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Report: Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans 2018

Prior to participating in the 2018 ICI Curatorial Intensive New Orleans, I had visited New Orleans on three separate occasions. What fascinated me about this port city was the blending of cultures, which was palpable in New Orleans’ architecture, music, food, and festival culture. Of course, at the root of this vibrant culture is the triangulation of colonialism, enslavement and commerce. The entanglement of beauty and violence, appeared to be the catalyst behind Prospect.4, titled The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, which was organized by curator Trevor Schoonmaker and coincided, fortunately, with the Curatorial Intensive. Hybridity, fluidity, confluence, and cross-cultural exchange were the conceptual threads that connected the biennial to the structure of the intensive.

A running theme of the intensive was “site-specificity,” which took on different valences throughout the course of the program. The curators invited this year were encouraged to think critically about how our locales could inform our exhibitions. My cohort—comprising a talented, brilliant group of curators—were based in different cities, including New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Mexico City, San Francisco and Amsterdam. At the time, I was based in Detroit, working as a new Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The diversity of cities represented in my cohort made for such productive discussions about the histories of the cities we were affiliated with, the local populations we wanted to represent through our exhibitions, and the ways in which the institutions we belonged to informed our exhibition-planning process.



Image: site visit to the New Orleans Jazz Museum, artwork by Rashid Johnson. 


We were also encouraged to think beyond our respective cities and institutions by considering the art world as a socio-political and economic landscape that can simultaneously hinder and catalyze curatorial ingenuity. How do we as young curators navigate such a landscape was a challenging question that repeatedly surfaced in our discussions about funding, institutional support, and the ways in which we, as curators, can abide by our respective standards of ethics and curatorial rigor. Edouard Glissant’s “poetics of relation” was a theory that crossed my mind during these conversations. Glissant’s theory posits that relations between people, cultures and systems run bi-laterally. In other words, both sides of a relation are fundamentally changed. Thus, while institutions bear a strong influence on how curators create exhibitions, curators also have the ability to influence institutions.

The seminars that were facilitated by guest speakers certainly brought the challenges of curatorial-institutional relations to the foreground. For instance, Sofía Gallisá Muriente, co-director of the art organization Beta-Local in Puerto Rico, led a seminar that challenged my cohort to think about how revolutionary movements could inform radical strategies of curatorial praxis and navigating institutional spaces. The Director of BxNU Research Institute at Northumbria University, Dr. Andrea Phillips, led a lively conversation about the paradox of the curator, who oftentimes, as a cultural laborer, straddles the line between privilege and socio-economic vulnerability. Andrea Andersson, the Chief Curator of the Visual Arts at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans (CAC)—which was the hosting space for the seminars—educated us about her institution’s history as a kunsthalle. What I learned from Andersson’s seminar was how curating and the openness to creative risk-taking can vary from one institution to another.



Image: Rina Banerjee, Viola, from New Orleans-ah, a global business goods raker, combed, tilled the land of Commerce, giving America a certain extra extra excess culture, to cultivate it, making home for aliens not registered, made business of the finer, finer, had occupations, darning thread not leisure with reason and with luster, in a”peek a boo” racial disguises preoccupied in circulating commerce, entertaining white folks, pulling and punching holes in barriers, places that where was once barren, without them, white banks made of mustard and made friendly folks feel home, welcomed and married immigrants from noted how they have been also starved, fled from servitude and colonial dangers, ships like dungeons, pushing coal in termite wholes, curing fitre, but always learning, folding, washing, welcomed as aliens. She wandering, hosting, raising children connected to new mobilities and most unusual these movements in Treme’, New Orleans was incubating enmeshed embedded in this silken cocoon when she land, she’s came to be parachute mender, landed those black immigrant peddlers from Hoogali network of new comers (2017).


I would liken being based in the CAC and touring art spaces throughout New Orleans to a form of fieldwork that coincided with the roundtable discussions about site-specificity. In this case, theory and praxis went hand in hand. My immediate environment, the CAC, was a fertile ground for thinking about the intersection of curatorial praxis and institutions. As art institutions without permanent collections, kunsthalles have historically been sites of creative risk-taking and curatorial innovation. The CAC was indeed a case in point as a satellite of Prospect.4. A memorable artwork for me was a 21-foot tall installation (with a 40-word title!) by New-York based Indian artist Rina Banerjee, who incorporated discarded objects, textiles, and natural resources such as shells. The installation told a diasporic history that connected trade with cultural production and resonated deeply with New Orleans’ own history as a port city.

While the visits to different cultural institutions were insightful, one of the most memorable opportunities in the “field” was a studio visit with the talented—and hospitable—local mixed-media artist Dawn DeDeaux, who greeted us with an arrangement of po’boys, Zapps Potato Chips, and cocktails. DeDeaux’s body of work is nothing short of a response to her city, particularly the work the she made post-Katrina. I found the paradoxes of beauty and disaster to be very palpable in the artist’s work, including the glass works that charted water levels during Katrina, as well as mud-works DeDeaux made while she was temporarily displaced from her home. Fundamentally, Katrina had forced DeDeaux to use whatever materials she could find, which was the soil right under her.



Image: Dawn DeDeaux, studio visit in New Orleans. January 30, 2018.

About The author

Lucy Mensah

Lucy Mensah is Visiting Assistant Professor of Museum and Exhibition Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago’s School of Art & Art History. Prior to this, she was an assistant curator of contemporary art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Before the DIA, Mensah was an art history fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She assisted in acquisition research and collection management. Furthermore, she developed a research project examining the incorporation of West African textile design in Afrofuturist art and fashion. Her educational background combines studies in 20th century African American literature and visual culture. Mensah received a B.A. in English from Bucknell University (2009), an M.A. in Literary & Culture Studies from Carnegie Mellon University (2011), and a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University (2016). Her dissertation, Designing Cities & Men: Post WWII Urban Renewal, Black Masculinity, and African American Aesthetics, examined the influence of post-WWII urban renewal in the literary and visual representations of masculinity by African American writers and artists. She completed a fellowship at the National Museum of American History in the summer of 2013, and worked as a curatorial intern at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts from 2015-2016. She recently co-curated a show at the DIA titled Making Home: Contemporary Works from the DIA, a permanent collection show that presents artwork that portray literal and conceptual ideas of home.


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JURACAN, HURACÁN, HURRICANE: notes on guest curating the Dak’Art Biennale. - Research - Independent Curators International

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JURACAN, HURACÁN, HURRICANE: notes on guest curating the Dak’Art Biennale.

Curatorial Intensive alumna Marisol Rodríguez reflects on her exhibition silence, murmur, clamour, tumult: ZAM ZAM chapter four, opening as part of the 13th Dak’Art Biennale.

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Image: Video still. "FLIP COIN TEN VIDEO", 100 min, video, color, sound. Courtesy of MID51.


In 1956, forty-six honeybee queens from South Africa and Tanzania were taken to Brazil as part of a project aimed at creating better breeding stock for local beekeepers. After having accidentally escaped in 19571, one queen bee went on to colonize the entire bee population of South and Central America, displacing the “local” European breeds with an aggressive and highly migrating hybrid of “Africanized” bees.

As their advance from Mexico into the United States became imminent in the late 1980s, the bees’ origins became intertangled with the epoch’s politics of sensationalism to create a flood of popular culture2 that, reviewed today, recounts the anxiety surrounding the so-called “killer bees’” relentless colonization of America.

Today, they are back in their symbolic homeland, and their buzzing, originally recorded in Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize, 1.73 miles from the Guatemalan border, surrounds us in the first floor of the Théodore-Monod Museum of African Arts in Dakar, Senegal. The sound is divided into a four channel installation that marks the perimeter of what is “silence, murmur, clamour, tumult: ZAM ZAM chapter four,” the presentation by MID51, a group of artists and workers of all trades I’m curating as part of the 13th Dak’Art Biennale. The buzz brings the place together, and the bees’ extraordinary journey and uncontrollable nature serve as a rich analogy for the myriad and ever-morphing links between two continents, some of which have been explored as part of the present curatorial and artistic research.

This text is a glimpse of that project, the preparations for which could be dated back to my first visit to Dakar in May 2016 for the Curatorial Intensive that took place at Raw Material Company, right before the end of the last Biennale. Feeling electrified by what I experienced while there3, I came back home to devour the literature from the African diaspora, recognizing there how similar, and at the same time how distinctive our recent stories and the strategies we use to approach them are, from a Latin American standpoint. Recognizing too how I agreed and yet was also, by the words of those same writers, encouraged to interrogate contemporary counter narratives to the colonial machine based on a cultural exaltation of ethnicity. This urge to navigate present-day identities in our post-colonial societies (residually colonial) drove me to find my own image in the many mirrors of literature and art.

I accepted Simon Njami’s invitation to be a guest curator for the 13th Biennale wholeheartedly despite the challenging conditions4. His general theme, “l’Heure Rouge” (The Red Hour) set a combative tone, implying a discourse associated to that of négritude (but knowing Njami’s work, suggesting also a highly critical stand to that very concept), and referencing a color linked with action, rebellion and blood. The presentation that opened on May 4th 2018 is full of hints and suggestions in tune with this energy but loaded with the unapologetic criticality of the MID51 team and the intensity of the thoughts and realities coming out of that gargantuan vortex of history, the HURRICANE ZONE.

Greetings from di zone

The Yucatan Peninsula, home of MID515, stands 4,701.91 miles in a straight line to the west of Dakar. To get there, you would need to travel beyond the Cape Verde islands, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the southernmost tip of Cuba. If this imaginary itinerary rings a bell, it is because this was in part one of the most infamously successful trading routes in history. It was the route of millions of human lives snatched from Africa and beyond from 1501 until slave trade officially ceased in Cuba in 1886. In preparation for the inevitable, from 1847 to 1874 Cuban planters brought in 142,000 Chinese indentured workers to their sugar plantations. Thousands of the original people of the Yucatan peninsula and over 40,000 laborers from the Canary Islands were also shipped to Cuba, and since 1839 laborers from Malta, Madeira, India and even Japan were shipped to the Caribbean and South America to replace the growing number of emancipated slaves6. This is the complex genealogy of the diaspora that inhabits the Caribbean today, one whose very cultural, religious and pigmentary fluidity escapes any attempts of labeling or pigeonholing, including those of post-colonial theory. These complexities are often too ample to even mention, creating a partial image of what constitutes the African diaspora in the Caribbean, one which is visible only in the measure that it has remained somehow “intact” and intrinsically linked by language to its original, external, oppressor (i.e. Jamaica, Martinique, etc.).

While human trafficking from Africa was banned in the late 19th century, systems of exploitation perfected by wealthy criollos and European industrials continued to operate throughout the continent, Yucatan being a shining star of this “progress” due to the worldwide demand for yaxqui7, a raw material harvested by Mayan slaves (sons and daughters of those who had resisted colonization for 170 years and were then completely subdued), confined for generations to life and death inside (much Instagrammed) haciendas henequeneras8.

Starting in June every year, the same Atlantic currents that pushed the first colonial veils towards the Caribbean continue to send violent hurricanes to the region, whose currents infallibly form in the warm winds of the Senegalese coast. Lifting swirls of fine Saharan sand, they travel across the globe, waiting to unleash its accumulated force over towns already devastated by colonization and contemporary corruption.

This meteorological coincidence and the image it provides is a central metaphor of the research, reflected simply in the conceptual environment conceived for the Biennale, constituted by the mentioned sound installation of recorded Africanized bees in Central America, and a number of iron structures welcoming visitors to a visual and sound experience.



Image: Detail of "di zone." Newspapers, the most utilitarian and universal of objects, are a leitmotif in the presentation. Courtesy of MID51.


For ZAM | ZAM, a six-chapter project by MID51, it is the certainty of the cyclical destruction that the hurricane ensures that feeds their artistic and social practice:

“The HURRICANE ZONE [HZ] is a philosophical and political concept that reflects the passing of a destructive force through a geographical area, one that consumes, digests and vomits in its path, leaving behind crumbled infrastructures, destroyed natural resources and the displacement of people. quick recovery is futile, for as soon as one leaves, another passes through.”9

According to the project’s definition (or A-B-C in their own vocabulary), the first event to define the current identity of the HURRICANE ZONE was the sudden invasion of Spanish colonialism 500 years ago:

“Since then a series of hurricanes has swept through the region, including British, French and Dutch colonialism, and most recently, U.S. imposition and domination. And yet from the eye of the ZONE, BELIZE connects the isthmus with the islands of the CARIBBEAN and gradually generates its own energy and counter force through artistic tactics and attitudes.”10

It is crucial to explicitly stress that, despite being a multi-national team operating from Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula, the group’s demarcation is that of the HURRICANE ZONE, an area with whose past they establish an interpellative dialogue, allowing them to pin down their regional colonial past and present in acknowledgement of the fact that the establishment of servitude and submission to European colonizers was not abolished but institutionalized by the locals after each of the disparate independence movements in the region: from the early independence of Haiti (1804) to the relatively recent independence of Belize from the British Empire (1981). The recognition of this inescapable reality (and perhaps inescapably dooming) and the critical revaluation and recovery of the many exceptions it contains is the group’s lifeline.

Paraphrasing Andreas Malm, both metaphoric and literally, it is in dialogue with that past, about which nothing can by definition be done, that the future hurricane originates.11
 


Image: Detail of production of metal furniture in Dakar. Courtesy of MID51.


NEEX NA BARI NA

Participating in this event demanded introspection and self-criticality to acknowledge the Biennial’s history, its ambitions and the often-questionable relationships most events alike establish with the diverse communities12 to which they impose their discourses and terms of (alleged) dialogue. The curatorial choice of engaging with MID51 to produce in Dakar their fourth chapter reflects a will to cultivate an ongoing practice instead of performing a mere transplantation of contexts. However, we are aware that, as a footprint set in sand, the impact of this chapter in Dakar is ephemeral, as it's the nature of most biennials unless they establish structures allowing the continuation of exchanges initiated extraordinarily within the margins of an international event.

Considering these and other challenges posed by, amongst others, almost total lack of institutional funding and support13, the artists and I tried to impose as little as possible to the local context, developing works that were neither aesthetically, nor technically, out of place; acknowledging the imperfections of the building and the materials already used locally and integrating them into the works and the general mise en scène; indeed trying to create at every step a whole that was simultaneously though-provoking, digestible (if never literal or didactical) and feasible. The weighting of its success requires distance, of course, but as a process it has already been hugely enriching.

l’Heure rouge and all the experiences surrounding it constitute thus a new node which MID51 connects with their ample, existing tiling. By contrasting the cultural nationalism of négritude (as established by Cesaire, Senghor and Damas) to the political ideology and astonishing actions of the intellectuals seeking emancipation, respect and justice in early 20th century Yucatan (like Elvia Carrillo Puerto, her brother Felipe Carillo Puerto and José de la Luz Mena14, with whose revolutionary ideas about Mayan emancipation, workers rights, women’s rights and education ZAM ZAM has engaged with deeply in the previous chapters of their project), the contours of a critique have been established. The many questions, reactions and even emotions it provokes are present in a laboriously produced environment that invites their urgent discussion inside (and outside) the Théodore-Monod Museum.



Image: Untitled (Yucatecan-made simple metal instrument to make corn tortillas + Senegalese coin). Size: 49 x 70 cm. Recycled newsprint US-made paper printed on 1932 Heildelberg press, plotter and silkscreen. 2017-2018. Courtesy of MID51.


Another element of the presentation is the 100-minute film FLIP COIN TEN VIDEO, the tenth of MID51’s hundred-film project, which will premiere at the French Institute in Dakar on May 4th. During this premiere there will be an open conversation with the curator and the artists Sara Martínez, Joan Duran and Moisés Martínez, who will be present in Dakar.15

Back inside the Museum, the sounds of much-misunderstood Africanized bees will accompany the viewers into their own experience of the HURRICANE ZONE, connecting past and present, east and west. For some visitors, the works will be like powerful stings, painfully benign inoculations of thought; for others, the images and questions will be little more than the fleeting buzz of a bee as it passes you by.



Footnotes:

1. Camazine, Scott, and Roger A. Morse. "The Africanized Honeybee: The Epithet “Killer Bee" Is Undeserved." American Scientist 76, no. 5 (1988): 464-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27855385.

2. Take as example the films The Killer Bees or The Swarm; or a bizarre comedy sketch in Saturday Night Live in which fat “Killer Bees” (picture John Belushi) break in a suburban home branding knives, wearing sombreros and speaking with Mexican accents; or better, Swarm, a supervillain appeared in Marvel comics in 1977, whose body is entirely composed of killer-bees. His original body was that of the Nazi scientist Fritz von Meyer who, after World War II escaped to South America where he became a beekeeper, discovering a colony of mutated bees that ultimately killed him and created with his body an intangible extermination machine with a Nazi-conscience. 

3. See my “Report: Curatorial Intensive in Dakar” http://curatorsintl.org/research/report-curatorial-intensive-in-dakar

4. These deserve a text on their own and perhaps some distance, but its fair to openly state that I was invited without a budget and the support from the biennale can be described as uneven at best. This in turn forced me to develop an economic strategy (yet to be proved successful) to see the completion of an ambitious project that without a significant investment and the help of friends and colleagues couldn’t have been possible. In this sense the words of Andrea Ancira come to mind on the precarious conditions we place ourselves in as independent curators: http://curatorsintl.org/research/report-curatorial-intensive-in-new-orleans-2017

5. An arts and crafts team whose members fluctuate from project to project. For ZAM ZAM chapter four as in the previous 3, dozens of people have participated and actively worked in multiple capacities, among them Moisés Martínez, Joan Duran, Vania Sosa, Omar Said, Fabián Arriola, Pedro Castro, Alex Castilla, Miguel Pérez, Caryana Castillo, Lizzet Ortíz, Carmen Gallardo, Sara Martínez, and Ingrith León as shown in the triptych/catalogue printed for this and each chapter; these people constituted a network between Belize City and Benque Viejo del Carmen in Belize; Ibiza and Barcelona in Spain; Montreal, Canada; Geneva, Switzerland; Merida and Mexico City, Mexico; and Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic.

To fully understand the scope of MID51’s actions, submerge into their web-based work, created as a stimulating flux of images and statements expressed with poetic economy, better viewed on a desktop computer. Start at: https://www.mid51.com/ ; www.duazamzam.com
A simple introduction to Joan Duran’s remarkable previous work is: http://curatorsintl.org/posts/mapping_central_america_belize

6. Marable, Manning. “African & Caribbean Politics: from Kwame Nkrumah to Maurice Bishop.” Verso, London, 1987: 12-13.

7. Yaxqui, in the original Mayan, also known in Mexico as henequen, world-wide known as Sisal, the name of the port in Yucatan from which ships loaded with the raw material departed.

8. Production that, after having devastated the Yucatan Peninsula, moved to Tanzania. Kapwani Kiwanga did an excellent exploration of this subject in her project “Ujamaa”, about which I wrote here: http://www.dailyserving.com/2016/09/kapwani-kiwanga-ujamaa/

9. ZAM ZAM’s ABC: https://www.duazamzam.com/a-b-c.html - It should be noted that hurricanes are a healthy part of global weather balancing, reef life and Caribbean nature.

10. Idem

11. Malm, Andreas. “The Progress of this storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World.” Verso, London, 2018: 12.

12. Starting from the relationships established between the Biennale and its curators and artists.

13. Absolute lack of institutional support from the curator’s and the artist’s countries, except for the government of Belize, who kindly, if modestly, supported the team.

14. One hundred years ago, Yucatán was the epicentre of what was at the time Latin America’s most intense and innovative social movement, a widespread struggle for the vindication of Mayan culture and language, workers and women’s rights and education, to put it succinctly. Three figures stand out: Felipe Carrillo Puerto, governor or Yucatan from 1922-1924, year of his execution; his sister Elvia Carrillo Puerto, a feminist leader, elected in 1923 as a deputy for Yucatan in Congress; and José de la Luz Mena, precursor of the implantation of Rational Education in Yucatán, influenced by the Modern School of Francisco Ferrer I Guardia. ZAM ZAM has explored these important references of revolutionary thought and action from the HURRICANE ZONE in their previous chapters, as well as in the third chapter, one that will remain open and permanently on-going.

15. Due to a change in the Biennale's schedule, this event had to be cancelled last minute.

 

About The author

Marisol Rodríguez

Marisol Rodríguez (Ciudad de México, 1984) is a writer, editor and curator in the crossroads of cultural history, popular culture and contemporary art. She is a researcher of Mexican comics and the intersections between comics and art, having lectured, published and curated internationally on the subject. She currently lives in Paris, where she is director of mor charpentier gallery. She combines this work with her own independent projects, most recently as guest curator of the 13th Dakar Biennale under the artistic direction of Simon Njami.  In 2015 she was a fellow of the cultural journalism program at the FNPI, Fundación Gabriel García Márquez Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano in Colombia; in 2016 she was a fellow of Independent Curators International’s Curatorial Intensive in Dakar. She holds a Masters in Culture, Criticism and Curation from Central Saint Martins.


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Visions of The Bahamas: The Hotel Industrial Complex and the NAGB - Research - Independent Curators International

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Visions of The Bahamas: The Hotel Industrial Complex and the NAGB

Marina Reyes Franco, recipient of the 2017 CPPC Travel Award, reflects on her research trip to The Bahamas, its colonial history, the hotel industrial complex, and the impact of tourism on cultural production.

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In An Eye for the Tropics, art historian Krista A. Thompson explains that the images of Jamaica and The Bahamas as tropical paradises full of palm trees, white sandy beaches, and inviting warm water seem timeless and natural but their origins can be traced back to the roots of the islands’ tourism industry in the 1880s. During that period, tourism promoters backed by British colonial administrators and American business interests began to market Jamaica and the Bahamas as the origin of their desirable fruit products and picturesque destinations. They hired photographers and artists to create carefully crafted representations, which then circulated internationally via postcards, illustrated guides and even “magic lantern” lectures given by photographers who created the images and narratives to suit specific business interests. Corporations like United Fruit Company used their “Great White Fleet” boats to transport bananas from Jamaica —the original “banana boat”— but they also transported tourists. Iconic hotels such as the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Kingston and the Colonial Hotel in Nassau served as racialized spaces of power.

Throughout my trips around the region, Thompson’s book has been a point of reference and blue print for my approach, but in The Bahamas and Jamaica I was actually able to revisit the sites she was referring to. The visions of each country are framed through tourism campaigns, developer’s plans, brochures, travel guides, Airbnb, as much as they are by historical constructions and preconceived notions. I traveled to The Bahamas in October 2017, eager to connect with contemporary artists, institutions and independent spaces to learn about the impact of tourism in cultural production, but also about the service industry in general, the creation of resorts, cruise ship ports, and the privatization of beaches. The hotel or resort is an interesting subject that would come up again and again during these trips. I went to many hotels during my visit to The Bahamas and some, I was surprised to find out, also aim to be public cultural spaces.



Image: Cruise ships overpower the view of Downtown Nassau.


The Bahamas are limestone islands, not volcanic like the vast majority of the Caribbean islands. This shaped its original flora, but its landscape was subsequently altered to better fit tropical narratives and the expectations of tourists from the early 20th century, and more intensely after World War II. The postcards, lectures and advertisements served the purpose of turning what used to be seen as an unsanitary, disease-ridden region, into a paradisiacal place that was also good for your health. This sanitization of the Caribbean for tourist consumption encompasses architectural, health and urban planning aspects as well as public relations and media strategies. Eventually, the beaches were privatized to keep the “natives” out, pools were installed and the all-inclusive resort came into being.

There is a direct link between the plantation model of foreign investors and rich enough to be absentee owners, and the economies of industrialization by invitation that was prevalent in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries in the 1950s. The plantation of the past is, sometimes quite literally, the resort hotel of today. Former plantation lands in Montego Bay or Negril serve as hotel sites and tour destinations where most Jamaicans don’t go unless they work there. Although the situation in The Bahamas regarding private beaches, islands and cays is similar, the plantation to resort pipeline is not as straightforward as in Jamaica.



Image: Installation view of the 'Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics’ at the NAGB.


One of the main reasons for wanting to go to The Bahamas was to have a first hand account of Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics, an exhibition curated by Natalie Willis and Richardo Barrett, at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. The show, which presents pieces from the NAGB’s collection as well as other private collections, examines the work of over 20 artists and presents “a look into how our visual representation as a nation throughout history has been shaped as a result of the desires of colonial era tourism.” From colonial postcards and works by traveling painters, to art produced by pro independence Bahamians, and contemporary installation, the exhibition offers a rich look into art produced about The Bahamas and by Bahamians who want to rid themselves of those representations. As Natalie Willis, co-curator of the exhibition, wrote in an article for The Nassau Guardian, there are questions of provenance and national identity that are linked to the collection of the NAGB: “What constitutes Bahamian art?” she asks. What role do American and British travelers, who generally produced “quaint ‘old world’ charm watercolors in the late 1800s to early 1900s” play in the art history of The Bahamas?

Colonial era expatriates, many of them American, painted the perceived quaintness of Bahamian life and landscape, which played into the idea of The Bahamas as picturesque, and the “native” black population as docile and respectable. One such portrayal of the Caribbean picturesque in Revisiting An Eye for the Tropics is American watercolor painter, Hartwell Leon Woodcock’s “Native Hut” (1915) —which depicts a hazy outdoor scene of a house framed by poinciana and palm trees— and William Sweeting’s ‘Two Natives at the Gate’ (1971) —a realist oil painting depicting a lone Black man in a donkey-pulled carriage, passing a fancy garden gate. The selection of works like these for the exhibition is not necessarily for their outward beauty, but for the questions that arise from their titles, the national origin of one of the artists, the fact that they’re in a national collection and how that came to be. Indeed, some of the works in the NAGB collection where donated by financial institutions whose interests were served by perpetuating certain representations of Bahamian life as depicted in such paintings. The exhibition is not only about the colonizer’s gaze, but also delves into the impact its had in contemporary artists. What does art say about a place, about the people making it, collecting it and choosing to associate national identity to it? Among the artists included, are Brent Malone, Kendall Hanna, Antonius Roberts, Blue Curry, Max Taylor and the fantastic intuitive artist Amos Ferguson. Other standouts are Sanford Sawyer’s 1970s studio photography depicting “Over the Hill” Black Bahamians and Dionne Benjamin-Smith’s digital prints of recognizable Bahamian scenes: seascapes and quaint houses with trees and flowers pouring out of the yards into the empty street, which were then intervened with texts such as “this is real Bahamian art,” “requires no explanation,” or “no abstract art here.” Her work is a tongue in cheek critique on the accepted modes of representation in Bahamian Art. While I was visiting the show, I had a random thought about the influence Hanna, an abstract expressionist painter, might have had on contemporary artists who felt the need to break from landscape and figurative painting.

 


Image: ’No Abstract Art Here’ (2006). Part of the ‘Real Bahamian Art Series’ by Dionne Benjamin-Smith. On display at the NAGB as part of the new Permanent Exhibition 'Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics'. From the Dawn Davies Collection.


Even before my visit, I was happy to find out about the great online presence the NAGB has. Whether it is by documenting their collection, building an artist directory, showcasing exhibitions, running a blog with frequent posts by curators and cultural studies scholar Ian “Tony” Bethell Bennett, or posting videos of artist talks, the NAGB is on it. Under the leadership of director Amanda Coulson and chief curator Holly Bynoe the exhibition program has introduced a series of artists from the rest of the Caribbean and the diaspora to Nassau audiences. During my visit, I also saw Re: Encounter, which featured Tesselation, an installation by Bahamian Dede Brown and works by Joiri Minaya, a Dominican artist living in New York. I was particularly struck by Minaya’s work: a penetrable wall constructed out of flowery stretch fabric, postcards with a proposed intervention on a prominent Columbus monument down the street, and the poignant video Labadee, about her own experience taking a cruise ship to Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s tourists-only enclave in Haiti.

Tasked with promoting and preserving Bahamian art, the NAGB also curates a series of traveling exhibitions in various cultural centers in the Family Islands. The National Gallery has benefitted from a close working relationship with The Nassau Guardian newspaper, which runs regular articles about the exhibitions and serves as a platform to distribute the curators’ research into particular pieces from the collection. Coulson also has a radio program titled Blank Canvas on Guardian talk radio 96.9 FM featuring local and international guests to discuss their work, and for which I was a guest too. This is all part of the efforts to make the NAGB a more open space and be less viewed as the aloof, elitist space that its urban placing and colonial architecture might communicate to Bahamians. The problem is, of course, that being such a vocal institution also has its draw backs: it’s lonely out there and there’s seldom other critical voices. This thinking is as much about cultural development as it is about a smart, long-term marketing for the country as a whole. In an interview with The Nassau Guardian in 2011, Coulson pointed out how The Bahamas needed to figure out the importance of the cultural tourism sector: “People go on vacation and they don’t want to lie on the beach; they want to go see art. Those people are in a much higher income bracket than the tourists we generally are advertising to,” she pointed out. “Cultural produce is something we can trade on and we are not attracting cultural tourists right now because they do not realize there is a valid system of museums and galleries and practicing artists down here they can discover.”

The Bahamas is perceived through its role in the world tourist economy and imaginary of the island paradise and hotel complexes that seek to capture people’s fantasies. Atlantis is the paradigm of the immersive hotel experience of being and not being there. Located in Paradise Island, a private island formerly known as Hog Island, the resort controls around 75% of the land. Atlantis was established in the mid 1990s, with the fantastic tale of the rediscovery of the lost civilization in The Bahamas conveyed through the resort’s architecture and attractions in a way that is more Las Vegas than Caribbean. The main draw for the non-paying public is the aquarium, a tunnel that allows you to walk amongst the sea creatures and fantastic suits and decoration of the “real” Atlantis. This attraction seems to complete the fantasy explored in the early days of tourism with the glass bottom boats or underwater capsules.



Image: View of the Atlantis aquarium in Paradise Island


Meanwhile, in New Providence, the main island in The Bahamas, there’s Baha Mar, a resort complex comprised of 3 separate hotels in the same “campus”, a convention center and a golf course. It is the largest and, at $3.5 billion, priciest resort in the Caribbean. The story of Baha Mar is long and very interesting —it started in 2005 with local investor Sarkis Izmirian striking a deal with the government to revitalize Cable Beach, the most popular beachfront destination in New Providence. The financial crisis made other investors leave, but the Chinese stepped in and provided construction work and money to finance the project. After a bankruptcy left the project in the air, the resort finally opened last year and the original plan of having Bahamian art take a center stage in the project continued. The Current is located within the Baha Mar campus and describes itself as “a hub for compelling Bahamian artistic experiences. A center for recognizing and supporting a strong creative community through captivating exhibitions, workshops and lectures, artist residencies and partnerships with local collectors.” The Current is technically under the marketing department of the resort and has been tasked with commissioning new Bahamian art for the hotel rooms and common spaces. The collection is the largest in the country: over 2,500 pieces in the rooms, restaurants and common spaces around the resort. Baha Mar Creative Director John Cox, an artist and former chief curator of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, leads the endeavor. The Current has multiple goals from commercial to educational. It will hold exhibitions that explore the depth of Bahamian visual creativity and history through their partnerships with the Dawn Davies and D’Aguilar Art Foundation collections. They also want to establish collaborations with the NAGB, as well as continue with the artist residency program, drawing sessions, and regular portfolio critiques.



Image: “Shake, Swing & Goombay" by Max Taylor on view at the Blue Note Piano Lounge in Baha Mar.


This is all meant to boost the profile of the country as much as the hotel’s but at the same time I worry that the mammoth endeavor has, for years now, conditioned the production of art in such a small country. Some of the pieces highlighted on their website tell a familiar story, but also say a lot about the current Asian economic presence in The Bahamas: Dominic Cant’s installation From the Sea uses photography and sculpture to create an immersive environment that gives the sensation of being underwater. Jordana Kelly’s The Jewels of Baha Mar consists of a wall installation of several Asian-inspired parasols (reminiscent of the ones also found in “tropical” drinks) that are infused with the “bright vibrant colors of Junkanoo.” What I do like is Baha Mar actually having paid the artists for their work instead of —like I’ve seen happen in Puerto Rico and was told about in Jamaica as well— have artwork lent to hotels in the hope of selling some pieces there. Beyond this, what is more interesting to me is how the public programming includes workshops, tours of on site and off site exhibitions and collections, critiques and artist talks, making The Current a space that also serves locals and art students. One could even argue this demographic is the main beneficiary until The Bahamas builds a brand around cultural tourism. The future exhibition ambitions of Cox and The Current staff will not only be part of the attractions in the hotel complex, but have the potential of being a welcome (and funded) addition to the cultural scene in Nassau.

Another hotel that is part of the Bahamian art scene is The Island House, a boutique hotel just outside the gates of the exclusive Lyford Cay community in western New Providence. Since opening in 2015, director Lauren Holowesko has developed a program of art exhibitions, music, film and a burgeoning residency program. TIH also has a cinema open to the general public and recently inaugurated an intimate one-screen film festival managed by artistic director Kareem Mortimer, who is an award-winning Bahamian filmmaker. My visit coincided with the exhibition My dreams aren’t your dreams, curated by Tessa Whitehead, an artist and curator of the local The D’Aguilar Art Foundation. I saw several of David Gumbs’ interactive video installations at TIH, along with some work by Bahamians Heino Schmid, Spurgeonique Morley, Averia Wright, Whitehead herself and Jamaican Deborah Anzinger, to name a few.



Image: Conch shells sell for $5 USD in the Nassau port. Overfishing to supply both local and tourist tastes is a big problem in the islands.


The Bahamas is, simultaneously, the site of crystal clear waters and obscure financial schemes, where monster hotel projects and high-end real estate coexist with a majority of people who haven’t benefitted quite as much from the country’s fiscal plans since independence. I’m not sure using financial terminology to talk about an art scene is ever correct, but maybe The Bahamas is the place more apt to do this. Diversification is necessary, be it economic —by not over-depending on cruise ship traffic to Nassau— and artistically —by not only relying on hotels to foot the bills of the artistic production of the future. I was glad to find in the NAGB a self-reflecting institution that understands its role as caretaker of collections but also connectors to a wider Caribbean reality and network of creators and thinkers. Throughout my time in The Bahamas, I found people with the intelligence and business savvy, who see the possibilities of bridging the gaps between what the country needs to move forward economically and what it takes to have a healthy artistic scene. To paraphrase Natalie Willis, the aim now is to dismantle inherited hierarchies and histories crafted by people who looked at Bahamians through their own, racist, colonial, patriarchal, lens and “make ourselves present in three-dimensional vibrancy too.”
 

