INTERVIEW WITH PILAR ESTRADA, ONE OF THE DIRECTORS OF NO MÍNIMO, A CONTEMPORARY ART SPACE IN GUAYAQUIL
What could you tell us about the political art scene in Ecuador in comparison with, say, what happened in the 1960’s or 1970’s? How has it changed?
Well, there are two totally different scenes between Guayaquil and Quito, the places that produce more. There was a much more political moment in Quito that is starting to wind down. Artists are turning to other interests, although there are still some projects going on.
Between 2000 and 2007, artists were working from a very particular event that happened in Guayaquil called “The urban regeneration of the city”. This meant transforming public spaces into new areas that can be accessed now, but used to be dangerous. Urban regeneration arrives from neighborhood to neighborhood, using the same visual elements and turning the city into a very homogenous place.
This change brought positive things for a great number of people and negative for some others, like the loss of certain identity in urban spots. For example, “Malecón 2000”, the great park that borders the Guaya River, which is a very large body of water that is considered the city’s lungs. Pirates and merchants came through it, and thanks to it we are considered a coastal city. The place used to be uninhabitable; you got robbed at night, there were drug selling, prostitutes, etc. Since it was renovated, it has an easy, familiar ambient, but it lost its essence in relation to what Guayaquil used to be. Now it’s known as “Guayami”, since it follows an aesthetic model similar to the North American, specifically Miami.
The new jetty’s has gates open from 6 AM to midnight, and they reserve the right of admission. Prostitutes, transvestites and public sellers cannot enter. It is a very troubled space. The city was never used to take care of their public spaces and it is starting to do it. The renovation of the jitty began in the year 2000 and has kept going progressively. It is a 2km space with a safe and comfortable ambient; you can see families there, but at the same time, an exercise of citizenship is being violated. For example, you cannot lie down to take a sun bath, sit on the benches with your legs crossed or kiss passionately. It is a public space with rules and codes, something that’s very difficult for artists to accept, since they feel their rights are being affected.
How have artists reacted to this space?
There’s a piece from Lorena Peña, which she made in the Open Air Art Festival during October- the month of Guayaquil’s independence. The project was shown in the alternative arts category and showed figures and silhouettes crafted in black wood, showing scenes of all that is now prohibited in the dock: people in bicycles, skates, or walking their dogs. She hung those silhouettes in the trees, like shadows. The project is called Shadows only.
Another interesting piece was a collective project called The Cleansing, exhibited in 2004 in the Cuenca Biennial, consisting of a series of pink tiles made of resin containing millions of crickets. The tiles are architectonical elements characteristic from the city and with a very special form, even though they actually have nothing to do with the city. Every winter, a plague of crickets arrive in Guayaquil with the first rains. The collective encapsulated the crickets into the resin tiles and built a corridor, an obligatory passage to enter the Biennial’s building. The project evidently refers to the process of urban regeneration, a process that is only a sort of make-up for the city, since it really doesn’t help to remove the plague and shit.
Talking about make-up, another situation that happened recently in Guayaquil, in the sector known as Las Peñas –which is also supposed to be part of the urban regeneration-, is that all the housefronts were painted with colors inspired in the A go- gó bubble gum brand, although some of them remain destroyed on the other side of the wall. A lot of people wandered about this disguise –imposed by the state, an authority that decided those were the new colors for a zone that used to be a traditional part of the city. The reasons for choosing these colors or particular zones are not clear, and of course the questions began to arise. A decree was emitted, saying that the regenerated zones could not be painted with the following colors: duck yellow, parakeet green, passion red, sky blue, etc. So one wonders, what the hell is passion red or duck yellow? I mean, you more or less know what they’re talking about, but those are not colors. An artist created this beautiful piece named I am the Forbidden, showing great walls painted with the forbidden colors inside the urban regeneration. This caused many discussions about the absurd of certain decisions imposed to the city by the state.
