, with only the flow of oxygen from a breathing tube filling her body with motion. The piece was funded by Franklin Furnace, a prestigious institute for performance art in New York.
Submerged in her tank, Peña is in absolute control of her body and mind. In this substance, her being gains power—all of her identities transforming past their limitations. In it, she says her “female body reveals strength and her immigrant body defies distance and separation.”
“I don’t want to be boxset in my migrant, woman identity,” said Peña. “This is a limitation imposed to me, but not something that limits me from being alert of what I am not allowing myself to do.”
Peña does not go out of her way to compose a message of female empowerment in her work. But as a female performer, her creative expression naturally evokes the empowerment of her body.
For her, expression is built by constantly reflecting on her emotions. So when she has to deal with things she cannot control, like being sexually harassed, Peña says that patience is key.
“As a woman, I have to be patient to ask myself why am I not liking what is happening and what can I do to change the problem.”
In the current cultural climate, women are refusing to let sexual misconduct go unnoticed any longer. Yet women are still expected to be responsible for the solutions to these situations.
“You don’t have to tweet hashtags all over the world, but just act within your capacity,” Peña tells men who wish to empower women. Peña will continue to perform and push out of her comfort zone. Her next project involves a heavy object attached to her body as she hopes to pose in seemingly impossible positions. Her spirit is an inspiration for men who need to push out of their comfort zones and shoulder some responsibility for providing solutions.