The Mexico City-based performer believes clowning can address very philosophical questions.
Though the act of clowning is said to date back hundreds of years, it is a practice that is still very much alive and thriving today. And Chula, a clown and performance artist based in Mexico City, is one of those pushing the medium forward. Using original costumes constructed by her sister, and expressive yet simplistic makeup, Chula draws on the female experience for her performances, which are mostly silent.
“I actually do very little and I don’t speak, so mostly the makeup enhances my expressions and narrates my emotions too,” Chula tells Document. “The eyebrows were drawn as an extension of my own eye movement and I thought that was already more than enough to start playing with my face. It is not a mask I hide behind, it brings out things that are evident in me, and maybe it’s less scary this way than the stereotypical clown figure. Between the lines there are layers and layers of poetry in clowning.”
Chula’s practice started as a means of catharsis after a personal heartbreak, but has over the years become a medium for telling poignant stories that connect audiences all over the globe—as her 27 thousand-plus Instagram followers, and fully stacked performance schedule, can attest. Here, Document speaks with Chula about why she started clowning, how the practice gives her a deep sense of belonging, and why she likes making people laugh.
Sara Radin—When did your interest in clowning, and clowns in general, first start? Do you have any early memories of experiences with clowns?
Chula—I just remember feeling in my element when I started exploring clowning, [feeling] a sense of belonging or coming home. Maybe it comes from when I was a child and with no intention I made my family laugh, and seeing them happy makes me happy. Maybe I just want to make people happy.
Sara Radin—Why did you start clowning?
Chula—It started as a means of recovery and healing my broken heart after a breakup. I had to find a way to transform and transcend my pain through laughter. It eventually revealed itself to be a very good and necessary idea.
Sara Radin—How do you use makeup and costumes in your performances?
Chula—As I had no real reference of clowns, I studied the dynamics of my face, and through drawing I started exaggerating them. I appreciate and connect with subtleness more than the literal, so I found that the pale face already portrayed the sense of decadence that I was looking for, and the bright red on the lips was its counterpart in color—the duality of death and life that represented the story behind my character.
For my costumes, I use elements that are contrasted, in clothes that are made to last and disposable ones. It’s an understated way to play with both recycled materials that I use along the seasons of shows, such as toilet paper, and the real dress that has lasted 10 years now. My latest show, DIRT!, talks about revealing the persona living under tons of layers and again, between the lines, fast fashion and hoarding. I want to make recycled couture very trendy.
“It always surprises me to see that when we cry, we smile at the end because we are hopeful, and when we laugh really loud, wild tears come down. This is where I live—on the tightrope of understanding the beautiful ”
Sara Radin—How do you use clowning as a medium to tell deeper stories? And what do your stories focus on?
Chula—I believe clowns, and storytellers in general, have the ability to address very philosophical questions. The clown does it with comic relief that creates a mirror with the audience and builds an instant bridge of empathy. I think my stories question the audience, and break boundaries of social consciousness and politeness with gentle care, by fighting taboos—of self love, body image, and female perspective—of the world we live in.
Sara Radin—How do you craft different personas and document these different clowning personalities?
Chula—The real essence comes from within me. It’s always a version of my palette of colors but amplified with no fear or judgement. They all unfold from my truth and the freedom I decide to play with. That’s why I think all art forms should go through trusting completely the process without thinking too much on the outcome. I have been positively surprised many times in creation and I attribute it to an open sense of wonder—no directions, only provocations that keep the character connected, present, and playful.
Sara Radin—Can you talk about your experience bringing clowning to refugee camps in the Middle East?
Chula—I experienced the Middle East alongside my friend and clown partner, Sabine Choucair from Lebanon. Working with Palestinian refugees is something that marked me forever. Not only because we were there to make children and people laugh, but because I was so opened to let myself be really affected by them. Even the tiniest encounter was meaningful and enriching. We worked alongside a Palestinian organization and had topics to address, so for instance our workshop and show was around the concept of displacement and finding home. This, as I said, had my inner strings pulled, and from then on I decided I had to see the world; I wanted to travel and experience other ways of living and seeing and building that warm concept within my heart.
“It started as a means of recovery and healing my broken heart after a breakup. I had to find a way to transform and transcend my pain through laughter.”
Sara Radin—You’ve brought your clowning to a lot of different places. What do you love most about traveling the globe and bringing these performances? What have you learned from these experiences?
Chula—There’s a sense of constant movement and curiosity that’s part of the clowning experience for me. It also proves a theory I have about clowns breaking boundaries and rules of language, religion, social status, and gender. [Clowning] addresses humans and that’s it. Of course, it’s a profession, but also a very satisfying path of self-discovery. I think the more experience you have under your belt as a clown, the more meat there is in your art and way of expression. I realize now, I don’t create for the others, I create to understand the world a little better, and sometimes it resonates with others.
Sara Radin—Why do you like making people laugh?
Chula—You feel part of a collective, you feel part of something bigger—an impulse that reminds us that we are alive, and how wonderful that is. It always surprises me to see that when we cry, we smile at the end because we are hopeful, and when we laugh really loud, wild tears come down. This is where I live—on the tightrope of understanding the beautiful duality.