About The author

Marina Reyes Franco

Marina Reyes Franco (b. San Juan, 1984) is an art historian and independent curator living and thinking in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She co-founded La Ene, a museum as critical project which has become mobile after 8 years based in Buenos Aires. Some recent projects include “Watch your step / Mind your head” at ifa Galerie-Berlin; The 2nd Grand Tropical Biennial, co-curated with Pablo León de la Barra, Stefan Benchoam and Radamés “Juni” Figueroa (2016), “A Summer in Puerta de Tierra,” an exhibition and day outing in a San Juan neighborhood in response to the policies of population displacement and tourism focus in the area (2015); “Calibán,” a selection of Puerto Rican contemporary artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Juan (2014) and “Sucursal,” an exhibition of the collection of La Ene, at the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires, co-curated with Gala Berger, Sofía Dourron and Santiago Villanueva (2014), as well as numerous exhibitions at La Ene while she was director. Research interests include the work of Esteban Valdés, artistic and literary manifestations on the frontier of political action, new museology, and the impact of tourism in cultural production. She received the 2017 CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean, and was nominated for ICI’s 2014 Independent Vision Curatorial Award.


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The Un/Comfortable Zones of Panama - Research - Independent Curators International

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The Un/Comfortable Zones of Panama

Marina Reyes Franco, recipient of the 2017 CPPC Travel Award, writes about Panamanian history, urban development of Panama, and artists whom she met during her trip.

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Image: The home of Feoclassical architect Jesús Díaz in Panama City
 

I’ve visited Panama’s Tocumen International Airport - deemed “the hub of the Americas” by Copa Airlines - many times. Whether coming or going to Buenos Aires, Bogotá or Santiago, I would always stop in Panamá, read the Panorama airline magazine and wonder what else was out there. Being Puerto Rican, it’s always good when there’s another place trying to be more Americanized than us. For over a century now, Panama has had an image of itself literally carved out of the landscape as a transient space. A 2008 study by the University of Florida found that the isthmus of Panama was most likely formed by a Central American peninsula colliding slowly with the South American continent through tectonic plates movement over millions of years. This formation helped populate the continents and, fast forward thousands of years later, the isthmus is still strategically located. First North to South, and now also East to West and viceversa, Panama is at the center of the globalized world due to the Panama Canal’s role in international trade and commerce; it is a connector between goods, consumers and the wealth that is created and often also “disappears” into its intricate web of secrecy laws and real estate ventures. I went to Panama to finally see the Canal Zone, and primarily meet with artists José Castrellón, Donna Conlon, Jonathan Harker and Darién Montañez, who are making work that reference Panamanian history and idiosyncrasies, from its complicated history with the United States, to the city’s wannabe Dubai skyscrapers, mall culture and money laundering schemes. Hosted by Castrellón, I got to know Panama City in the Pacific, Portobelo in the Atlantic, and the Zone along the way. I visited two weeks after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico and just being able to stay in a place with electricity and running water was a luxury my friends and family didn’t have. The bushy green landscape I admired was so like Puerto Rico’s, I would get emotional wondering when the island would look like that again.

The first thing a casual visitor might notice in the airport is that its famed duty-free shops won’t take credit cards anymore. The Riviera duty-free shops are owned by Abdul Waked, a businessman who is on the “Clinton list,” which basically means that reputable companies and banks won’t deal with you, even in the absence of an indictment. The guy is internationally black listed due to his association with money from drug trafficking and asset laundering. This little fact would become more and more important as my time in Panama progressed. Waked was one of the developers of the ghostly Soho Mall, a practically abandoned but still functioning shopping center that features a cineplex, Louis Vuitton and Valentino shops and a covered-up Fendi store, among many others whose brands he used to represent. He was a patron of the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo, a scientific museum highlighting biodiversity in the isthmus, as well as various real estate ventures, including Ciudad del Sol, a majority-Muslim enclave near the city of Colón, in the Caribbean side of the former Canal Zone.




Image: The empty interior of the Soho Mall


The history of modern-day Panama is intricately linked to the history of the Panama Canal, which starts with the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, the triumphant builder of the Suez Canal, trying and failing to build a canal across the isthmus. In 1903, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French citizen and a shareholder in the original company, founded his own Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, and proclaimed himself Panama’s ambassador to the United States. He negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which sold the rights to acquire the canal company, build and administer -in perpetuity- the Panama Canal and gave the US prerogative to take over an area covering 5 miles on each side of the waterway. These privileges were granted in exchange for military support to the separatists who wanted independence from Colombia, forever linking the canal and the military occupation of the Zone to the foundation of the country. Under the motto “The land divided, the world united,” the Panama Canal was inaugurated in 1914 and stayed in American hands until the The Torrijos–Carter Treaties were signed in 1977. The territory was reverted back to Panama starting in 1979 and concluded on Dec 31, 1999, with the country regaining full ownership of the Zone. Most Panamanians I know would argue that Panama truly became independent on that day in 1999.




Image: Map of the Canal Zone

The Canal Zone constituted a very strange sort of socialist yet uniquely American Middle Class utopia where civilians who worked in the canal company and military families lived together. They had access to housing, shops, entertainment, and education - including a University of Florida campus - with the odd fact of being an American company town and military enclave literally in the middle of a Latin American country. The Canal Zone split the country into sections that made traversing Panama more difficult for Panamanians, who had to go through check points within their own country. It also hampered the growth of the capital city, which started growing east and even gaining territory to the Pacific Ocean because there was little space to grow. The architecture and planning of the Canal Zone was structured according to the City Beautiful movement developed in the United States between the 1890s and 1920s, as well as the European Garden City model. This movement, which claimed that design could not be separated from social issues and should encourage civic pride and engagement, gained traction in 1893 when Daniel H. Burnham built the temporary “White City” for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Its influence was most prominent in cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. and heralded a society shielded from crime and poverty, promoted the integration of the population with the natural environment, the use of public spaces, the creation of monuments, civic centers and grand boulevards, as well as sanitation systems. All these elements are present in the tropical American utopia created by the Canal Zone administrators, but also resonate to anyone familiar with suburbia, “white flight” in Northern cities, and the creation of ideal communities that shield residents from Black and Brown people.

Clearly, this tropical utopia was not the same for everyone. While the Zonians, as the residents of the Zone came to be called, had subsidized housing, affordable medical care, annual paid vacations and preferential prices at the local commissary, they were also subject to the authoritarianism of the system that supported that middle-class lifestyle. The canal company and the military shared the Zone and also imposed a “gold” and “silver” tier system in which White men earned more than the other Caribbean workers, and education was segregated well into the 1970s. The architecture of the different housing units and company towns within the Zone differed according to this system too. As we drove through the town of Paraíso, I was struck, not only by the name, but also by the architecture of the place - a lot of the buildings in this silver tier town looks a lot like Puerto Rico’s public housing units and schools, which didn’t exactly surprise me but made evident the racist planning of both occupations.



Image: Entrance to Fort Sherman, on the Atlantic coast, in the former Canal Zone


One of the highlights of my visit was the trip to Portobelo, which I made with Castrellón and Jennifer Choy, a young curator and one of his partners in Antítesis, a contemporary art space in Panama City. Portobelo is famous for the Congos, or descendants of Maroons, that have a deep affinity to their heritage. The town is best know for the Black Christ of Portobelo, and its namesake festival on October 21. Portobelo, which is on the Atlantic coast, and the places we saw along the way, couldn’t be any more different from the image Panama City projects to the world nowadays. The former military bases we encountered along the former Canal Zone there are totally abandoned or still used by the Panamanian border police. Only Colón, a free trade zone, holds any interest to capital. Portobelo is mostly overlooked by tourism, and even considered dangerous, but its religious festival attracts thousands of believers every year. The town square even boasts a sculpture of one of the most famous followers of the Black Christ: Salsa legend Maelo Rivera. This beautiful coastal town is also home to a group of painters organized as the Portobelo Painters Workshop, whose most well known painter is Yaneca Esquina. Started around 1993, with the help of photographer Sandra Eleta, who has a very respected body of work centered on the Congos of Portobelo, the Workshop is located next to her guest house, La Morada. The paintings are sold in the neighboring Portobelo Foundation shop, as well as in Panama City’s Karavan Gallery. Though I didn’t get to meet Yaneca, I met his son, who promptly told me that he paints some pieces for “the tourists” (namely, pieces created by indigenous groups that also work with the foundation, and which he ‘decorates’), while others are his real works of art.



Image: Painting by Yaneca. Title unknown.


If Panama became truly independent in 1999, so did its art scene. By 2002, Panamanian art critic and curator Adrienne Samos had identified Gustavo Araujo, Jonathan Harker and Brooke Alfaro as some of the artists who had reverted the usual gaze towards the countryside in the search for Panamanian identity and instead focused on the city itself as its cultural and social engine. These artists had studios in the Casco Antiguo or colonial part of the city, and its poverty and impending transformations were not lost on them. Now the city looks extremely, almost uncomfortably groomed, yet also derelict, often in the same block. Nowadays, Casco Antiguo is getting populated by fancy restaurants and gelato shops, and it reminds me of the perils of ongoing gentrification in Old San Juan and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. In any case, the artists I came to meet were part of this group that Samos referred to, or are directly influenced by them. They make social critique and use humor in their work to refer to national history and certain absurdities of Panamanian life. This too is an affinity we share.

Two of the artists that are part of that generation are Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker. Though they make work on their own as well, Conlon and Harker have worked together on videos that use discarded objects to highlight their role in the shaping of identities, consumerism, waste and climate, since 2006. Their video Drinking Song features the U.S. national anthem played using Panamanian beer bottles and cans. The brand names of the four beers —Atlas, Panama, Soberana (“Sovereign”), and Balboa (from Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a Spanish conquistador)—conjure images of Panama’s geography, history, and constructed nationhood. While Conlon searches her immediate surroundings, collecting images and objects that then she reconfigures to speak about the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of contemporary life, Harker likes to use irony and hyperbole in work that highlights the fabricated nature of cultural identity in Panama, often including himself in the works. A favorite of mine is Harker’s 2002 series of postcards that poke fun at tourism slogans, and even includes one that says “Total Sovereignty!” and pictures him climbing a fence.



Image: Visiting Jonathan Harker’s studio in Casco Antiguo


José Castrellón is an artist who has done a lot of photographic work on the Canal Zone before. He has a series of photos titled Zoned Out in which he documented many of the areas and buildings along the canal. A more recent project centers on the January 9, 1964 conflict between students about the Panamanian flag - a previous reworking of the canal treaty stated that the Panamanian flag had to be flown inside the Canal Zone, but students in a high school there resisted it and that caused violence when students from another school entered the zone to raise the flag. Castrellón’s most recent exhibition references a famous photo taken by Stan Weyman for LIFE Magazine that documents the events of January 9. He relates the image to a popular tradition in María Chiquita and other rural parts of the country where every November 3, to celebrate independence from Colombia, people climb up a greased up pole to claim a flag in exchange for money. This odd juxtaposition of commemorations and celebrations is what Castrellón highlights in his pieces, particularly in a video in which the flag is altered to remove the stars. A common conversation topic during my visit was the issue of Panamanian “identity” in relation to the US and the many unresolved issues brought on by, not only the occupation of the Canal Zone, but also the 1989 invasion to remove their president, the dollarized economy and economic aspirations.



Image: A January 1964 edition of Life Magazine depicting the student protests over the Panamanian flag in the Canal Zone


According to Darién Montañez, Panama is an ideal case study for the atrophied development of a nation state. In its architecture, Montañez identifies Feoclásico as the reigning style of the aspirational moneyed class in Panama City. “A spectre is haunting Panama—the spectre of Feoclassicism. Whence springs this glorification of bad taste, bad both as in flawed and as in evil, yet so bad it approaches greatness?” Glass towers with ornate decorations and names like The Mirage, Bellagio Tower, Venetian Tower line the urban landscape. Anyone trying to understand contemporary Panama needs to read Montañez’ The Feoclassical Architecture of Panama. His essay gives a historical and theoretical context to the Feoclassical genre, “which good snobs find so repulsive” with the intention of signing it praises “as a clear expression of our culture and national spirit.”

Every year, Montañez asks his architecture students to draw their favorite building and every year, the Trump Ocean Club tower wins. This city, which is literally being built on the Pacific Ocean through extensions like Punta Pacífica and Punta Paitilla, is now even developing its own artificial islands for luxury residences, called the Ocean Reef Islands. His work is extensive and ranges from numerous tumblr accounts that document city architecture and its inherent scandals, as well as video, photography, writing and even watercolor painting, in an attempt to produce an object. His videos Dark Side of the Moon Side 1 and Side 2 are particularly interesting and pertinent to my research. The videos juxtapose two tourism campaigns, 1983’s “My Name is Panama”, and 2013’s “Panama, The Way”, and exchanging the audio. The result is an equality fictitious representation of Panama, one that promises pure exotic landscapes and indigenous peoples, while the other is the safe, glass tower no-place for the moneyed elites.




Image: Another example of the Feoclassical architectural genre


When I asked about the Panama Papers scandal, I was told that it was taken as a national affront in the mainstream media. There are lawyers in every respectable family, so all of society is involved. There are several ways to get tax benefits in Panama: the Colón Free Trade Zone, which was established in 1948 and is administered by a “semi independent” government agency; the Panama Pacífico Special Economic Zone, which is being built in the former U.S. Howard Air Force Base is envisioned as a small city for call centers, offshore/maritime/aviation services, as well as high tech manufacturing, among others. Another very popular one is the Panama Tax Free Processing Zone Investor Program, which allows foreign investors and their families to relocate and establish residency in Panama by renting a plot of land, office, or an entire building with at least a 10 years lease within one of Panama’s Tax Free Zones. Panama is not only a destination for the international entrepreneur who wants to evade taxes and park their money, but also a premier destination for retirees. When the Canal Zone reverted to Panamanian hands, they kept and expanded many of the exceptional qualities the canal zone offered the world.




Image: A real estate advertisement and a book that peddled Panama as a retiree’s paradise. Courtesy of Walo Araujo.


Closer to Panama City proper - and another one of the tax free zones - is the City of Knowledge, a project started by its namesake foundation in 1995 that took over the former Fort Clayton area in the Canal Zone. When the canal zone was handed back to Panama, a lot of its former bases were kept by the government for military training and future redevelopment; houses were sold to Panamanians, a few Zonians, and other to land developers who created malls and gated communities. The City of Knowledge campus is comprised of 200 buildings and is described on their website as “a booming international community established for the purpose of business, academic, scientific, and humanistic collaboration.” Now the former barracks house many regional of NGOs, including UN and affiliates, as well as start ups and universities. Foundation employees live in the houses where the officials used to live, there’s a theater, a bowling alley, etc. The vibe of the place is definitely like that of a start up; corporate culture permeates in the foundation and innovation is the buzzword. They also have a business accelerator, convention center, sports complex, dormitories and host several public events like concerts and festivals.

In my visit to the City of Knowledge, I met with Eduardo “Walo” Araujo, Vice President of Communications for the foundation and an important cultural agent who co-founded the cultural magazine Mogo in the early 2000s, and used to direct the now defunct Panama Biennial. We discussed many things, from land use to his late brother’s Gustavo’s beginning in photography and the turn to painting before his untimely death in a car accident in 2008. One of the reasons why I’d wanted to come to Panama was the canal, but also to find out more about the biennial he, along with Mónica Kupfer, helped steer. The Panama Biennial had existed for several iterations as a salon-style competition with an international jury, but was transformed in 2005 when the co-directors invited Guatemalan curator Rozina Cazali to organize the exhibition. In 2008, Araujo and Kupfer invited Mexican curator Magalí Arriola, who proposed two important changes: a theme and an international roster who, along with other Panama-based artists, would address the history and legacy of the Canal Zone through commissioned works. The resulting texts and catalog is a great testament to how art can contribute to history, and features analysis, descriptions, scans and photos from remarkable archives and pieces of art by 17 artists, including Humberto Vélez, Francis Alÿs, Sam Durant, Jonathan Harker, Donna Conlon, Michael Stevenson, among others. Almost 10 years after the hand over of the Canal Zone lands, this exhibition served as an artistic examination of what the Zone has meant to Panamanians, who have only begun to know this land in the 21st century.

A common thread among the countries I’ve visited - not to mention the one I live in - is the constant flip-flopping of political parties and economic development proposals, and an emphasis on tax-free schemes, along with poor investment in culture and education. According to Araujo, this short sightedness only allows for roads and bridges to be built, not a society. In Panama, the public sector is only efficient when it comes to the administration of the canal. Like many Caribbean countries whose “identity” came into focus as it was defined for its people in tourism campaigns, Panama’s is shaped by the world’s relationship to their canal. Now, increasingly, the image of the country is associated with the dirty laundry of a fiscal paradise, but that is also something artists are willing to take on. This zone of exemption that was devised by the United States to operate as a segregated, planned community within Panama, ended when the Americans left in 1999, but it has been extended to the financial sector and its global beneficiaries. As ever, artists pull at the seams of the crafted narratives. 

 

About The author

Marina Reyes Franco

Marina Reyes Franco (b. San Juan, 1984) is an art historian and independent curator living and thinking in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She co-founded La Ene, a museum as critical project which has become mobile after 8 years based in Buenos Aires. Some recent projects include “Watch your step / Mind your head” at ifa Galerie-Berlin; The 2nd Grand Tropical Biennial, co-curated with Pablo León de la Barra, Stefan Benchoam and Radamés “Juni” Figueroa (2016), “A Summer in Puerta de Tierra,” an exhibition and day outing in a San Juan neighborhood in response to the policies of population displacement and tourism focus in the area (2015); “Calibán,” a selection of Puerto Rican contemporary artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Juan (2014) and “Sucursal,” an exhibition of the collection of La Ene, at the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires, co-curated with Gala Berger, Sofía Dourron and Santiago Villanueva (2014), as well as numerous exhibitions at La Ene while she was director. Research interests include the work of Esteban Valdés, artistic and literary manifestations on the frontier of political action, new museology, and the impact of tourism in cultural production. She received the 2017 CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean, and was nominated for ICI’s 2014 Independent Vision Curatorial Award.


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Report: Curatorial Intensive in Mexico City 2018 - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research

Report: Curatorial Intensive in Mexico City 2018


 

         In wanderings throughout the city, they call one’s sight and catch it in their warps. They form square grey blocks, made of many different lines coming in and out, revolving in every possible direction, and offering complex compositions, like hieroglyphics or diagrams, languages without words as such. In many streets one would find these mazes of roots, most of them in almost cubical shape. They were probably contained at some point by tree planters from previous urban plans that eventually became obsolete with the new changes of the design of the city, or some other aimless decisions impossible to determine here. For sure some of the planters were affected and destroyed by the same seismic scourge that paused and displaced every activity in the city; even the Curatorial Intensive for which we congregated, was postponed for a few months in order to put all the available resources to help with earthquake relief.

         The shapes of these Mexican roots appear through the city, emerging from the pavement as involuntary concrete cube-like sculptures, but their mesh is rebelling against the previously imposed limits made of concrete or bricks. During the Intensive, I was lucky to stay at Cooperativa Cráter Invertido, where I shared many conversations with Jazael Olguin Zapata (one of the members of the cooperative) about how indigenous imaginaries had surpassed imposed manners in the process of colonialism, as one can see in ceramics, textiles, architecture, and contemporary art. This dialectic cosmogony that Jazael proposed integrates different time relationships of a larger scale than the capitalistic accelerated routines, bringing together a parallel idea of modernity full of immanence, transcultural connections, and possibilities to rethink social relationships.   

         This root-image might be a good device from where to think about some of the topics we dealt with extensively during the Curatorial Intensive at our great host Fundación Alumnos 47. For instance, the subject of the archival practice had a recurring presence. We reflect on the multiplicity of paths that one can follow when making historiography that challenges inherited models. Some of the conversations navigated the undoing of the mesh of history in order to rearticulate both different methodologies and shifting the focuses, as a way to put off-center – descentrar, to use Ana Longoni’s expression (1) - the discourses and locations of history making. The input from the faculty was invaluable; such as Sol Henaro (on her work with La Celda, Melquiades Herrera and some mind-blowing groups active between the 1970s and 1990s such as No-Grupo, among others), Paola Santoscoy (on the history of El Eco Museo Experimental) Tamara Díaz Bringas (on the X Bienal Centroamericana), and André Mesquita (with a contribution about the relationships between art and activism; his reflection on silence in the public sphere was really inspiring). I would like to underscore the fact that the projects of my peers working with this matter were high level as well. Clara Bolívar, Daril Fortis, Marielsa Castro, Rolando Hernandez, Jorge Lopera, Marco Calderón, and Ana María Garzón brought great questions and proposals on the performativy of the archival practice, the problematization of the construction of the memory, and the challenge of avoiding the transformation of the matter of research into fetish commodities. I found particularly interesting how not only to recover matters from the past, but also indeed actualize their effects and histories to read the present.





         In close relation to the previous question, the topic of art as social praxis also had great relevance. The public location of the roots, and their entwined configuration may be again a good way of understanding the complexities of this type of position. The work itself of our host Alumnos 47, introduced by their chief curator Jessica Berlanga, provided a good account of how to articulate successfully a novel approach combining different tactics in the public sphere that range from: participation, architecture, and interventions to a secretly organized campaign to place the organization on the map in their first project, playing wisely with suspense; they distributed a series of anonymous letters in a city as complex as DF. In the many projects she showed, one could appreciate the great care in how to situate the work of the organization beyond its walls, taking specific locations of DF as operation fields in a way that expanded the notion of spectatorship and participative process.
 




         We had the chance to visit the beautiful studio of Erick Meyenberg, who was one of the artists introduced to us by Jessica Berlanga. The projects he discussed combined a very well articulated approach, bringing together public space, social research, and disciplinary methods that resulted in hypnotic, choreographed videos. Additionally, we enjoyed the presentations of Yasmil Raymond and Lucía Sanromán, both introducing very polemic projects on the construction of temporal communities. The latter introduced the project of Tania Bruguera at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Sanromán talked openly about the challenges of working with a lack of funding, and the difficulties of creating communities when the institution is placed in a working area, surrounded mainly by high tech offices. The former was a project of Thomas Hirschhorn about a monument for Gramsci. It was very problematic because it presented a monument in the public space reflecting on politics, but lacked the input of the neighbours, who didn’t have a say on why a monument was erected; for whom the monument was meant; and who was representing this monument. There was participation, yes, and it was a paid community of workers, but where were the desires of this community? These facts roused significant questions on labor and participation. These last perspectives connected well with the work of my colleagues Isabel Parkes, Josseline Pinto, and Alejandro Morales who were introducing projects that reflected on labor, and precariousness. In the project of Morales, these issues connect with public space, since he has been running a mobile art institution in the shape of a truck in Juarez. It connects well with the work of Beatriz Alonso, who introduced the question of the community with a more poetic take through the metaphor of the communication of the copes of the trees in forests. Personally, I find that it’s important not to forget this kind of approach when thinking about more socially-engaged projects. The challenge resides in finding the wiring between poetics and politics.

         I found the site visit to the Museo de Antropología de México particularly inspiring for my own research. We met with Eduardo Abaroa, as part of his ongoing “Total Destruction of the Anthropological Museum.” He organized a visit with one of the researchers of the museum and also a guide, and used this pedagogical device to approach all the many complexities that rest in such a place and its representations: the complicated relationship with the state and the indigenous communities in terms of extraction and cosmocide (I’m taking this word from the conversations with Jazael); the life of those traditions and their socio-economic systems they carry with them; and the complex technologies of the pre-Columbian cultures as can be seen in their non-phonetic writing, reproductions machines for ceramics, or complex economic infrastructural systems. Finally, I would like to mention the great mesh of independent initiatives and editorial projects that populate the cultural tapestry of the city. We had the chance to learn about these during the visits organized at Obrera Centro by Tamara Ibarra to Primal, Periférica, RRD, Bikini Wax, galería Ladrón, Aeromoto, and Islario, among others. And last but not least, very important for creating the future entanglement of our group, we ended the seminar in the mythical Barba Azul, where the talking overlapped with the dancing.   


Footnote:
1) LONGONI, Ana, ‘Other Beginnings of the Conceptualism (Argentine and Latin-American)’, http://www.cronistas.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Other-beginnings-of-the-conceptualism-Argentine-and-Latin-AmericanAna-Longoni-.pdf
 

About The author

Lorenzo Sandoval

Lorenzo Sandoval works at the intersection of artistic practice, curatorial processes, and spatial design. He holds a B.F.A and a Master in Photography, Art and Technology from the UPV (Valencia, Spain). As an artist, he has exhibited in many venues internationally as well as attending international residencies in Denmark, Spain, Germany, Portugal, and Kenya. As a curator, he curated from 2010 until 2015 the art program, at Altes Finanzamt, and curated shows in Berlin at General Public (The Rescue of the Effects), and District (Dissident Desire, together with Suza Husse), as well as in ar/ge Kunst (Making Room. Spaces of Anticipation, together with Emanuele Guidi). He received curatorial prizes such as Inéditos 2011, Can Felipa curatorial prize and Nogueras Blanchard curatorial challenge 2012. Deep Surface at L’Atelier-ksr and Your Skin Is a Frozen Wave at BDP Büro were his last solo shows in Berlin in 2016.  In 2017 he won the art prizes ‘Generación 2017’ presented at La Casa Encendida, and DKV Seguros presented at Laboral, Gijón. His latest spatial projects have been produced at Savvy Contemporary and Archive Kabinett. Since 2015, he runs the fictional institution The Institute for Endotic Research. http://lorenzosandoval.net


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Sea, Sun and Oil in Trinidad - Research - Independent Curators International

INDEPENDENT CURATORS INTERNATIONAL
Research

Sea, Sun and Oil in Trinidad

Marina Reyes Franco, recipient of the 2017 CPPC Travel Award, writes in-depth about her research trip to Trinidad (September 2017).

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A huge photo of a beautiful beach welcomed me to the immigration line at Piarco International Airport in Port of Spain, Trinidad. “Gorgeous span of Maracas Bay,” said the caption, “where locals and tourists alike enjoy the sand, sea and sun.” I never went to Maracas Bay, but I could tell that, by emphasizing that “locals and tourists” go to the same beach, they meant this wasn’t your regular Caribbean all-inclusive destination. For someone interested in the visitor economy, Trinidad might seem like the wrong place to start this research. After all, the island’s economy is heavily dependent on natural resources like petroleum and natural gas, and the capital Port of Spain is hardly a cruise ship haven or a resort hotel town. However, the island connects to another line of research that I’m particularly interested in: the US military occupation and its cultural and political repercussions in the Caribbean region. I’d been wanting to come for several years now, and now it was finally possible. Similar reasons would also lead me to schedule Panama as my next stop in this research tour of the Caribbean and Central America.
 

Image: A CLICO ad from 1993 commemorating independence. Renamed CL Financial, CL Financial was the largest privately held conglomerate in Trinidad and Tobago and one of the largest privately held corporations in the entire Caribbean, before the company encountered a major liquidity crisis and the government bailed it out in 2009.


American presence and interventions in the Caribbean have varied according to evolving policies in relation to the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary, the Good Neighbor Policy, WWII, the Cold War and, lately, the War on Drugs. North American influence in the Caribbean became stronger in the late 19th century due to the United States replacing Europe as the hegemonic power in the region and the increasing economic ties to the US and, to a lesser extent, Canada in terms of trade and investment. The US also became a common destination as Caribbean peoples migrated out of the region in large numbers for the first time. Expansion beyond the shores of the North American continent seemed the inevitable consequence of Manifest Destiny but, even though influence in the Caribbean was in its geopolitical interest, making them American territories to be settled and given full membership rights was not an objective. The new US imperialism dictated by the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that the European powers should not interfere in the politics of the new American republics or seek further colonial possessions, made implicit that this hemisphere was the natural world-region of US hegemony. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt announced the so-called Roosevelt Corollary, a declaration that while the US had no intention to take territory, they would make sure their neighbors were stable, prosperous and orderly, thus assuming the moral right to intervene whenever it felt these conditions did not prevail. Numerous occupations followed in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the next couple of decades, particularly during World War I. In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted the Good Neighbor policy, encouraging friendly relations and mutual defence among the nations of the Western Hemisphere. Hardly an accord between equals, it nevertheless led to the end of military occupations by 1934.

A new relationship between the US and the Caribbean would develop following a pretty straightforward 1940 Destroyers-for-bases deal struck with the United Kingdom, in which land was ceded to the US in a 99-year lease with the purpose of establishing military bases in British colonies. US Army, Navy and Air Force bases sprung up in Bermuda, Newfoundland, Antigua, The Bahamas, British Guiana, Jamaica, St Lucia and Trinidad. I’m particularly interested in the US Navy base in Chaguaramas. There, people were evicted, bathing beaches were declared out of bounds, and by 1942 the whole peninsula was a military base strictly forbidden to the public. At its peak during World War II, there were some 30,000 resident U.S. troops and, during the Cold War, the peninsula was also host to one of the six Ballistic Missile Early Warning System stations located all over the world. After many protests in the early 60s and achieving independence in 1962, a period of tense negotiation ensued and the land was transferred back to Trinidad and Tobago in 1967. One of the many plans for Chaguaramas included it becoming the capital of the short-lived West Indies Federation.
 

Image: Commemorative plaque in Chaguaramas


I am interested in the shared postcolonial history of these countries and territories and their relationship to the history I’ve experienced in Puerto Rico through the occupation of the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra, the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in the town of Ceiba and numerous other bases around my country. My intention was to take a closer look at these territories in Trinidad and Panama since the occupation ended, to establish relationships between places that have been considered important because of their geographically strategic positions, thus becoming -at different points in time- indispensable to U.S. interests. I also looked at the redevelopment of the Canal Zone in Panama after 1999, and the “Development Authorities” that have sprung in Roosevelt Roads and in the Chaguaramas Base in Trinidad to repurpose those post military spaces with sometimes highly questionable development models.

I only have a vague memory of perhaps having visited Trinidad on a cruise ship when I was a child, but I can’t really be sure. The nature of cruise ship travel is like that - sometimes you don’t even know where you are, but there’s a buffet and ice sculptures waiting back on board. All I know about this country is through books, movies, music, friends and the work of some of its artists, many of whom I’ve only gotten to know and talk to via chat and email in as part of a growing network of potential collaborators who I would finally meet on this trip. The English-speaking Caribbean is particularly new and interesting to me, as its history represents other decolonizing discussions, theories and characters that haven’t been part of Puerto Rican political life−not even in the Left−in recent decades. However, one Caribbean figure is central to Puerto Rico: Sir Arthur Lewis of St Lucia, whose “industrialisation by invitation” approach was most dramatically implemented during “Operation Bootstrap,” and we can’t seem to escape even today.
 

Image: A nationalist palm tree outside the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago


I arrived to Port of Spain during the first week of September, just a few days after the August 31st independence day celebrations and the red, black and white colors of the Trinbagonian flag still decorated every government building, bank and fast food restaurant in the city. An oil economy has so far spared Trinidad what one might call the indignities of the tourism trade in the region, but persistently low gas prices, numerous corruption scandals and a contracting economy have also left the country in a recession. It’s clear that the country’s economy is long overdue for diversification, but conflicting political parties and economic interests can’t get on the same page long enough to enact any long term policies. Right now, the tourism industry is mostly business related, with Trinidad, as the bigger island with more infrastructure, serving as a regional conference and banking hub. Whereas Trinidad is industrial and more business-like, Tobago is widely understood as the island with more tourism potential. The government is in talks to open an all-inclusive Sandals resort but ironically travel there is hampered by inefficient ferry transport, though I guess resort guests would fly in directly. Only locals worry about ferries, anyway. Around the time of my visit, Mark Bassant, an investigative journalist known for explosive exclusives, was called to give testimony in Parliament in a recent corruption case he uncovered involving mismanagement of funds allocated to acquire a new ferry for Tobago. I was surprised when Bassant, whom I contacted through Twitter, agreed to meet and discuss his recent investigations and upcoming testimony. His "A Gap in the Bridge” 13-part series exposed the underlying corruption in a ferry lease agreement between the Trinbagonian government and a Canadian company of dubious origin whose smaller, older, more expensive and constantly breaking down ferry was selected over a European competitor. I will say one thing about Port of Spain, though: it’s a city that turns its back to the sea. In fact, one of the few spots in the city where you can really see the Gulf of Paria is from the Hyatt Regency hotel waterfront walkway. This hotel is so important for the economic and political elite, only a driveway divides it from the new Trinbagonian parliament building. Their exterior architecture is so similar, it might as well be another hotel tower.
 

Image: Christopher Cozier and Kriston Chen in Alice Yard


In what definitely turned out to be the best introduction to the region, I was hosted by artist Christopher Cozier in Alice Yard, the art space and residency he co-founded in 2006 with writer Nicholas Laughlin and architect Sean Leonard in the former house of Leonard’s great-grandmother. The yard, is it is commonly called, is a 1930s house with a small apartment for residents, studio space, a small exhibition space, a rehearsal room for local bands and yard itself, where everything happens. Many projects are currently run out of the yard: Out of Place is a curatorial collaboration between Cozier and Bahamian artist Blue Curry which takes art into the public space of bus stops and squares; 1000 Mokos, which organizes urban youth to learn how to walk on stilts in the Moko Jumbie Mas tradition; and toof prints, a project by designer Kriston Chen -also part of 1000 Mokos- that invites other artists to explore contemporary graphic design in the public space - an unused wall at the yard. Granderson Lab, an off site project of AY, provides studio space for several designers and artists in a warehouse building. See You on Sundays is an elastic group of artists - Alicia Milne, Alex Kelly, Luis Vázquez Laroche, Nikolai Noel, and Wasia Ward are its founding members - who meet to discuss texts and socialize about their respective artistic practice. They are part of the younger generation of artists AY, and Cozier specially, want to see grow into their own, despite the lack of local financial or institutional structures to support contemporary art practice. Some of these artists have already visited Puerto Rico before as part of a growing partnership with Beta Local, the San Juan-based arts organization.
 

