Mapea: a social art project in Venezuela

To walk, to feel, to reflect upon, to map out, to act upon… awakening sensibilities and stimulating empowerment in children and adolescents

As in so many cities in the developing world, much urban growth was unplanned, notably in peri-urban ‘slum’ neighbourhoods or shantytowns often physically and socially juxtaposed to planned middle- and upper-class urbanisations. The contrast between a hyper-designed, rigid urban space and the organic, dynamic, flexible and contested areas of squatter settlements could not be greater.

These have grown in Caracas to occupy a quarter of the territory while housing more than half the population.  And these are the spaces that need, in the words of Cheo Carvajal, recognition above all as an integral part of the city instead of existing in an eternal limbo, interstitial spaces that are not included on any maps, census, documents, registers or even in the minds of most inhabitants.

MAPEA was brought together as a group comprised of artists, activists, actors and architects in 2015 to address this dichotomy between the two urban realities, an attempt to face this uncomfortable reality collectively, although we had all been working on separate efforts in the same direction.

Background to the project: Whatever else we may say about Chavez’s revolution, it is always recognised as having empowered the shantytown communities left behind in the drive to modernisation. Drawn by the port economy of a mono producing oil country, Venezuela’s population was 80% urban by the end of the last century, abandoning the countryside from the1950s onwards.  With the promise of better jobs and education (which was sustained up until the end of the 1960s in an incipient welfare state) the manual labour necessary to build and maintain the modernist dream congregated on the hillsides of Caracas (and the outskirts of all the main cities) whose geography makes the contrast even starker.  A long narrow valley, separated from the coast by the mountain range including the majestic Avila peak, prime residential areas are limited and contained. Exclusive gated communities also spread through the hills on the southern side of the valley, but the shantytown squatter settlements are often located on inaccessible steep slopes with few roads, proper transport or other public services such as rubbish collection and sewers. People often have to climb the equivalent of 20+ stories to self-built shacks.

As an artist who had already spent 20 years in the southeastern industrial city of Ciudad Guyana, working in the cultural department of one of the state industries, the move to Caracas was not an easy one.  Although the first evidently had its own built-in apartheid – Ciudad Guayana is actually made up of Puerto Ordaz, the cosmopolitan, professional and planned conurbation, and San Felix, the workers residential area divided by a bridge over the Caroní river – it was a city established in the 1950s to diversify from the oil industry and to add value to the raw materials mined locally, developing small and medium sized industries. People had jobs, housing, education and health provided (albeit in a paternalistic model) by the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana. Caracas in contrast seemed incredibly decadent after living in a glorified mining town, where on hindsight most people were very idealistic and dedicated to building the future of the country.

So, my own work on the urban landscape could not ignore the very prominent shantytowns of Caracas that appear as a pixelated pattern between the high-rise buildings or tucked into the banks of every stream coming down from the mountain behind the big houses. The commission to draw the construction of the San Agustín Cablecar was a turning point in my adaptation to the city, and since I carry out these large drawings in situ, the liaison with community leaders was a necessity. Shantytowns also privatise space in their own way, you cannot just walk in by yourself, urban violence necessitates a chaperone.

Thus began six years of voluntary projects to accompany the community group which, together with Fernando Giuliani, had identified local tourism as an appropriate way to take advantage of the cable car as a public transport system to bring jobs to local people. Most of these proposals were centred around recuperation of public spaces (particularly where the building company had already demolished houses and squares), and in this I was accompanied by Rafael Machado from the Urban Think Tank (U-TT) with occasional visits by Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner.  We used art workshops on the hillside streets, mural painting on the roofs of the school to be viewed from the cable car passing over and other activities to engage children and adolescents in the discussion.

The San Agustín del Sur Tourism Office interactive exhibition was the culmination of this work and an attempt to establish the physical connection with the barrio in the spaces I was used to operate in, i.e. the museum. It was also right next door. Even so it took five years, countless proposals and discussions to be allowed to carry it out on the terms we insisted on.

