Destination Venezuela:Culture amidst Crises

Vicksburg Cultural Arts Centre, September/October 2020

How the arts thrive and flourish in spite of the pandemic and many uphill circumstances

Mangled hopes for bridges is the name of my exhibition and the painting above. They came in response to the reporting we were translating for our Destination Venezuela event that we’d been working on since the end of last year.  Specifically from the work of Tulio Hernández in the Centre for the Memory of the Venezuelan Migration, an initiative he established in Bogota when he had to flee the country a few years ago.  We left not long after, glad to have visas and jobs, but the recent migration over the last couple of years has been on foot giving rise to the most surreal and painful images especially across the long border shared with Colombia. 

With the onset of the pandemic and ensuing quarantine the event had to be postponed at the last minute even though the exhibition was already up but we were glad to finally open a reformulated version in September,  a brief respite in the uncertainty of the pandemic but all the more appreciated for that.

Poetry event to inaugurate Destination Venezuela with Lee Anne Seaver, Jake Munson, Claudio Mendoza and Syd Bastos

While waiting the exhibitions grew and adapted to incorporate four shows in downtown Vicksburg, a wonderful space for contemporary art in the greater Kalamazoo area, that will hopefully continue to grow as an opportunity for artists, both local and from further afield.

My exhibition became an immersive installation with a map of South America painted on the floor framing and contextualising the paintings that emerged during the isolation of the quarantine – images of  Venezuelans fleeing the country, and then returning as the pandemic tumbled their humble beginnings in other Latin American countries.

It was hard not to identify with faces and places that were part of my own memories of the country after so many years living there. Migration also feels like an ever more urgent issue as we learn that many ongoing conflicts also have ecological issues such as water and land scarcity behind them and that this will only continue to escalate with climate change.

The exhibitions came to include a Venezuelan artist, Héctor Fuenmayor who participated in the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency, the tattoo designs of a group of young people, Cicatriz Venezuela, using this medium to document the terrible violence in the shanty towns and the work of Rufus Snoddy,  an American artist based in Traverse City as part of the exchange we looked to establish with local artists throughout the event.

Throughout the many obstacles and setbacks the people who really made the project possible were the team that came together. First and foremost Claudio Mendoza, my husband and partner whose role as a scientist, academic, music and poetry lover were fundamental in shaping the event. Here in Vicksburg we felt very lucky to count on the vision, support and complicity of Syd Bastos, President of the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center, who against all odds ploughed on with us to host an interesting and varied programme, catering to both local audiences and the Venezuelan diaspora. The other members of the Cultural Arts Centre were also supportive in varying roles, particularly Jake Munson who worked really hard on the organization of everything. John Kern from the Mill at Vicksburg was patient in accommodating our expanding needs for space to host all four shows and responsible for me having this fantastic space to work in this year. 

During the panel discussion with Venezuelan scientists and academics I was taken back to my two decades of living and working in SE Venezuela and some of the formative experiences I had there, especially with Maria Nuria de Césaris an urban planner and friend to this day.

I saw her planning process with local squatter settlements as the mayor’s office worked to accommodate their needs through her efforts in a fascinating co-design relationship for the houses they built. Later I accompanied her to a meeting of Pemon indigenous groups, negotiating with a local university custodianship of adjacent land. I have never before nor after seen such a civilised discussion, it was very long, but beautifully calm and serene, as each person stood and had their say, with no interruptions. Theres so much that we need to learn from indigenous people still, embattled as they are not only with the pandemic but the devastating mining going on in the region now.  These are just the two most outstanding examples from a long and fruitful conversation on public space with my friend over the years.

At the time the future seemed very bright in Venezuela, and I did not think I would ever want to leave that city, but the time I spent there was nothing if not definitive in my own formation as I continue to work in community cultural programmes that grow and evolve from those beginnings in the 80’s.

Pop-up in Vicksburg

This is an exhibition of my recent paintings @ Prairie Ronde Gallery, Vicksburg, alongside Cindy Steiler, Prairie Ronde artist-in-residence @ Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center.

This latest pop-up show (with a talk from Claudio Mendoza on An opening view of Venezuela) consists of a series of recent paintings of the Caracas urban landscape that I mull over with nostalgia in exile, worrying about the turmoil, simplified to its most elemental geometric abstraction through repetition. The gaps between buildings, those undesigned spaces, have always drawn me as a theme. Simple views through rendijas — a crack or a cleft, found in my daily urban wanderings.  Void spaces, partial, private, demolished, hidden, fleeting. Seen at a distance, overshadowed by concrete walls, the beautiful light still reveals colour in all its splendour. The tropical sun illuminates the ruins as graciously as the exuberant vegetation that bursts forth.