Image: Artist, bioregional animist and implementer of the permaculture model, Johnny Stollmeyer


Starting in 1997, Cozier had been part of CCA (Contemporary Caribbean Arts), a regional developmental organization based in Trinidad that encouraged Caribbean artists by supporting and fostering exchanges between local and international artists. Perhaps growing into a too ambitious project, in 2000 CCA established CCA7, a 20,000-square-foot facility that houses 2 galleries, 13 artists’ studios, archives, a library, and educational, lecture and conference spaces, in Laventilla, the nation’s poorest neighborhood. Though it was important in connecting regional cultural agents, it failed to connect with a larger audience locally. CCA7 announced its closure in 2007 citing that, despite increased international funding, the “lack operational funding or much in the way of communal national support” in Trinidad made the continuation of the project impossible. According to Cozier, there is a myth that contemporary art practice began with CCA7 or the people it imported, like Peter Doig or Chris Ofili, when it really began with the dialogues of the early 1980s around the work of people like internationally renowned Mas man Peter Minshall, conceptual artist and now permaculture practitioner Johnny Stollmeyer, Wendy Nanan, and Francisco Cabral, who came before.
 

Image: A local mas camp with mas band outfits for sale


Contemporary art certainly doesn’t fall within the purview of CreativeTT, the government’s creative economy project, strategic and business development’s niche areas: film, fashion and music, nor does it connect to the islands’ intention of projecting Carnival as a tourism attraction. One thing that must be understood is that, whenever it’s not carnival, people in Trinidad are preparing for carnival. Businesses plan their year around it and there is a whole industry around the commissioning of costumes for local and international carnivals. From Toronto, to NY or London, Caribbean carnival is global. Though a lot of the money in the local art market has always flowed towards traditional and established art forms such as painting, the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago remains dysfunctional and underfunded. When I visited, the supposedly climate controlled room with paintings by Michel-Jean Cazabon, a famous XIX century painter, was decidedly humid and smelly. Exhibition spaces in the city consist of AY, Y Gallery, Medulla Art Gallery and other frame shops. A particular one is the aptly named The Frame Shop A SPACE INNA SPACE, where owner and curator Ashraph delighted me by showing some small paintings by the late intuitive artist Embah. Ashraph has been curating a series of Carnival-themed exhibitions, showing mostly paintings depicting bats, blue devils, sailors, amongst other carnival characters. As far as art spaces go, only AY is strictly non commercial and others, like the music and art venue Big Black Box, or even the members-only Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago are actually for rent. There is a questioning of “who are we talking to?” amongst contemporary artists that AY seeks to address by creating a space of dialogue within the local scene that also provides for continued exchange with international artists and curators at a more human scale.
 

Image: Artists Luis Vázquez Laroche and Nikolai Noel
 

Image: Nikolai Noel, White room (2017), as installed at Alice Yard
 

During my stay, I was witness to one such moment: in the first in a series of one day shows at Alice Yard, Nikolai Noel showed and documented two time-based pieces in front of a small audience. White room is an installation consisting of 4 hot plates and 4 pots filled with water and brown sugar, which made the room fill up with vapor. The smell of burnt sweetness seeped out of the room and into the yard. The piece evokes Trinidad's plantation history, the slave trade and the indentured servitude created to sustain the cocoa and sugar farms after emancipation. The black, burnt remnants of the sugar are more reminiscent of the country's current economy; sugar turned into oil. In any case, history stinks and stepping into the room is a dizzying experience. The second piece, titled Invisible Rope, consisted of a found shoe and a single lit white candle. "Whenever someone dies, people light candles in the street to guide the spirits away from their home," he explained. Lost footwear reminds us of the body that once inhabited it, making both pieces feel pretty phantasmagoric. The ideal spatial conditions to show the whole series of works he has worked on would be different, but this will do for now. What Noel wants is to socialize the work and establish a dialogue with others. "In more temperate climates this is more normal, but in the tropics ventilation is the priority,” he said about the vapor in the room, but there’s a metaphor there somewhere as well.
 

Image: TT Guardian article from April 22, 1960
 

My main objective in Port of Spain had been to explore Chaguaramas and I prepared by researching the National Archives for news about the protests led by Dr. Eric Williams in the 1960s and the run up to independence. Williams was one of the most ardent opponents of US military presence, considering it central to decolonization. He led the March on Chaguaramas on April 22, 1960 demanding the land back and even burned the Constitution, causing a media backlash from conservative outlets such as The Trinidad Guardian newspaper. I went to Chaguaramas twice, the first time being with Che Lovelace, an artist whom a collector friend from Puerto Rico put me in contact with. Lovelace is the son of famed writer Earl Lovelace, an avid surfer who still competes, and one of the artists who had studio space at CCA7. Now, however, his studio in located in a house formerly used by Navy officers. There is no art program running out of Chaguaramas (although Peter Minshall’s mas camp is also in Chaguaramas) and I hesitate to ask exactly how he was able to rent this space. His recent paintings are on paperboard, a material he started working with 10 years ago, but still feels like he hasn't tapped into its full potential yet. He uses it for compositions and easier transport, as they remain flat and can be shipped easily. The material is acid free and also used for book binding so he can also cut into it and layer it or use it in more potentially sculptural ways. Che incorporates performance, video and photography into his painting process, using himself or others as models while experimenting with form, body and movement in front of the works. All this, however, is done as part of the private process and not in public. A 2014 untitled performance at a NY conference remains his only public piece: a 4-minute interaction between his body, a single steel drum and a wooden panel. Drawing from modern dance, his experience with carnival, and his affinity for surfing, the piece evokes both steel pan drums and oil as representatives of T&T identity. The piece shows the ways in which he understands movement and composition whenever he stood still.


Image: Tour guide Jalaludin Khan with a display of books of Trinbagonian and Caribbean history


For a more historical visit, Milne set me up with Jalaludin Khan, an artist who also happens to be a hiker, tour guide, environmentalist and, in a perfect turn of events, used to work in the Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA). Khan sent me a lot of information about Trinbagonian history in an email that included the phrase “constructed visual views of Tourism in Trinidad and Tobago can be reviewed from earliest historical time to contemporary time” - from the Kalinago, to the Santa Rosa Carib Community in Arima, films set in Trinidad, postcards, posters as well as numerous articles and scholarly essays. Needless to say, I’m still combing through all the information he amassed for me and I couldn’t possibly do it justice here. One thing I was there to do was experience the place, and that we did. Milne, Khan and I hopped into her car and spent a day driving around and discussing the neighborhoods of Woodbrook, St. James, Carenage and finally, the former occupied lands of Chaguaramas. On our way there, we passed by fancy event venues, marinas, a water park, people blasting soca music and bars lining the few blocks leading up to the old entrance to the Navy base. Purely out of morbid curiosity, we stopped at the Chaquacabana Resort and Beach Club, which overlooked an industrial port. Barely a year old, the members-only beach club is devoid of any stores and was empty on a Sunday, except for one couple and some employees cleaning up after a party the previous night. The shoddy construction work is evident, with chunks falling off the
façade and doors that are too small for the wall opening. Between half finished and future ruin, the resort across the road was set to open a month later, in October of last year. The popularity of all-inclusive parties and carnival make this kind of venue a mostly local affair, and the hotel rooms might be more convenient as after party housing for wealthy Trinidadians than foreign tourists who prefer Tobago's beaches.
 

Image: View of the Chaquacabana Resort and Beach Club’s villas in Chaguaramas
 

There are several businesses that have been allowed to operate through the CDA, but land use zoning is not completely agreed upon in practice and some families still lay claim to the land. Even though, according to government statements, CDA’s mission is “to be the premier provider of the ultimate customer experience in a world-class, ecotourism destination, business and entertainment centre,” its website is currently offline as of January 2018. There are various former hotels inside Chaguaramas, including a US Navy office building that was turned into the Chaguaramas Hotel and Convention Centre, which famously hosted the birth of CARICOM in 1973 and the 1999 Miss Universe pageant. What has happened with that property is emblematic of the business as usual development schemes around tourism in the island. In 2014, it was leased for $30 million TT to an unnamed local investor, yet by 2016 the CDA was already trying to reclaim the property at no cost to the government. According to newspaper reports, the investor only paid about a third of the money and the business was never economically viable, having gone through periods of renovation, upgrading and perpetual deterioration. It was still abandoned when we visited. Ironically, the Trinidad & Tobago Hospitality and Tourism Institute, a school, is also based in Chaguaramas.
 

Image: Jalaludin Khan and Alicia Milne looking for hidden bunkers
 

Image: Jalaludin Khan clears the way to a bunker
 

Image: View inside the bunker


A little farther along, we snuck into a building that was turned into a makeshift skate park and, if we go by the amount of graffiti and beer bottles, a pretty cool hangout spot. Khan led us on car and foot through various other sites that have been converted for sport and entertainment, used overwhelmingly by Trinbagonians themselves. Some of the sights are really fascinating: World War II bunkers hidden by the dense forest, and the “bamboo cathedral,” a pathway that eventually leads to the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System station uphill, where we also saw monkeys. To our amusement, Khan recounted a local folk tale about La Diablesse, a seemingly beautiful woman who leads men into the forrest (or an apology for infidelity), which led me to remember the wonderful watercolors by Alfredo Codallo, a highlight of the National Museum and Art Gallery collection. Milne and I wrapped up our day by taking a dip in the once off-limits Macqueripe Beach. At one point a drunk guy came up to us and, assuming we were Venezuelan because of our light skin tone, started harassing us into speaking Spanish until we convinced him to leave us alone. Trinidad is (I would learn during my time there) an important stopover spot for drug cartels and human trafficking due to its proximity to South America, and a conduit to the US and Europe. I was actually singled out and searched twice at the airport when I flew back home through Miami. The explosive political situation in Venezuela has also caused a recent influx of immigrants, something that is replicated in Panama as well. Trinidad is an incredibly multi-ethnic place, and Milne’s work often contemplates issues of belonging, incorporating how she−a light skinned, red haired woman−is perceived in the Caribbean through video, installations and objects, particularly with ceramics. A recent residency in China has influenced her production due to the availability and cheapness of materials there, in a curious parallel to economic shifts in the region, as the influx of Chinese imports and investment drive more Caribbean countries into China’s sphere of economic influence.
 

Image: DIY skatepark in Chaguaramas


Image: The so-called bamboo cathedral in Chaguaramas


In Puerto Rico, former military bases in Vieques and Culebra have been declared natural reserves and decontamination has been practically non-existent since the conversion to civilian use. There, “natural reserve” is often code for a no-go zone. In the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station there is an airport, and its Development Authority has authorized some small businesses to bird watching tours, and rent or sell sporting goods, but little else has been developed or reverted to the people of Puerto Rico. Schools, houses and even a cinema sit empty and derelict while successive governments plan such disparate and frankly offensive schemes like building a luxury residential area and yacht marina in one of the poorest regions in the country, or establishing a Virgin Galactic launch site. The most recent proposal to turn it into the new Amazon headquarters was actually submitted to the internet giant last year, a mere weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, and generated widespread mockery online. My point is: the last thing the Puerto Rican government has thought of is reverting to land to the people who were evicted or establishing any kind of project that would be more community driven. For now, Chaguaramas is open to the public to be enjoyed but land use issues persist. Land legally assigned for farming is being used to run a “safari” business with imported animals, in a country that, like most in the Caribbean, imports most of its food supply. Natural reserve land is being leased for marinas, restaurants and future shopping malls, all under the guise of boosting tourism. The future of Chaguaramas will depend on the comings and goings of conflicting political parties that chip away at the integrity of the territory, and no masterplan that can be easily identified.
 

Image: View of Macqueripe Bay Beach


Though originally focused on US militarism, I came away from conversation with Cozier much more interested in Caribbean intellectuals who sought, theorized and acted upon ideas that reimagined Caribbean sovereignty in the postcolonial era; men like C.L.R. James, Lloyd Best and the Tapia House Movement. The Lloyd Best Institute of the West Indies in Tunapuna was a good place to converse with Cozier while we searched for interesting articles in Best’s Trinidad & Tobago Review. Cozier had been a friend of Best’s and wrote biting art criticism for the publication in the 90s, specifically pointing out the need to break out of the inherited ways of seeing the Caribbean self and even asking -I’m paraphrasing- why artists still painted the same goddamn colonial scenes and houses.
 

Image: A Tapia House poster at the Lloyd Best Institute, Tunapuna


A cancelled flight post Hurricane Irma made me stay an extra day in Trinidad, and I was finally able to visit Cozier’s house and studio. Going through his body of work in person for the first time, he explained his longstanding interest in breeze blocks -a common sight in Caribbean construction- as metaphors for institutional compromise. The piece ”Gas Men" show them swinging petrol nozzles around against a generic horizon, and "Globe" has them in Spaghetti Western stand off poses. In his series Entanglements, the bodies of industrial Caribbean creepy crawlers are composed with the artist's thoughts and scribbles on paper. HOME, a recent project in Boston, features a sculpture of a red staircase and a collaboration with notable Trinidadian fete sign painter Bruce Cayonne, and  Bostonian via Trinidad collective Intelligent Mischief, about what makes a place feel like home, while addressing issues of gentrification, working with Caribbean communities in the city. The following day, suitcase in tow, Alex Kelly showed me the studio space he shares at Granderson Lab. His work seeks to examine social circumstances that have defined the present realities of his country, particularly through drawing, objects and installations. Totem (2016), which consists of 5 stacked steel drums and a wooden pallet on top placed on an empty lot as part of the Out of Place series, is a particularly effective piece that references Trinidad’s import/export sector. Before heading out to the airport, he acquiesced to my request of visiting the Hilton Hotel atop the hills, and I was finally able to see the savannah, the city and the sea beyond.
 

Image: A 2004 Christopher Cozier piece that reads: “Starting blocks…The kind of breeze block that looks more like the compromise of institutional structures than the personalized options to some people now…symbol of an era of promises and dreams”


Most or all of the countries I would visit in the next few months have had histories marked by the effects of the plantation economies established by colonization, slavery and indentured servitude, military occupation, independence struggles, industrialization by invitation economic strategies, high dependency on imports, offshore banking and tourism. There have been many independence-affirming moments in Trinidad’s history, from the decolonizing movement, and the experiment of regional integration through the West Indies Federation, to actual independence in 1962, along with the expulsion of the US military from the island. In the following decades, a new generation of artists would reassert their claim to a different way of making art that didn’t follow the usual dogma of landscapes, and urban scenes of colonial style houses, though they still persist and sell a lot more than anything else. The new independence movement might be a shift away from the dependence on oil, but if the turn is towards a wholesale investment in tourism, it is doubtful that Trinidad & Tobago will come out as the only country in the Caribbean to have tourism that is not exploitative. Some of the artists I met are wrestling, like a lot of us, with the reality of climate change and the culture of consumption and corruption driven by oil money.

One night, walking back from dinner and a beer around the corner from the yard, Kriston Chen mentioned a climate change poster he had seen online which resonated with Trinidad: “Just because the world runs on oil doesn’t mean oilmen should run the world,” it said. Tourism either.
 

Image: Blessed Indies (2017), a Nikolai Noel painting.

 

About The author

Marina Reyes Franco

Marina Reyes Franco (b. San Juan, 1984) is an art historian and independent curator living and thinking in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She co-founded La Ene, a museum as critical project which has become mobile after 8 years based in Buenos Aires. Some recent projects include “Watch your step / Mind your head” at ifa Galerie-Berlin; The 2nd Grand Tropical Biennial, co-curated with Pablo León de la Barra, Stefan Benchoam and Radamés “Juni” Figueroa (2016), “A Summer in Puerta de Tierra,” an exhibition and day outing in a San Juan neighborhood in response to the policies of population displacement and tourism focus in the area (2015); “Calibán,” a selection of Puerto Rican contemporary artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Juan (2014) and “Sucursal,” an exhibition of the collection of La Ene, at the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires, co-curated with Gala Berger, Sofía Dourron and Santiago Villanueva (2014), as well as numerous exhibitions at La Ene while she was director. Research interests include the work of Esteban Valdés, artistic and literary manifestations on the frontier of political action, new museology, and the impact of tourism in cultural production. She received the 2017 CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean, and was nominated for ICI’s 2014 Independent Vision Curatorial Award.


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The Visitor Economy Regime - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research

The Visitor Economy Regime

Marina Reyes Franco, recipient of the 2017 CPPC Travel Award, reflects on the "visitor economy" during her research trips to Panama, The Bahamas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad.

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On September 6th 2017, Hurricane Irma made her way through Puerto Rico, after having ravaged through most of the Leeward Islands, leaving some places simply uninhabitable and laying bare post colonial social structures of foreign privilege, local servitude, and the inescapable reality of climate change. That night I was almost a thousand kilometers away from home, in Port of Spain, the capital of the dual island nation of Trinidad & Tobago, and I didn’t even feel a breeze. Those of us glued to social media were treated to all kinds of apocalyptic images of destroyed homes, hospitals, schools, boats —and resort hotels. Overnight, the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people across the Caribbean islands was shattered along with their homes. Barbuda was left deserted for the first time in modern history. I was in Port of Spain for the first of my five CPPC Travel Award trips around the region, researching the cultural impact of tourism and the construction of ideas of paradise as it relates to art, exhibition-making, taxes, real estate, and the lives of artists and other cultural producers. In Trinidad, however, I was mostly interested in the resignification of post military spaces after the US was forced out of Trinidad, specifically in the former US Navy base in Chaguaramas, and very curious about a Caribbean island living off an oil economy, as opposed to tourism. From my room at Alice Yard, the art space that was hosting me, I monitored the situation back home and felt a sense of relief when the hurricane veered north and most of the destruction was contained to the East. A few people in Puerto Rico’s government thought we were very lucky too: with so many islands closed for business, they were very eager to turn Puerto Rico into the European vacationers’ go-to destination. Little did they know, Hurricane Maria would make landfall in Puerto Rico two weeks later, completely obliterating whatever plans they had for the visitor economy regime.



A former Spanish colony, Puerto Rico consists of a group of islands that has been a “possession” of the United States since their invasion during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Once a showcase of American progress during the Cold War, Puerto Rico lost prominence with US interests after the collapse of the Soviet Union rendered obsolete its strategically advantageous military position. The establishment of free trade agreements in the 1990s and the subsequent phasing out of Section 936 of the US tax code, which had provided incentives for American manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies operating in Puerto Rico, sealed the fate of it’s economy. After a decade of progressive economic collapse, Puerto Rico is severely in debt and under the thumb of a US-appointed fiscal control board enabled by the PROMESA Act, which supervises the imposition of severe austerity measures, while favoring tax haven laws. Our salvation, many think, lies in tourism.

The first time I heard the term “visitor economy” was in 2014 when I returned to Puerto Rico to my very own kind of cultural shock after living in Argentina for 6 years. I’d left months before the housing crisis in the US exploded, and came back a few months before our 123 billion dollar debt was declared unpayable by then Governor Alejandro García Padilla. I returned to live in Old San Juan, the colonial town where I grew up, but this time the place had the look and feel of a plein air Airbnb, part boutique hotel town, part cruise ship day trippers’ nightmare of souvenir shops and outlet stores. Needless to say, I was angry. The “visitor economy” is a term mostly used in British or Australian tourism sectors to denote the economic activity -goods consumed and services rendered- by people who visit a place. This kind of economy takes into account a wide variety of touristic activity: medical, educational, business, cultural and artistic, agricultural, ecological, religious, sporting, literary, musical and artistic events, as well as people who own vacation homes or decide to retire there. The term permeates practically all aspects of life, transforming society to serve the visitor. Hospitals can be medical tourism destinations and university systems attract foreign students. The arts make a place a “great destination”, creating a permanent performance of culture and nationality in which spectacle is encouraged and the long-term sustainability of the artistic community is mostly neglected. The complex exercise of constantly seeing ourselves as how we think others perceive us is maddening.

Since its founding in 2011, a local non profit organization called Foundation for Puerto Rico has been lobbying government and financing studies that present the visitor economy as the best way out of the depression. The first time I went to the FPR offices was actually to attend the opening party of Colaboratorio, the office space shared by FPR and other cultural and, above all, entrepreneurial NGOs. After bumping into some friends on the street, I ended up attending, along with a who’s who of the collusion between non-profits, politics, American investors and a handful of artists. That night I found out about Jon Borschow, his vision for Puerto Rico and who he has been working with to achieve the goals Foundation for Puerto Rico has set for this country. In a previous interview with Jon Borschow, we discussed the aims of his visitor economy plans. Will people just visit or become permanent tourists? According to Borschow, part of the plan is to attract people who will establish businesses in Puerto Rico and also retire there. They will “become Puerto Rican.” A key component to the visitor economy is Act 20 and Act 22, which provide attractive tax incentives for companies that establish and expand their export services businesses in the island and Seeks to attract new residents to Puerto Rico by providing a total exemption from Puerto Rico income taxes on all passive income realized or accrued after becoming residents of Puerto Rico. According to Borschow, “Puerto Rico is just wonderful and special, so people can come here and they’ll find an extraordinary place to live at any stage of their life. Certainly a great place to retire as well. We’re under the protection of the United States, we’re part of the United States, and yet we have this exotic, warm, beautiful way about us.” In a country where, even without the post Maria devastation, thousands had already been pushed out and migrated to the US due to economic stress, these incentives only reinforce the old idea of development by invitation that has permeated throughout the region. Now Borschow has become the leader of the newly established Destination Management Organization in Puerto Rico, effectively phasing out the Tourism Company while simultaneously operating with public money. In Spanish, “destination management” translates to “manejo de destino,” or destiny management. Definitely, an ominous term.

For the ICI / Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean 2017, I proposed a research trip through Panama, The Bahamas, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad. As I visited each country, I focused on what was the brand identity of each place, how it has been historically marketed, which cultural production is most privileged or given resources, and how artists and cultural workers deal with the neo-colonial impositions brought on by the tourism trade. The now manicured tropics of landscape architecture and Instagram feeds that sell real estate, goods, and services to the new foreign investor or tourist, who inevitably hail from the same power centers that first colonized the land, make us wonder who constructs paradise as a concept and who consumes it the most. In their search for the perfect holiday destination, the tourism industry has acquired and transformed the land in response to huge consumer demand. Mass tourism in the Caribbean started around 1960, but in recent years there has been a push to shift the narrative from “sun, sand and sea” to one where culture is central to the marketing of the country as a brand. With every island being seemingly alike, and resorts replicating their experience without much variation, competition amongst neighbors has increased. Think the “same shit, different island” t-shirts of a rasta giving the finger to a white tourist, whose only variation is the name of the country printed below the phrase.

This time around, I have experienced the Caribbean between two monstrous hurricanes that have forever altered the way we live. I wasn’t in Puerto Rico when Hurricane María hit either. I was at a conference in India and finally made it back home after being stranded in New York for 4 days. During those days, I spent my time making sure friends and family were okay, buying supplies to take back home and doing volunteer work with other Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. My not being home during that time puts me in the uncomfortable position of being a tourist, both in the countries I’ve visited, as well as in my own, for the better half of 2017. The hurricanes have made evident the structural problems of class and race that are bound to economic interests, debt management and development schemes throughout the Caribbean. The most "Instagrammable" green landscapes turned brown because of the wind and salt water brought on by the storms. The aerial shots that had previously sold the Caribbean both metaphorically and literally have now regained their original militaristic function as the US military drops in to deliver uneatable FEMA food or drone footage shows the destruction below. Suddenly, we were made aware of the actual geography of our surroundings, as the lush trees lost all their leaves and we could see what lay beyond. The lack of communication and inefficient response experienced in the immediate aftermath of Maria made everybody hyperaware of the vulnerabilities brought on by colonialism, austerity measures and corruption. The history of many countries in the Caribbean will be understood as before and after this moment. We have realized that the answers to our problems lay within us and our communities - both at home and abroad.





During my first night in Trinidad, Christopher Cozier took me to see Fiesta Plaza in Movie Towne. The mall recreates the long demolished architecture of Port Of Spain and longs to attract more local visitors and tourists with a planned but delayed expansion that would see the construction of a theme park in the sea front. Fiesta Plaza also features a plaza-like atmosphere and a stage for musical performances. The other possible plan -proposed by another government admin- would transform the property in the back into a luxury hospital/spa and recovery center. I'm wondering if the dip in oil prices and economic recession will make Trinidad seek development of their ignored tourism sector. In contrast to the rest of the Caribbean islands, Trinidad is dependent on an oil economy. The island has developed tourism plans as a way to diverse the economy, but they're not really implemented. With the economic downturn the island is experiencing due to low oil and natural gas prices, it's becoming imperative that the country find alternative industries to develop. Right now, the tourism industry is mostly business related, with Trinidad, as the bigger island with more infrastructure, serving as a regional conference hub.





The #1000mokos project grew from the curiosity of designers Chen, Josh Lue Chee Kong and architect Michael Lee Poy, and aims to build a community of a thousand mokos (stiltwalkers) across Trinidad and Tobago through a series of workshops, walk-abouts around Woodbrook and country-wide gatherings. #1000mokos has been specially effective in connecting a younger urban generation to traditional masquerade, rhythm, choreography and history, and as well as the design and technology innovations that are inherent in stiltwalking. According to Moko Jumbies scholar Milla Cozart Riggio, the Moko is the Orisha god of fate and retribution, and its participation in carnival links masquerade to the Yoruba. A Moko is believe to have walked across the Atlantic Ocean from the West Coast of Africa, and is a sort of guardian that, having endured centuries of mistreatment, still stands tall. He is represented on stilts, draped in cloth and usually wearing a mask. When a person plays Moko, the masquerader temporarily transforms into the spirit of the Moko. Not all stilt walkers are Mokos but all Mokos are on stilts.





Sandra Eleta is a well-known Panamanian photographer who also owns La Morada hotel in Portobelo, Panama, a fishing village famous for its history of cimarrones, congos, pirates, the black Christ and the polleras and diablitos festivities. In the 1970s she founded a women’s coop that made traditional quilts and clothes for over a decade. In 1993 she continued the cultural work in the region by reopening the Portobelo Workshop for painters. She also presides the Portobelo Bay Foundation, which runs a music school, art space, restaurant, and other community oriented activities.
 




The Bahamas are limestone islands, not volcanic like the vast majority is the Caribbean islands. This shaped its original flora, but its landscape was subsequently altered to better fit tropical narratives.





They were founded following independence in a frankly strange but not surprising colonial move. The obelisk in the entrance has an inscription that says TOGETHER FORWARD UPWARD and is dedicated “to the people of the Bahama Islands at the birth of their nation July 10, 1973 from the people of Delta Airlines (insert corporate logo).” From one colonizer to the next. From galleon to cruise ship.





Gustavo Esquina is one of the painters drawing on the Panamanian tradition of the Congos on the Caribbean coast, that are part of the Portobelo Workshop. I was able to interview him about the history of the space, the workshop’s relationship to tourism, the iconography of the paintings and the difference between painting for a living and making art. The workshop was founded by Sandra Eleta’s in 1993 as a space for painters, under the guidance of artist and professor Arturo Lindsay. Some of the original painters are Yaneca Esquina, Jerónima Chiari, Ariel “Pajarito” Jiménez. Gustavo, son of Yaneca, is part of the newer group of artists, who range in age from the 70s to his 24 year-old sister.




 




In addition to his work as a painter, Brooke Alfaro also made several videos in the early 2000s in and around Panama City’s Casco Viejo, incorporating into his pieces many of the residents who would soon be displaced by and accelerated gentrification brought on by tax incentives to remodel the mostly abandoned buildings. Works like Aria, Nueve and Buscando are truly outstanding pieces.





In Nassau, I visited Doongalik Studios, an art gallery, crafts center, the headquarters of Creative Nassau and apparently the place to go for lion fish tacos and fresh produce at its farmer’s market. The project is spearheaded by Pamela Burnside, pictured, who co-founded it with her late husband, artist, architect and cultural instigator, Jackson Burnside. She gave me an overview of the Bahamian arts since independence and told me powerful things that drive the work she does, like: “Slavery is still alive and well. Colonialism is still alive and well.” Right now, she is focused on the cultural and economic development of The Bahamas through its art, culture and heritage instead of its “sun and sea.” Since achieving a UNESCO Creative City designation for crafts and folk arts, she has been working to highlight and reinvigorate the straw crafts sector in The Bahamas. The sculpture behind her is by Jackson Burnside.





Andrea Jadusingh is an educator and artist from Montego Bay who has an exhibition at the Doctor’s Cave Beach Club conference room. Normally, she told me, there are no exhibitions in this space but the public has responded very well and the invitation to show her work has been extended “indefinitely.” When I mentioned my interest in cultural production in relation to tourism, she dryly told me her PhD touched on that exact same subject, wrote a good 70 pages on it but, when pressed about that, she told me nothing else. Seeing there had been some sales (to locals, she said, not tourists), I wished her good luck and left. “Oh, I will sell them all.”

About The author

Marina Reyes Franco

Marina Reyes Franco (b. San Juan, 1984) is an art historian and independent curator living and thinking in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She co-founded La Ene, a museum as critical project which has become mobile after 8 years based in Buenos Aires. Some recent projects include “Watch your step / Mind your head” at ifa Galerie-Berlin; The 2nd Grand Tropical Biennial, co-curated with Pablo León de la Barra, Stefan Benchoam and Radamés “Juni” Figueroa (2016), “A Summer in Puerta de Tierra,” an exhibition and day outing in a San Juan neighborhood in response to the policies of population displacement and tourism focus in the area (2015); “Calibán,” a selection of Puerto Rican contemporary artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Juan (2014) and “Sucursal,” an exhibition of the collection of La Ene, at the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires, co-curated with Gala Berger, Sofía Dourron and Santiago Villanueva (2014), as well as numerous exhibitions at La Ene while she was director. Research interests include the work of Esteban Valdés, artistic and literary manifestations on the frontier of political action, new museology, and the impact of tourism in cultural production. She received the 2017 CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean, and was nominated for ICI’s 2014 Independent Vision Curatorial Award.


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Aftermath of Hurricane María, a Visual Essay - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research

Aftermath of Hurricane María, a Visual Essay

José López Serra is a Puerto Rican artist and curator, based in San Juan. He is a co-founder and director of Hidrante, a project space in San Juan, PR. López Serra is also an alumnus of the 2017 Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans.

In the weeks following Hurricane María, he was documenting the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, so ICI commissioned him to produce this visual essay.
 

Fallen trees and debris in the afternoon of the day Hurricane María crossed the island.

It has been intense, to say the least, after María. I was selected to be a part of this year’s Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans, thanks to a scholarship from ICI and Beta-Local. The Intensive highlighted for me the connection between New Orleans and the Caribbean, and now more so between two disastrous hurricanes. The aftermath of Katrina is still very palpable in New Orleans, with empty lots reflecting the people who have left and the areas that never went back to “how it was.” It’s still too early to say how Maria has changed Puerto Rico; the experience of the Intensive showed me that the process to recovery is very long, and that normality, thought of as a going back to how things were, is not possible. The Huracanes mark a before and after, and they make evident processes and contradictions that otherwise wouldn’t have been brought up.
 



A US flag was found underneath a fallen tree in Santurce, San Juan.

What the Hurricane [the subsequent process of emergency and stabilizing after it] has evidenced is the multilayered structure of domination that the PR/US relationship entails. Foreign aid couldn’t enter the island directly, as the Jones Law restricts interstate maritime shipping to US flagged, manned, and owned ships. The Law was suspended for 10 days after the Hurricane hit, which meant little, as shipping logistics were all but impossible without consistent telecommunications and shipping lines need more than a week to re-plan their schedules and routes. Foreign aid also had to be cleared by the Federal State Department, which turned down electrical workers from Venezuela and Cuba. A massive $300 million contract was hammered behind closed doors to bring a power company with only 2 full-time employees to restore electrical lines, ultimately being canceled and no progress being made.

“Cuba is an independent country that exercises its own sovereignty and whose priority is to take care of its population’s basic needs in the present while planning for the future. They are about as well prepared as a country reasonably can be for natural disasters. They are also always the first country to offer disaster aid in the Caribbean region. Puerto Rico is Cuba’s opposite: as a colony of the U.S., it exercises no sovereignty, and its government is run by lackeys whose priority is to enrich the local oligarchy while pleasing the colonial masters in Washington and Wall Street. While there has been a genuine outpouring of support from individuals, organizations, and some city or state governments in the U.S. — and especially the large Puerto Rican diaspora — recovery efforts are dominated by the same interests that have been pillaging the island’s natural and human resources since the U.S. invaded Puerto Rico in 1898.”
- Professor Déborah Berman-Santana (“Puerto Rico’s Recovery Efforts Stymied by Colonial Status”, M. Nevradakis, Nov. 11, 2017)
 



Blood red sap from a fallen tree, recently cut in order to make a road accesible. Clean up of trees and debris was the most important task after the Hurricane, as the storm had made most of the island impossible to reach via car or truck. There are still communities in the interior of the island which are hard to reach, as the rain brought flooding, which knocked out old bridges.
 


In the immediate aftermath of Maria, only 10% of the island had running water, telecommunications were all but halted, and all electricity had to be generated privately. Pictured here is a mess of cables attached to the end of an extension cord at Hotel La Terraza de San Juan, as guests, neighbors, and random people waited for a chance to charge their electronics.



 

In Aguadilla, on the west side of Puerto Rico, Crash Boat Beach’s pier was demolished by the storm surge. The structure, originally built by the US Air Force for the USAF Ramey Air Base, had stood since the 1940’s and had become a popular diving spot in Puerto Rico. Maria’s storm surge and flooding has changed the hydrology and layout of a great number of beaches on the island. Another example, La Poza de las Mujeres in Manati, no longer exists, as a river nearby swept away the path and the houses, burying the beach with sediment.
 

There is an eerie quality to the city after months of blackout after Hurricane Maria, and even more days in some places after Hurricane Irma. It’s a becoming a ruin of the urban landscape, interrupted ever so often by places lit up with generators, or connected to the patched-up grid.
 



Young plantain trees grow on the side of a hill in Las Piedras. Planted a week and a half before Maria, the crops from these trees will be ready in 8 to 12 months time. Almost all of this year’s crops were lost, ranging from plantain to coffee, mango to quenepas.

In Las Piedras, one unfrozen pancake, 1/4 cup of syrup, and a slice of American cheese is given as breakfast at 3pm. Food aid distribution had been left to the municipalities, causing problems as FEMA and central government aid logistics were not coordinated for the first 3 weeks after the Hurricane. This tray, for example, was give out to feed a family.
 

Gas cans in the back of a tricycle. Fuel supplies were scarce in the first 2 weeks after the Hurricane, with fuel shortages causing hour-long and in some cases day-long lines as people flocked to stock up.



A little umbrella provides shade and cover to a gasoline generator in Old San Juan. Generators have become the norm for everyday life in post-Maria Puerto Rico, with extension cords crisscrossing streets as neighbors help each to have a fan on and keep the refrigerator during the night.




