Wobbling in High Places

An Interview with Performance Artist Nao Bustamente

San Francisco Bay Times, Vol. 16, Number 20 • July 27, 1995



If irony were a waffle iron it would probably make heart-shaped waffles.  Irony is the bst way I can think of to describe performance artist Nao Bustamente’s artistic milieu.  We ate home-made heart-shaped waffles as she recounted to me how she ot into the whole performance art thing and about her newest installment of “America, the Beautiful,” the show which she will perform at the Bay Area Dance Series Aug. 3-4 in a program with mentor Luis Alfaro at Oakland’s Laney College.

Nao, Now, Nomi, Naomi as her answering machine describes her, grew up in Fresno, of second generation Mexican-American parents. She carne to SF in 1983 to take a class at NPG and promptly decided to stay, dropping out of Fresno State. Originally placing herself in the dance world, Nao explains that performance art was “a natural progression.” (Her first dance piece at school, an all-in-black “sci-fi dance poem,” was so out-there for Fresno State, her professors assured her she had nothing to worry about.)


So the young Nao got a room at the Twin Peaks motel and soon hooked up with Keith Hennessy and a whole crowd of kids doing political theater and running wild in the streets. Nao claims she had no clue about gay culture when she came here and it took her a little while to clue in to what was up with all the men around Twin Peaks.  But it’s hard to imagine wide-eyed Nao naive; this woman who fisted live buttholes on the Joan Jett Blakk show: one more in a long line of sexpert stars culled from the staff of Good Vibrations.  (She’s worked at Good Vibes for the last 3 years.)

Nao, whose sexual orientation is officially a “hurling ball of energy through space,” is adamant about her identification as bisexual, another realm of performance, the art of performing oneself.  She is interested in the ways that her work intersects many communities, which include the Radical Faeries, Catholics, Pagans, Latinos, Sex Positive-ties and Rad Muscle Car aficionados.  At 31 years old, Nao is quite familiar with the painful and scary connotations that coming out bi or anything else represents.

Nao explains that what she does best is stretch herself. And make no mistake, when Ms. Bustamente says “stretch,” she gives her audience its money’s worth. Climbing up on ladders in 4″ heels, her body corseted in packing. tape, Nao’s pushing those physical boundaries right alongside the metaphorical ones. Her performance work has consistently concerned itself with images and tableaux which push the boundaries of safety, often including her audience  in the quasi-dangerous terrain of politically charged art. Like the time she almost fell off a very high ladder poised very close to the audience in one of her performances in Mexico. But don’t worry, she assures me that this last experience has caused her to take more precautions. “Maybe l’m not the thrill-seeker I used to be,” she adds.

Nao feels that performing is a spiritual act and she thinks of performers as mediums. The first time l saw Nao, she was performing a Burrito Absolution rite on the straight white men in a Theatre Artaud audience. She offered anyone brave enough to bite into her Strap-On, vegan, no chili, burrito-dildo and release their burden of the guilt of 500 years of Colonialism. More recently she’s squeezed Hello Kitty‘s out of her pussy and caught them in an Easter Basket. And although these performance acts can be regarded in the “sex positive” performance category which finds its home at venues such as 848, Nao is interested in “staying broader in terms of things l‘m able to speak to…” Nao describes a lot of her work as Expos, in which she exposes a hidden fear or desire, often a sexually or racially charged stereotype in pop/local culture’s subconscious by embodying it.

Playing with the moment, the energy from the audience, Nao is a master in the art of improvisation. She explains that her larger pieces develop from images, kernels of ideas which she performs by setting up specific moments as landing places in an improvisation. She lets the image develop from one performance to another, and sometimes the developed images evolve into completely different pieces.

“America, the Beautiful” is Nao’s embodiment of the Marilyn Monroe, playing dumb, blonde sex-kitten archetype. Binding her voluptuous Latina physique into a packing taped-up hourglass, Nao’s cartoonish incarnation takes us through appropriately patriotic travails. Severely handicapped by her requirements of feminine guile and beauty pageant pretensions, America precariously climbs the metaphorical ladder of success in high heels and painfully renders our national anthem with appropriately ironic instrumentation. (i.e.: go see it for yourself.) Nao’s been working on “America” for at least the past year, trying out different ladders and broken record sound tracks at performance venues from here through Mexico, including a residency in Mexico City, part of a Mexican/U.S. Latino performance exchange program this past winter.

Nao Bustamente will perform “America, the Beautiful’ ‘ as part of No Holds Barrio, an evening of solo and collaborative works with Luis Alfaro, on Thursday and Friday, Aug. 3-4, of the final weekend of the Bay Area Dance Series at Laney College Theater in Oakland. Luis Alfaro, who Nao describes as one of her mentors, will be presenting the San Francisco premiere of “Cuerpo Politizado, ” a series of short meditations dismantling the barrios of cultural identity. A renowned Los Angeles multi-disciplinary artist, Alfaro’s work fuses autobiography with an acerbic wit and absurdist imagery, inculcating audiences with his queer Chicano poetry of the streets. An accomplished playwright, author, journalist, spoken word artist, producer, director, curator, and community organizer, Alfaro’s work literally and metaphorically deconstructs the politics of the American body, including bingeing on a variety of Hostess products. Another highlight of “Cuerpo Politizado” will be one of Alfaro’s signature pieces in which he roller blades through the gay terrain of Los Angeles.

The Bay Area Dance Series is presented at Oakland’s Laney College Theater, located at 900 Fallon at 9th Street, Oakland, at the Lake Merrit BART station. No Holds Barrio will be presented at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Aug. 3 and at 8 pm on Friday, Aug. 4. Also part of the BADS final weekend, Saturday Aug. 5 at 8 pm and Sunday, Aug. 6 at 3 pm, Scott Wells Dance Co. and Onsite Dance Co. Single tickets are $13 in advance, $10 seniors/students, $5 Peralta Community College District Students and chlldren under 12. Tickets purchaaed at thedoor are$15 for all performances. For more information on the 1995 Bay Area Dance Series, call (510) 889-9550.