Talk about high style.

“Transcommunality,” the newest exhibit at the UW-Madison Design Gallery, features the exuberant stilt dancing costumes of Laura Anderson Barbata. The New York/Mexico City-based artist — plus some local stilt walkers, live music and food with a Latin flair — will be on hand at a public fiesta celebrating the show on Sept. 28.

But the opening party and exhibit, which runs through Nov. 21, are just a prelude to what’s to come for Madison. After a week here this month, Barbata will return in the spring semester as a UW-Madison Arts Institute interdisciplinary artist in residence, heading up collaborations across the city that are expected to be as vibrant and creative as the sky-high costumes she creates.

“The Madison Children’s Museum is interested. We’ve got performance groups and groups like the Boys and Girls Club and Centro Hispano” as possible collaborators, said Carolyn Kallenborn, associate professor of design studies at UW-Madison.

With work that is rooted in the stilt-dancing traditions of Mexico, West Africa and the Caribbean, Barbata’s residency will be a way to merge the arts at the university with the surrounding community, Kallenborn said.

“In Laura’s work, that’s what she does. She goes into communities and looks at what’s there, and gets people to say here’s what we’re about, and they create something new together.”

Barbata’s best-known project was a collaboration with an arts and culture school for young people living in poverty in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Grounded in the revival of traditional West African stilt walking, “Transcommunality” helped reinforce healthy life choices and a respect for cultural heritage.

Barbata worked with students to create award-winning costumes for Carnival, and the program became the focus of two European documentary films.

Barbata’s emphasis on community building makes her work “not just about the spectacle of her costumes — although honestly, just on their own they will blow you away,” Kallenborn said. “There’s this wonderful kind of fusion of history with something that’s fresh and new. It’s collaborative, with everyone’s voices in there.”

Kallenborn first discovered Barbata’s work while visiting a textile museum in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2013.

“I just stood there and I said, ‘I have to get her to Madison.’ It’s so striking. The stuff is so beautiful and fun,” she said.

The Design Gallery exhibit will include several dozen pieces by Barbata, along with the elaborately carved stilts used to wear them.

“It was quite a show to ship. The crates themselves are rather massive and impressive,” Kallenborn said. Each costume piece has its own carved mannequin form and metal stand for display. The result will be costumes so tall “they’ll be up in the rafters,” she said.

Barbata, who is associate professor at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado La Esmeralda of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, will give a one-hour talk at 2 p.m. before the free Sept. 28 fiesta gets under way at 3 p.m.

Then, said Kallenborn, the artist will spend a week here planning her spring residency — including the possibility of a stilt-walking display down State Street in May.


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.