Improvised lights on the hood of a junk collector’s car. People are picking up all sorts of metal from the streets, from aluminum to cooper, which helps with the immediate clean up but at the same time means the theft of the electrical and telephone lines.
 

Massive heaps of scrapped aluminum sidings form nearby a recycling center in Santurce.


“Life is cruel” reads a tag next to a closed restaurant in Old San Juan. Small businesses in Puerto Rico have all but been forced to close, as maintaining operations is difficult and costly with no steady electricity and poor telecommunications.
 

Empty supermarket in Old San Juan. Candy, liquor, soda, and what little nonperishable items were all that was available for 2 weeks, as distribution was interrupted and the generator flamed out.
 

Cafe Sidibou, a Lebanese/Dominican restaurant, was heavily damaged by the winds and rain brought by Maria. The message reads “We are stronger than Maria! Onwards PR!”




Department stores, such as this KMart in Trujillo Alto, have also become centers for people to gather after Maria. TVs, chairs, and fans have been set up so that people can enjoy a little normality after the storm, as well as offering outlets for them to charge electronics and operate therapeutic nebulizers.




Abner, of Cafe Comunión, sells coffee outside of his coffeeshop. The storefront of his business, which hadn’t even opened, was demolished by the winds and debris.
 

In Aguadilla, some took to camping and the beach in the immediate wake of the storm.
“There is no power, no water, no communications back home, it’s more comfortable to just camp in a hammock,” said Pichón, a local from nearby Aguada.
 

With little phone service in the first few weeks after the Hurricane, communication methods were quickly improvised to keep in touch. Here, at Hidrante, we posted notes to keep in touch and coordinate meetings while cell phone service was out.




People waiting in line for dinner at El Local en Santurce. El Local is a punk bar located in San Juan, that serves as one of the main venues for the independent music scene in the city, as well as the neighborhood dive for the young creative class. It has transformed itself into a community center in San Juan, helping people by offering a volunteer kitchen open from 9am to 9pm, free WiFi, and electricity.


A meeting at Beta-Local to start planning the distribution of emergency funds for the creative community in Puerto Rico. Grants given by the Andy Warhol Foundation, Rauschenberg Foundation, and Hispanic Federation have helped them set up El Serrucho, an emergency grant program for cultural workers.

“Against all odds, the art scene in Puerto Rico has strengthened and diversified over the past several years, on the backs of artists, curators, educators and others who take on the responsibility of cultural development in the absence of government support and market viability…Beta-Local is committed to devoting all its resources and tools to guarantee that these individuals and the results of their efforts don’t disappear, and that their recovery contributes to the sustainable transformation of the island.” - Beta-Local

In the background, paper mache heads from the nearby workshop of Agua, Sol, y Sereno. The heads are part of costumes made for the Campechada and San Sebastian festivals in Old San Juan.
 

About The author

José López Serra

José López Serra is a cultural agent based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Since 2015, he has co-directed Hidrante, a no-budget independent project space in San Juan. Hidrante functions as a curatorial studio of sorts, with an open programming that frequently works to introduce new artists and practices to the Puerto Rican context. López Serra was a fellow curator at Beta-Local’s La Práctica in 2017-2018. In 2017, he participated in the ICI’s Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans. He received his BA in Public Communications and Photography from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus in 2015.


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Towards an Un-American Solidarity: Thinking With Puerto Rico After Hurricane María - Research - Independent Curators International

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Towards an Un-American Solidarity: Thinking With Puerto Rico After Hurricane María

Towards an Un-American Solidarity: Thinking With Puerto Rico After Hurricane María
Ren/Rachel Ellis Neyra, Ph.D.

A lxs amores de lxs muertxs no contados.




Severalty n. the condition of being separate. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“We all look at colonial structures as if it’s like happenstance. And the very nature of the terminology, the root…this is like the deep tree…the root is to sever, to break, to cause to die.” – Sharon P. Holland

“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Ready to cut you down. Sharpened to cut you down.” – Bob Marley

“The U.S. has a long history of attempts to crush the Puerto Rican independence movement… Within the last several years, Puerto Rico has been considered by the U.S. Government to be ‘the Achilles Heel of the United States.’” – Jan Susler

“Those people are going to revolt against you. They killed these people all those years ago, & now it’s coming back to haunt them.” – Ramón Miranda Beltrán


Miles of brown, uprooted, storm-felled trees daunt the eye looking for a familiar landscape. Wind-snapped canopies rot among bursts of growth. In the rains that continue to fall and flood the island after Hurricanes María and Irma, we are sure of nothing but that Puerto Rico is irrevocably changing. By changing, I mean that the invasive structure of U.S. colonialism and the everyday, racialized disparities between Puerto Ricans are extruding through the wreckage.

Where I see one island, my imagination reverberates out like an endlessly skipping stone and imagines other islands. I am deeply Glissantian: I, too, believe in small countries, that “they are there, not only destitute and isolated, but already a multiple body and radiating a lived example.” (1) I think that if Puerto Rico is changing, then the Caribbean is changing. I fantasize that global warming will contribute to uprisings. To dispersals of peoples who will radicalize in the deeply painful processes of migration. That a revolution is already underway, underground and above accumulating the unrepresentable forces of opacity and relation that are not detectable to the aerial view of the master’s gaze. The master to whom nothing is owed; who owes reparations to Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands. With every stroke of pickaxe and chainsaw, muscles build, the shape of things to come, forms, a changed vision and new subjects will emerge.

This land is not your land; this land is not my land. But to participate in direct action in Puerto Rico now and into the island’s future, we must speak unobstructed about its legal, economic, and psychic status as a colony of the United States. Saying colony is not the same as saying victim. I refuse to repeat any discourse that represents Puerto Ricans as passive and compliant. The incompetent local government is, but it does not represent Puerto Ricans per se; it represents the U.S.’s interests in Puerto Rico. Consider that U.S. law frames the self-determination of Puerto Rican peoples as tantamount to an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government. The legal category of seditious conspiracy has been used to arrest and punish Puerto Ricans who have fought for independence and against U.S. invasion. The mere gathering together of two or more people who think about Puerto Rico being free of the U.S. is punishable according to 18 USC 2384. The law’s definition of seditious conspiracy calls U.S. colonies “territories,” which rhetorically empties places – Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands – of people. But Puerto Rico is not empty of Puerto Ricans, or lacking in anti-colonial neighbors.

Puerto Ricans as “subversive” un-Americans is a disposition long-held by U.S. law and practice. It is in the spirit of the self-determination of Puerto Ricans that I will discuss how the U.S.’s ongoing invasion, its forced dispersal of Puerto Ricans, and its imposition of debt is: 1. racialized; 2. in conversation with U.S. legal and military-backed tactics of removing indigenous peoples from their lands; and 3. a reminder that the U.S. has profited from repeatedly attempting to crush Puerto Rican independence since 1898.
 

                                      
                                      Image: archival image, Camp Henry.


Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States; it has been a colony – not a commonwealth – since the U.S. invaded the island and Caribbean waters in 1898. On and off the island, we must recognize that the military invasion of Puerto Rico was not a mere moment on a linear, dominant historical timeline. It marks a disruptive, armed installation of an elaborate, enduring, and dysfunctional colonial structure.

On the island, in the diasporas, and among allies across the globe, we must be clear on the contradiction held in Puerto Rico being a colony on which a limited discourse of second-class citizenship has been imposed. Imposed in 1917, second-class citizenship appeared in time for the U.S.’s usage of Puerto Ricans to fight for its stake in World War I, as New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez recently schooled President Trump. 119 years of U.S. militarized invasion of the land, air, and seas have violently morphed into deep economic, psychic, emotional, and physical vexations for the island. And, as we have been seeing in the last month of muddled discourse about why the U.S. should aid the island, this colonial structure has generated confusion for American citizens of the 50 states, who have taken it upon themselves to know nothing about this extended history of invasion, and willfully misunderstand the limits of second-class citizenship.

The discourse currently used by the U.S. President and his government that “Puerto Rico was in bad shape prior to the hurricane” should not be simplistically heard as, Puerto Rico was economically dependent on and in debt to the U.S. before the hurricane. We must listen to the ways that power disguises how it operates at the very moment that it speaks. Instead, critically translate: Puerto Rico was in “bad” economic shape before the category 5 hurricane because of U.S. colonialism’s control of the island’s economy for 119 years. Puerto Rican Professor of Economics, Rosario Rivera Negrón, has been cited saying that in the year 2008, for example, Puerto Rico received $4.6 billion in federal dollars and contributed $71.6 billion dollars into the U.S. economy. The debt imposed on Puerto Rico by Wall Street, venture capitalists, and money launderers of the extractive tourist industry does not belong to the Puerto Rican people. It is theirs to contradict and rebel against. As is the U.S.’s narrative of itself as a beneficent occupier, an armed host to the other on their land. The U.S. government and its banks’ lending practices are the bankrupters of Puerto Rico. Said differently, the U.S.’s debt is Puerto Rico’s credit. It is part of what Puerto Rico should be paid in remunerations and reconciliation for over a century of colonial invasion.

For many of us, Puerto Rico is a place of historical, creative strategies of civil disobedience and cultural survival that have long metamorphosed the limits of its colonial status. Autonomous, relational, maroon, and collective organizations and informal gatherings of people have always existed on the island, and they are at work right now rebuilding their communities. But they continue to do this creative and laborious work with the historical chokehold of The Jones Act, or the Law of Cabotage, of 1920 in full effect controlling Puerto Rico’s waterways for U.S. interests. That Trump lifted the Jones Act for only 10 days is proof of how these waters are controlled precisely for extractive U.S. economic practices.
 

                                      
                                      Image: Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Otros Usos [Other Uses]. 16mm, 2014. 7 mins.


Puerto Ricans continue to farm, move, and build life around the toxic waste and devastation that the U.S. Navy left behind after being forced out of its bases and weapons testing sites by decades of civil disobedience in Ceiba, Vieques, and Culebra. Artists such as Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Joel Rodríguez, Arnaldo Bagué, Ardelle Ferrer, Nibia Pastrana, Sofía Gallisá Muriente, and Eduardo Rosario, among many others, have done generative aesthetic work around the U.S.’s Naval occupation of the Puerto Rican archipelago. Artists and medicinal food workers and farmers, such as Tara Rodríguez and the people of El Departamento de la Comida, Las Nietas de Nonó, and the people of Finca Conciencia make a viable Puerto Rico and Vieques imaginable. Alongside their work, and in recent weeks of meditating on the colonial invasion of the island and the U.S.’s historical impulse to remove Puerto Ricans from their land, I have found it helpful to re-read not only historical changes in Immigration law, but also the concept of severalty, which retraces to the The Dawes Act of 1887, or the General Allotments Act.

The 1887 Dawes Act protected the U.S. government’s invasion and theft of indigenous lands in the mid- and southwest. Renewed by The Curtis Act of 1898 – the year of the U.S.’s invasion of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Philippines, and Guam – and in the Burke Act of 1906, the invasive practice of General Allotments is important to think through in the U.S.’s perpetuation of a colonial bind that imposes second-class citizenship and displaces Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico. On the island, a history of blanqueamiento, mythologizing indigeneity, and forms of colorism and anti-blackness are subjects of everyday conversation and analysis. But I return to a cluster of U.S. laws that span the end of the 19th into the 20th century, because I want to imagine ways to fight against the violence of slow death and containment that the U.S. government is enacting against Puerto Rican life right now.

From the end of the 19th and into turn of the 20th century, stretching the years of Reconstruction, the Great Migration of 6 million black southerners, the emergence of the U.S. as global naval power, the legalized genocide, dispersal, and containment of indigenous peoples, and the beginnings of Jim Crow, we see evidence that: the U.S. government did not want to add to its recently “freed” black population – which, at the time, it was framing as a “Negro problem” – indeed, there was serious political talk of “shipping” freed blacks to colonize Liberia as well as parts of Central America after the Civil War; nor did it want to imagine another indigenous population to have to “vanish” or forcibly assimilate or remove from their land to then contain. Puerto Ricans of the Taino island of Borinquen, where the plantation system and slavery had dominated the economy for centuries, troubled the U.S.'s racist optic of what counts as citizen, as life. Spanish disturbed its violent monolingual fantasy, while blackness and indigeneity vexed its racial logics. It must be said frankly here: the U.S. does not and will never see Puerto Ricans as “white,” nor should those of us whose histories are not “white” desire that sadistic and pathetic fantasy of the self.

Theodore Roosevelt, President of the U.S. three years after the invasion of Puerto Rico, was obsessed with the U.S. becoming a global naval power. The same ships that the Navy navigated in their pageants of power under his regime would be sold to the United Fruit Company, and then to the emerging tourist industry. Roosevelt was also actively part of the discourse of genocide and settler colonial alternatives to genocide that would effect the removal of indigenous peoples from their lands. One such tactic was that of severalty.
 

                                                         
                                                         Image: Irene de Andrés, “Cruise-r,” 2015. Poster, ink.


Severalty defines itself as the right to be a separate individual. But severalty operates by forcing indigenous peoples into exchanging their lands, as well as their histories and knowledges, for the promises of capitalist individualism and property ownership. It enacts removal and dispersal of indigenous peoples off of their sovereign lands, out of native-ness, and into the impossibility of assimilation. Not merely “good” things, individualism and property ownership are the basis of “citizenship,” which supposedly makes you safe and buys you a future. Severalty splintered communities whose proximity to each other and to their histories spelled subversion and rebellion to the U.S. government. Remember that amidst this invasion of lands under the auspices of incorporating indigenous peoples into a legally white nation, citizenship was not actually on the table, and would not legally be granted to “reasonable” indigenous peoples until 1924. That is the same year as the emergence of The Johnson-Reed and Asian Exclusion Acts, which strategically closed U.S. borders, and revealed particular racialized anxieties as part of the U.S. American vision.

I invoke severalty here to point out the following: while it is not the same as genocide, it comes from a genocidal mind, from a mind that enacts containment, deprivation, and slow death as tactics for legally stealing indigenous lands. As we imagine tactics of solidarity with Puerto Rico into the future, we must be clear with each other about the violent, self-legitimating, white nationalist mind that imagined and enforced The Dawes Act, The Jones Act, The Johnson-Reed Act, and the Asian Exclusion Act. Together, these legal maneuvers distinctly disperse racialized and indigenous peoples threatening to U.S. white nationalism and white nativism; promise assimilation to white nationalism as something positive and individualism as the key to achieving Americanness; and disguise the dispossession of other peoples of their lands as part of a plan that invokes inclusion but protects white supremacy, which we know vividly today intends nothing like equality.

In this story, Puerto Rico is not an indecisive hysteric who can’t speak for herself and can’t make up her mind about her relationship to the U.S. Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebrón, the FALN, Oscar López, Marie Haydée Beltrán, Alejandrina Torres, the Young Lords, and many artists and activists over time and at work right now have been utterly clear about their relationship to the U.S.: it is an invasive, foreign power. At gunpoint, the U.S. disregards Puerto Rican people’s rights to self-determination.
 

                                       
                                       Image: archival image, Camp Henry.


This colonial relation is an explosive one. But the explosiveness continues to be – for now – offset by a historical cynicism and cruelty in the discourse about the potential of Puerto Rican statehood. Cruel because deeply insincere and divisive, the discourse about statehood is another force that has worked hard to disguise that Puerto Rico is in 2017 a colony of the U.S. and an economic captive to its military.

It has never been legally or civically intended that Puerto Rico be represented by this white national colonial system. The violence of this charade appears in the language of aid that well-intentioned people are using right now. Think about Trump’s recent remarks for the congresswoman who supposedly cooperated with his pageant visit to the island: “she was incredible in her support of our efforts.” Now think about his words for Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan who has been advocating for Puerto Ricans to receive humanitarian aid: “she is nasty” and “an incompetent person.” Nasty incompetence, this language is racialized and gendered, yes, and it has been used variably for indigenous, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Black second-class subjects for hundreds of years. Trump’s imperialist, and narcissistic, rhetoric is a bloated metonym for the U.S.’s historical disposition towards the island. The public notices it more because he is vile and an abuser of language. But I would caution that to participate in the rhetoric of Puerto Ricans are citizens, and this is why I should care, give money to fundraisers, and share resources is to enact a translation of She was incredible in her support of our efforts. To uncritically participate in the rhetoric of the forced migration of Puerto Ricans to Florida as something that may “tip the scales” of American electoral politics recalls a history of dispersal, cruel aspiration, and erasure that does not want Puerto Rico to be viable and habitable for Puerto Ricans. This language imposes a sadistic timeline, one that reiterates both the master-slave dialectic and development economics: Oh, one day you will be human enough to be True Citizens of the U.S. Meanwhile, you must exist in an inferior and liminal position to learn how to be Whole. Whole in this racialized logic of citizenship is also to say Impossibly White.

Many Puerto Ricans are tired of ritualized U.S. American cruelty, bad faith, and the incapacity to think through claims that simultaneously reinforce and disguise colonialism. The Whitefish gambit is enacting the same old colonial cum neoliberal trick right now. But can you see that Puerto Ricans aren’t getting tricked, just reminded of the island’s colonial position? Many Puerto Ricans do not want what will always historically be linked to an “also,” second-class citizenship that has supposedly been democratically discussed and debated while colonialism has been enacted.

Puerto Ricans do not deserve the attention and mutual aid of U.S. Americans because they are (second-class) citizens. Puerto Ricans pay federal taxes, which makes FEMA’s parade of incompetence even more angering. But as the colonizing U.S. enacts its fetish for the slow death of racialized peoples, cultures, and other languages in Puerto Rico, we can minimally see how the centralized U.S. government, the Puerto Rican puppet government, and FEMA are obstacles to Puerto Rican life. The U.S.’s blundering presence literally isolates Puerto Rico from its place in the Caribbean, and blocks relations and exchanges with other islands. This is an exacerbation of what has structurally been held in place by armed force for 119 years.

From New York, I see a multi-generational diaspora forming and having effects in my home, on my friends, in how we envision time. I sometimes find myself not having words to connect to my friends in Puerto Rico. However, I do not fear this impasse. I listen. I sit with what I do not know, and I witness this much: the government is not functioning. Communities of peoples are forming and doing. Out of this moment, something that has been in Puerto Rico for centuries grows. Whereas deracination, uprooting, and cultural and linguistic destruction are real threats presently, I compose another threat, one that scares the U.S. government so much that it recently attempted to outlaw Ethnic Studies in Arizona: solidarity – racially and ethnically performative solidarity. Solidarity as many, temporary, and decentralized gatherings. Solidarity that looks like chaos to the master but is foraging and rebuilding to those who situate their histories in and alongside radical marronage. Solidarity that sounds like the poem “Ñam Ñam” by Luis Palés Matos, as sung by the Puerto Rican singer Mima, “en la carne blanca, los dientes negros…” Solidarity that sounds like reggaetonero-trapero Bad Bunny’s call, “¡Tú no metes cabra saramambiche!” Solidarity that sounds like Pedro Pietri’s Rican, Nuyo-Spanglish intonations taking hold of you: “look at your hands / that is where / the definition of magic / is located at.”



Note of thanks: to the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños archive for the images of Camp Henry, and especially to Natalia Viera Salgado.

 

Footnote:
1)  Édouard Glissant. Poetic Intention. Trans. Nathalie/Nathaniel Stephens/N.S. Calicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2010. 147.

About The author

Ren/Rachel Ellis Neyra

Ren (Rachel) Ellis Neyra is a poet-theorist of Cuban descent who grew up in the U.S. south, and currently works as Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan University. Ellis Neyra reads and writes about Latinx Studies; Caribbean, African Diasporic, and Latinx Poetics, Performance Art, Music, and Visual Art; Third Cinema; Cuban and Puerto Rican Contemporary Art; and Film, Literary, Queer, and Translation Theories. Recently, Ellis Neyra was living in San Juan and working on their academic book manuscript, Cry Bomba: Listening to Brown Poetics, in residency at the independent art space Beta-Local. Cry Bomba does multi-sensorial, queer readings and poetic listenings with 1970s Salsa, Latinx literature and performance, and Puerto Rican film that deviate from the promise of freedom and rehearse abnormal insurgencies. Ellis Neyra has published in ARTFORUM, BOMB, La Gaceta de Cuba, Sargasso: A Journal of Caribbean Literature, Language and Culture, Obsidian: Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora, La Habana Elegante, Comparative Literature and Culture Web, and other venues. Ellis Neyra co-made the book Caribbean Cautionary Tales (2016) with Sofía Gallisá Muriente and Nicole Smythe-Johnson.


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Report: Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans 2017 - Research - Independent Curators International

INDEPENDENT CURATORS INTERNATIONAL
Research

Report: Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans 2017

The relative autonomy of independent cultural work in neoliberal creative economies: its upsides and downsides.


In March 2017, I attended the ICI Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans, a weeklong program focused on discussing the concepts, logistics, public program and challenges of organizing a series of curatorial projects that thirteen international curators submitted as part of the application process. ICI has become an internationally recognized education and networking platform for independent cultural agents that work in the field of curatorial practice in the arts. In collaboration with the Joan Mitchell Center and other local art institutions such as the Contemporary Arts Center and Prospect New Orleans, the program consisted of seminars, site visits, individual meetings and roundtable discussions conducted by ICI staff, guest lecturers and advisors. The insights that each speaker provided within their field of expertise came from very specific and pragmatic topics such as mapping the funding landscape and designing an optimal financial architecture depending of the nature of our curatorial projects (Renaud Proch), the production of a complex curatorial project such as Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn (Rashida Bumbray), to more performative-theory approaches linked to black-marxist race gender studies (Rachel Ellis Neyra).

This wide selection of topics contributed to the development of our projects by providing strategies to better understand their core and their relevance, but also how to engage more critically our topics of interest or objects/subjects of analysis by questioning existing practices of communicating as well as the frameworks in which we are reflecting on ideas of resistance, belonging, agency, and liberation. After listening to Renaud Proch, Rashida Bumbray, Shana M. griffin or Trevor Schoonmaker’s presentations, it became clear to me that when we talk about independent curatorial work, we talk about a myriad of tasks and skills that the curator has to forge and that constantly stretch, depending on the needs of each project, to unimaginable fields. These presentations revealed a reality that didn't shock me since it corresponded to my curatorial experience so far.

While developing projects, I often feel like I'm doing tasks that fall out of the category of “curatorial work” or at least what I once thought it entailed, or what my colleagues that work in the framework of art institutions had described to me. Whether you want it or are prepared or not, the field demands you to develop a sensibility not only for writing and research, but also for public speaking, museology, design, fundraising, strategic institutional alliances, flexibility for traveling, diplomacy; in short, becoming a sophisticated, cosmopolitan and globalized cultural manager. Although most of the participants who attended the workshop were affiliated with an institution and in some cases financially supported by those institutions, the projects discussed during the sessions were framed as personal initiatives hence, most of them are unpaid projects developed before, in between, or after their office jobs. After the struggle waged over the course of many years to put legal limits on the working day, it wouldn't be unreasonable to ask ourselves why would people voluntarily engage in additional work. In this tourbillon of productivity, what happened to the necessary unproductive time-spaces promoted by Lafargue or Vanegeim? Even if a job is fulfilling— because at least in the cultural sector, the contradiction is much more complex than a simple antagonistic relationship between personal and work-related projects— these side-projects seem to compensate the alienation of labor, the separation from the control of the labor process and from the created products; the kind of separation experienced by any salaried employee in a capitalist economy. However, the fact is that they don't compensate anything but otherwise, every time we “afford” to subsidize these unpaid projects through self exploitative conditions, we establish, preserve, and reproduce the generalization of precariousness as a fundamental condition of contemporary independent cultural labor.

On the surface, independent cultural work might seem removed from the capitalist labor process. In fact, freelance colleagues often underscore the freedom they feel especially in regard to the use of their time, but also on the decisions on what and how to produce. In this sense, this kind of work would seem to represent the ultimate freedom for workers: you own your time and the production process. Whether this assumption is true or false, it’s worth pointing out that today, this arrangement is ideal for capital. The conditions of permanent risk and uncertainty that underlie the development of these independent projects are often obscured by mystifying narratives that justify the exploitation and precariousness that is at the core of this type of work— for example, the idea that this kind of work is highly desirable, glamorous and/or self-fulfilling. Freed from the burden of employment, relieved of the costs of training, overhead, benefits, and paying for unproductive time, cultural institutions, in a neoliberal fashion, hire independent workers only for short-term projects or purchase completed curatorial projects in order to waive the risks and costs of production onto those workers who, motivated by the relentless search for work and increasing competition, strive to produce their best work, providing capital ample choice from a pool of skilled workers bargaining down the costs of their labor power.

For people with a certain background and privileges, trading the economic certainty or security that wage labor offers for the autonomy of production is a decision they make. However, for less favored workers this is a condition of labor that is imposed and rapidly generalized in the cultural sector. It is important to underline that under the existing neoliberal fierce competition, the much-praised autonomy of independent labor becomes quite relative, since everyone ends up adapting, in one way or another, to the needs of capital. In the end, what being independent most accurately ends up pointing at is not so much the autonomy of the worker but the invisible precarious labor conditions that she shares with the rest of independent curators that fulfill the constant demand of producing interesting, critical and politically disruptive exhibitions, publications, screenings, public programs, feeding and strengthening the neoliberal creative economy. This is the context that certainly shapes how independent curators assume themselves as cultural workers and how they deliver their work, sometimes with a critical standpoint vis à vis these conditions, or not.



As I suspected and later on confirmed with some of the organizers, it was certainly not a casual decision to make this program in New Orleans: a city marked by slavery, the Indian Removal Act, the Civil War, the rise of the oil and gas industry and Hurricane Katrina’s major flooding. Although it is poor, segregated, scorned— and paradoxically also exoticized— by outsiders, criminalized, redlined, and over-policed, it remains as an assemblage of terrains imbued with much meaning, nesting, struggle, history and community. While writing The Unfathomable City, Rebecca Solnit once described New Orleans as a small parochial city that connects the vast interior of North America drained by the Mississippi to the Caribbean-Latin American South. There is something in the (dense) air that occupies this geographical space. There is something in its wooden houses with their pillared porches painted with vivid colors; something in the deep sense of belonging and warm socials relations woven into the fabric of this place; something very powerful about the black core of this city that struggles against its erasure and displacement promoted by a powerful elite that strives to tear it out of the city by rebuilding a cityscape in a fashion more amenable to the accumulation of capital, nevertheless keeping its cultural products—music, food, language, history and art.

This “something” added another layer to the immersive experience of the program. This layer made inevitable a constant reflection about the distribution/segregation in the city, the flourishing of gentrification through the establishment of art spaces in the 9th Ward, but also about the workings and relationship of the Joan Mitchell Center, where most of the seminars took place, with the local artist’s community. Although the seminars and lectures were very insightful and occupied most of the program, the program was not limited to these formal encounters. Everyday, during lunch or after the seminars, some of us would gather to exchange ideas and discuss our projects and their viability, but also about life. I will always be grateful to Kai Lumumba Barrow for her hospitality in the widest sense of the term. Her critical inputs and disruptive presence inside and outside the seminars; but also, for the very interesting and life-changing evening at her studio in which we exchanged passionate and critical ideas with Naz Cucuoglu, Alexandria Eregbu, Queta Beasley Harris, José López Serra and Ladi’Sasha Jones over a delicious takeaway of Lebanese food and warm beer and wine.



The participants’ fresh gaze towards each project always proved not only very enriching in reshaping the premises or the outcomes of the projects but also as a space for building complicities and affinities among colleagues and why not, future collaborations. Among the participants, there was a group of “local” (1) artists and curators who from the beginning set a critical guideline on the tone from which we would be expected to discuss during the seminar sessions. For example, a very interesting common theoretical standpoint that was shared and jointly built during this week, was the understanding of black radical imagination as a Marxist approach that could engage utopia and a post-capitalist future from the perspectives of class, race and gender politics. These three variables were always on the table as the social framework or conditions for discussing any past or contemporary problem that the projects would aim to address. Rachel Ellis Neyra, from her queer-latino perspective, brought about the concepts of “radical patience” and “performative listening” to de-center our focus on meaning and draw our attention to experience, to the politics of friendship and the impossibility of an “objective” point of view when writing about something.

Regarding the project I submitted, during the week, with the input of the seminars and especially of the individual sessions with María del Carmen Carrión and Rachel Ellis Neyra, I was able to reformulate and develop a full proposal for the exhibition of Teo Hernández’s films and archive in Mexico. This exhibition, co-curated with Regina Tattersfield, will take place at Centro de la Imagen in March 2018 with the collaboration of a group of contemporary artists from Mexico and France, who have been part of the research process during the past year. After two years of research, I was in the process of writing and preparing the dossier that was going to be presented to Centre Georges Pompidou on May 3, 2017 in Paris. After the ICI Curatorial Intensive, the one-on-one conversations, the long walks in the evenings through the long and green boulevards of the 7th Ward, I was able to conceive the different components of the project, the financial architecture, the role of each person involved in the project over the past years in order to present the proposal in Paris.

At the end of the program, our proposals were presented at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans (CACNO), where all the participants had the chance to define more clearly the projects in a public setting. As independent curators, we seldom have the opportunity to receive many concentrated and meaningful feedbacks from colleagues, so I’m sure that everyone felt quite enriched and grateful for the generous comments and exchanges that we all got from our peers and the ICI staff during the program.


 

(1) I use the quotations because from the first day, very aware of the common exoticization of locality, they questioned the local dimension of their work acknowledging that even if their practice and workspace was rooted in the specificity of New Orleans, the relevance and connections of their aesthetic and political interests crossed states, regions, countries and could easily be inserted into an international territory of artistic practices.

About The author

Andrea Ancira

Andrea Ancira is an independent writer and researcher based in Mexico City. She is interested in contemporary experimental artistic practices and their role in shaping social identities, discourses and sensibilities. When examining these practices— either in the field of sound or image— she has approached them from their possible implications in the conformation of ideas of utopia, revolution and the commons. The perspective from where she explores these phenomena is informed by multiple theoretical frameworks such as marxism, history of contemporary culture and politics, feminism, decolonial studies, among others. Her work has been published in academic and non-academic platforms. She is an associate curator of Centro de la Imagen for the upcoming exhibition of experimental filmaker Teo Hernández.


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Report: Curatorial Intensive in Manila - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research

Report: Curatorial Intensive in Manila

 

Manila is an erratic milieu. Indoor air-conditioning is always on full blast; but as soon as you step out it is hot and humid. As our Curatorial Intensive colleagues from elsewhere soon learned, it may take two hours to get to a supposedly-30-minutes-away destination because of traffic. For the homegrown participants living in a city adjacent to Manila, it can take up to four hours just to get to the Metropolitan Museum, which hosted us for the entire week. Indeed Manila is an ecology of delay, and as such, especially erratic milieu in which to consider ideas of contemporariness. A reformulation of an idea by Yates McKee suffuses Manila and its habitué: “we are incontemporaneous with our living present.”

A presentation by Patrick Flores, which started off the intense week of seminars, resonated throughout the Intensive: the deployment of the notions of delay and lagging behind as tools for slowing down, parsing, persistence, as an interval that inaugurates opportunity and potential, and never lethargy. This erratic milieu is the soil in which local diskarte—a know-how and cunning, cannot help but flourish. This is what I imagined when Flores discussed the idea of the geopoetic: how do we foster an environment in such a milieu that helps us persist in creating in such a milieu?

 

 

Rather than linger on Manila’s errancy, I chose to appreciate the unevenness of the poetic sited in specific geographies, specificities that manifested in the heterogeneity of the group’s concerns and affinities. To me, and perhaps to other participants in the Intensive in Manila, the experience gave the space and time necessary for slowing down. The lectures gave us the space and time needed to think for ourselves and with our peers. Talking with peers allowed me the latitude to think through my position in this erratic city, a city I have learned to love. Admiration is all I had listening to my colleagues Patricia Cariño and Sydney Stoudmire speak of their projects with anabling eloquence. The time I spent talking to Asli Seven and Jessica Berlanga Taylor was full of interrogations and realizations that I will value as I engage with projects and ideas in the future.

Perhaps, the week’s intensity coupled with the surrounding errancy produced a vitality made ever more productive by the sheer heterogeneity of our group, our dislocations and collocations. It is a vitality that may only be drawn from such an intensity, be manifested from such a milieu, like a presence that is incontemporaneous with itself.

 

About The author

Carlos Quijon, Jr.

Carlos Quijon, Jr. writes art criticism and works as a freelance curatorial coordinator. Most recently, he was curatorial coordinator for the Manila iteration of the exhibition Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs (2016)—a traveling exhibition presented by Para Site (HK), Kadist Foundation (San Francisco/Paris), and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (Manila), and curated by Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero. He is a graduate student in the University of the Philippines in Diliman taking up Art Criticism and Theory. He was a fellow in Japan Foundation’s Curatorial Development Workshop (Manila, 2015), in Para Site’s Workshops for Emerging Art Professionals (HK, 2015) and was a fellow for Hybrid Text in the 13th Ateneo National Writers Workshop (Manila, 2015). He was also a scholar/student participant in LUMA Foundation and Bard College-Center for Curatorial Studies’ symposium “How Institutions Think?” (Arles, 2016). He writes essays and poetry, and his works have been published in High Chair, DiscLab, Cabinet, The Literary Apprentice, the Kritika Kultura Anthology of New Writing in English, and in the Kritika Kultura Special Literary Section for the Contemporary Philippine Essay. He is also founding editor of transit, an online intermedia journal that engages with ideas of the new. His chapbook DECOMPOSITION was published in 2012. He has been recently shortlisted in the Ateneo Art Gallery’s Purita Kalaw-Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism (2016).


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Report: Curatorial Intensive in Dakar - Research - Independent Curators International

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Report: Curatorial Intensive in Dakar

 

From the air, all cities look like architectural models, with their little houses made with what looks like cardboard from a great distance, their little trees and little cars moving around, lighting up streets at night. As we approached the Dakar ground I noticed the illusion was actually materializing instead of vanishing, cardboard-like façades just getting closer, bordering the airport just as in Mexico City, where precariousness is the most widespread characteristic of contemporary architecture.

Yet, once on the ground, the city didn't feel like Mexico, or anywhere else I've been in Latin America. Buildings, however decimated by time and neglect, revealed an ambition of greatness – if often only a crumbling ambition – whether it was the immigration building that welcomed us, or the Ancien Palais de Justice, nerve center of the Dakar Biennial. The same could be said about almost everything I encountered in Dakar; while there is a constant similitude in everything from food to landscape, the edge of local experience felt both clearly contextualized by an ever-present and unresolved post-colonial experience that came up in most conversations and by assimilation of European references, from critical theory to language, academic lingo and music.

