What does it mean to be Basque, and why has this question become more complicated in the twenty-first century? An examination of several artists and their work provide possible answers to this question. American avant-garde artist Man Ray produced an experimental silent film in 1926 entitled Emak Bakia. Why he used this Basque phrase—which roughly translates as “Leave me alone”— is a mystery that has never been solved. In 2012, Basque filmmaker Oskar Alegria decided to track down the source of Ray’s inspiration in his documentary, The Search for Emak Bakia, 2012. By a strange twist of circumstance, searching for Alegria’s film turns out to be as difficult as solving the mystery of Emak Bakia. The film has never been shown in the United States, though a private copy was made available to the author of this article with the director’s permission. A Maurice Ravel musical composition and Eduardo Chillida’s sculpture in the Basque Country also help to explore this question. Together, the nuances of these collective artistic endeavors and their focus on “what is not” can suggest an alternative way to think about “what is.”

About the Author

Blake Allmendinger grew up in rural Colorado, and is now a professor in the English Department at University of California, Los Angeles, where he teaches a course on Basque American literature and specializes in literature of the American West. His books include The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in an American Work Culture (Oxford, 1992), Ten Most Wanted: The New Western Literature (Routledge, 1998), Over the Edge: Remapping the American West, coedited with Valerie Matsumoto (Berkeley, 1998), Imagining the African American West (Nebraska, 2005), The Melon Capital of the World: A Memoir (Nebraska, 2015), The Cambridge History of California Literature, ed. (Cambridge, 2015), Geographic Personas: Self-Transformation and Performance in the American West (Nebraska, 2021), and Tongues of Settlement: Where the World Becomes Basque (in progress). His most recent article, “Imitation of Life: Lana Turner’s Mysterious Origins,” will be posted at buber.net on April 21, 2023. Professor Allmendinger has received the Mellon Fellowship (1988-89), the Ahmanson-Getty Fellowship (1994-95), the American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship (2000-01), and the National Endowment of the Humanities Fellowship (2000-01).


  • AB: Harvard University, 1981
  • MA: Oxford University, 1983
  • PhD: University of Pennsylvania, 1989