Another piece I found very interesting was from Cuban artist Saidel Brito, who has lived in Guayaquil for the last 12 years. He installed a 6 mt. tall mega camera in a 360° rotating structure on the dock. As I told you before, that used to be a dangerous zone and is now caged; the spectator is safe within it, but not free. Meanwhile, on the other side of the park there’s no security but there is freedom, freedom to make out, to lie on the floor, to do whatever you want. So this monumental camera with a 360° vision kept watching the whole time and evidencing the contrast of what was going on in the opposite side of the street. An omnipresent eye watching inside, while if you got killed outside nobody would even know.
Can you give us another example?
There was a piece from Juan Carlos León not directly about the urban regeneration, but about the way they apply make-up to certain areas of the city. During the Open Air Electronic Arts Festival, he invited people walking on the dock to make small-scale copies of their cane houses. These neighborhoods are called “invasions” in Ecuador. The artist collected all these little houses and put them next to emblematic monuments of the most important regenerated zones. He documented the whole action, for example, next to the Bolívar and San Martín monuments, in front of the city Town Hall. These constituted a brilliant piece that displayed the contrast between what the disguise of the city represents opposed to the reality that they pretend to hide more and more.
A while ago, photographer Ricardo Bohórquez realized an action, placing, during the same festival, 7 square meters of grass on the dock, where people were allowed to do whatever they wanted. Supposedly there are 7 square meters of land for every citizen in Guayaquil. The artist proposed that people use that space to take a sunbath, smoke, etc. They were 7 meters of freedom. The artist made a brilliant photographic documentation of the project.
What about the colored-donkeys Project? How did it go from an innocent idea to something that created such outrage?
Not long ago, a colored-horses exhibition was shown in Guayaquil’s public space, similar to the painted cows from other countries. This event generated a very interesting discussion because the horses were painted in oils, a material that was damaged when people touched it. They were actually damaged and many people complained. They believe that this is a public art initiative, when in reality it’s far from it. It is a random decoration inserted on the public space, presented to people as art just because the little horses were painted. Then Jorge Jaen, total outsider, invited artist friends, writers and poets, to paint donkeys in a piece of paper, which he pasted around the city. This evidently was a response to the horses. The morning after the donkeys were ripped, but the artist placed new ones every day. The register of the project is awesome, especially since many of them made reference to political matters and situations that were going on in the city, mocking the supposed culture that was being brought to the people.
How does the municipality figure functions in art? When you were director of this museum, did you suffer any kind of censorship?
The municipality is a very problematic figure because it has a very short sighted vision of art. The municipality manages one of the most important museums in the city, the Guayaquil Municipal Museum. I was the director for a year and a half, and I successfully avoided three cases of censorship: one for a political problem, the other for a sexual theme, and the third for being “ephemeral”. The latter, a prized work of Oscar Santillán, was shown in Salón de Julio, known as the room for art. They didn’t want to pay the prize because it was, they said, an ephemeral piece. Those were the three hardest conflicts I faced.
The sex-themed piece was a pretty serious issue. The piece was from Graciela Guerrero and referenced a decree that prohibits newspapers and other media to show explicit violence in its contents. El Extra, the most read newspaper in the country – a sensationalist one- started illustrating the most horrible things in the world with cartoons, since they were not allowed to publish photographs of guts and stuff. Graciela Guerrero proposed in her work, Extra Extra, to take the rawest cartoons and turn them into sculpture. One of them was called He raped him the whole day in a car.
This is what was happening: El Extra showcased the most horrible things a human being is capable of doing in a funny manner. I must say that it’s disgusting to see photographs of explicit violence, but at least you are confronted with reality as it is. This piece was included in playlist, an exhibit presented in Cuenca in November 2009. Twelve days after the opening, someone close to the city authorities complained because the museum was supposedly showing pornography. I received a call from Town Hall asking me to remove the piece.