 

 

The seminars started with Koyo Kouoh, our host for the week, Director and Founder of RAW Material Company, a place I quickly learned to admire. In her talk, Koyo described the circumstances of the creation of RAW, and the need that she as curator and thinker had to create a space for her own practice, one that doesn't ‘illustrate politics with art but brings politics to art.’ Throughout the week, it became clear that in a context often lacking the minimal structures for the development of civil society, curatorial and artistic practice are closer to social work (not activism), both participating in everyday political struggles while aiming at affecting life with very practical actions, often reacting quickly and strategically to events near you. 'You need to dig where you stand' stated Koyo, constantly going back to the need of being political.

In between seminars, individual advisement meetings with Riason Naidoo and Maria del Carmen Carrión questioned and pushed my project proposal. In the evenings I attended 'catholic parties' where the Senegalese people would be frantically twerking on each other (men to men, women to women, women to men!); having dinner at hidden restaurants so we could have pork chops and beers in an 80% Muslim country; witnessing breathtaking ancient rituals with the spirits of the forest in the middle of the street, then walking two blocks and arriving to a world-class jazz concert; surrounding dance-offs that seemed part of a Sugar Hill Gang video so good it doesn't exist; and having the most invigorating conversations with people so different and so alike, pushing the limits of everything you thought you knew. By the time the exhilarating public symposium was over, we were all ready to say a most emotional goodbye over delicious food and drinks facing the Atlantic coast.

As the muezzins' psalmody faded off, shaken as I was after this nine-day long hurricane of an experience, I decide to build better: to be rigorous and courageous, and go out there, beyond my comfort zone of western thought (even Latin American thought) and make things happen, as we were encouraged to do.

 

About The author

Marisol Rodríguez

Marisol Rodríguez (Ciudad de México, 1984) is a writer, editor and curator in the crossroads of cultural history, popular culture and contemporary art. She is a researcher of Mexican comics and the intersections between comics and art, having lectured, published and curated internationally on the subject. She currently lives in Paris, where she is director of mor charpentier gallery. She combines this work with her own independent projects, most recently as guest curator of the 13th Dakar Biennale under the artistic direction of Simon Njami.  In 2015 she was a fellow of the cultural journalism program at the FNPI, Fundación Gabriel García Márquez Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano in Colombia; in 2016 she was a fellow of Independent Curators International’s Curatorial Intensive in Dakar. She holds a Masters in Culture, Criticism and Curation from Central Saint Martins.


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Research Convening: Perspectives on Exhibiting Social Practice in Museums - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research Convening: Perspectives on Exhibiting Social Practice in Museums

Process as Form: Response to the ICI Curatorial Convening on Socially Engaged Art

Elizabeth M. Grady, Ph.D.
Director of Programs, A Blade of Grass



Curatorial Research Convening wih SFMOMA and YBCA (February 27-March 1, 2017). ICI Curatorial Hub, New York, NY.


In considering the curatorial challenges of presenting socially engaged art, there is a tacit acknowledgement that socially engaged art constitutes a specific form, or range of closely related forms, not unlike painting or sculpture. If it is art that can be interpreted and exhibited (curated), it must have a form, however ephemeral that form may be. What follows is a short exploration of the form that socially engaged art takes, the aesthetics of that form, and its implications for presenting the work in a museum context, with an eye toward the forthcoming retrospective of the work of Suzanne Lacy at SFMOMA and YBCA, curated by Dominic Willsdon, Rudolf Frieling, and Lucía Sanroman. This position paper is neither definitive nor complete, but intended as a further contribution to the conversation recently undertaken at Independent Curators International by a diverse group of artists, scholars and curators.

I. Form
Socially engaged art is work that happens between people, through an iterative process constituted in part by a series of meetings, workshops, and/or creative visioning sessions. It takes place over time, and at least in part in non-art spaces. The artist fabricates it by creating partnerships with non-artists, addressing anything from common interests to urgent social needs. It differs substantially from traditional art like painting or sculpture, where the goal of the artistic process is to produce an object for exhibition. In contrast, interaction and relationship building are the “real” work here; any physical or visual manifestations that emerge can be somewhat incidental, significant primarily as evidence of the preceding process of relationship building that occurred, which constituted the form. [Example: Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin’s …circle through New York, currently being produced in collaboration with the Guggenheim, involves six artworks or other culturally significant expressions rotating between the six participating sites. At the museum, the “exhibition” of one of the artworks involves staff humming the oldest song in the world, “borrowed” from the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, in the museum’s atrium. It is well understood by staff that this is not the work itself but merely one possible manifestation of the relationships between participants, and one possible manifestation of the performance of the song.]

The “social” in socially engaged art can be seen as a process by which existing conditions and paradigms may be examined and hacked; it is a variety of systemic thinking that at its best can produce visionary new ways of examining social circumstances and issues. A primary goal of such work is to interrogate thought patterns and worldviews. Without conversation interrogation is impossible, so it is in the act of dialogue that the art happens. The form that socially engaged art takes is therefore identified and identical with its process. Any resulting objects, texts, images, or related products are secondary, even in the cases where they are not unimportant. For example, objects, texts, or images produced through dialogue and collaboration (things that look like artworks) are sometimes made as a frame for a project that is completed through use or activation; in other words, through a social interaction. Again, dialogue and relationship building are both form and process. [Example: Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, a work that involved the collaborative building of a structure on the lawn of a public housing project in the Bronx that served as a space—a literal wooden frame—for education, discussion, recreation, and other forms of community-driven activity. Without such activation, the work was not considered complete.]

II. Aesthetics and (Inter)subjectivity
What are the implications of the fundamental shift from a process that precedes final form (like painting and sculpting) to one that is identical with it? For one thing, it changes the nature of the aesthetic experience. For another, it transforms the role of subjectivity in understanding the work. In the case of painting, for example, an artwork is ordinarily appreciated through viewing. However, the aesthetic experience felt by the viewer is internal, highly subjective, and relatively solitary. Because the work is complete, the viewer is not granted an opportunity to exercise direct creative agency in producing the work (leaving aside for the moment the question of the degree to which interpretation may also be creative). The viewer experiences the form that results from the process, if imperfectly (due, for example to the removal of the work from its originally intended setting, and to historical and cultural distance). In the case of socially engaged art, where the process is the form, the aesthetics still lie in experience, but the experience is of a different order. It is manifested in creating a shared vision through dialogue with the artist. It is an experience of making, in which participants have a degree of creative agency. Unlike the case of a painting, where one can occupy the same space as the form after the process is complete, since the form and process are one and the same in socially engaged art, in an exhibition context the viewer can only appreciate the form at a remove, since they have missed out on the process and therefore the form. It's as though they are being asked to look at a palette, some dirty brushes, and a few fragments of painted linen, and nonetheless come away with an equivalent experience to viewing a full painting. To replicate the depth of viewing an exhibition of more traditional art, in a presentation of socially engaged art there are two basic possibilities: 1. Bring the viewers into the process, and therefore improve the appreciation of the form; or 2. Change the expectations about what the viewing experience can or should be.

If the aesthetic experience is of a different order, what is the attendant difference in the way that subjectivity contributes to understanding the work? With a painting, even one removed from its original context, like a Caravaggio altarpiece removed from a church, lowered to eye level and lit brightly, one may still have a personal experience of its emotional impact; a direct, one-on-one viewing relationship with the object. When participating in a socially engaged project one has an analogous aesthetic response to the experience. However, the very act of placing such projects within an institutional art setting almost guarantees that the work cannot possibly be appreciated in a way approximating that of its originary co-creators and/or participants. One sees it through photography, video, or other mediated means. Is this something like the historical distance we have from a work of art from another time, like the Italian Renaissance, when language and culture were different? Or is it truly a different order of subjectivity that we bring to the viewing experience altogether? I would argue that the shift is epistemic, from a subjective to an intersubjective perspective. The work is best understood as it is made, through discussion. In keeping with an appreciation of this epistemic shift, it stands to reason that the curatorial perspective, insofar as its interest is in fostering learning and interpretation, must also change. It is worth asking what it might mean to consider the role of dialogue and discussion within the museum context as part of the viewer experience.

Collecting, Historicizing, Presenting (i.e. curating)
If socially engaged art is best experienced in the moment, how can it be collected, historicized, indeed even understood outside the participatory experience? How can we contend with a form that is iterative, durational, and takes place in the real world rather than art spaces? Perhaps, by creating a form of curating to match the art form. I propose that curating be treated as a real-time process, with the curator following the progress of the socially engaged project closely, and retaining as much as possible of the project’s process in documentary form. It can take the form of producing film or video that records the process, offering a narrative of the project told in part from the perspective of participants/collaborators, and not just the artist. Capturing co-creative voices is essential to the curator’s ability to later construct a four-dimensional picture of what happened for a non-participating audience in the museum. This can also be achieved through field research conducted a little bit like ethnographic interviews, where all project stakeholders have a voice, and the curator uses the research to construct texts that can take the place of more standard wall labels. By producing such materials, the curator also paves the way for the collection and historicization of the work, as well as creating engaging ephemera with which to construct the show, and on which to base new dialogic experiences designed with the museum viewer in mind. This helps to address the issue of how socially engaged art can be effectively exhibited in a static context when the process of the art is dynamic, but there must surely be additional strategies to allow deeper engagement.

Tension and Transparency: Thematizing the Problematic
The museum provides a frame for understanding and interpreting art, but was designed to house static art. If the process is the form, in order for it to function well for socially engaged art, the exhibition must reflect that process-form. The specific case of the Suzanne Lacy retrospective at SFMOMA and YBCA offers a unique opportunity, in being sited near a place, Oakland, CA where Lacy has a deep history. An excellent way of helping the exhibition’s audience to understand the ephemera that will inevitably make up the bulk of the retrospective, given the restraints of now-historical media, would be to transparently compare and contrast the lived experience of a socially engaged project and the mediated distance of viewing films, archival material and ephemera. Commission a socially engaged project, even a small-scale one. Openly acknowledge the gap between the archival record and lived experience. Use the exhibition context as a way to examine this problematic. If the tension between the iterative, time-based, and extra-institutional framework of socially engaged art and the presentation of its documentation and other ephemeral traces in an exhibition is the crux of the issue, then transform it from a problematic into something generative; make it the curatorial work of the exhibition project, while retaining Lacy’s rich body of artwork as the focus.


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Museum as Think Tank

Arden Sherman
Director and Curator, Hunter East Harlem Gallery



Public session of Research Convening wih SFMOMA and YBCA (March 1, 2017). ICI Curatorial Hub, New York, NY.


On March 1st, Independent Curators International (ICI) hosted a public discussion – or workshop – that recapped the two prior days of closed-door sessions where international curators, museum directors, art historians, and artists discussed the fundamentals of exhibiting and collecting socially engaged art. Organized by SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the overall atmosphere of the room was excited, supportive, and in line with the mission of greater social engagement. While no concrete conclusions were made this day, the collective desire to exhibit socially engaged art in retrospective-style brought up fascinating ideas around logistics, audiences, roles of organizers, and roles of artists.

As art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson pointed out in her remarks recapping the closed-door part of the convening, socially engaged artwork often places stressful demands on an institution and logistically challenges the roles we normally assign to artists and arts workers. Conversations arose around the ways that an institution “instrumentalizes” an artist for its own public agenda and the ways an artist, in turn, “instrumentalizes” an institution for his/her own practice. In my current role as the curator and director of Hunter East Harlem Gallery (HEHG)—a site dedicated to socially minded art projects located inside the Silberman School of Social Work, a satellite campus of Hunter College—I look to artists to engage audiences and bring in new, interested visitors to the gallery. Perhaps in thinking about HEHG on a holistic level, this method of exhibition making could be seen as complicated and even, problematic.

As I grapple with my own insecurities about exhibiting socially engaged art, I often wonder about the organizational committee and those sitting around the big “planning table” for art institutions. For example, two days after the ICI workshop, I was invited to join a meeting hosted by Hunter College President Jennifer Raab addressing a new initiative she is spearheading in the neighborhood of East Harlem. What was exciting about this particular meeting were the diverse areas of specialty of those sitting around the table. Experts in early education, urban planning, geography, social work, public health and culture were all present. This meeting, in the wake of the Social Practice Research Convening at ICI, made me curious about the diversity of those administering art institutions and that, if, perhaps, we thought of museums more like think tanks, would the same questions arise around how to correctly and nobly display socially engaged art?

It’s widely agreed that Social Practice transcends traditional forms of visual art making and those practicing artists engage with social circumstances outside traditional forms of exhibition making. In order for us to properly exhibit socially engaged art, we must upturn traditional methods of exhibition making informed by historic curatorial practices and bureaucratic arts administration. Every person in the room was privy to the inner working of art institutions and understood from experience that museum education departments are often more responsible and better equipped (with more flexible schedules, fluidity of time-based programming, and budget wiggle room) to showcase socially engaged art.

I propose expanding the exhibition making outside the Education Department and the Curatorial Departments in larger art institutions. Let’s create think tanks, or a body of experts providing advice and ideas, inside our art institutions. Let’s diversify the planning committee to include specialists outside the art world. Let’s seek funding outside the traditional foundations, board members, and marketplaces that typically fund our art exhibitions. A few models of “museum as think tank” have sprung up over the years, most notably New Inc. at New Museum, which is a design-focused incubator located inside a major NYC-based museum providing opportunities for designers and technological researchers. If we want to rethink the types of artists and art practices that we showcase in major public institutions, we must rethink those who have a seat at the table. Social Practice demands alternative strategies for creating the work, and therefore we must reassess and redevelop systems for those who organize, fund, and administer these kinds of exhibitions in order to make an impact outside a closed-door session.


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Response to SFMOMA & YBCA Research Convening

Herb Tam
Curator and Director of Exhibitions, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)



Suzanne Lacy speaking at Curatorial Research Convening wih SFMOMA and YBCA (February 27-March 1, 2017). ICI Curatorial Hub, New York, NY.


The artist was present during the discussion of Suzanne Lacy’s upcoming retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The curators, scholars, artists, and art professionals present at the Convening brainstormed as though the artist were not present. They discussed the challenges Lacy's work raises for an exhibition that examines four decades of political, socially engaged, and community-based art.  Lacy was careful not to interject with her own biases or leanings about how her work should be presented.

However the fact of her presence in the room brought up questions for me about the nature of her authorship over her own work, an issue that she seems to wonder about herself. Put more bluntly, how much credit should she take from all of these projects? Even though she instigated and mediated the social interactions that her work is based on, the resulting “work” seemed to develop organically through collaboration. However this retrospective clearly will center Suzanne Lacy as the creator. I sensed an unease from her about the marginalization of her collaborators, and some others in the room spoke about this as well, especially because the words we use to label contributions of others besides the artist instigator can reflect the imbalance of power in these collaborative relationships. Often, Lacy, who is white, goes into communities of color to stage her projects highlighting the threat of exploitation that is drawn along racial lines.

I understand this concern, but on the level of visitor engagement I would argue for Lacy’s life story to be foregrounded. SFMOMA’s audience has grown since it reopened with a larger space and when I visited in December I got the sense that many visitors only have a passing interest in art. At the Museum of Chinese in America, we have a similar issue. We have found that stories connected to specific people engage visitors. We believe visitors are more likely to try and understand difficult artwork better if they know the how an artist’s intention is informed by their back story.

The exchanges between Lacy and artist Tania Bruguera were the most memorable, especially when they differed on the terms used to categorize their work. Bruguera liked the term “political art” while Lacy wasn’t too sure how to label her work and even questioned the value of such labeling. Ultimately Lacy said that terms like this should be constantly shifting and it was fine that they are never fixed. The two are clearly friends and admire each other’s work a great deal. It would be fun to see how Bruguera would curate Lacy’s work, as they deal with many of the same challenges.

Questions about how to use an archive were brought up. How can documentation and ephemeral materials be activated in a different way in this case? As the discussion continued with questions being asked rhetorically at every turn, I wondered whether and how this feedback would be digested and brought back into the development process. I hope the artist and curators can use the feedback and their own original thinking to come up with a wildly distinct yet coherent way to present this kind of work.

 

About The author

Elizabeth M. Grady

Elizabeth M. Grady, Ph.D., is a curator and critic, and is the inaugural Director of Programs at A Blade of Grass, an organization that supports socially engaged art. She was Program Manager of smARTpower, a U.S. State-Department program run by the Bronx Museum which sent fifteen artists to fifteen countries to do 6-week art projects which engaged local communities (2010-2012). She curated Proyecto Paladar, a large-scale participatory food-based installation project for the 11th Bienal de la Habana, which opened in May 2012, and wrote the book documenting the project, Ten Dinners in Havana (2013). The project continues in summer 2014 with This Ain’t Havana: Proyecto Paladar in Queens at the Queens Museum. She has been Adjunct Professor of Art History and in the Graduate School at FIT-SUNY since 2002. Recent projects include a 20-artist exhibition, The Situation, for the Moscow Biennale (2009), the Biennial of the Canary Islands (2009), and project coordination of a major Matthew Ritchie archiving and conservation project. She has curated numerous exhibitions in the United States, and has held curatorial positions in various institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Publications include Matthew Ritchie: More than the eye (Rizzoli, 2009) and The Situation (Moscow Biennale, 2009), and essays for numerous exhibition catalogues.

Arden Sherman

Arden Sherman is Director and Curator of Hunter East Harlem Gallery, a multi-disciplinary space for art exhibitions and socially-minded projects located at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work in New York City. She earned her master’s degree in Curatorial Practice from California College of the Arts in 2010 and her bachelor’s from the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC.

Herb Tam

Herb Tam is the Curator and Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America, New York. He has previously served as the Associate Curator at Exit Art and the Acting Associate Curator at the Queens Museum of Art. While at Exit Art, he curated “New Mirrors: Painting in a Transparent World”; and co-curated “Summer Mixtape Volume 1,” an exhibition exploring the role of pop music in the work of emerging artists. In 2007, Tam curated “Jamaica, Queens Thing,” about the intersection between hip-hop and the crack cocaine epidemic. Tam was born in Hong Kong and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He received a BA in graphic design from San Jose State University and a MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York.


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CI Alumni Profile: Ross Stanton Jordan - Research - Independent Curators International

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CI Alumni Profile: Ross Stanton Jordan

Published in the Spring / Summer 2017 ICI Brochure
 

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Photo: Jennifer Myxter-Lino
 

How would you define your work as a curator? 

As curators and artists we think about symbols, and are usually good at using them within galleries and public spaces. So I’ve been thinking about what kinds of symbols are useful going forward.


What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently organizing an exhibition that will open at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center at the end of March called The Black Presidential Imaginary. The exhibition is a continuation of The Presidential Library Project that explores cultural and artistic production related to Barack Obama’s Presidency and Black presidents in U.S. popular culture. The symbolism of a Black president is enormously powerful. To some, it is a threatening symbol and to others it is an empowering symbol.
 

Who are the artists you are excited to work with right now?

There are some great artists working in this territory. Aisha Cousins from New York is an artist that has been organizing the Soulville Census, a symbolic census that targets the Black diaspora and is a critique of the U.S. Census. In recent history the Census has been used to build gerrymandered districts by the Democratic and Republican parties to make safe districts that reduce the power of dissenting votes. This reduces public power and amplifies the power of the two party system in the U.S. Cousins’ census asks value and identity based questions that are qualified and hard to quantify. The questions resist gerrymandering because they are subjective and nuanced. The Soulville Census presents a critical symbolic alternative that allows for conscience building about the Census.

Aram Han Sifuentes’s current project Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for Those Who Legally Can’t at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is another project that uses symbolic power to critic political bureaucracy. There are 11 million immigrants and 6 million people with felony convictions that are barred from voting. We at the Hull-House were the hub for 15 Official Unofficial Voting Stations across the country and in Mexico that collected over two thousand unofficial ballots from disenfranchised and discontented voters.

I’m looking for artists and projects like these that offer and reveal symbolic alternatives of the political bureaucracies that confer power and maintain status quo. Symbols work in the imagination, and that is pretty powerful territory in which they are engaged.
 

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Ross Jordan is Curatorial Manager at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, IL. He participated in the Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans, 2016.
 

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CI Alumni Profile: Övül Ö. Durmusoglu - Research - Independent Curators International

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CI Alumni Profile: Övül Ö. Durmusoglu

Published in the Fall / Winter 2016-17 ICI Brochure

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How would you define your work as a curator? What are the most pressing challenges you face?

I’d define my work as building unexpected bonds between different circles of thought, generating sensible environments of thinking and feeling together. I’m always on the look out for new meaning, and I try to find the best means ideas to be realized of course. Defining my work as curatorial work is in itself one of the most pressing challenges, and I think it is a generational question. Surrounded by the current political atmosphere, we have a harder task to work with the multiple temporalities we are actually made of but suppress.

The public funds available for the arts in the 1990s and 2000s in Europe—that shaped many contemporary art organizations and created the means for a new generation of curators to challenge institutions—are now being cut. How to expand those spaces and restructure our ideas in this context is a key question and another challenge.
 

Who are the artists you are excited to work with right now?

In the first half of the year I worked with Gulsun Karamustafa on her retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof, which has taught me the discipline of in-depth research into 40 years of artistic production. It was exciting to unlearn all I knew all about Turkish contemporary art history. And for an upcoming exhibition I am working with two established artists from Romania and Turkey again, Geta Bratescu and Osman Dinc. So many good artists live in Berlin. I feel very lucky to continue fruitful ongoing conversations about different processes with Susanne Winterling, Pilvi Takala, Julieta Aranda, Bouchra Khalili, Susanne Kriemann, Banu Cennetoglu and Mariana Castillo Deball. I recently started to work with London-based Karen Mirza and Brad Butler on their new production, which will add another muscle to my curatorial world.
 

Are there any essays/books, exhibitions, or artists we should watch out for?

The inspiring Making and Unmaking curated by Duro Olowu at the Camden Arts Center this summer made me question the formal restraints of curatorial thinking. I hope it can travel to other venues. I am looking forward to Fred Moten’s upcoming book ‘consent not to be a single being’. I find important to read Paul Preciado’s Testo-Junkie and The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory and Marxism at the Intersection, particularly as we suffer today from a male curse and a masculinity crisis in world politics. A silent classic of modern Turkish literature by Sabahattin Ali was recently translated and published by Penguin, Madonna in a Fur Coat. The first names of people to watch out for that come to mind are: Adriana Minoliti, Osias Yanov, Rodrigo Hernandez, Kasper Bosmans, Cooking Sections and Hera Buyuktasciyan.
 

What upcoming projects are you working on?

I follow many tracks at the same time; it is the life of the independent curator. Currently, I am preparing a new exhibition highlighting the need to rephrase our questions if the answers we get do not explain our general discontent. I am also working on a film program for Qalandiya International’s touring program in Ramallah. And in the Steirischer Herbst festival, in Austria, I will have the opportunity to further my inquiries related to father figures and the “male curse” in politics. In the meantime I am looking for means to continue programming for YAMA screen in Istanbul. Our screen went black since it was identified as visual pollution by the municipality… so we are making our counter arguments.
 

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Övül Ö. Durmusoglu is a curator and writer based in Istanbul and Berlin. She is the director/curator of YAMA screen in Istanbul. She participated in the Curatorial Intensive at Inhotim, Brazil, 2012.
 

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Interview with Miguel A. Lopez - Research - Independent Curators International

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Interview with Miguel A. Lopez

ICI’s Alaina Claire Feldman met in New York with 2016 Independent Vision awardee Miguel A. Lopez to discuss his curatorial practice.

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Photo: Daniela Morales

 

Alaina Claire Feldman: Much of your work reflects on the framing, classifying, and ordering of contemporary art, on subjectivity and how it informs our experience of the world. When I was looking over your impressive list of projects, one name kept reappearing: Sergio Zevallos, the Peruvian-German queer performance artist, and Groupo Chaclacayo, the group he helped create. I thought we could begin here because Zevallos’ presence in your practice is indicative of your interest in a certain narrative, in an individual practice and also a collective practice. I want to discuss your dedication to a type of art and exhibition making that is about inclusivity, and about accounting for practices that have been marginalized or even suppressed. Where did your interest in this work begin and why?

Miguel A. Lopez: I first heard about Grupo Chaclacayo when I was studying, when I was about 19. It probably came out of a conversation in 2002 or 2003 with my colleague curator Emilio Tarazona, who at that time was researching them. The group included three artists Helmut Psotta (from Germany) and his Peruvian students Raul Avellaneda and Sergio Zevallos) who between 1982 and 1989 had self-exiled outside of the city of Lima to distance themselves from conservative mores and the existing local art system. They were looking for conditions to create and experiment without restrictions. During this period, the work combined sexual and political expressions through a profane visual iconography that dramatized Catholic devotion. They were also using tropes related to the armed conflict in Peru, which began in 1980 when the Maoist organization Shining Path launched a war to overthrow the state. It was astonishing to see the few images of their work that were accessible at this time, and I was fascinated by how little was known about it. Why had it been so difficult to trace this work? Why hadn’t there been an exhibition about their work since the ‘80s? I wasn’t studying art history but I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to research and writing, so when I had the chance, my artist-friend, Eliana Otta and I contacted Sergio for an interview. Our first conversation with him was around 2004. I remember he was a bit skeptical about our approach, because the Grupo Chaclacayo left Peru in 1989.

ACF: They left Peru and went to Germany?

ML: They moved to Germany in 1989. That same year, Grupo Chaclacayo organized a big exhibition, Images of Death: Peru or the End of the European Dream, that toured to museums in Stuttgart, Bochum, Karlsruhe, and Berlin. They produced new installations and live performances with ritualistic language attempting to connect the colonialism in America, the armed war in Peru, and the fall of Soviet communism. A Peruvian art critic accused them of being associated with said Shinning Path subversive organization, and wrote an article in a Peruvian magazine calling these shows a “shrill and frivolous apology” for Shining Path. The exhibition catalogue included a list of the crimes against human rights committed by military forces in Peru during 1980s, which the critic interpreted as a form of support for this Maoist group. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, an accusation of terrorism could endanger people’s lives because one could suddenly “disappear” by the armed forces. The group never returned to Peru; it was only after 2000 that Sergio decided to come back to Lima. When I first contacted him, he asked, “Who are you exactly? Why do you want to ask me these questions?” I was part of the editorial board of Prótesis magazine, an independent initiative created by the Catholic University art students. He asked me, “But why do you want to interview me for a magazine from this university? I quit that university!” This scenario gives you an idea of how difficult it was for him to talk about this history.

ACF: He was fearful that Peru and this institution that dismissed him would now try to recuperate his practice several years later.

ML: Although, Prótesis was an independent magazine just using the art department’s money. We published the interview in 2005, and this was one of the very few interviews with him in the 20 years since he left Peru. This interview was important for me because I realized the symbolic threat that these aesthetic practices represented for traditional social values and how they defied the conservative understanding of art and traditional ideas of art education. In 2007, two years after the interview, I was invited to the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, Germany, for a symposium that later became a collective curatorial project entitled Subversive Practices. After Stuttgart, I decided to visit Sergio in Berlin. I asked him to trust me to help him to organize his archive, to recover the history of his work in Grupo Chaclacayo. During the first years I was working with curator Emilio Tarazona, we were both seeking to show the work of the three members of the group, but unfortunately that never happened. After a while Sergio and I decided to work together. It was the beginning of a long process.

ACF: In 2013, your relationship with him finally culminated in an exhibition in Peru.

ML: I wouldn’t call it a culmination but definitely it was the most important presentation of his early artistic production. The exhibition A Wandering Body: Sergio Zevallos in the Grupo Chaclacayo (1982-1994) was exhibited in two venues: the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI) and Spanish Cultural Center. The show presented a comprehensive selection of his drawings, collages, photographs, and performances. The exhibition generated a lot of interest but also a number of hostile reactions; some Catholic religious groups demanded the closure of the show accusing us of blasphemy. Of course MALI rejected that petition and stated their commitment to free speech and respect to the intellectual independence of the artist and curator. This was exciting because our desire was clearly going beyond contemplation and the context of art history. We were seeking to trigger a discussion of the narratives of the war in Peru and to expand debates on what gender and sexuality has to say about our recent past.

Sergio Zevallos, Untitled, from the series Rosas (Roses), 1982. Charcoal and Color chalk on paper, 69 x 89 cm. Private collection, Lima.

 

One of the arguments I stressed in the show was that the rejection of their work during the ‘80s was not only because of concerns related to ideas of the best or quality or because of its politically driven practice. It was rejected because such a deeply transgressive homosexual aesthetics represented a threat to the national masculine body’s borders and the way public space was regulated and codified. It is not enough to say that the claim linking the creative practices of Grupo Chaclacayo and the Maoist Shining Path was absurd. The relationship is revealing because this group and their queer sadomasochistic grammars was seen as threatening as the armed raids of a Maoist totalitarian subversive group.

Their work reveals that the armed conflict in Peru cannot be reduced to an ideological struggle driven by communist ideas and attempts to seize power, as some right-wing parties argue. On the contrary, the conflict was a result of an enduring colonial, patriarchal, and heteronormative social structure. The persistent appearance of queer corpses and burials in their performances and photographs draws attention to an unrecognized war: a war declared against homosexual, effeminate, sick or differing bodies, and any body that is not useful for the productive demands of capitalism. Within the war these include of course, predominantly peasant and indigenous communities, and also transgender or queer bodies.

Sergio Zevallos, Ambulantes (Wanderers), from the series Suburbios (Suburbs), 1983. Performers: Frido Martin, Sergio Zevallos and anonymous passer-by. Gelatin silver print on baryta paper, 14 x 9 cm. Museo de Arte de Lima. Contemporary Art Acquisition Committee 2013.

 

ACF: It was almost as if this revisionist art history was a political strategy of its own, to rethink the socio-political history in Peru.

ML: We wanted to propose questions about how art history was written, but more importantly, we wanted to reintroduce issues that are constantly erased from the conservative, local debate. I firmly believe that museums can contribute to the reconstruction of a democratic public sphere through their critical activity and thus defy some consensual discourses and conservative social structures. But still there is a lot to discuss. After Lima, the exhibition travelled to Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart in October 2014, where it fueled more debate. Working with Sergio to make this research project happen was a life-changing experience. It is fascinating how a relationship with an artist can radically change your own perspectives regarding the wider implications of curatorial practice and its political potential.

ACF: And you continued to expand these arguments within two publications about the work.

ML: We made two publications, with the Lima Art Museum (2014) and also with Proyecto AMIL (2015). The first book included more than three hundred and fifty images from his archive. It had newly commissioned essays, newspaper clippings, and interviews from the 80s and 90s, previously unpublished documentation of performances and sketches of the actions, and precise information about the projects they developed. The second publication focused on Sergio’s drawings from 1982 to 1987. I like to conceive books as a toolbox for research. We wanted to make the documents we encountered as accessible as possible so that other people can continue to push these discussions and research further.

ACF: Typically, an exhibition is only on view in one place for a certain period of time, while the publication is what lives on and builds a memory of the project. Is Sergio still practicing in Germany?

ML: He is still active, living between Germany and Peru.

ACF: The work was initially generated to respond to a very specific political regime and the kind of violence it created for Sergio and his community in Peru. But how is this relevant to his current work? Is he still thinking through Peruvian history; is he thinking about Europe, or both?

ML: He moved to Germany in 1989, so much of his life now relates to Europe. His recent work is still concerned with the mechanisms of how repression operates and with contemporary models of governance in which bodily and sexuality issues play an important role. I think the way we returned to that early period gave him new perspectives and ways to continue his creative work. Sergio will produce a new work for the upcoming documenta 14. It’s exciting to see how his work is starting to receive the recognition that it deserves.

Red Conceptualismos del Sur

ACF: I want to ask you about the beginnings of the group that you cofounded, Red Conceptualismos del Sur (RCS). This is another long-term, collective commitment to reshape history through decentralizing a narrative of contemporary art.

ML: In 2007, a group of six people, including myself, cofounded RCS. We met each other through our common interests in political narratives about Latin American art and our shared concerns about the uncertain fate of important art archives in our region. Each of us each has our own version of this story, but my involvement began when I met art historian and writer Ana Longoni in Buenos Aires in August 2006. At that moment I was immersed in research about experimental practices in Peru during the ‘60s and ‘70s and found her essays and books on ‘60s avant-garde practices in Argentina encouraging and inspiring. I remember receiving payment from my first curatorial project earlier in 2006 and I used all the money to fly to Buenos Aires to meet her. Meeting Ana changed my understanding of art history as a framework for passionate commitment and political engagement. We didn’t talk about creating a group at the time, but rather about how important it was to have exchanges with colleagues doing similar research. In 2007, Ana was invited to contribute to a seminar at the MACBA in Barcelona, organized by Spanish artist Antoni Mercader. She invited myself and other Latin American researchers and art historians to get involved in the public activities, which was when we founded the network. RCS now includes more than fifty researchers, art historians, writers, and activists from different places; the network grew quickly. I remember our first conversations were about Latin American conceptual art being in fashion.

Installation view of Losing the Human Form. A seismic image of the 1980’s in Latin America, curated by Southern Conceptualisms Network, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, October 2012 – March 2013. Photo by Román Lores and Joaquín Cortés. Courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

 

ACF: Do you mean economically?

ML: Yes, economically. We were worried that new market demands could bar the process of recuperating a constellation of experimental art practices developed under conditions of conflict, dictatorial regimes, and civil war. For us, contributing to the reactivation of these radical legacies implied not only politically positioned writing or researching these artistic experiences, but it also required questioning: How to generate conditions for the conservation of these materials in our own contexts? This was a very delicate situation in countries where artistic communities distrusted the existing governmental institutions because of their authoritarian and repressive past. We were worried that these materials would be lost. We felt that it was quite important to intervene in order to prevent the danger of dispossession and the physical loss of art documents. So we started thinking about how to trigger a larger discussion around the urgency to implement strategic responses and how to take collective responsibility for the care of material patrimony while involving local institutions.

ACF: These materials and discussions would then be expanded pan-continentally among your different contexts.

