Photo by Manuel Vason
How does a nice Jewish girl from North London wind up displaying her naked, tattooed body before hundreds of people in Los Angeles? First, she displays her naked, tattooed body before hundreds of people across Britain and Europe in a performance piece of her own making called Jewess Tattooess. However, the first in an evolution of works about the interlocking sprockets of gender and cultural identity, Marisa Carnesky’s solo performance — incorporating spoken word, choreography and film — has concerns that are more far-reaching than mere
“There are some small transgressions of the flesh, but they’re hardly that shocking,” Carnesky explains over the phone from London.
Carnesky, whose performance shows next week at UCLA as part of its International Theater Festival, says she grew up in a traditional Jewish family that was not particularly devout, yet would observe some religious holidays. As a teenager she was much more interested in the goth movement that was then part of the Zeitgeist in Britain. Now 33, Carnesky got the first of many tattoos at the age of 19.
“I knew when I got them it was against my Jewish background,” she confides. “Jewish law says you can’t be tattooed, or buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo.”
This collision of Judaism and paganism led Carnesky to examine the reasons behind the taboo. By having tattoos, Carnesky says, she’s learned more about Judaism than she ever would have known without them.
“Like many little girls, I read Anne Frank’s diary. I’ve always been obsessed with the Holocaust, as our generation is. But now, with my research into Jewish laws and customs, I’ve now become interested in Palestinian and Israeli stories, and particularly focused on a long interest I’ve held in the history of Eastern European immigration.”
Carnesky’s later play, The Girl From Nowhere, tackles the broader issue of collective memory among the largely forgotten hordes of women who arrived, and continue to arrive, on British soil from the old and third worlds. (Carnesky’s great-grandparents immigrated to England from Lithuania.) So via a circuitous route, the tattoos have led Carnesky to an investigation of the nefarious and complicated world of human trafficking. Contrary to popular cliché, these women, brought to Britain as housecleaners or prostitutes, may be victims, but they’re far from clueless, or entirely innocent, Carnesky suggests.
“A lot of them are brave, gutsy women who are trying to get out of a no-win situation,” she says, “and then it gets thrown in their faces. The media’s portrayal of these terribly naive victims — my research shows that’s not necessarily the whole picture.”
Though interested in feminist work coming out of America from performers like Annie Sprinkle, Carnesky suggests that Jewess Tattooess explores a wider political angle than mere sexual identity. Rather, she’s grappling with themes of race and nation and how they connect to women’s role in religion.
“I look at the transgression of cutting the skin and looking at idols,” she explains. “The taboos are all about blood — menstrual taboos — and multiple gods that invariably link up to gender. I look at famous symbols of femininity, the Whore of Babylon, the Queen of Sheba, and all these ladies of the night who are there to represent what a woman shouldn’t be — the sexual, decorated ladies you find in Jewish writings.”
Carnesky says her parents were initially a bit upset by her constant trips to the tattoo parlor, “but they’ve never shown me hugely negative feelings, because I was always trying to do creative things in my life. They could see my commitment to creation, that I wasn’t self-destructive. Like all good parents, they want me to be happy.”
üBung (Practice) and Jewess Tattooess open the Second Annual International Theater Festival at UCLA. üBung is being performed at the Freud Playhouse, Wednesday– Saturday, October 1–4, 8 p.m. Jewess Tattooess is being presented at the Macgowan Little Theater, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, October 1, 3 and 4, 8 p.m.; Sunday, October 5, 7 p.m. For both events, call (310) 825-2101 or go to www.uclalive.org.