Clustered together in unchoreographed arrangements, in forgotten corners and fenced off alleyways, the ducts, chimneys, tanks, ladders and air conditioning appliances accumulate. All the apparatus that makes up the infrastructure of our comfort; hence the visual denouncement of our greedy existence and its serious ecological impact. The symbols of the things we want to control but ultimately get out of hand.

Cindy Steiler was the latest Prairie Ronde artist-in-residence at the Papermill in Vicksburg, where she was captivated by the incredible archives of the Vicksburg Historic Society and its guardians. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to share the Michigan/Chicago scene, watch her intriguing photographic process and discover our affinity for community practice/social art projects, all while working in the candystore-as-studio and then putting up this show. #moretocome #artworldsisterhood

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Cranes, change and permanence on East Michigan Avenue

 

This exhibition of paintings included in the 2019 October Art Hop at Suzanne’s Organics Salon features the downtown Kalamazoo urban landscape; it juxtaposes elements from the vintage architecture and the ongoing metamorphosis with new construction going up on all sides.

Fascinated by the feeling of inhabiting a Hopper painting the vintage architecture of Kalamazoo has drawn me as a theme since first coming here in 2013. Six years on and the fascination keeps growing as the city emerges from the throes of the 2008 recession (it felt very quiet still in 2013) to a full blown boom this year with all the encompassing development, renovation and gentrification. This last year has seen some dramatic changes to the skyline on East Michigan Avenue and beyond, and as the main street of the city it already has some emblematic vintage buildings. The WA Doyle Building with its ‘solid commercial Queen Anne and Romanesque style architecture’ has long been one of my favourites, inasmuch for its own style as for the links to European architecture that I grew up with. This need to make buildings with such a look of hunkered down structure and solidity, perhaps in an effort to establish a sense of permanence and belonging in a place with such a recent colonial history seems almost whimsical in the chosen references. Somehow the revival of styles from the Middle Ages (which began in Europe before being brought here) can seem charming and unsettling at the same time in the things it adheres to and those that are reinvented.

Researching the historical attributes of each building also brought up interesting details on the site of Suzanne’s Salon itself. This Red brick gothic building originally constructed as a hardware store, evolved in 1878 to incorporate on the first floor Madam Jannasch-Shortt’s Musical Institute, run by Anna Jannasch, and built for her by her father. An interesting development in itself considering women could not own property or even have a bank account until the pioneering suffragettes -led by Lucinda Stone founder of the Ladies’ Library in Kalamazoo- lobbied and obtained these basic rights in the State after a long struggle. The Ladies’ Library itself another Victorian Gothic gem, was the first building constructed by women for their own association in Michigan and third of its kind in the USA.

While it’s sad to see old buildings go, the energy and movement palpable in the city is inspiring when new uses are made of old buildings. I also used an 1871 map of the city  as a visual reference, to see the original layout of the town and compare where that still exists today. Even then many towns and routes were established on the foundation of indigenous peoples cultures and communication. The I94 was built along one such route connecting the places where Detroit and Chicago are long before those towns existed, making me wonder what they would have looked like then.

Project MAPEA in Child in the City seminar in Antwerp

As a visual artist it was something of a novelty to be attending an academic seminar broadly designed for architects, urban planners and other professionals from this area. But since our mapping project began in Caracas from involvement with youth and children in shantytown communities, when I saw the call for the Children in the Sustainable City Seminar it seemed the right place for our proposal.

This trip to Antwerp turned out be a stimulating and fruitful experience over the two-day meeting. Above all, it was so reassuring to find oneself talking the same language when it came to sharing experiences, it can get very frustrating trying to explain this multi-disciplinary workshop model even in the art world.

MAPEA has reached four editions in the last four years so it continues to grow and prove its validity. At this moment it seems more urgent than ever to bring this activity to children amid such violence, encouraging a conversation about the environment and developing tools with which to do so. My participation in the seminar was a way of continuing our work when the crisis in Venezuela frustrated this year’s plans. By the end of March, when I should have been travelling to Caracas, flights were cancelled and the possibility of achieving the results we hoped for seemed pretty remote. It was a heart-breaking decision to cancel the trip, and we continue to wait for a change in tide to resume our plans.

 

Antwerp centre 4

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