ML: We wanted to collaborate with museums and universities to create public archives, or loans for these archives, to move artists’ archives to the institution and give the public access to them. Since 2008, RCS has worked on several archives of artists whose work was fiercely positioned against military dictatorships during the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as the archive of the Uruguayan poet and artist Clement Padín that was transferred to the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay; or the archive of the Chilean activist-artist collective CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte) that was moved to the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, and which will later be donated to the Museo National de Bellas Artes in Santiago de Chile. We are doing the same with the archives of artists Francisco Mariotti and María Luy, which document important experimental and collective experiences from the ‘70s in Peru. Those materials are traveling from Switzerland to the library of MALI in the next few months. Some manifestos and public projects that we recovered from this period, including part of Projecto Helio Oiticica’s holdings in Rio de Janeiro which were mostly destroyed by a fire in 2009 or the ICAA digital archive of Latin American and Latino Art at the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, have recently gained attention and helped to create a sort of “archival momentum” (as art historian Andrea Giunta called in a 2011 symposium).

Even if we couldn’t perceive it at the time, we were helping in shifting the value of critical artistic practices within Latin American institutions. That situation changed not only the social status of those documents, but also their economic value. The deferred effects of a project such as Global Conceptualism (1999) as well of some curatorial and scholarly initiatives focused on the ‘60s and ‘70s in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru during those years galvanized the desire to tackle metropolitan narratives and remap a set of priorities that, up until then, organized the institutional policies of collecting and preservation. Consider that ten years ago, in 2007, when we push these discussions, the landscape was very different. Museums in Latin America weren’t precisely interested in shaping the local memory through archives; many were hesitant to acknowledge that this scarce documentation could actually represent an opportunity to complicate notions of education, access, collecting and exhibition-making. There were only a few archive initiatives—such as Fundación Espigas or Archivo Jorge Romero Brest, both in Buenos Aires—that were introduced years earlier by the needs of scholarly activity unburdened by the pressures of the art market. Today, such policies now exist in large museums in the region, such as Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City or MALI in Lima, which are actively acquiring and incorporating archives with the clear understanding of its public effects. I can’t help thinking that the consequences of RCS’s discussions about archives, accessing, and conservation, has something to do with this change.

Conceptualismos do Sul/Sur (Conceptualisms of the South). First International Symposium. Sao Paulo, Museu de Arte Contemporãnea da Universidade de São Paulo, April 2008.

 

ACF: How does the collective dimension of RCS function?

ML: Our network operates in a very decentralized way. RCS is articulated by working groups who decide collectively on what to research, how to make it public, how to take positions on specific situations, and what strategies to develop for sharing information and fundraising. It’s quite organic, an open conversation centered on the desire for alternative historiographic production. The collective aspect of our work is relevant because our endeavors demand active involvement and are situated analyses that usually go beyond the limits of individualistic modes of working. The collective dimension is also important for strategic alliances based on trust to create a dialogue between the material memory of underground practices and its agents and more formal institutions. Diving into the archives and patiently recovering forgotten material gives rise to a different way to conceptualize an exhibition, one in which weaving narratives doesn’t depend on conventional categories or established art figures. An example of this is the exhibition Losing the Human Form. A Seismic Image of the 1980s in Latin America, a reading of the ‘80s through the lens of creative social disobedience that we curated at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid in 2012. The project, which was also exhibited in Lima and Buenos Aires between 2013 and 2014, presented a panorama of experimentation and resistance focusing on the visual politics of social movements (like Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and Mujeres por la Vida in Chile), dissident sexual practices and queer art collectives, and underground scenes. Most of the exhibited materials were graphic pieces, videos, mail art documentation, silk screens, photographs, installations and other fragile traces associated with those activist practices. A project like this—including more than three hundred objects, many of which had never been shown before—was only possible because this specific project was comprised of more than thirty-five researchers working together to create a dialogue alongside our research.

Collaborative work, or collective curating in this case, is important for me because it offers a possibility to go against the increasing presence of the curator-as-celebrity, and the prevalent ideas of success as defined by the global art market. As my friend Julia Bryan-Wilson points out, we as curators and cultural agents have to be aware of how we circulate within frameworks of power. How are our practices contributing to the dominance of economic spheres over life and cultural activity? In what ways can we be tactic in inventing forms to interrupt this logic?

ACF: The concept of the individual has long been privileged over that of the collective. Sure, it’s easier to capitalize on individual recognition for professional and economic reasons, but doing art history is a collective exercise, nuanced and dynamic. And curating collectively is a way to undermine existing normative systems of historiography. What I find exciting is that RCS is decentralizing information geographically but also employing a transdisciplinary approach as art practices and exhibitions become politics, which become social history. What kinds of direct reactions are you hoping for?

ML: I hope the work decentralizes a debate around institutional policies. I’m constantly observing the types of narratives being produced in Latin American art institutions. We’ve taken a big step forward from the previous decade, but there are still many things that are not discussed: for example, the politics of representation of female artists in institutions, where a gender imbalance is so insistently present. If you look at a schedule of exhibitions, you will see that men have a higher percentage of solo shows at major museums. When I mention this, some people think that I’m invoking an essentialist argument. I wish this was the case, but the issue is far more complex than that. Look at MALI in Lima, one of the most progressive museums in the region: Since 2010, they presented more than twenty-five solo shows, and only one exhibition was by a female artist. But the most problematic aspect is that this disparity is normalized. This is why a program dedicated to recognizing and creating value around female artists, like the one that Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) launched in 2015, is so important. What are the social effects of a museum that only exhibits male artists and reinforces a patriarchal model of the public sphere? Museums are political devices that produce social identities and shape subjectivity. It is the same struggle in regards to collecting. You have to create really strong arguments to push the inclusion of women artists, queer aesthetics, black and indigenous representations...

ACF: You have to defend the relevancy of the work to those who may not be familiar with the artist, and cultivate a sort of public knowledge.

ML: But it’s not only about knowing or not knowing the artist. It is the structure of valorization that prevails, which exists historically to reinforce white, male, western privilege. In most instances, the valorization of these art practices weren’t fully created yet. Collecting is complicated because it is clearly based on the demands of the market. Still, we need to insist that collections in Latin American institutions address issues that are being erased. If we don’t have in these collections specific works dealing with HIV for example…

ACF: …then those issues and works that consider those issues are erased from history.

ML: Exactly. And I’m not saying that these debates need formal institution to exist; feminist collectives and queer activism have been always ahead creating autonomous spaces for thought and resistance for decades. What I mean is that it is also extremely important to have discussions in cultural institutions and museums and reflect, in another scale, how visual representations became spaces of grief, loss, rage and public fighting against homophobia and racism. Most of these works are not flashy, they use unfamiliar aesthetics tropes and not are very well preserved, but they can certainly push political discussions in a different direction. And that is why the role of the curator is so crucial. We need politically situated curatorial practices that take responsibility for class privilege and cultural capital and do the work of create cultural value against the dominant male culture, social inequality and discrimination.

TEOR/éTica

ACF: You recently joined TEOR/éTica in San José, Costa Rica.

ML: I was appointed in March 2015 and I moved to Costa in late-May that year.

ACF: Is this your first “institutional” job?

ML: Yes, my first. After a decade working as independent curator, I thought that maybe it was time for me to join an institution and commit to art history in a different way—by building infrastructure. I couldn’t imagine a better job and place to work.

ACF: TEOR/éTica has a fantastic history and draws an audience that really respects it. Viewers go there to be challenged.

ML: We have an enormous responsibility because TEOR/éTica is one of the most active organizations in the region. The institution was founded in 1999 by Virginia Perez-Ratton, a Costa Rican artist and curator. Its mission is to contribute to the research and diffusion of contemporary art practices in Central America and the Caribbean in dialogue with global realities. TEOR/éTica helped to create more visibility for regional art practices which did not fit within the traditional hegemonic narratives of Latin American Art that, until the 90s, largely excluded the region.

ACF: European and American art historians and curators, who typically only looked at Brazil, Mexico, or Argentina as “Latin America”, also influenced those narratives.

ML: Exactly. Virginia Perez-Ratton founded TEOR/éTica to contend with that. Now, of course, the panorama has changed; it’s not the ‘90s anymore. But there is still a lot of work to be done in promoting artistic and critical practices from Central America and the Caribbean. For example, I would expect local universities to be more involved in producing publications, encouraging historical research, introducing experimental ways of thinking about art education, and creating international seminars to discuss the relevance of contemporary art in society—but unfortunately, this is not the case.

ACF: Expecting universities and schools to be more involved in their local art communities and promoting critical practices seems like a given, but I hear from colleagues everywhere that this is not the case. Perhaps this lack of involvement is indicative of a larger neoliberal shift. When governments cut education budgets, it is always art, music, or liberal studies that become reduced first. Therefore, people visit museums and art spaces expecting to have these educational gaps filled. They are trying to compensate for a void in the educational sphere, which, for a number of reasons, the government feels is no longer their responsibility. You are currently mobilizing a series of public activities and publishing projects for TEOR/éTica—that has always been a tradition of the foundation. But are you excited to create any new agendas?

ML: We are in the middle of a process that has been very revealing for all of the members of TEOR/éTica. Our aim is to transform the institution into a more accessible and dynamic entity. We are enquiring our ways “of doing”, disputing the centrality of exhibitions within the program and the relationship we have to our immediate context. So we started questioning the idea of directorship and the figure of the curator in order to mobilize a more collective dynamic in decision-making. One of the most important decisions during this recent process was to not host any art exhibitions during 2017, at least not in the way we were previously. The idea is to use all of our spaces in different ways, placing research, conversational dynamics and spontaneity at the forefront. We know that there is going to be some trouble because we are reimagining the whole structure, but we are very excited of this new moment. The most interesting aspect of this is perhaps its unpredictability; the only thing we know now is that we are going to change. It is a real experiment.

In part, this is an oblique effect of our interaction with Arts Collaboratory, an ecosystem of more than twenty art organizations around the world that we are part of, which helped us to reimagine the life of our institution based on concepts such as self-care, self-limitation, and commonality. But mainly is a response to the fatigue of always doing the same and the bureaucratization of daily life. There are some dynamics developed at TEOR/éTica in 2016 that we would like expand, like the Alter Academia, conceived by researcher and curator Maria Paola Malavasi, which was an experience that opened up some new possibilities to envision our relation with local art community, artistic process and education. The project consisted of four artists –in-residence using TEOR/éTica’s exhibition spaces as studio for three months so that the artists could develop research projects and dialogues between them and with visiting scholars, architects, thinkers or scientists who were periodically invited.

Intervention Shape of Freedom by Carlos Motta at TEOR/éTica's façade, 2015. Installation view at "Read My Lips." Photo: Daniela Morales.

 

ACF: Was it open to the public too?

ML: The artists could invite whomever they wanted to their space at any time, and there were also some instances when engagements were totally public and everybody was invited to visit. It worked very well because the program didn’t demand the production of an object or a show. It created the conditions for conversation, which involved in different levels many people from TEOR/éTica. The important thing for us was the way they actually occupied the institution. During that time, they transformed the way we perceived TEOR/éTica, forcing us to questioning our own positions. In 2017 the plan is to continue with the Alter Academia and to develop a second edition of the program. There is another new project leaded by writer Paula Piedra in collaboration with Proyecto Semillas, an interdisciplinary group that promotes community social architecture and co-management of spaces through participative processes. They were invited by Paula to work in TEOR/éTica during 2017 and to rethink together our involvement in the neighborhood where we are located since 1999. We are afraid that Barrio Amon it might be in an early stage of gentrification and we would like to think about it too. At the same time, we are working on the archive, hoping to give the public access soon.

ACF: How will you do that?

ML: For the last three years, TEOR/éTica has been organizing its own archive that includes materials related to the history of the institution, to contemporary art practices from Central America and the Caribbean, but also to the artistic and curatorial work of Virginia Perez-Ratton. It’s amazing how much documentation exists, including manuscripts, correspondence, unpublished texts, photographs, audio interviews, and video documentations of public talks, among much more. We are digitizing all the material that we have. Our intention is to create a searchable database both digitally online and also physically at our space, and to create grants for people that are interested in working with the archive.

The reactivation of the editorial program is in some way related to that. We are trying to fill in some historical gaps. In 2016 we launched Local Writings. Critical Positions from Central America, the Caribbean and their Diasporas, that is a series of monographic bilingual books that collect key texts from a number of brilliant artists, writers, art historians, curators, and thinkers that contribute to re-energizing the art scenes in their contexts. The first two books were by Tamara Diaz-Bringas (Costa Rica/Cuba) and Adrienne Samos (Panama), and we are publishing books with Mari Carmen Ramírez (Puerto Rico) and Rosina Cazali (Guatemala) for 2017. We plan to publish at least ten books, two each year, written by the important thinkers and curators of the region.

Agítese antes de usar, co-edited with Renata Cervetto, co-published with MALBA. Series Local Writings. Critical Positions from Central American, the Caribbean and their diasporas. Photo: Daniela Morales.

 

ACF: That’s a lot! You must have a determined desire to produce them.

ML: Draw attention and providing global access to these critical local positions is crucial for us. It is important to acknowledge that there exists a rich and complex writing tradition that creates alternative readings of history and new possibilities for thinking. We also have a second series of publications that attempts to map essential debates in Latin America, which we started with a book about art and education that will be launched next month. This is a coproduction between TEOR/éTica and MALBA, which I’m coediting alongside Renata Cervetto, the Education Coordinator at MALBA. The book’s title is Shake it Well Before Use; it addresses educational, artistic, and social displacements related to how the social role of education and public dimension of art has changed over the last three decades in Latin America. It includes reprints and newly commissioned essays and interviews that we produced with local artists, educators, and activists.

ACF: And how have these publications been received? Are they being taught in or incorporated into academia?

ML: The books are very recent, but they are starting to gain traction. The problem, especially in Central America, is distribution. We don’t have any channels of distribution, so we usually have to distribute the books ourselves when we travel. We send them to specific libraries and museums where we would like them to be available. Of course, we do not aim to earn money from the publications; we just want to contribute to critical debate.

ACF: It’s very difficult to make money off of books. But that’s not the reason to make them. I hear similar concerns everywhere. There are so many wonderful publishing initiatives from museums, artists, and individuals, but distribution has not been globalized yet. You would think that it’s easier to ship a book than a human being because you don’t need a passport and visa, but there are similar boundaries, like customs, and shipping can be extremely costly for a small institution. This is why publishing online is also important. We spend so much time in front of our computers. But I guess I’m still a romantic; I love books and objects.

ML: I absolutely love printed books. It’s not the same reading a PDF, although I understand the environmental impact of paper in the world. But whether printed or digital, I see these publications as a way to reflect some concerns that drive TEOR/éTica’s work; that is activate spaces of learning and primary research into social, political and artistic shifts that occurred in the last decades. Publications are a tool to communicate how do we stand before contemporary art and culture.

ACF: It’s not often recognized as such, but publishing is a collaborative project where one works directly with the artist, contributors, editor, and graphic designer. Together, you create this document that can live on endlessly.

ML: Yes. I really enjoy making publications. Even the process of copy editing or translating is so rich. You learn more than just being a regular reader because you are reading very carefully and understanding the arguments. It’s really amazing.

ACF: One word can be an entire arch of a position or argument.

ML: And you can actually suggest a stronger way to say this - or to question that idea. And the exchange is so valuable!

ACF: A good editor is great. It’s like getting a haircut.

ML: Absolutely. I love hairdressers!

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Not New Now: Discussing the 6th Marrakech Biennale - Research - Independent Curators International

INDEPENDENT CURATORS INTERNATIONAL
Research

Not New Now: Discussing the 6th Marrakech Biennale

Not New Now: Discussing the 6th Marrakech Biennale

Edited by Julian Myers-Szupinska (Oakland, CA)
Originally published in ArtMargins, 12 September 2016

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The following dialogue took place on the occasion of Marrakech Biennale 6: Not New Now/Quoi de neuf là, (February 28-May 8, 2016), curated by Palestinian curator Reem Fadda. After visiting the biennial and attending a curatorial seminar organized by ICI, the journal The Exhibitionist staged a discussion with seminar participants María del Carmen Carrión, Mohamed Elshahed, Renaud Proch, Eszter Szakács and İpek Ulusoy. The conversation below ranges from discussions of contemporary art, craft, archaeology, and postcolonial therapy to politics and aesthetics across the Arab world, and is part of an ongoing collaboration between ICI and The Exhibitionist.

Julian Myers-Szupinska is Senior Editor of The Exhibitionist. María del Carmen Carrión is Director of Public Programs and Research of ICI. Mohamed Elshahed is a Cairo-based architect, independent researcher, writer, and Curator of the British Museum’s Modern Egypt Project. Renaud Proch is Executive Director of ICI. Eszter Szakács is a curator at the contemporary art organization tranzit.hu in Budapest. İpek Ulusoy is an independent curator and writer from Istanbul, Turkey, currently based in Dubai, UAE, and Managing Editor of ArteEast Quarterly.

Julian Myers-Szupinska: Should we consider the title? In English, it’s Not New Now, and roughly the same in Arabic.

Renaud Proch: The French title is Quoi de neuf là, which of course has nothing to do with “not new now.” Rather, What’s new here?

María del Carmen Carrión: Both could be said to make a claim about tradition and history.

JMS: This question brings me to the matter of how the exhibition’s various forms of framing and mediation read the works included. The exhibition was staged in various sites, including Bahia Palace, El Badi Palace, Menara Gardens, Dar Si Said Museum, and Koutoubia Mosque, as well as individual projects throughout the center of the city. Let’s describe our encounter with the exhibition—taking into account that we each took an individual path through it. Should we start with the exhibition at the Palais El Bahia?

RP: Yes. For me, Bahia was most substantial exhibition out of the five sites. This is partly because of the venue’s size and layout, which allowed for the curators to include more artists, and which enabled a certain level of ambition. The other venue that worked at this scale was El Badi, but maybe this venue felt a bit more sensational or spectacular, whereas Bahia was where Curator Reem Fadda’s key goal—to define contemporary creativity at the intersection of arts and crafts, and to root these conflicting definitions in a Moroccan context—unfolded most clearly.

JMS: Where, for you, did her premise start?

RP: It unfolded from the first point of encounter, the prologue, which was Eric Van Hove’s sculpture D9T (Rachel’s Tribute), 2015. This was then seen in context of the Casablanca School, an exhibition-within-an-exhibition curated by Salma Lahlou and Fatima-Zahra Lakrissa of Moroccan modernist artists. This group was arranged around a small courtyard, and then answered by Fadda’s arrangement of contemporary artists in ten rooms around a subsequent, larger courtyard.


Eric Van Hove, “D9T (Rachel’s Tribute),” mixed-media composite sculpture, 160 x 160 x 132 cm, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

So there was this sequence from Van Hove’s sculpture to the Casablanca School to the contemporary artists who supersede the Casablanca School’s modernist concerns. And so Van Hove’s work is both a prologue and a quick way of summarizing Fadda’s project, which is to stage a reconsideration of contemporary art practice, and to do so in a way that might be more diverse than what is being encouraged by the current systems of international contemporary art—art fairs, the market, and so on. We could see this gesture as one in line with curatorial moves made in the Venice Biennale in previous years, such as Massimiliano Gioni’s inclusion of outsider art in The Encyclopedic Palace in 2013, or Okwui Enwezor’s more global and diverse way of bringing contemporary creativity together in All the World’s Futures in 2015. I think this is what Van Hove’s work meant to signal. He built this modern object, a sort of abstracted engine, with traditional artisans using traditional skills.

Mohamed Elshahed: That makes sense in terms of the exhibition at Bahia. But does that argument apply to the other sites? Because if this was the argument, then the works at El Badi failed to contribute to it in the same way.

MDC: What do you think Badi was about?

ME: I’m trying to figure it out. It’s another piece of the puzzle the biennale proposed. I agree with Renaud about the argument at Bahia, but the exhibition at Badi Palace was much more about the monumental. Scale became an important issue.

MDC: It also seemed to be about archaeology.

ME: Archaeology and materiality. I think the individual sites mattered a lot. Seeing Al Loving in the rooms at Bahia, which are nothing like a white cube, was intimate. Whereas the works at Badi were not—they were largely outside, in a sort of ruined palace.

MDC: This is what allowed Bahia to offer more information—there were two sub-curated exhibitions within the larger ensemble—and a better sense of thematic connection among works. There, it was not only about the production of objects, but also of knowledge—this seems to be what Fadda is offering. But there were other entry points, like archaeology and the ruin at Badi and at the performance we saw at Menara. In these spaces, what Omar Berrada called “cultural silence” seems to be at issue, and trying to recover something that has been lost. And then at Koutoubia the subject of labor became the central issue, matters of immigration and the movement of workforces and the sort of dispossessions that result from that movement.

RP: It was a show about art and life and death. These various issues, like ruins, matter or labor, amounted to something quite visceral for me.

JMS: I was honestly less enthusiastic about the exhibition at Bahia than it seems the rest of you were. I agree that the framing there meant to posit the works as engaging with traditions that are lost, destroyed, and silenced, and that artists today can regain only in fragments. But I found the consistent reference to craft as what connected them with the past quite tricky. This ensemble of works included African-American artists Sam Gilliam, Al Loving and Melvin Edwards, and I understood the exhibition to read them, Edwards in particular, as producing not artworks but anthropological artifacts. In this context the works came across as fetishes or tribal objects. For me, this had the effect of erasing Edwards’ modernism. The works were presented as semi-inscrutable artifacts from “the past,” when in fact they were directly engaged with a modernist narrative: for Edwards, Pablo Picasso and Romare Bearden, the history of modernist sculpture and bricolage. The exhibition didn’t read them within this discourse at all, but instead as cult objects. This “nativizing” of the American artists felt troubling to me.

İpek Ulusoy: Why? Because of the hierarchies between art and craft presumed in a Euro-American context?

JMS: Maybe. Certainly the exhibition was attempting to perform a sort of revaluation of craft. But I think that in the last fifteen years craft has taken on a very different place in the contemporary art world, where it’s now the valued term. We no longer have a modernist high art against which craft is measured as secondary. And so an idea crucial to the historical moment in which the American artworks were produced went missing. And this slippage extended in different ways throughout the Bahia exhibition. There was a consistent attempt to build continuities between contemporary art and craft techniques in the Maghreb, a sort of dream of restoring or reuniting this genealogical line. I thought this argument was strained.

MDC: Can you point to a specific artist or ensemble where you felt this to be so?


Sam Gilliam, Installation view of untitled paintings, acrylic on propylene, ea. 457.2 x 1036.3 cm. All works 2011. Photo by Julian Myers-Szupinska. Courtesy of the author.

JMS: I thought that the rooms curated by Omar Berrada were the most successful at performing this connection, partly because they took an allegorical mode, one attuned to breaks or fragmentation with the past. They were thinking in terms of montage. But contrary to Renaud, I thought Van Hove’s work was unconvincing, and I thought Oscar Murillo’s room was troublesome. The latter was obviously not reaching back to any craft tradition in particular, but rather performing a vague or generic artifactual look—one that, I’ll add, is actually ubiquitous in the contemporary art world these days.

And as I’ve said, the way that the African-American artists were posed in terms of craft seemed to me odd. To locate Gilliam’s draped paintings in the context of a regained “craft” and “tradition,” removes him from a narrative of American abstraction that is his actual discursive home. I see Gilliam as working in parallel to someone like Lynda Benglis, among artists enacting a radical critique and expansion of the means of abstract modernist painting—foregoing painting’s rectangular window frame, expanding into a spatial surround, and so on. But that conversation disappeared in the biennale. Because he works with stained textiles, can Gilliam's work be so simply squared with craft? I see his art as more critical, modernistic, and future oriented.

MDC: This is the problem with reading Bahia only through the lens of a rapprochement between contemporary art and traditional or vernacular production. It’s much more interesting to think of Gilliam in connection with the Otolith Group, whose film In the Year of the Quiet Sun (2013) was screening across the same courtyard—that is, through a sort of dystopian and postcolonial lens.

JMS: I like that idea. But this speaks to a different problem I had at Bahia, which is that the architecture of the palace meant that relations among works were hard for the curators to stage. Everyone had a room, and works rarely occupied the same visual field. At least visually, each artist related to the ornamental decoration of the rooms they inhabited, rather than to other artworks. The exhibition worked best when, as in the rooms curated by Berrada, there was more contact, for example, between Yto Barrada’s banners (Applique Majdoub Flag, 2016) and Abderrahman al-Majdoub’s poems, or between works by Sara Ouhaddou and the vitrines with Ahmed Bouanani’s drawings and notes.

ME: That was one of the few spaces at Bahia where multiple artists were side by side.

MDC: This worked differently with the Mona Hatoum installation at Dar Si Said, which had an incredible, ethereal feedback with the museum.


Mona Hatoum, Installation view of “Baluchi (blue and orange),” wool, 135 x 240 cm, 2008. Photo by Julian Myers-Szupinska. Courtesy of the author.

JMS: Right, you were able to take in her burned rug and altered chair, against the museum’s throne for a married couple. But it brings up the question of how the exhibition at Dar Si Said fits into the Biennale’s argument as a whole. That ensemble of works is about domesticity, the married couple, children and the enclosed space of the home, which is actually quite distinct from the concerns being worked through at Bahia.

MDC: Dar Si Said is a museum that is falling apart, that is itself almost a ruin. So the idea was to create a sort of disruption to this quasi-ethnographic setting, and to read the museum’s holdings in a contemporary way.

RP: Julian, I want to go back to your point about Gilliam. Did you see his work as having been handled in too formalist a way?

JMS: It wasn’t formalist enough! Because I see formalism as central to the moves that Gilliam was making. Obviously different exhibitions can present work differently, and I thought that room looked great, but I thought the absence of the white cube made it hard to grapple with the meaning of Gilliam’s works. They just became décor.

RP: Just as obviously, though, this biennial didn’t have the option of showing the works in that way. It’s part of its structure that the show is going to happen in those spaces. There is no white cube to inhabit. And maybe that is part of what making a biennial in Marrakech should be, or simply is. These are the conditions that Fadda was given, and this should inflect how we evaluate her choices. We can’t just say, “How would this have looked in a white cube?” The Khalil Rabah installation at Dar Si Said, for example, had these clunky video monitors in front of a delicate mosaic. I don’t think it was just an exigency: “Well, that’s the space I have.” These connections and considerations were thoughtfully staged.

İU: Might those spaces, which were often quite overwhelming and intense in their own right, limit our access to those threads you see Fadda putting forward? As palaces, these spaces were designed to be stunning. And I found that the mosaics and gardens, with all their amazing and exotic details, sometimes made it difficult for me to separate out the works as such, much less to figure out their place in Fadda’s larger argument.

Eszter Szakács: Renaud, are you saying that the curatorial concept is, in a way, emanating from the site itself?

RP: I don’t think I’m not saying that. But I’m really just reflecting on Fadda’s position. She is coming from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a traditional institutional context, but was here asked to work in a context where the white cube simply doesn’t exist. And this context is one that comes along with specific ideas and connections.

ME: Why should we even be attached, at this point, to the white cube?

MDC: It’s important because of what İpek said—because the information of the site risks overwhelming the works included.

RP: But why does Gilliam’s work need to be divorced from context to be understood?

JMS: Look, I’m not exactly a staunch defender of the white cube. But the white cube, too, is a context with ideas and connections. And I wonder what happens when we take a form of work produced within a modernist tradition, and that relies for its meaning on a certain rhetoric of display, out of that rhetoric of display. Are Gilliam’s situational paintings simply bunches of stained fabric that can be placed anywhere, in relation to anything, and still make sense? Can they interact with any scenario without becoming just stuff? Is the work infinitely malleable or are there limits?

I had similar problems with the installation of the works by the Casablanca School; they were in rooms with all-over mosaics. Those mosaics were extremely complex, symmetrical, patterned—designed to create visual overload, and even send viewers into a state of trance. The Casablanca School paintings, by contrast, are asymmetrical, stylized and simplified in ways that their surrounding rooms are exactly not. They stage a different form of opticality. This is further complicated by the fact that the exhibition wanted to claim a line of genealogy, or at least a visual borrowing, from one to another. This contradicted what we were actually seeing!


Mohammed Chabâa, Installation view of “Composition,” cellulose paint on wood, 2.5 x 3.6 m, 1975. Photo by Julian Myers-Szupinska. Courtesy of the author.

ES: I want to pose a different question that may have bearing on this conversation. Who was the intended audience of this biennale? Was it us—foreign visitors? I understand, for example, that the Casablanca School’s recovery of North African design in the context of modernist painting can be understood as a political statement. But because this work and historical context is a new one for me, I found this politics fairly opaque. This might be easier to grasp for a local audience who can read between the lines.

İU: And there was not very much overall mediation—no catalog essay—that might have made these matters clearer. So we’re forced to read between the lines, even though we don’t have the requisite knowledge to do so confidently.

ES: This might speak to my own expectations and habits. I am searching for the political register, but not quite finding it.

JMS: If we think about the various sites as part of some overall, interlocked argument that Fadda was producing, Koutoubia was, for me, key. That was where the politics of the exhibition, which were about negotiating some political, subjective and aesthetic disposition to decolonization, were made clear.

İU: Can you describe that show?

JMS: I can, but first I want to address what you and Eszter said about mediation. The mediation for the show was all on the spot, in pamphlets that accompanied each artist’s work. This had certain practical problems. There was one case at Badi where wind blew all the pamphlets into a moat, and several cases where all the pamphlets had been taken, so we didn’t have an indication of who the artist was, much less framing information for why the work was there. This was especially tricky when the work itself was veering towards archaeological artifact or monument, or where it was not operating in a conventional relationship to its site. Moreover, as İpek said, Fadda and the other curators did not produce a text explaining their intentions. There was no catalog or general introduction, no general articulation of what the show intended to perform.

So a big responsibility was placed on viewers, not only to see most of a geographically dispersed exhibition in a labyrinthine city, but also to understand what they saw. That said, despite these limitations we can embrace that responsibility, and assemble some sort of interpretation from those experiences. I think, for example, that I disagree with Renaud that there is a primary site. Instead, I think we can imagine the exhibition as composed of five or six chapters, each constituting a distinct piece of the “argument.” For example, we’ve talked about the Bahia exhibition and its consideration of craft, artifact and the recovery of vernacular traditions. We’ve also talked about Badi and its approach to monumentality, archaeology and ruins. This means we then need to play out what subjects of the other chapters—Dar Si Said, Menara, and Koutoubia—might have been, in order to bring the biennale’s picture into view.

MDC: If we follow Renaud’s suggestion that the curatorial concept emanates from the site, Koutoubia is a striking example of that at work. Julian and I were searching for the exhibition and we could not quite believe it was in an underground space below the biggest mosque in the city. For the curators to exhibit in a mosque currently in use is a huge gesture. Of course the work on view there was highly political, but even just showing works in that space strikes me as radical. Though, as Eszter suggests, it’s harder to read that radicality into the other sites without knowing more about their resonance outside of the context of the biennale.

JMS: To give you a sense of Koutoubia, the works were on view in a sort of catacomb or cellar beneath a courtyard outside the mosque. There were two installations: a single-channel video, Kwassa Kwassa (2015), by the Dutch collective Superflex, and Reason’s Oxymorons (2015), eighteen videos screening simultaneously by Kader Attia. Kwassa Kwassa narrated a history of an island chain, the Comoro Islands, in the Indian Ocean. They are under French colonial rule, except for one island, Anjouan, that fought for independence from France. That island, though, did not have a working economy and, therefore, became very poor, and so the inhabitants would try to get to Mayotte, an island that is still governed by France and in better economic shape. These islands are, as Superflex puts it, the farthest edge of Europe, its farthest limit. At the same time, the visual narrative of the film is about the ocean, and people building from scratch little Fiberglas canoes—kwassa kwassas—to make the dangerous passage to Mayotte. We watch in great detail as these boats are built and then used to make an ocean crossing. It’s dangerous; many islanders die during this passage, and so the film shows the ocean as a graveyard, with an overturned boat as a sort of marker...


Superflex, Installation view of film “Kwassa Kwassa,” 2015. Photo by Samira Larouci. Courtesy of the author.

ME: So it’s not subtle.

JMS: No, one would not call it a subtle film. Nevertheless I think it was a very popular work, or that’s my impression, perhaps because it was so direct. I had some trouble with the way it filmed the manufacture of the boats.

MDC: You thought it was offensive.

JMS: I did. It was so fetishistically attentive to the boat construction. It showed the islanders stirring liquid Fiberglas, applying and splattering it. I thought there was a conscious attempt by Superflex to associate the making of the boats with making of artworks, with the application of paint. I found it very glib, if not grotesque.

MDC: You also said it was highly aestheticized. I hated that too. But I think this is also why it might be popular. It’s very compelling visually, and super high quality.

JDM: It had none of the hacked-together quality of the rest of the biennale. It’s incredibly sharp, even slick.

MDC: There’s an additional layer, as well. The film’s narrative refers to the myth of the beginning of Europe, a Phoenician woman named Europa who rides through the water to Greece on the shoulder of Zeus, who has taken the form of a white bull. And so Europe is imagined as being founded by such dangerous migrations, and Europe itself is named after Europa, one such “illegal immigrant.” This is an allegory for the political situation around immigration in Europe now.

JMS: So yes, a political allegory, if one that is unsubtle, highly aestheticized and super ambiguous. The Attia video installation was much better. It was in a parallel room, a long row of monitors with headphones and single seats, so you could watch one at a time. There were eighteen 20-minute loops of interviews with psychologists, anthropologists, and historians, a postcolonial elite, if you will. Each screen is about a specific topic—the project of translation, the psychoanalysis of colonized subjects, trauma therapy—an entire range of post-Fanon postcolonial psychology and political theory.

ME: It sounds belabored. Was it?

JMS: I thought so for the first two videos I watched. It seemed like what we were seeing was an elaborate body of research materials for Attia’s previous project Repair, which manifests in a slide show and sculptures. But after I sat through about eight, the different films began to add up in my mind to something more. They began to suture themselves into a larger constellation. I became increasingly aware not only of what the interviews were about, but also about the human beings who were being filmed, each describing their theories and inhabiting their bodies, constructing and repairing themselves through theorizing, and through language. It got more and more fascinating.

MDC: At the beginning I thought each film was about something different, and thematically they were, but in many cases, the same people were present. In one, they were talking about psychoanalysis; in another they were discussing labor. It was like a set of plays with the same actors playing new roles in each film.

ME: This kind of work makes me wonder again about audience. Who is it for? There are, of course, multiple ways to understand an artwork. But how do you take someone without much prior knowledge and put her in a room with eighteen monitors and say: “You need to spend about an hour to try to get what this is trying to tell you.”

MDC: People came in while we were watching and left without sitting down.

