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.

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