Sadly the revolutionary art commissars were rather conventional when it came to museum practice. Mostly we were channeled to use the art education department and programmed to fulfil the museums commitment with its own employees as a summer program, while we insisted on using the main room during term time since we worked through the local schools in the barrio. The museum grudgingly agreed to take it on although we ourselves financed the payment of the workshop facilitators and snacks for participants: hunger was already an issue in school attendance in 2015.

Over two months the original team comprised of myself, Cheo Carvajal (pedestrian activist and journalist), Hector Jose Gonzalez (actor and group therapist), Laura Bastidas (architect), Edgar Carrasco (video artist), Liseth Gonzalez (assistant video artist), Carlos Fabian Medina (actor/director), Franklin Sanchez (visual artist and museum education dept), David Lezama (artist and museum education dept), students from UNEARTE who helped prepare the first maps, and the anthropology students who were reestablishing the Bolivar I Organic Vegetable Garden next-door to the museum that became an integral part of the exhibition activities. We all came together in this wonderful celebration.

The method: In the beginning we had a basic outline that was discussed, evaluated and modified as the workshops developed. The basic model was to start at the school and talk to the students about the mornings activities, and then walk down through the barrio with them to the museum taking notes of the accessibility  (or lack of) of routes and landscapes.

Once in the museum we provided refreshments and snacks while we acclimatised to the museum room. Sala 2 is the main exhibition room of the Museum of Contemporary Art and was somewhat imposing at the beginning when it was pretty much empty.  Then we brought out the 500 x 700 cm brown paper map with basic outlines stenciled on it and stood around the edges to familiarise ourselves with the spaces we had just walked through and their location on the paper. Hector or Carlos Fabian would lead some simple movement exercises to express how the city made us feel while helping to break the ice a little, creating a relaxed  atmosphere within the group, who often had unpredicted issues such as feeling uncomfortable taking their shoes off to begin work.

Once we had identified the areas to work on (we would start with the school and each child’s house) paint was handed out and we would get down to work. The format turned out to be ideal for a classroom group of thirty odd, and the map was mostly finished by the end of the morning to conclude the exercise by seeing it raised and hung amid a round of comments before departing back to school.

A second approach consisted of painting smaller posters indicating the way to or from the museum that we then pasted as signposting along the pedestrian routes, drawing exercises carried out on the streets of views and buildings or cutout silhouette figures to be incorporated onto the maps.  All in all, it really was a memorable time in the museum, and the show stayed up for six months.

Continuation: Since then we have carried out three more editions of the MAPEA project, where the initial premise is to work with a cultural centre or museum and the neighbouring barrios. In 2016 we reconfigured the group to include Mónica Santander (cultural promotion) and Yoandy Medina (anthropologist) to carry out Live mapping,  Antimano-UCAB in the Padre Carlos Guillermo Plaza Cultural Centre, Andres Bello Catholic University connecting with five schools in the universities locality:

  • U.E.N. Andrés Bello
  • Colegio Refugio de la Infancia
  • Escuela Fe y Alegría Prisco Villasmil
  • Escuela Fe y Alegría San José Obrero
  • Unidad Educativa Policial Laudelino Mejía

In 2017 we travelled to the western Zulia State to work with two Wayuu indigenous communities in the MACZUL museum to produce the Walking in the Clouds show, the execution of which was  already very complicated with deteriorating transport and shortages in the country. The Ziruma barrio was next door to the museum and we worked with children from the local bilingual school there (Escuela Básica Dr. Marcial Hernandez), while the children from Wayuu Tayá Foundation came from a village outside of Maracaibo and for many of the 50 participants it was the first time they had visited the city and the museum.

At the end of that year Mapea carried out workshops with 4th, 5th and 6th grade students of local schools María May (El Calvario barrio) and Juan Manuel Cajigal (town centre) of El Hatillo in the mountains south of Caracas. The Walking, mapping, opening doors exhibition was shown in the local council gallery that opened as part of the Calvario barrio pre-Christmas cultural street event.

This year we had plans for a new interactive exhibition/workshop experience in the Catholic University that is on standby, but were at least able to present the project at the Child in the City seminar in Antwerp, Belgium.