JMS: But the row of seats was mostly full when we were there. Every screen was being watched, so to move to the next I would have to wait until someone got up.

İU: And how would you relate those two works to the site, to the mosque?

JMS: I honestly didn’t think about the mosque once I was inside. What was more important was the fact that we were underground. It was a protected, secret area, to the side or behind the mosque, a space of secret knowledge. To return to your point, Mohamed, for me, the Attia was demanding; it demanded your time, but it rewarded that attention. And it also seemed to me as if it offered something like a rationale or theoretical backdrop for the entire exhibition.

MDC: How so?

JMS: It made clear that the exhibition is trying to think about Morocco’s relationship to its history of European colonization: the narrative of its struggles for independence and the foiling of that independence in the Years of Lead. The idealism of that anti-colonial struggle was immediately disappointed, and for decades Morocco became a place under a different sort of authoritarian rule. Its emergence from that period is recent and still incomplete. It remains a monarchy today. The exhibition happened “under the patronage of His Majesty King Mohammed VI,” as the website tells us. As a result, I think, the moment of independence has become hard to access emotionally, much less the deep past of the vernacular tradition. One can relate to the folk past or to the anticolonial past only as a ruin, only in fragments.

Attia’s work helps us think about this as a continuing condition. Many of the films are trying to think through the actual process of therapy for people who have lived through conditions of colonial violence and trauma. And overall the work suggests that the act of reconstellating and reassembling is the only way to make one’s way through it, at both individual and collective levels. Art has an important role in this. Attia’s work is a montage; it is, itself, an ordering of fragments. And this montage, or suturing together, happens not only onscreen but also in our individual minds.

MDC: This is important because it marks out the fact that this is a show not only about history, but also about the present. It is about our political moment. We have to think about Morocco’s geopolitical location—as a country not only connected to the Arab world, and close to Europe, but also to the South, to sub-Saharan Africa. There is a constant flow of people from south to north, who are stopped by the border, stranded here, and building a community of immigrants in this country.

JMS: This is key. No matter if I was frustrated by the Superflex work, what was important about Koutoubia was that it presented works that were not at all involved with the archaic or archaeological. They were very much directed at the present.

MDC: I agree. Postcolonial psychoanalysis is not only about a relation to France for the last 50 years, but is about the sans-papiers. Bouchra Khalili’s film Speeches – Chapter 3: Living Labor (2013), at Bahia, is also about undocumented workers from Mexico and Africa in the US. So alongside recovering history, or vernacular and craft forms, we have the present crisis. Otherwise, the exhibition would be too nostalgic, focused melancholically on lost moments.

JMS: The exhibition is most interesting if we see it as a meditation on the present.

ME: This is why I brought up the title Nothing New Now; these are carefully selected words for an exhibition of contemporary art.

MDC: I think it’s partly a reflexive thing, telling us that the biennial is not particularly concerned with showing us who is hot right now, the latest critical darlings.

ME: I want to think out the geopolitics of this in a different way. It’s an important gesture for Morocco to bring a curator who is based in the Gulf, working in the new Guggenheim, to the opposite end of the Arab world, and from one monarchy to another.

MDC: She is Palestinian.

ME: She is, but she is working outside that context. I think it’s just interesting that the poles of the Arab art world are in fact on its edges, while the Middle East has just fallen to shit. If you think about contemporary art in the region, it’s really Istanbul, far north, obviously the Gulf, then Morocco.

MDC: I think you’re underestimating how important Palestine is to Fadda. It’s as relevant to her practice as working at a big international institution. And the moments where this exhibition is most political come from that mental space.

ME: I think that we have to take account of how the Moroccan monarchy is trying to position itself. We have to think in terms of the Arab Spring, which largely did not happen here, or was suppressed more effectively than elsewhere. And so this exhibition has to be seen as a symbol of royal magnanimity, and also a bid for international prestige, in the wake of a revolution that didn’t take place.

JMS: How should that affect our understanding of the exhibition’s project, Mohamed? Any biennial is the product of multiple agendas—the government and the community, the curators and the artists. Are you suggesting that it is an act of bad faith or a declaration of innocence on the global stage? “Look, things aren’t so bad here as they are in Istanbul or Libya!” And even if this is true at some level, is it true for Fadda, for the artists, for Marrakech, for us?

ME: I don’t think I can answer that. But I was struck that it takes a certain kind of political and economic ability to achieve an exhibition like this in a city. The exhibition is not highly secured. Everyone can easily slip in and out. This would be unthinkable in Egypt today! And so there is a statement being made, implicitly at least, that “We’re OK.”

İU: I’m most curious about the reaction among the arts community here. I remember Berrada saying that the art scene in Marrakech can’t really be talked about in terms of continuing projects, that it is more about singular events. This biennale is, of course, another such event. However, there is such energy around it, and so many continuities with past artists being discovered and solidified, that I wonder if this condition might not shift things for the contemporary art community here and trigger new things.

JMS: This connects to what María said earlier. Is the exhibition describing something happening now? Does it reflect a kind of work currently being made in the region? Or is it isolating certain threads, like artists combining contemporary art with vernacular forms, artists working in archaeological aesthetic, in a propositional way? Saying, “This is what contemporary art from the Maghreb might look like?”

MDC: The latter. But the more important point is, going back to your reading of Attia’s work, understanding the whole situation in terms of decolonization. And I don’t think there is a single or linear argument here. The ideas of tradition, craft, vernacular styles, cultural memory, postcolonial psychotherapy, how moments of progress get interrupted and how their value might be recovered through research or fictional narratives all suggest actual possibilities for how people might sustain themselves and find ways to produce art in a place like this. How to endure civil war, how to live during a massive exodus of people trying to get to Europe.

JMS: We might end by talking about Tarek Atoui’s musical performance in a courtyard at Bahia, where he sat on rugs at the center of what Renaud described as Fadda’s contemporary response to the exhibition of the Casablanca School. Atoui performed twice at the center of this exhibitionary constellation, with the exhibitions of the Otolith Group, Murillo, Loving, and Gilliam sited around the perimeter. Although it was just a two-time event, I think we could test out the idea that Atoui’s performances were, nevertheless, the heart or “key” to the rest of that arrangement. How would we describe that performance and our experience of it?


Tarek Atoui, “Conjured Geographies,” performance, 2016. Photo by Julian Myers-Szupinska. Courtesy of the author.

ME: My first thought is that, maybe like the work of Attia, it was something that had to be engaged at its full length, which was more than an hour. He was manipulating samples of Moroccan trance music, and doing so in a way that was initially very abstract. Then at the end, when the drumming appeared in its clearest form, I thought “Oh! Have I been listening the whole time to a fragmented, manipulated, abstracted form of that?” Atoui was reworking these recordings through very modern processes. He was not simply recovering them in a nostalgic way, but remaking them completely. Had it been flipped around—had he begun with a clear reference that then disintegrated and become more abstract as we listened—it would have been a very different message.

MDC: Maybe it’s ridiculous to say so, but the moment the work made sense to me was when they served tea and cookies, because it emphasized that this was a communal experience and part of the hospitality of the place. Otherwise, we could have just been listening to a recording somewhere warmer. His performance was happening in real time, with these sounds reverberating among the different bodies present.

 


Tarek Atoui, “Conjured Geographies,” performance, 2016. Photo by Julian Myers-Szupinska. Courtesy of the author.

JMS: And we were in this circle of artworks, also there to bear witness. It helped me understand the exhibition’s take on their abstraction. That is, one has to pass through abstraction to finally allow the folk form, which was there all along, to reappear in the present. But this won’t happen through imitating the past; doing that, you just end up with folk art. To recover the past you need to tear it into pieces, in an almost violent way.

MDC: There was something so complex and yet so simple about Atoui’s approach, which was simply to teach us how to listen to the music of this place. I thought it was really successful.

İU: I’ve seen Atoui perform elsewhere, in Abu Dhabi for example, and it was a completely different experience. There, people were actually moving and dancing. This was a still, meditative experience. I think it was reminding us of different ways of learning or connecting with history through the body. It was a different sort of history writing, one I’d never considered before.

This dialogue took place in Marrakech in February 2016.

About The author

J. Myers-Szupinska

J. Myers-Szupinska is an art historian and editor based in Los Angeles. An influential scholar of contemporary art, space and exhibitions, Myers was founding faculty in the Curatorial Practice program at California College of the Arts, was senior editor for The Exhibitionist, a journal on exhibition making, and is part of the critical and curatorial collaboration grupa o.k. Myers’ essays have appeared in Afterall, Artforum, Fillip, Frieze, October, Tate Papers, as well as numerous exhibition catalogues. Recent publications include Hopelessness Freezes Time (2012), Sterling Ruby: Soft Work (2014), “After the Production of Space” (Critical Landscapes, 2015), and “Exhibitions as Apparatus,” (The Exhibitionist: The First Six Years, 2017). Initiated as a surprisingly popular Tumblr site in 2011, grupa o.k. has since produced projects for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, will publish grupa o.k.‘s image history of stages, titled Stagelessness, in 2019.


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Unofficial Art and Positive Forms of Resistance Today in Hungary - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research

Unofficial Art and Positive Forms of Resistance Today in Hungary

In 2016, ICI developed a new program, the Curatorial Seminar, designed to bring mid-career curators together to expand their thinking and advance new areas in curatorial discourse. Geared towards past participants of the Curatorial Intensive, the Seminar offers curators from around the world an unparalleled platform of exchange and discussion, and the opportunity to connect with other curators who share their concerns and research interests. This new program will further energize and leverage ICI’s dynamic network of Curatorial Intensive alumni that has grown to encompass 400 curators from more than 65 countries, bringing unique perspectives to the current evolution of curatorial discourse and practice.

Curatorial Intensive alum Eszter Szakács authored this text, following her experience during the Curatorial Seminar in Marrakech (February 28–March 1, 2016).

Participants included: Mohamed Kamal Elshahed (Cairo, Egypt), Fatima-Zahra Lakrissa (Marrakech, Morocco), Salma Lahlou (Marrakech, Morocco), Eszter Szakacs (Budapest, Hungary), and Ipek Ulusoy (Dubai, UAE). Discussion leaders included: María del Carmen Carrión (Director of Public Programs & Research, ICI), Julian Myers-Szupinska (Associate Professor of Curatorial Practice, CCA and Senior Editor, The Exhibitionist), Renaud Proch (Executive Director, ICI).

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Unofficial Art and Positive Forms of Resistance Today in Hungary

        In 1969, Victor Vasarely’s large-scale retrospective exhibition opened at the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest, for which the artist himself also traveled to Hungary. Vasarely—who was born in 1906 as Győző Vásárhelyi in Pécs, Hungary—emigrated in the 1930s to France where he was at the forefront of creating the movement of Op art. A parallel event was also carried out at the opening of this very Vasarely exhibition in 1969 in Budapest: Hungarian artist János Major (1934–2008) hid in his inner pocket and showed his acquaintances at the inauguration a small sign that read “Vasarely, go home.”1

        Why did this symbolic protest take place against the highly renowned artist and his exhibition in Hungary? While Vasarely became world famous, it is also pointed out today that by the end of the 1960s-1970s, his works were no longer viewed as revolutionary.2 Consequently, the invitation of Vasarely in 1969 by the Hungarian political establishment was not only anachronous in this sense, but was also a very peculiar move that directs us back to complex questions of cultural policy in Hungary, a member of the Eastern Block in the Cold War era, where the state is the fundamental sponsor of the arts.

        Cultural policy in the Kádár era (1956–1988) in Hungary centred around three principles: initiations were either supported (commissioned, funded, propagated), or tolerated (not provided funding and/or venue), or prohibited by the totalitarian state. While the borders of these three categories shifted and even conflated over time, they divided the cultural sphere into the coexisting “official” and “unofficial” scenes, which inherently meant a relation to the state as well. Synonyms for “unofficial art” frequently include within a Hungarian/Eastern European/post-communist context the similarly elusive concepts of underground or progressive art, Neo-avant-garde art, independent or alternative scene, as well as second publicity/second public sphere (in German: zweite Öffentlichkeit).3  In Hungarian, the very notion of “publicity,” “publicness,” or the public sphere (nyilvánosság) connects to the reclaiming or the subversive use of space, of making things public in art production still today is very much tied to this era. As curator-researcher Zsuzsa László underlined, however, the distinction between the official and the unofficial was made not solely on ideological grounds; it was dependent rather on the interests of those in power.4 Curator and writer Jelena Vesić likewise challenged “simplistic and clichéd” binaries given in art historical narratives of pre-1989 Eastern European art, such as official art (“art considered to develop in accordance with the dictates or at least support of the state”) and alternative art (understood as standing in direct contrast with the sate, ‘hiding’ in dark alternative spaces, artists’ apartments, or in nature, far away from the eyes of the “general public”).5  Consequently, the division between the official and the unofficial was part of a complicated system, rather than a creation of a simple opposition—to which Vasarely’s retrospective exhibition in Budapest in 1969 also attests.

 

Poster of Victory Vasarely’s exhibition at the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest, 1969

        Vasarely, an abstract artist, was thus given the most representative official art space in Hungary, the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, at a time when Abstract art—regarded also as a token of the “West”—was banned and not recognized by the state as part of the official art scene. The logic behind such a move, as art historian Edit Sasvári points out, was not more tolerance, but as Vasarely was considered a risk free, “acceptable face of Western modernism” and was also well-known in Hungary, his invitation pertained to a complex political project in the second half of the 1960s of integrating into the local canon Hungarian-born artists who made their careers in Western Europe.6  The Hungarian regime’s “cultural repatriation” of Vasarely—who likewise received at that time an honorary membership and soon two museums dedicated to him in Hungary, and who himself also sought relations with Hungary, for his own reasons—also connected, among others, to the state’s promotional image-building efforts in the West, catered towards to the numerous Hungarian exiles living abroad as well.7  It is no wonder that the story of Vasarely in Hungary, which is further expanded with the anecdote of János Major’s undocumented protest action, was taken as a point of departure in the Vasarely Go Home exhibition project by Austrian artist of Hungarian descent Andreas Fogarasi, who himself is interested in general how politics deplores art and culture.8  Similarly to the dual focus of Fogarasi’s project, some of the current art historical and curatorial research into pre-1989 Eastern European art also highlight the importance of looking at both the official and the unofficial art scenes, as well as their interplay, instead of previous endeavors’ attention to (reconstructing) the unofficial art scene in socialist Hungary and Eastern Europe.9

       In contemporary Hungary, while the main funding of the arts still comes from the state, and a small but increasing private or individual sponsorship is present, a newly formed dissent towards the state—and hence a much more pronounced division than in the 1990s or early 2000s—is tacit in the local contemporary art scene. Since the current Fidesz government took to power in 2010, their actions can be characterized by, to a various degree but not unlike other right-wing powers and tendencies today within and outside of the European Union: authoritarian policies, centralization, abuse of power, corruption, anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, nationalism, or historical revisionism. In terms of the arts and the emergence of a (polarizing) cultural policy, a new dominating institution was established in 2011, the so-called Hungarian of Academy of Arts (MMA). It was formerly, since the early 1990s, only a private association of conservative artists, but was pronounced a public body as the Hungarian Parliament passed it into law.10  While an outstanding concentration of state funding, the ownership of a few highly prestigious public assets were transferred to the Hungarian of Academy of Arts—the ownership of the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle being one of them—and as it now presides over almost all of the allocation of state funds for the arts, the Academy has not yet been able to exert a serious or cohesive program.11  Likewise, already existing (e.g., Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art Budapest) or recently re-named or re-purposed (e.g., the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center) continue to do work. While there are a few, usually smaller-scale state funded institutions (e.g., the Kassák Museum) which are still able to run a critical program that can also be contextualized within the international contemporary art world, the most prestigious state-funded art institutions operate more on ideology and party politics. Appointing directors and looking over institutional programs and missions have always been a question of politics, since 1989, however, it is the lack of concern for—again, internationally understood—professional criteria.

        Beginning from around 2012, the first responses of members of the local art scene—who oppose the curtailing of art’s institutional infrastructure that has been (re)built up in the last 25 years, and who do not support the agenda of the Hungarian of Academy of Arts—were demonstrations, protests, or civil disobedience actions. Free Artists, a group of university students and teachers in the arts, artists, art historians, theoreticians, curators, and civilians, were the first ones to organize actions.12  The most outstanding moment in these early protest movement within the art field was, however, the so-called Ludwig Stairs. Under the group name of United for Contemporary Art (also including the Free Artists), various cultural workers occupied the main stairs inside of the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest in 2013, demanding institutional autonomy as well as transparency and professional dialogue in the highly questionable selection procedure the government generated around the institution’s then upcoming director.13

 

Ludwig Stairs occupation, United for Contemporary Art, Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, May 2013. Photo by Gabriella Csoszó/FreeDoc

        While these events and processes resemble in some respects to earlier times in Hungary, the context and the mechanisms of power/repression are now very different. No initiations today are banned or subjected to be juried, i.e., ask for permission before opening to the public (as it was previously the case). Yet, the control of today’s regime is discernable through the heavy polarization of the local art scene along political lines, and often self-censorship, as well as a frequent sense and form of illegality when disputing and taking a stand against the dictates of the government. Furthermore, as various modes of self-organization seem to emerge as a way to work outside of the state infrastructure, it is also worth referring once again to Jelena Vesić’s essay on research into self-management, self-organization, and opposition to the state in Yugoslavia in the 1960s-‘70s, as she questions the actual political possibility of these notions in current neoliberal times.14 That is, as self-management in Yugoslavia traversed both the unofficial and the official spheres, today, as a highly valorized—also understood as critical—modus operandi of cultural workers in general, self-organization (also as self-exploitation and self-precarization) has likewise been co-opted by neoliberal capitalism as a form of production. How can one then oppose or be critical of the institutionalized establishment? Also, how to navigate in the Hungarian art scene today when any action is, or can politically be, heavily charged, begging a series of moral questions whenever an invitation or an opportunity arises? Also, how to function in an art scene that has only a tradition of state funding, and now private or civil funding, albeit not dominant, but currently seem to offer almost the only possibilities for critical art practices? These are some of the questions and dilemmas that underlie the context in which today’s critical/“progressive” initiations in Hungary are emerging.

        The protest actions of 2012-2013 were important moments, as they pointed out the abuses of power in culture; nevertheless, they did not have much transformative effect in terms of society at large or in terms of results of negotiation attempts with the government. It was around 2014, when a tipping point can be seen in the very tactics of resistance: a transition from symbolic actions and a direct opposition to power to building something more sustainable and proactive, as a way forward, that manifests a kind of “positive resistance.”15  In this sense, the Action Day series initiated by the Budapest-based art organization tranzit.hu—where I work as a curator and that is supported by the private ERSTE Foundation—can be considered a transitional moment within the shift in the forms of resistance. Action Day was a series of discussion forums, taking place each month for a year, from April 2013 to April 2014. Through the involvement of activists, it was an attempt for facilitating, among others, community building and democratic forms of decision-making processes in (and beyond) the local art scene, with the hope of developing coalitions, alternates, efficient advocacy and actions that oppose and circumvent the state-directed reordering of art’s previous infrastructure. Even though participants of the forums were only active as long as the Action Day occasions were provided for as a program at tranzit.hu’s space, it was, at that moment, a quite radical form of trying to bring people together on a horizontal platform for a common cause.16

 

Action Day, Mayakovsky 102, the open office of tranzit.hu, Budapest, 2013. Photo by Zoltán Kerekes

        Another project that can be considered to embody this positive form of resistance was the first edition of the OFF-Biennale Budapest in 2015. It was a grassroots initiative that emerged from the collaboration of many different actors of the contemporary art scene in Hungary, and also involved numerous international participants, mostly from the Central-East European region. From a local point of view, it was an outstanding project as, amidst the problematics of the art scene in Hungary, it was able to bring art professionals together—all working pro bono, out of enthusiasm— and it allowed for a new sense of a horizon and a network of solidarity to emerge. The one-month biennale functioned as an umbrella organization that united in one, decentralized framework and concerted communication more than 160 exhibitions and 200 events in 136 venues. In spite of the rigorous efforts of the many art practitioners involved to build up a non-traditional biennial, its organization unavoidably necessitated unresolved issues as well—for instance, the contradictions between democratic and hierarchal forms of modus operandi, the lack of a well-articulated program/theme, questions of sustainability, or the distribution of available funds.

        As a political statement, the OFF-Biennale in 2015 was organized without any state funding and in venues that received no financial support from the state. Subsequently, most of the projects were realized with modest budgets or DIY ways, and the venues across Budapest included, besides non-state funded art spaces, for instance private apartments, a power plant, a former post office building, or an outdoor bar. The OFF-Biennale Budapest did not have any institutional support either; it did not have logistical-infrastructural backing, there was no institution behind it. The main financial sponsors were non-Hungarian civil funds (70%) and private individuals (30%) of the overall budget of HUF 40 000 000 (approximately USD 143 747), and some projects received additional funding from cultural institutions or in-kind sponsorship. As the majority of financial support came from civil funds, the biennale was also geared toward looking at “how art contributes to the development of civil society.”17  Overall—while the second 2107 iteration of the OFF-Biennale Budapest is under way—the first edition in 2015 was a major achievement: not so much because of the art projects it was able to realize, but because it was able to bring them together in way that sought out strategies of working together outside and beside the state-run art infrastructure. It is for this reason that Svetlana Boym’s theory of the Off-modern—of imagining “side alleys,” “lateral potentialities,” and “third ways”—served as the basis of naming the initiative.18

 

Horizontal Standing, exhibition at Népszínház utca 19. (a private apartment). Photo by The Orbital Strangers Project/OFF-Biennale Budapest Archive

        The other pivotal project that can be regarded as a positive form of resistance, or as seeking a “third way,” is the so-called Living Memorial, ongoing since 2014. It started as a demonstration in March 2014, organized by a group of contemporary artists (again including also the Free Artists) as well as various individuals working in culture and humanities-related fields, against the plans of a monument the government ordered to commemorate the victims of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 and the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. The plan for the monument—which was eventually erected in July 2014—depicts Archangel Gabriel as innocent Hungary who is about to be attacked form above by an eagle symbolizing Nazi Germany. From the beginning, when the plans started surfacing, as well as during its construction, several groups, including what is now called the Living Memorial, started protesting against the monument as it reifies a falsifying history. It portrays Hungary as falling prey to Nazi Germany, and does not acknowledge the country’s contributing role in the Holocaust, and does not make any differences between victims and perpetrators in Hungary.19

       The flash mob demonstration that the Living Memorial group organized aimed first to symbolically occupy and quasi consecrate the designated and otherwise meaningless site (beside an entrance to an underground parking lot at Liberty Square) of the then would-be monument by inviting people to place their objects of personal memories there (e.g. pebbles, candles, photos, etc.).20  The hope was that the authorities would not dare to remove the objects, and hence it would complicate the erection of the monument.21 Soon, another, more confrontational strategy also evolved that included placing a chair and the constant physical presence of a person sitting on it that would likewise make the completion of the statue harder.22 While several different, overlapping demonstration phases (and also other demonstrations) took place, a regular discussion circle also emerged on the Square: the “living cultivation of memory,” that is the so-called “Living Conversions” of the Living Memorial, of sharing personal memories and experiences.23  As it was pointed out, one of most important aspects of the Living Memorial was that the initiators did not assume the perspective of victimhood, and emphasized instead that Hungarian society at large needs to self-critically reflect on the Holocaust and on the past, not only the Jewish community.24

 

Living Conversation. In the background is the monument to the victims of the German occupation by Péter Párkányi Raab, August 15, 2014. Photo by Béla B. Molnár

        The series and the logistics of the discussions/programs (providing sounds or chairs, building a winter pavilion, etc.) continue to be organized—relentlessly since 2014—and not only in Budapest, by a very active cross-generational group of diverse backgrounds, who also arrange for themselves self-educative, training workshops.25  Even though the Living Memorial group comprises and is able to address/mobilize only a small group of people, it has achieved a lot, not only in terms of the fact that the monument has not been inaugurated by the state since its installment. The Living Memorial was able to go beyond a simple opposition and protest against the state to focus instead on constructing a horizontal, dialogue-based and social sphere that can facilitate at meaningful discussion of opposing views. As Balázs Byron Horváth, a Living Memorial member underscored, the partner of these discussions is no longer the power, but the people themselves: one of their main objective is to teach and learn to organize civil life in society.26

        In seems that projects such as the Living Memorial or the OFF-Biennale Budapest depend on the commitment, enthusiasm, and political awareness of individuals—“professional” and “civilian.” It is more than self-organization; in order to run these highly demanding projects, the people involved usually need to re-organize their lives to a degree that borders self-exploitation, and of course not everybody can do that. These positive forms of resistance, moreover, are not institutional critique: they go beyond “complaining”; their wish is not to return or reform previous infrastructures, rather, to imagine and build up something without it. It is not mere escapism either, as these initiations act as quasi public institutions and perform public functions, such as the support of critical art practices or revisiting the country’s troubled past.

 

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Footnotes:
1.  See more about it in the publication of the Vasarely Go Home project by artist Andreas Fogarasi: Franciska Zólyom ed. Andreas Fogarasi—Vasarely Go Home. Leipzig – Zürich: Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst – Spector Books – Museum Haus Konstruktiv, 2014.
2.  See for instance, Edit Sasvári, “Cultural Repatriation as Political Strategy—Victor Vasarely and Kádár-Era Hungary.” Franciska Zólyom ed. Andreas Fogarasi—Vasarely Go Home. Leipzig – Zürich: Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst – Spector Books – Museum Haus Konstruktiv, 2014: 63–64.
3.  See more about “unofficial art” and the “second public sphere” in general in Hungary, in, among others: Hans Knoll ed. Die zweite Öffentlichkeit. Kunst in Ungarn im 20. Jahrhundert. Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1999; János Sugár, “Schrödinger’s Cat in the Art World.” IRWIN ed. East Art Map. London: Afterall, 2006: 208-212; the website built around the conference Performing Art in the Second Public Sphere, http://www.2ndpublic.org/; Dóra Hegyi and Zsuzsa László, “How Art Becomes Public” László Zsuzsa ed. Parallel Chronologies, 2011, http://tranzit.org/exhibitionarchive/; as well as Barbara Dudás, “Polite Quietness—Current Trends in Eastern European Art History.” Mezosfera, Aug 11, 2016, http://mezosfera.org/polite-quietness/.
4.  László Zsuzsa’s unpublished manuscript, 2014.
5.  Jelena Vesić, “Post Research Notes. (Re)serach for the Ture Slef-Managed Art.” Paul O’Neill, Mick Wilon eds. Curating Research, London: Open Editions, Amsterdam: De Appel: 118–119.
6.  Edit Sasvári, Ibid, 63, 67.
7.  Sasvári, Ibid, 64–70.
8.  The exhibition was produced for the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid in 2011, and it was shown at the Trafó Gallery in Budapest (2012), at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig (2014), as well as at the Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zürich (2014).
9.  For instance, curators and researchers László Zsuzsa or Beáta Hock.
10.  See more on this, among others, Edit András, “Vigorous Flagging in the Heart of Europe: The Hungarian Homeland under the Right-Wing Regime.” e-flux Journal No. 57,09/2014, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/vigorous-flagging-in-the-heart-of-europe-the-hungarian-homeland-under-the-right-wing-regime/; József Mélyi, “Collective Time Travel Without a Future” Mezosfera, April 9, 2016, http://mezosfera.org/collective-time-travel-without-a-future/; Barnabás Bencsik, “The Steamroller Advances Relentlessly. The National Salon at the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest.” Mezosfera, April 10, 2016, http://mezosfera.org/the-steamroller-advances-relentlessly/.
11.  See especially Bencsik, Ibid.
12.  See on the website that collects information about various protests against the Hungarian Academy of Arts and current cultural politics in Hungary: https://nemma.noblogs.org/category/free-artists/.
13.  See more about the Free Artists and the Ludwig Stairs in Edit András, Ibid, as well as Edit András, “Hungary in Focus: Conservative Politics and Its Impact on the Arts. A Forum.” Artmargins, September 17, 2013. http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/interviews-sp-837925570/721-hungary-in-focus-forum.
14.  Vesić, Ibid, 114–133.
15.  My understanding of a positive form of resistance is also inspired, to a certain degree, by Vienna-based philosopher and art theorist Gerald Raunig’s concept of “instituent practice.” As Raunig put it (in relation to a third phase of institutional critique): “Figures of flight, of dropping out, of betrayal, of desertion, of exodus: these are the figures that several authors advance as poststructuralist, non-dialectical forms of resistance in refusal of cynical or conservative invocations of inescapability and hopelessness. With these kinds of concepts Gilles Deleuze, Paolo Virno and others attempt to propose new models of non-representationist politics that can be turned equally against Leninist concepts of revolution aimed at taking over the state and against radical anarchist positions imagining an absolute outside of institutions, as well as against concepts of transformation and transition in the sense of a successive homogenization in the direction of neo-liberal globalization. In terms of their new concept of resistance, the aim is to thwart a dialectical idea of power and resistance: a positive form of dropping out, a flight that is simultaneously an ‘instituent practice.’” Gerald Raunig, “Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming.” Gerald Rauning and Gene Ray eds. Art and Contemporary Critical Practice—Reinventing Institutional Critique. London: Mayflower Books, 2009: 8.
16.  Another project that can be mentioned is Outer Space, organized by art critic József Mélyi and curators Eszer Kozma and Márton Pacsika. It was a series of exhibitions by Hungarian artists every week realized just outside of the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, in response and in protest to the fact that the ownership of Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle was handed over to the Hungarian Academy of Arts. See the project’s website: http://www.kivultagas.hu/
17.  Press anouncment on e-flux: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/off-biennale-budapest-2015/.
18.  Svetlana Boym, Architecture of the Off-Modern. New York: Columbia University and Princeton Architectural Press, 2008: 4.
19.  See also more on this: Edit András, Ibid (2014).
20.  Dóra Hegyi, “Turning a Non-Place into a Place. An Interview with Members of the Living Memorial.” Dóra Hegyi, László Zsuzsa, Zsóka Leposa eds. War of Memories—A Guide to Hungarian Memory Politics. Budapest: tranzit.hu, 2015: 81.
21.  Dóra Hegyi, Ibid, 81.
22.  Dóra Hegyi, Ibid, 82.
23.  Dóra Hegyi, Ibid, 90.
24.  Anita Gócza, “Tétje lett ennek az egésznek” – Az Eleven Emlékmű két éve, Artportal, April 24, 2016, http://artportal.hu/magazin/kozugy/tetje-lett-ennek-az-egesznek-az-eleven-emlekmu-ket-eve
25.  As one of the Living Memorial members, Balázs Byron Horváth recounted in an informal meeting with me in May 2016.
26.  Anna Lénárd, Körbejárok – Beszélgetés a diszkusszív térről Horváth Balázs Byronnal. Balkon 3/2015: 16.

About The author

Eszter Szakács

Eszter Szakács (1983) is a curator at the contemporary art organization tranzit.hu in Budapest, which is part of the East-Central European network tranzit.org. At tranzit.hu, since 2011, she curated the project of The Pseudo Race Group Liberagility (2012), Theodoros Zafeiropoulos’s exhibition (2014), and since 2012 she is the curator-editor of the ongoing collaborative research project Curatorial Dictionary that has been realized as an online dictionary and an accompanying exhibition (2013), a participating video project (Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module, New Museum, New York, curated by tranzit.org, 2014), a series of short essays published in Curating Research (Eds. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, London: Open Editions, Amsterdam: de Appel, 2014), as well as a tranzit.hu Free School for Art Theory and Practice workshop (2015). She is co-editor of IMAGINATION/IDEA. The Beginning of Hungarian Conceptual Art. The László Beke Collection, 1971 (Budapest: tranzit.hu, Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2014). Previously she worked at Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest as an assistant curator (2008–2010). Since 2013 she is a guest lecturer at the Art Theory and Curatorial Studies Department at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. Since 2013 she has been collaborating with Athens-based artist Theodoros Zafeiropoulos on the Quest of Query project and has curated its exhibition chapters at tranzit.hu, Budapest (2014); Deák Erika Gallery, Budapest (2014); Center of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki (2015); and Nitra Gallery, Thessaloniki (2015).


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The Only Way Out Is Back In: Notes on the Center-Margin Dyad - Research - Independent Curators International

INDEPENDENT CURATORS INTERNATIONAL
Research

The Only Way Out Is Back In: Notes on the Center-Margin Dyad

Originally published February 25, 2016 on The Exhibitionist blog

Curatorial Intensive alum Eszter Szakács reflects on Terry Smith's "Provincialism Problem" from the vantage point of Central and Eastern European art. This post is part of an ongoing collaboration between Independent Curators International and The Exhibitionist to feature writing by participants of ICI’s Curatorial Intensives.

Szabolcs KissPál. Amorous Geography (still), 2012. Courtesy the Artist.

        In 1974 the Australian art historian Terry Smith published a pivotal essay, “The Provincialism Problem,” as a feature article in Artforum.1 In it, Smith, who by that point had spent several years in New York, painted a somewhat dire picture of the modus operandi of the (New York) art world and the metropolitan-provincial dyad that held sway at the time. Thinking back to Smith’s influential article as a point of departure allows us to revisit some central though open questions that have reemerged in connection with our contemporary art world, forty years on: What is the relation between centers and margins, the global and the local? To what extent is geopolitics (still) a viable interpretive framework for contemporary art and curatorial practices?

        Smith defined provincialism as “an attitude of subservience to an externally imposed hierarchy of cultural values” that resides in people and places outside New York, and is reinforced by most agents of the art world in New York. According to this model, transmission moves only in one direction: norms to be followed and values to be assimilated originate in the metropolis and radiate in concentric circles toward the provinces. These standards reach the outskirts at a considerable delay and arrive devoid of their original context.

        This hierarchical understanding of relationships between regional and international art, its practices and histories, still resonates in today’s globalized art world—an art world that also, paradoxically, capitalizes on cultural difference. I would argue that the art world’s “provincialism problem” has not disappeared, but has rather transformed. The metropolitan-provincial dichotomy is no longer as polarized as Smith portrayed it in 1974, and the interrelations of different regions are much more complex than any one-way model of power politics. From today’s perspective, what seems to be missing from Smith’s argument is precisely the potential benefit of a marginal position: the possibility of critique, deconstruction, and finding another way (out).

