You may have never seen live dance in a museum. But on the first Saturday of March, visitors flocked to Brooklyn Museum’s Great Hall to watch Christopher Unpezverde Núñez dance while wearing red long johns and a pink hoodie painted with pop art: Andy Warhol’s banana peel, a green alien, Rufino Tamayo’s pink and green fishes, Florentijn Hofman’s rubber duck and a green skull with red curly hair. Sewn into the hoodie were several toys that were reminiscent of his nieces and his dogs.
Núñez, who is partially blind, spent the first ten minutes of the performance establishing the parameters of his performance using thick, bright pink ribbons. He placed a toy truck in one corner and one of its tires in another. As chill, lo-fi music trickled in, Núñez started moving with small gestures, then reached up and down, almost floating through the space. As the music crescendoed into a deeper, darker tone, his moves accelerated, now interspersed with live narration. At one point, Núñez was holding onto the toy truck by the strings and spinning in a circle while saying, “Stop, Daddy! Daddy, stop! Daddy!”
Núñez calls this his “most difficult, rejected, misunderstood” piece. “The reason why I keep performing this piece is because it’s just impossible to perform. There is always something wrong happening,” Núñez said. This time, as he later told me on the subway ride to another rehearsal, one of the toy truck’s tires broke. “I bought that toy truck 10 years ago. I don’t know if I should buy a new toy or just keep going,” he said.
What this piece tries to evoke are childhood memories in the context of gender norms, as well as gender politics and fetishism. “It’s about the way that we see some colors are for boys and some colors are for girls and some toys are for boys and some toys are for girls,” Núñez said. “I didn’t care if I was a boy or didn’t care if I was a girl. I just want it to be myself.” The long johns Núñez wore, designed by his husband Branden Charles Wallace, are traditionally used by Mormon men. “I used them in reference to my father’s religion—he was a Mormon,” he said. This type of underwear, Núñez added, has also become a fetish in the gay community. They can also be perceived as pijamas, suggesting that the performance is happening during a dream.
Hailing from Limón, Costa Rica, Núñez came to New York City six years ago and for four years, he was undocumented. “In a very radical way those years were both very beautiful and very scary,” he said. Núñez found that there were a lot of undocumented people in the city so there was a huge support system. Back then he worked in kitchens, washing dishes, cooking, cleaning floors, basically anything to earn an income. “I was undocumented but I was actively working on my case. I had to work and pay my lawyer. I had to pay my rent,” he said.
After Núñez got his green card through his husband, he found that the city became a different place. Having gotten used to being invisible, he had to learn how to become visible again. Being able to travel, to go back to Costa Rica to reconnect with family and friends has been an emotional process for him. “My experience with disability, my experience as a queer person, my experience as an undocumented person, all of those intersections are really reflected on my work,” said Núñez.
Besides channeling the queer immigrant experience into his art, Núñez has also drawn inspiration from domestic violence during his childhood. “My father was very abusive and so I became disabled when I was a child,” he said. “I can see 30 percent but I don’t trust what I see. Volume and distance, for example, are very tricky. I was bumping into the walls. I couldn’t recognize people.” This led Núñez to take up dance classes to help him understand space, how to navigate and respect other people’s personal space.
Being a dancer and working with other bodies has always been a challenge for Núñez, and as a result, he worked in isolation for a long time. “For many years, I tried to work, I tried to audition for dance companies but people were not interested in working with someone with disabilities,” he said. Núñez felt like stereotyping demanded that a dancer look a certain way, be a certain height or weight, or even move in a certain way. “I wanted to break out of this fantasy of the dancer and try to find different ways to make dance accessible for people,” he said.
Núñez understands the abstract and intimate nature of his performance can make it hard for people to connect. But after 10 years, he feels like people are finally getting the underlying gender politics implied in the piece. “I feel New York and especially a museum can be a very good place for me to present it because it’s very visual at the same time,” he said. He decided to present this piece at The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2020 because it’s like the child that nobody likes, but he sees the beauty in his child and he wants others to see it too.
Correction: The original version of this story was revised because it misstated the name of the Immigrant Artist Biennial 2020.