For the 2010 Salón de Julio, a summoning was made, trying to establish new rules. I was able to negotiate two of them, but as director of the museum I had a boss, the director of Culture and Civic Promotion. Above him was the Mayor. So this director wanted to establish three rules: a formal one, for only accepting bidimensional paintings. For years, the participating work has broken this format, playing conceptually and going further. Fortunately I was able to stop that initiative. Another rule I successfully stopped was to prohibit work that directly offended the township. The third one prohibited including works with explicit sexual content: that was the one that remained, because of the scandal produced with Graciela Guerrero’s pieces.
In 2009 there was no big ruckus about this episode, maybe because I was still director of the museum and many artists knew me and my work; I believe they respected me and knew I was fighting to stop it.
I quit on October 2010, and in July 2011, the director of Culture and Civic Promotion appropriated the subject. He made great news about the fact that he was going to apply a new politics that prohibited work with explicit sexual content, an idea that was there since 2009 and that he used to give himself credit. Obviously there was a big uproar about it.
Lawyers and artists got together and presented a lawsuit against the Township of Guayaquil for interfering with freedom of speech. A debate started, and for the first time it reached beyond the art world. It became a subject that was in everybody’s mouth; there were encounters to discuss it. In the end it was very interesting because it went further into a social plane. It was also important to evidence the diminishing of the scene, reaching spaces not properly related to art.
Now tell me a little bit about La Muy Ilustre Imundicipalidad, a project that has generated a lot of controversy, one I’ve heard you address before.
La Muy Ilustre Inmundicipalidad is an old house in the Urdesa residencial zone next to the settled estuary, which is the arm of a river. It is a project from a guy who works with graffiti and urban art, who defines himself as a “nonceptual” artist, although I think he is the most conceptual of all. His name is Daniel Adum, and he rents that house for 50 dollars a month. The Municipality is actually called “The Very Illustrious Municipality of Guayaquil”. Inspired in that name, he created his own space, where he presents all the projects rejected by the ownship, including works with explicit sexual content rejected by the museum, and the colored donkeys.
This project was born when the government started erasing all the graffitis, covering them up with a gray square of painting. As a response, Daniel Adum created an urban intervention collective, Litro por mate, whose title refers to a liter of painting per person. Each of them took the color they wanted and painted squares, a gesture that pretended to revert the mechanism, to erase the graffitis and turn them into paintings. They painted walls of 300 and 500 meters around the city. It looked beautiful.
The township emitted a notice saying that whoever had information on the graffiti painters who damage the city would be rewarded with a thousand dollars, anyone who had photographs, videos, whatever. This happened before they started painting the walls with gray. This went public in radio and different newspapers. When the artists began to paint the walls with color, the matter became the most absurd thing in the world, and turned into a pursuit. The painting of the walls took place in different spots, including the rented house in Urdesa. This project didn’t really offend anyone, but the township ordered the walls to be painted gray anyway. There are penises and vulgar words painted all across the city and that’s still there, but Daniel Adum’s graffitis were erased.
After this, someone from Litro por mate created a stencil character that was placed on many of the censored walls with the legend: “censored by moustache the fascist”, referring to the mayor. Someone from the township put a lawsuit on Daniel Adum for this. He was declared innocent, since the investigation was not done right: he was accused of doing the colored donkeys, a project everybody knew had been made by Jorge Jaen. He was also accused of creating “Moustache the Fascist”, but that also hadn’t been him, but a member of Litro por Mate.
What Daniel did was paint the porch of his house with white stripes and gray stars over the gray color of censorship, imitating Guayaquil’s flag, which is blue, white and blue with three white stars. But inside his house, where authorities couldn’t mess, he painted walls and roof with many colors. All of these just happened about five months ago.
Did the artist already have problems with the authorities by then?