        In his seminal writings on the history of Central and Eastern European art, the Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski analyzed center-margin relations from a broader critical perspective. In his books In the Shadow of Yalta and Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, he demonstrates that modern art of the margin (he prefers this term to periphery) emerged, undeniably, using models coming out from the “center.” Nevertheless, the outcome was more than just influence and imitation. Seeing this marginal position as an “analytic advantage,” he argues that the objective of writing the (missing) history of Eastern European art practices should not be to integrate them into the universal canon of Western art history, but rather to question this universalizing and homogenizing paradigm. That is, instead of what Piotrowski refers to as a “vertical art historic narration” that is based on the interpretation of the center-margin relation as a hierarchical and polarizing form of one-way communication—the model Smith also identified—he calls for a different paradigm: that of a “horizontal” or “comparative” art history. He argues that by drawing on localities and creating a “critical art geography,” one can move beyond concentrating on form and style to attend to the analysis of the particular meaning of artworks in specific contexts—meanings that would otherwise be lost in the universalizing perspective of Western art history.

        Ultimately, Piotrowski’s work underscores the need for a more egalitarian point of view for understanding art in different regions of the world. He proposes that this “global perspective” can be best accomplished through the comparison of art practices in similarly marginalized regions that share comparable historical and political changes, such as Eastern Europe, South America, and South Africa. Working with this idea of non-centrality, Piotrowski then puts forward the concept of “provincializing the West.” When we do this, the West can also be seen as the Other, and can therefore be thought of as one of many regions in the art world. As perhaps a way forward, in one of his last interviews Piotrowski expanded on how to analyze the significance of “Western influence.” Taking as an example the context of art in India in the 1920s, he noted: “The question now is not one of influence, but how European modern art has been used in order to create Indian art. And this sort of art, paradoxically, has been used to decolonize India.”2

        What is still missing from the general discourse around correlations of the local and the global, however, is the perspective of the “center,” which at times has difficulties of its own with regard to its central position. One of the many reasons that the ICI’s Curatorial Intensive in New York was especially formative for me was that it allowed me to realize that the center also has issues. While the margin works to understand its art history on its own terms, the center grapples with the question of how to represent art from various regions in a democratic and truly transcultural way without relying on generalizations and reifications. That is, the center likewise reflects on its own status, particularly in the field and history of curatorial practice, as underlined by Kate Fowle’s frequently asked question: What does it mean to be international today?

        These questions about how international or global discourses are used and understood within the practices of specific geographical and geopolitical regions are central to my current research and role as curator-editor of the Curatorial Dictionary project at the contemporary art organization tranzit.hu in Budapest, Hungary (itself part of the East-Central European network tranzit.org). The dictionary project will attempt to simultaneously outline contemporary art-curatorial practices and concepts in Eastern Europe and position itself in a broader international arena. While the project continues to evolve, I believe that there is also a need to move beyond the vertical and horizontal perspective, into a more dialogic approach that helps in understanding and navigating the local-global dyad. In my opinion, the relationship between the center and the margin is a dynamic, interdependent, and complex one. The margin cannot close on itself. It has to be in dialogue with the center—not to find legitimization, but to be critical, to see and expose the blind spots that exist everywhere.

Footnotes:
1.  Terry Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” Artforum 13, no. 1 (September 1974): 54–59.
2.  Richard Kosinsky, Jan Elantkowski, and Barbara Dudás, “A Way to Follow: Interview with Piotr Piotrowski,” Artmargins, January 29, 2015, http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/758-a-way-to-follow-interview-with-piotr-piotrowski.

About The author

Eszter Szakács

Eszter Szakács (1983) is a curator at the contemporary art organization tranzit.hu in Budapest, which is part of the East-Central European network tranzit.org. At tranzit.hu, since 2011, she curated the project of The Pseudo Race Group Liberagility (2012), Theodoros Zafeiropoulos’s exhibition (2014), and since 2012 she is the curator-editor of the ongoing collaborative research project Curatorial Dictionary that has been realized as an online dictionary and an accompanying exhibition (2013), a participating video project (Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module, New Museum, New York, curated by tranzit.org, 2014), a series of short essays published in Curating Research (Eds. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, London: Open Editions, Amsterdam: de Appel, 2014), as well as a tranzit.hu Free School for Art Theory and Practice workshop (2015). She is co-editor of IMAGINATION/IDEA. The Beginning of Hungarian Conceptual Art. The László Beke Collection, 1971 (Budapest: tranzit.hu, Zurich: JRP|Ringier, 2014). Previously she worked at Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest as an assistant curator (2008–2010). Since 2013 she is a guest lecturer at the Art Theory and Curatorial Studies Department at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. Since 2013 she has been collaborating with Athens-based artist Theodoros Zafeiropoulos on the Quest of Query project and has curated its exhibition chapters at tranzit.hu, Budapest (2014); Deák Erika Gallery, Budapest (2014); Center of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki (2015); and Nitra Gallery, Thessaloniki (2015).


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Leah Gordon & Andre Eugene Report on Trinidad, Part 2 - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research

Leah Gordon & Andre Eugene Report on Trinidad, Part 2

Recipients of the 2015 CPPC Travel Award, Leah Gordon and Andre Eugene, share their experiences from their research trip to Trinidad in September 2015 (Part 2 of 2).

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Wednesday 15th September

We went to visit performance artist Tracey Sanker, who has studio space at Granderson Lab in Belmont in Port of Spain. Granderson is a satellite space from Alice Yard; it has about five artists working upstairs in the studio space and also holds screenings, shows, and performances there. Much of Sanker’s current work is based around variations of traditional carnival characters, as opposed to the bikinis and sequins or the larger production spectacular mass outings of costumes organized by workshops such as Peter Minshall’s place. She does a number of different masquerades including one that has been informed by the Vodou spirit Erzulie Dantor that she calls Ladablisse.

When asked if she identified as a contemporary artist or as a carnival performer, she replied that she embraces it all. She identifies as a contemporary artist as much of her work deals with contemporary dance and costume design, but it is fused with carnival characters and story telling. Again I was finding another artist embracing the carnival but the most radical aspect of her work, in my opinion, was to grasp it back from the masses, the state and the commercial, and instead make it private, emotional and reference the traditional, historical carnival.

(Tracey Sanker)

Maria Numes works as a photographer and documents the traditional carnival. She offered to drive us up in the mountains to Paramin: this is a village located on one of the highest points of western area of the Northern Range in Trinidad. It is a sprawling, steep and mountainous village whose residents have traditionally been farmers, producing herbs like chives, thyme and parsley, as well as vegetables like tomatoes and yams. Paramin is where the descendants of the French Creole migrants still live who came to Trinidad from 1792.

We visited a small bar on the steep journey into the mountains. Eugene and I could speak to the older generation we met there in Kreyol, although they mentioned that since the paved road had been built into the area the younger members of the community are speaking less and less Kreyol. But this, as we had seen in Kim Johnson’s film, was still the crucible for the carnival traditions which had a lot of resonance with the characters we see on the streets of Jacmel in Haiti.

Maria took us to meet two members of the blue devils, who have similarities with the Lanse Kod of the Haitian Jacmel tradition. The blue devils are a form of the Jab Molassi, who cover their bodies in molasses, but in the case the mixture has blue laundry tablets added to produce the intense blue coloring. We met with Steffano Marcano and Jeron Pierre, both in their twenties, who live and farm in the mountains and keep the blue devil tradition alive. They feel that they have an ancestral precedent and legacy that they must honour. Also it is a form of creativity and reinvention and each year they feel that they have to stretch their performance, the movements, the dances, and the characters. So they believe that this is not a static art form at all.

(Maria Numes)

(Steffano Marcano)

That evening we were invited onto Talk City 91.1 FM with with Shabaka Kambon (son of Khafra Kambon, central figure in the Black power movement of the 1970s). We discussed the research and the demonization of Haiti within the Caribbean region; Shabaka spoke about honouring the legacy of the Haitian revolution. We also discussed the situation in the DR but not without recognising that Haitian citizens are the only members of Caricom who have to apply for a visa to come to Trinidad, and Eugene was close to being turned down without a diplomatic intervention.

(with Shabaka Kambon at Talk City 91.1 FM)

Thursday 17th September

We drove to visit Shalini Seereeram's studio in central Trinidad, an Indian-Trinidadian area. Seereeram is a multi-media artist/sculptor. She showed us her studio and work.

(artist Shalini Seereeram)

Friday 18th September

We met with Sean Leonard who showed us Alice Yard, which is the backyard space of his family’s house in Woodbrook, Port of Spain.

Alice Yard is administered and curated by architect Sean Leonard, artist Christopher Cozier, and writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin. Alice Yard is “a space for creative experiment, collaboration, and improvisation.” They also run a residency and we found that the Haitian artist Tessa Mars was scheduled to start a three-month residency the next month. Again we discovered a link to carnival in that most carnival steel pan groups are organized via community and neighbourhood groups called panyards. The yard in one way refers to the enclosed space where they rehearse but also refers to a grassroots form of collective creative organizing. We saw the residency space, accommodation, and the eponymous yard where the collective dialogues, screenings, talks, performances and interventions take place.

(Sean Leonard)

(Alice Yard)

In the evening Eugene and I had an exhibition of our work, sculpture, tire cut outs and photography (of the Haitian carnival) at a commercial gallery called Softbox. We were invited to give a talk about the Ghetto Biennale and screened a film about Atis Rezistans. This was really well attended and a good social way of saying goodbye to Trinidad.

(Softbox exhibition)

Saturday 19th September

The next day, we met dancer and choreographer Makeda Thomas, who talked about the complexities of cultural exchange between Haiti and Trinidad due to the economic disparity. She traveled to Haiti to collaborate with a number of different dance troupes and choreographers. She questioned whether there could ever be a truly equal relationship and if not, how do we negotiate this? We found this to be a really honest, direct and pertinent exchange as the Ghetto Biennale is trying to ask the same questions. What are the negotiated meshes of legion, exchange and creativity between inequalities?

Later Nurah Cordnar of the National Museum & Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago took us to see the Embah exhibition staged at the National Museum. Lastly, we visited the studio of Leroy Clarke who is a renowned, successful artist and the most highly state-funded artist in Trinidad.

(Nurah Cordnar at the National Museum & Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago)

(National Museum)

(Leroy Clarke)

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The research for this project was made possible by the generous support of ICI and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) through the CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.

About The author

Leah Gordon

Leah Gordon is a multi-media artist who curates, collects, researches, writes, educates and directs. She works across a variety of media including photography, film and installations, often including commissioned sculpture and painting. In the 1980’s she wrote lyrics, sang and played for the feminist folk punk band, ‘The Doonicans’. Leah makes work on Modernism and architecture; the slave trade and industrialisation; and grassroots religious, class and folk histories. Gordon’s film and photographic work has been exhibited internationally including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the Dak’art Biennale; the National Portrait Gallery, UK; Parc de la Villette, Paris and NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale. Her photography book ‘Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti’ was published in June 2010. She is the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; was a curator for the Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale; was the co-curator of ‘Kafou: Haiti, History & Art’ at Nottingham Contemporary, UK; on the curatorial team for ‘In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art’ at the Fowler Museum, UCLA and in 2018 was the co-curator, with Edouard Duval-Carrie, for PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince. In 2015 Leah Gordon was the recipient of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.

Andre Eugene

André Eugène (Haiti) is an artist and founding member of the artists collective: Atis Rezistans, and a broader movement known as the Sculptors of Grand Rue. In 2006 Andre Eugène contributed to a large-scale collective sculptural work, which is a permanent exhibit at the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool. His work has been shown at the Muesum of Ethnography, Geneva; at the Parc de la Villette, Paris; the Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles; Nottingham Contemporary, UK and at the Grand Palais, Paris. His work was included in the Haitian Pavillion at the 54th Venice Biennale. Andre Eugène is the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale, which has been held in Port-au-Prince since 2009.


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Leah Gordon & Andre Eugene Report on Trinidad - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research

Leah Gordon & Andre Eugene Report on Trinidad

Recipients of the 2015 CPPC Travel Award, Leah Gordon and Andre Eugene, share their experiences from their research trip to Trinidad in September 2015 (Part 1 of 2).

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Monday 14th September

We started off with a studio visit to Jackie Hinkson, a long-established Trinidadian painter and sculptor. He started his life as a painter 55 years ago. He said that the market for art is quite precarious for artists starting out in Trinidad, although he does support himself purely through his art. He told us that due to the oil money in Trinidad the island is quite rich, and he finds most of clients locally. Some of his paintings have an almost documentary quality, especially the series of paintings of street advertising. These works have the almost nostalgic quality of 1960s colour reportage of advertising illustrations, though they are commenting on the rise of visible street adverts and branding in the city, Port of Spain, in the current era. Jackie has also done a series of paintings depicting the streets during the carnival season in Trinidad.

(artist Jackie Hinkson and his work)

Emheyo Bahabba aka Embah, Trinidad’s most celebrated ‘outsider’ artist, had died only a month before we arrived in Trinidad. We had heard, anecdotally, that he had had some influence on Peter Doig and Chris Ofili’s style of work produced in Trinidad. We went to visit his niece, who was trying to store his work in her small house in the countryside. I was visually confused by his work as it encompassed so many different styles from abstract to figurative, collage to sculpture, and many small surrealistic installations. Seeing this work prompted a feeling that there should be some state-funded intervention to help his family archive and protect his legacy.

(work by Emheyo Bahabba)

In the evening we met with Charlotte Elias, who used to run an extremely successful residency programme called CCA7. It is this programme that brought Chris Ofili and Peter Doig to Trinidad. It started in 1997 and closed finally in 2007. Part of their press statement when they closed read: “Our emotions are mixed: we are deeply saddened by the realisation that, even with financial support from our foreign partners, we continue to live in a country that lacks governmental and private sector support for culture and the arts. Since our inception ten years ago, we have attempted to tackle the formidable task of increasing awareness of and appreciation for visual art in our country, and the larger Caribbean region.” Charlotte said that she saw CCA7 as part of a global art initiative and saw people coming together as a great creative catalyst as materials. They always had the institutional ethos that it was about the process rather than the outcome, which is a sentiment we share with the Ghetto Biennale. The closure of the programme highlights how little seriousness the Trinidadian government gives to the visual arts.

Later we met with artist Ashraph Ramsaran, who makes a living by combining his studio practice with a business making frames for exhibitions. He said that many artists must have these survival strategies. Ashraph was saying that there is not really a culture or ideology amongst the wealthy to create and nurture a national arts movement. He mentioned that the banks used to build collections but seem to have closed down this activity. Most of the country’s wealth comes from the petroleum industry, and these companies do not appear interested in collecting to support Trinidadian culture. This is only supposition, but it could be because most of the oil companies are multi-nationals and therefore do not have a vested interest in cultural patrimony. In retrospect there is the opposite situation in the DR as family companies, mainly sugar and tobacco companies, have deeper vested interests both through the land and ancestry, and have invested quite considerably in the Dominican visual arts.

(artist Ashraph Ramsaran)

Tuesday 15th September

We met with Todd Gulick who is the production manager for Peter Minshall’s carnival workshop. We discussed Trinidadian history, as well as the rise of carnival and Peter Minshall’s role in the form of Trinidadian carnival today. Trinidad was a British colony but it was first owned by Spain. It was quite moribund so the Spanish, sensing unrest in Haiti, welcomed French planters who were allocated land in relation to the number of slaves that they brought. In 1792 the Spanish invited Catholics to come and live in Trinidad, and this introduced about 10,000 planters and slaves from Haiti. Many of these planters lived in an area called Paramin that has only developed a paved road going toward it in the last 20 years. People still speak a version of French Kreyol in this area to this day although it is dying out.

At first Eugene and I were surprised to hear of Haiti’s part in Trinidad’s past and realized that the nations are far more rigid now than the past in many ways. The community in Paramin believes that the reason that Trinidad has a carnival is because of its Haitian roots. By 1802, the island was then ruled by the British authorities. The carnival always played an important radical grassroots political role in organizing and agitating, especially kan boule (the cane burning), but this was tamed by the government in the early 1900s. The carnival spirit was to a certain extent revived in 1962 after Trinidad’s independence and the rise of Black Pride. A National Carnival Commission was created and traditionally most of the government funding for culture has been channeled into national carnival. There is a sense that there is a cultural divide between the visual arts which are unfunded, as they are not produced by the masses but by an elite. On one level this can appear to be a radical left-wing ethos; however, many people I met also said that it was political in that the masses can be co-opted through carnival for political and commercial interests.

(Todd Gulick)

(Peter Minshall workshop)

(Todd Gulick)

We then drove to Che Lovelace’s studio in a remote countryside location. We spoke about the lack of infrastructure for visual artists. Che believed that artists needed architects and interior designers to promote their work. Interestingly Che also stated that carnival was a major theme in his work along with the body.

(Che Lovelace in his studio)

We met Kim Johnson, who runs the Carnival Institute, and has been making a film about Trinidadian carnival culture and history. We sat down and watched the film at his house, and really started to understand the divides between traditional and commercial carnival and the many unexpected parallels between Haitian and Trinidadian history and culture. I published a book of images and oral histories of Haitian carnival but did not consider that this would be a point of convergence during this research trip.

(with Kim Johnson).

Continue reading Part 2 here.

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The research for this project was made possible by the generous support of ICI and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) through the CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.

About The author

Leah Gordon

Leah Gordon is a multi-media artist who curates, collects, researches, writes, educates and directs. She works across a variety of media including photography, film and installations, often including commissioned sculpture and painting. In the 1980’s she wrote lyrics, sang and played for the feminist folk punk band, ‘The Doonicans’. Leah makes work on Modernism and architecture; the slave trade and industrialisation; and grassroots religious, class and folk histories. Gordon’s film and photographic work has been exhibited internationally including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the Dak’art Biennale; the National Portrait Gallery, UK; Parc de la Villette, Paris and NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale. Her photography book ‘Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti’ was published in June 2010. She is the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; was a curator for the Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale; was the co-curator of ‘Kafou: Haiti, History & Art’ at Nottingham Contemporary, UK; on the curatorial team for ‘In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art’ at the Fowler Museum, UCLA and in 2018 was the co-curator, with Edouard Duval-Carrie, for PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince. In 2015 Leah Gordon was the recipient of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.

Andre Eugene

André Eugène (Haiti) is an artist and founding member of the artists collective: Atis Rezistans, and a broader movement known as the Sculptors of Grand Rue. In 2006 Andre Eugène contributed to a large-scale collective sculptural work, which is a permanent exhibit at the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool. His work has been shown at the Muesum of Ethnography, Geneva; at the Parc de la Villette, Paris; the Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles; Nottingham Contemporary, UK and at the Grand Palais, Paris. His work was included in the Haitian Pavillion at the 54th Venice Biennale. Andre Eugène is the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale, which has been held in Port-au-Prince since 2009.


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Leah Gordon & Andre Eugene: On the Dominican Republic, Part 2 - Research - Independent Curators International

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Research

Leah Gordon & Andre Eugene: On the Dominican Republic, Part 2

Leah Gordon and Andre Eugene, recipients of the 2015 CPPC Travel Award, present a travelogue of their research in the Dominican Republic in September 2015 (Part 2 of 2). 

Read Part 1 here.

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Dominican photographer, performance artist and filmmaker Polibio Diaz came over to the hotel to meet with us. We started discussing Dominican and Haitian relationships. Polibio explained that he was born in the border region of Barahona and he said “the frontier society is very permeated.” He expressed that society there on the border is less racist and nationalistic; he believed that his social sensitivity was learned at home. He spoke about a collaboration between a group of Haitian and Dominican scholars, writers, and artists called Borders of Light, which came together to reflect upon the 1937 massacre of Haitian sugar cane workers by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo that killed up to 12,000 migrant workers.

This is held on the border on the shores of the River Massacre, which had gained its name due to an earlier colonial struggle, where a majority of the bodies were dumped. Polibio also did a performance on December 18th to commemorate International Immigrants Day. We all reflected on the idea of having Hispaniola as the theme for the next Ghetto Biennale. Hopefully, through the contacts we have made, the next biennale would really bring together Dominican, Haitian, and international artists to reflect upon the history of the shared island and the proximity and distance. Polibio spoke about that lack of infrastructure for Dominican photographers. He feels that the aesthetic photographic canon is limited and feels like he belongs to a current of decolonized artists. Polibio is the one of the few artists that we met in the DR who has done a considerable body of work in Haiti. He also told us how the Davidoff grant for a residency in New York really helped stretch and challenge his practice, and it was invaluable for him as an artist.

(with Polibio Diaz)

We walked to see the Bienal Nacional de Artes Visuales at the Museo de Arte Moderna. We were pleased to have the chance to see the work of Tony Capellan, who was once a member of the influential artist group, Quintapata. Tony left the group and is also quite difficult to reach, as he has no email. We managed to contact him a few times by phone but sadly never met him. His work has been honoured by the Bienal and it gave us a chance to see how important his work is within the Dominican canon. Eugene and I already knew his work from the Kreyol Factory exhibition in Paris. We also saw some of Limber Vilorio’s work in the show. 

(Bienal Nacional De Artes Visuales)

(Tony Capellan's work, Bienal Nacional De Artes Visuales)

(Limber Vilorio's work, Bienal Nacional De Artes Visuales)

(Bienal Nacional De Artes Visuales)

(Bienal Nacional De Artes Visuales)

In the afternoon we met with some Haitian artists in Santo Domingo − Phederbe Thegenus, Marc Achil Lazarre & Alfred Jean Michel − who produce both their own work and work for the tourist market. The overall message was that of frustration; similar to the Haitian artists in La Higuey, they felt frustrated in their own personal ambitions as painters and had to supplement their earnings with tourist paintings.

Phederbe left Haiti 30 years ago mainly because he felt he could train to be an artist in the DR. He knew someone who would be his teacher, whereas he felt that he had no future to train in Haiti. Phederbe stated that 15 years ago it was a good life painting and selling work to the tourists but the marketing strategy has changed now. He blames packaged tours, meaning that the visitors have less money in their pockets when they look around the streets, and the hotels and resorts control what they buy and where they buy it, so now Phederbe is finding life a lot more difficult. He has his own aesthetic that he showed us: very complex and richly detailed pictures of birds and vegetation, but he sells these paintings to clients in New York which have Haitian art galleries in Brooklyn. He says that he hasn’t sold work in the DR for over seven years, and the only works sold in town are copyist and derivative. Phederbe said though he can support his whole family from sales in NYC and Spain and he can sell a painting similar to the one in the photograph for $100.

He and Marc Achil Lazarre also talked about how difficult they find it to have any online presence. While Phederbe has a Facebook page, they both felt that a website would be out of their reach. Marc has lived in Santo Domingo for eleven years and has been painting for twenty years. He is also finding it increasingly difficult to sell in the DR, although he does still sell some paintings for about $50 and sells to NYC as well. Both of them complained that the tourist aesthetic is forced upon them. When I asked for their ideal forms and themes, Phederbe said that he prefers birds and Marc Achil would prefer abstract to figurative.

(artist Phederbe Thegenus)

(artist Marc Achil Lazarre)

We finally met with Alfred Jean Michel who had an earlier career working on naïve paintings, which were sold at some major galleries in Haiti before he came to the DR. He prefers to make paintings of peasants working in the mountain forests and fishermen; whilst he likes to paint Vodou scenes, he cannot sell them in the DR. Alfred also confirmed that the economy no longer really supported painters in Santo Domingo, due to the change in tourism practices, mainly the packaged holiday tours.

(artist Alfred Jean Michel)

In the evening we met with Alanna Lockward, who had produced a document called Dual Wounds for the hemispheric institute, which she describes as a “conceptualization of the lineage of counter-hegemonic narratives on Haitian-Dominican relations.” In Alanna’s words, this multimedia was “conceived as a space for love and reconciliation between two Caribbean populations that share the inexorable continuities of coloniality.” It features the artworks of Haitian and Dominican artists from Hispaniola and its diaspora.

Later we went to find the mural project, started as a project called the Bienal Marginal (Marginal Biennial) that took place in 1992 in a ‘popular neighbourhood’ called Santa Barbara. This project was instigated by Silvano Lora, who is a painter, sculptor and cultural organizer. He has been considered an icon of national Dominican art and also is associated with social struggles in the cultural history of the late twentieth century. Lora wanted to promote popular art, alternative cultural spaces, and cultural exchange with marginalized groups. In the Marginal Biennial, works by both renowned artists and unknown folk artists were exhibited. Eugene and I were quite interested as it promised many parallels with the Ghetto Biennale. We took directions and finally found an area, which had many indicators of poverty, with many murals on the surrounding walls. We were politely informed that it might be advantageous to leave the area, especially because I had a small camera.

(Santa Barbara)

(Santa Barbara)

We met with Stephen Fisher, British Ambassador to the DR and Haiti, who helped contextualize and explain from an establishment position, the situation between the DR and the Haitian migrants. Stephen said that twenty months ago the Dominican government realized that had an unusually large number of Haitian migrants were in the country but also realized that most of these people were important to the economy. Therefore, a decision was made to regularize the status of the majority of these immigrants and to give them a legal right to reside in the Dominican Republic. They proceeded with a process of regularization, and any immigrant was invited to go to a government office with ID so that their status would be regularized.

When the process closed on August 17, 2015, it is estimated that 288,000 people had registered for the chance of being regularized. Stephen said though not all of them had received their residence permits yet but he thinks this will go forward. He believes that this is a positive move for Haitian migrants; if they have the right to be in the DR legally then they will have better rights in the workplace too. Stephen says whilst many people have seen this as a plan to exclude Haitians from Dominican territory, he sees it the opposite way as a plan that allows people to stay with greater rights and protection. He mentioned that not all individuals who applied were accepted and that they, along with the migrants who failed to apply, after August 17th were vulnerable to deportation, since the Dominican government had ended its self-imposed freeze on deportation.

Stephen acknowledged that there have been some deportations since the August deadline. He felt that the programme, which has been monitored by the UN and international migration organizations, has respected people’s rights and acted in a civilized and legal way. He acknowledged that historical issues relating to the treatment of Haitian migrants in the DR may have colored the expectations of the Dominican government’s handling of this situation - though in his opinion, he thought that the Dominican government was respecting the rule of law. We also spoke about the irony that whilst there were demonstrations in Trinidad about the Dominican treatment of Haitians that Andre Eugene almost didn’t receive a visa to visit Trinidad, even though Haiti is a member of Caricom.

In the afternoon we went to visit Jacinto Pichardo Vicioso to talk about the Bienal Marginal. He is a Professor of Architecture at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, the oldest university in the Americas. He worked closely with Silvano Lora, the main creator on the Bienal Maginal. This was one of the most important meetings and interviews as we could recognize the many parallels between the ethos of the Bienal Marginal and the Ghetto Biennale.

(Jacinto Lora)

Jacinto told us how in the period between the end of the Trujillo dictatorship and the US invasion 1961-1965, Lora had been a member of the Popular Socialist party and then after 1965 a member of the Dominican communist party. There were a number of artists and poets coming together to unite against the US invasion and using art to express their opposition to the US in the DR. Jacinto said to describe Silvano Lora: “He was always using the paintbrush as a weapon.”

Lora decided to hold the Marginal Bienal in 1992 as part of a global anti-colonial political and critical response to the commemoration of the 500-year anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. He held the Bienal Marginal in an area called Santa Barbara, an informal neighbor (where we had visited the night before) on the northeast edge of the colonial district. The area, which is on the banks of the Ozama River, was originally where the slaves were sold. By the early 1990s, it was a difficult neighborhood with issues around drugs, prostitution, and gangs, but Jacinto says that the situation and conditions are much better now. He said that many people in the neighborhood were employed as security and now work full-time as security for the many film crews working the Colonial district (we saw crews working there every day during our stay).

Jacinto didn’t have much more concrete information about the Bienal Marginal but said there was information on the UNESCO website as well as a number of books. He advised us to visit the Museo Colonial, which was started by the Silvano Lora Foundation. Eugene and I were both very excited and interested to discover more and can imagine returning to the DR to conduct some focused research on the history and politics of the Bienal Marginal.

(Bienal Marginal)

After this meeting, we rushed back to the Colonial District for a chance to visit the Museo Colonial. We were happy to find an old catalogue in Spanish, which (once translated) will be the basis of my further research. I see that there is a list of the people and types of work which were invited to participate including: professional artists (with a preference to those working with recycled materials), installation and performance artists, artists who are not traditionally trained, artists working outside of the gallery and museum system, collectives, poets, musicians and writers, popular and primitive painters, and creators of altars and popular religious and magical objects. This definitely has parallels with the demographic of the Ghetto Biennale. We also visited the nearby Centro Cultural de Espania and saw the Miro exhibition. This centre was a lovely space that is well-funded (a Miro show proves this) and has a really extensive public programme too.

(Museo Colonial)

(Centro Espania)

In the evening we met with Raquel Paiewonsky, another member of Quintapata. She was explaining that part of the foundation of Quintapata was to find a new form of organization, as sourcing much government funding involved too much bureaucracy. Raquel said that their show at the Centro Cultural de Espania was crucial in their development. When we asked if it was easy to get curators to see her work in the DR she acknowledged that a number of exhibitions − Global Caribbean (curated by Edouard Duval-Carrie), Infinite Islands (curated by Tumelo Mosaka for the Brooklyn Museum), Kreyol Factory (curated by Yolande Bacot for Par de la Vilette, Paris) and Caribbean Crossroads (curated by Elvis Fuentes for El Museo del Barrio, New York) − has really opened up the territory and increased visibility.

She said that the Caribbean is like a mini world as every island is so different. Raquel is another artist who has come through the education channel of the Davidoff Initiative, Altos de Chavon art school, and then finished her education at Parsons in New York. We were aware what a huge difference an education project like this could have on the creative life of Haiti. Raquel had just returned after receiving a Davidoff grant for a 3-month residency in Berlin, which gave her a studio and the opportunity to network with curators and other artists and to experience so much cultural activity in Berlin. Raquel feels that the Davidoff Initiative has been instrumental, through its education and residency programme, in enlivening the cultural life of the DR. She also mentioned a new online magazine called Artes as occupying an important role in the Dominican art scene too.

Later we met with Jorge Gonzalez, who is doing a new mural project in Santa Barbara. There was a sense that this new project is more projected onto the neighborhood and has a far less radical engagement with the local residents and radical arts practices. It appeared to be more superficial and tourism friendly.

The same evening we met with aid consultant Helen, who worked in Haiti before working in the DR. Firstly she stated it was important not to confuse the programme that was put in place for people born in the DR that enabled them to register for legal status with the decreed programme to regularize migrant workers in the DR. She wanted to stress they are two distinct things, which are confused by many of the news reports.

Helen then spoke about the registration of the migrant workers, which she said is considered to be a success due to the number of people (288,000) that have come forward to enroll. She said that if this was all true, at the end of this, these people would be formalized and therefore would have rights to social security support. But she is still circumspect, as all most of these people have at the moment is a document to prove that they have registered. She explained that the criteria was really tough and they had to show rental contracts, phone contracts, and bank accounts, which most people in the informal sector would not have. Each person registering had to get seven neighbors to testify on their behalf and this had to be notarized, which involved a cost.

Consequently, Helen said when one considers the amount of documents each person has to provide, she would be surprised if there were a lot of people able to meet the full criteria. She stated that at this point very few permits have been delivered and only registration receipts have been provided. The registration receipt allows them to stay two years if they have a passport (one year without a passport), but it does not allow them to work legally. If any of these people are caught working just holding a receipt, they can be deported, and she questions what would happen at the end of the year. She is unsure what is going to happen in the long term and feels that the people who have registered will be on the system and living with a bit of an axe over their heads.

MIAMI

We left for Miami and met with Edouard Duval-Carrie, curator of Global Caribbean and renowned Haitian artist. He discussed what is considered the peculiarity of Haiti, and how curators have played on this sometimes not completely considering the negative as well as the positive of this strategy. He believes that this ‘peculiarity’ was a benefit to Haitian art but also a curse. When discussing art from the lower classes in Haiti, he questioned how do artists in the contemporary world present themselves if they are strictly visual but not articulate? He said the discourse is there but it is implied, not stated. He felt that in the contemporary moment it is difficult to arrive just with visuals and not be able to articulate a contextualization of the work. He said that his project Global Caribbean was conceived to help Haitian artists know that there is a discourse surrounding their work and that their engagement should be with this dialogue as well as the visual aspects of the work. He is critical that some artists are still dependent on the revelation that happened two centuries ago and wants to pose the question: What are you saying now?

(Edouard Duval-Carrie)

Eugene left in the morning and I took the chance to visit the show at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) called Poetics of Relation, which was inspired by the writings of author and philosopher Édouard Glissant and used his “logic of displacing the singularity of nationality, language and ethnicity, in exchange for adopting multiple rooted identities” as a way of exploring diasporic communities in Miami. It was such an important show to see at the very end of this trip and I was especially pleased to see another piece by the elusive (in person) Tony Capellan.

(Installation view, Pérez Art Museum Miami)

(Installation view, Pérez Art Museum Miami)

 

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The research for this project was made possible by the generous support of ICI and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) through the CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.

About The author

Leah Gordon

Leah Gordon is a multi-media artist who curates, collects, researches, writes, educates and directs. She works across a variety of media including photography, film and installations, often including commissioned sculpture and painting. In the 1980’s she wrote lyrics, sang and played for the feminist folk punk band, ‘The Doonicans’. Leah makes work on Modernism and architecture; the slave trade and industrialisation; and grassroots religious, class and folk histories. Gordon’s film and photographic work has been exhibited internationally including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the Dak’art Biennale; the National Portrait Gallery, UK; Parc de la Villette, Paris and NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale. Her photography book ‘Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti’ was published in June 2010. She is the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; was a curator for the Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale; was the co-curator of ‘Kafou: Haiti, History & Art’ at Nottingham Contemporary, UK; on the curatorial team for ‘In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art’ at the Fowler Museum, UCLA and in 2018 was the co-curator, with Edouard Duval-Carrie, for PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince. In 2015 Leah Gordon was the recipient of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.

Andre Eugene

André Eugène (Haiti) is an artist and founding member of the artists collective: Atis Rezistans, and a broader movement known as the Sculptors of Grand Rue. In 2006 Andre Eugène contributed to a large-scale collective sculptural work, which is a permanent exhibit at the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool. His work has been shown at the Muesum of Ethnography, Geneva; at the Parc de la Villette, Paris; the Fowler Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles; Nottingham Contemporary, UK and at the Grand Palais, Paris. His work was included in the Haitian Pavillion at the 54th Venice Biennale. Andre Eugène is the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale, which has been held in Port-au-Prince since 2009.


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