Karmen Gei: Political Sex Icon

The Hollywood film industry helps create a lexicon of concepts and images used to define a woman’s sexual power. In America, this multibillion dollar industry encourages the use of exercise, makeup, and breast augmentation to transcend human limitations (e.g. temporality and corporeality) and empower the self.  It deifies a female protagonist who relies on her sexuality and good looks to obtain the accoutrements of success.  This “uber-woman” is an easy character to detect.  She can be identified by many, if not all, of the following characteristics: long hair, a thin or physically fit body, shapely legs, round breasts, clear skin, a sway in her hips, and an overt sexual energy.  Mainstream American cinematic narratives use this sexual icon as a simple source of visual pleasure.  In Joe Ramaka’s film Karmen Gei the sexual icon is portrayed in another manner.  Karmen, the protagonist of the film, uses her sexual power to obtain not only personal pleasure, but to stimulate cultural subversion and incite political dissent.

Each sexual/romantic relationship Karmen engages is an example of a pursuit of Karmen’s personal desire and an act of political rebellion.

The earliest relationship we encounter is with the prison warden Angelique.  Karmen is imprisoned in a women’s penitentiary and, in the first scene, she dances seductively in the center of a drum circle.  She wears a large black cloak and exposes a blood red garter at the top of her thigh.  The prison warden, Angelique, is the object of Karmen’s gaze.  At first the warden resists Karmen’s advances but Angelique is quickly entranced by Karmen’s magnetism.  By seducing the warden, Karmen fulfills two of her personal requirements: her desire to satiate her sexual impulse and her longing to obtain her freedom. In the following scene the two women lie in bed engaged in a passionate tryst.  Over time Angelique falls in love with Karmen and Karmen is given her freedom.  The women’s romantic relationship is the politically subversive element of this relationship.  Merimée’s classic Carmen is transformed from heterosexual to bisexual as Karmen finds her true love in the body of Angelique. The other prisoners exclaim from their cells that men and women must beware now that Karmen is free.

Her second love begins as soon as she leaves the prison.  We are invited into a wedding celebration of a politician’s daughter and the soldier Lamine.  Karmen appears as a ceremonial dancer and immediately begins to seduce the groom.  Karmen undulates her body as she approaches the couple. Lamine is mesmerized by Karmen and is smitten the moment she throws a red trimmed scarf at him.  During the dance, Karmen confronts the bride and lures her into a lover’s competition.  As she pushes the bride to the ground, Karmen renounces the corrupt political party, and is arrested for her contempt.  The bride’s father is insulted by Lamine’s lack of action strips him of his political authority and throws him in jail.  That night Karmen breaks Lamine out, entices him into her bed, and is again personally satiated in the arms of a lover.  The appropriation and adulteration of Lamine is an indicator of Karmen’s ability to seize political control. Lamine is obsessed with Karmen and will do anything to be near her. She uses the opportunity to sleep with him, induct him into her band of thieves, and make him disrespect, steal from, and kill the politicians he once worked for.  Karmen uses her sexuality to disrupt the smooth machinations of this political system and in this way admonishes the corrupt Senegalese government.

The third relationship she has is with Massigi.  After breaking Lamine out of jail, Karmen returns to her mother’s bar to rest.  Massigi immediately comes into the establishment to serenade her with songs of love and devotion.  Karmen, who is upstairs in the midst of love making, comes down, glistening with sweat, and wearing a loosely fitted red garment. When Massigi is near her, Karmen is no longer a sexual vixen but full of joy and child-like happiness.  In one scene, the pair stroll down the beach together and laugh light heartedly as the walk.  The moment tragedy strikes, she goes to him for comfort, stability, and mending.  He is the stability to balance her freedom.  When the police come to Karmen’s mother’s bar to look for Lamine, Massigi sublimates their efforts to search the premises by politicizing the situation.  Massigi’s love for Karmen compels him to protect her interest with his words.  He reprimands the government officials for their lack of respect for Karmen’s mother and insults them for disregarding tradition.  Massigi helps to harbor a fugitive; this is the power of Karmen’s love.

Although the film uses a powerful strategy of coupling sexual power and political dissent, it ends with Karmen crippled and destroyed by the power that made her thrive.  At the end of the story, all of the symbols of her sexual authority lose their potency.  The first incident is the death of her true love, Angelique.  Angelique realizes that she will never have Karmen and commits suicide by drowning.  Due to her love for Angelique, Karmen becomes reclusive and soon recognizes her inability to completely love Massigi.  Although unable to love him, she maintains her relationship with Massigi and in the final sequence of scenes, she walks through the local market with him.  As she walks, she has a terrible premonition and begins to run from a faceless danger.  She runs to the theater house where she is confronted by death and murdered by her obsessive lover Lamine.  Employing the classic narrative conclusion of the femme fatale who is inevitably punished for her sexual liberty, Karmen is murdered by a man who had professed his undying love for her.  The song Karmen sang throughout the film which references the inability to tame an untamable bird proves to be true.   The untamable bird in this situation are love and sex whose power coupled destroy her.

Although Karmen falls to her death, we are left with a unique symbol of sexuality.  Ramaka represents Karmen as a sexually and politically vibrant woman who has the ability to fuse political action and an idealized sexualized body.  This strategy, where real issues are challenged and discussed using mainstream media techniques, allows for a wider audience to appreciate and understand the necessity of a social awareness and a political voice.

About the Director

Saya Woolfalk

Saya Woolfalk is an Asian- and African-American performance artist based in New York. She also travelled to Japan for the study of performance and craft traditions under an Art Matters Grant in 2007.  Also in 2007, Woolfalk received an NYFA Fellowship in performance art and became an Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The same year, Woolfalk first exhibited No Place at the Zg Gallery in Chicago, Illinois. No Place has become probably her best-known piece.  Performed again at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery in 2009, No Place represents a kind of slippage between the language that codifies daily life and the inability to entirely capture the subject. Her most recent performance, entitled The Ritual of the Empathics, is a piece in which women try to conjure No Place into the present through a series of rituals.  Woolfalk intends ultimately to show three temporalities: the present, the future, and the future of the future.