Yes, Daniel Adum had problems with the township years before, for another graffiti project named the Chanchocracy. There was an e-mail flying around –that nobody knew where it came from- saying that those graffitis had been made by a gang called the Latin Kings, who were taking revenge from the good people in town and that the red chanchitos (little pigs) meant danger, the black ones death and the white ones rape. This started to go around and schools closed, it was all over the news. It was a very simple act: paint little pigs, but it had psychotic ramifications, what tells of an absolutely paranoid society. Daniel finally recognized it had been his idea, and the mayor ordered him to erase all the pigs. The same mayor that had been reelected many years and who represents the Christian Party, a conservative right wing party.
Changing the subject, tell us how does the Cuenca Biennial works and how political it is.
It was originally created by Eudoxia Estrella, a lady who loved art and painting and who probably is about 85 years old. The first Biennial was made in 1987, and was focused on paintings. I think around the sixth edition, different formats were included. It’s not a naturally politic biennial, but there definitely have been very political pieces in some of the countries’ curatorships. There has been work by José Alejandro Restrepo, Ricardo González-Elias -a piece that presented Fidel Castro’s book History will absolve me on Braille. Teresa Margolles also participated, when she had just begun making her shrouds.
Up until last edition, the tenth one, it was treated as a very conventional biennial, with curatorships from different countries. This year, a new format was proposed with three general curatorships: one made by the team from Ecuador, another one by Fernando Castro Flores from Spain, and another one by Brasilian Agnaldo Farias. I would say it is a fairly diverse biennial, although its connotations are not naturally political. But it is an institution that reflects what is happening in the political world. There didn’t use to be a Ministry of Culture in Ecuador, it was created on the current administration. I could talk for hours about the problematics of the ministry, given that it has had the most number of ministers ever. Today, the Cuenca Biennial is financed partly by the Ministry of Culture, partly by the township and a private company.
You told us a little about certain projects, specifically in Guayaquil, but are there other important artists or art collectives with political content in Ecuador’s history?
There is a very interesting Project named Al Zur-ich, from the group Tranvía Cero, that is worth discussing. They do work between artists and community in Quito’s southern area, where the poorest neighborhoods are.
The La Limpia collective also worked the political matter at some point, as did Juan Carlos León, Graciela Guerrero, Marcelo Aguirre (through his paintings in the nineties)
and Juan Villafuerte. Also the VAN group, The Four Musqueteers: Nelson Román, José Unda, Washington Iza and Ramiro Jácome.
You are not going to find a lot of information about this because, sadly, for many decades critics in Ecuador were limited to a poetical-fantastical description of the artist’s work. There is very little critical review, although recently there has been an interest in the subject. María Fernanda Cartagena could tell you more about this; she’s an important critic, and just wrote a book about political art in Ecuador in the sixties and seventies.
I have been very close to the art scene in Colombia and Mexico and I see a common subject: the relationship with the USA; in Mexico’s case, because it borders it and because of a very close cultural contrast; in Colombia’s case, because of the uribismo subject, which draws us very close to North American Imperialism, so hardly criticized by Hugo Chávez. Also, Mexico and Colombia share the drug traffic subject, which put us in conflict with the USA. This reality generates a lot of reactions reflected in art. Is there something similar in Ecuador? I ask this because president Correa is allied with Hugo Chávez.
No, it’s not an issue. Migration was. In 1999, we had a terrible bankruptcy that generated great migrations to Italy and the USA. That was a subject worked by many artists of the time. There’s even a movie, Prometheus Deported, about these migrations, evidencing Ecuadorian idiosyncrasy.
At first, almost every artist was in love with president Correa; many still are, but many others are starting to disenchant. They see that he has done good things in health, transport and traffic areas. They respect certain things, but believe less and less in him. Carlos León did a very good series that we luckily exhibited in No Mínimo. It’s called Monument to the Day, his graduation project. He built ideological-social monuments supposedly to replace public monuments. For example, an ideological cleansing machine, or an ideological pattern reader monument. They were machines that would be placed in public spots, playing with the left-wing new wave subject in Latin America. It obviously referred –subtly- to Ecuador’s case.