Lucia Cuba | Artículo 6, from the series Artículo 6: Narratives of gender, strength and politics (2012-2014) | Cotton canvas, thread, digital printing, hand & machine sewing
Carlos Garaicoa | Fin de Silencio/Suelos Contrastados, 2010 | Video installation
Liliana Angulo Cortés | Project Quieto Pelo, 2009 | 6 photographs, video, sound interviews
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Navigating Personal and Civic Space | Focus: Havana, Cuba

The works under this theme address the process of reclaiming civic spaces and personal integrity within the ever-shifting Latin American political climate. Both the formal and informal design solutions pursued throughout Latin America exemplify any number that can be found in the rest of the world, wherever people respond ingeniously to needs that are not met by official channels. Nowhere is this clearer than in Havana, Cuba. Cuban photographer Ernesto Oroza’s series Architecture of Necessity documents how individual citizens have retrofit existing structures and objects to address common quotidian needs. Similarly, in a process documented in a video created by the Colombian Ministry of Culture, Colectivo Cambalache from Bogotá have organized and presented found elements according to museological methods. Also featured in this section are La Plaza Vacia (2012), a video by Cuban artist Coco Fusco, Carlos Garaicoa’s Fin de Silencio, an installation of floor tapestries woven in pavement patterns and videos, and clothes that explore narratives of gender by Peruvian clothing designer Lucia Cuba.

Oroza’s photographs of what he has dubbed the “architecture of necessity” captures the ingenuity in and around Havana, where ordinary citizens have modified existing structures to provide for their needs, adding barrels for water, exterior stairwells, and even heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. Oroza’s work substantiates Garaicoa’s reflection that Cuban cities represent “idyllic and nostalgic ruins from the colonial and first republic periods (…) The encounter with these buildings produces a strange sensation; the issue is not the ruin of a luminous past but a present of incapacity (…) I call these the Ruins of the Future.”

Garaicoa and Fusco examine architecture and space as specific modalities for political comment. Fusco has often described her video The Empty Plaza as a “meditation on public space, revolutionary promise, and memory.” Presenting an empty Plaza de la Revolucíon, Fusco demonstrates its deficits outside of its function as a site of mass assembly. She focuses our attention on “a stark, inhospitable arena where all the major political events of the past half-century have been marked by mass choreography, militarized displays, and rhetorical flourish. [She] decided to create a piece about that legendary site—an empty stage filled with memories, through which every foreign visitor passes, while nowadays many, if not most, Cubans flee.”

For Garaicoa, the street becomes a vehicle for social commentary simply by naming it for a person, date, or event. Such tributes encourage civic pride and memorial sentiment. Garaicoa’s large tapestries, which comprise Fin de Silencio, have textures mimicking cement or asphalt street surfaces. Their embedded slogans, however, comment on the state of pedestrians who live under a specific political system: “Cambio” (Change), “La General Tristeza” (The General Sadness), and “La lucha es de todos, de todos es la lucha” (The fight is all and everyone is fighting). The accompanying video projections show the movement on various streets, viewed from the pedestrian’s perspective.

In contemporary cities, the ever-present threat of domestic or international terrorism has spawned constant surveillance. In addition to cameras, there is now the fast-developing technology of drones. This provides an appropriate context for Mexican designer Gilberto Esparza’s drone-like sculptures that first appeared in Mexico City. His Urban Parasites confront us with notions of biomechanical survival dependent on the exploitation of sources of power that fuel our daily functions. As the artist has noted, his interest in more exploitative devices has evolved as he became aware of “research projects using microbial fuel cells.” This inspired him to think of developing “a project that would engage with the issue of pollution in rivers” in sites such as El Salto Jalísco, Mexico, a community greatly affected by this problem.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, the seizing of proprietary control of public space has become a particularly contested issue in cities such as Rio de Janeiro. The residents of Rio’s favelas have been displaced by development as the city prepared for the arrival of tourists attending the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. The issue of political, social, and economic hegemony in the favelas has been the focus of Projeto Morrinho, a collective of youth from the favela Vila Pereira da Silva, in Rio de Janeiro. Their installations and videos chronicle the community’s daily lives while commenting on the failure of municipal groups to curb crime and provide infrastructure services for marginalized communities. Their work has gained international attention and may be credited with increasing global awareness of conditions in the favelas over the last decade, but, with the recent economic problems in Brazil, these conditions threaten to resurface.

This type of youth-oriented navigation of personal and civic space can also be identified in the improbable popularity of street art, otherwise known as graffiti. This art form—largely considered a destructive element in the United States—has flourished and drawn sightseers from all over to neighborhoods such as Vila Madalena, in São Paulo. Brazilian William Baglione has been a godfather figure for a group of graffiti artists working in the city, including his brother Herbert, Felipe Yung (aka Flip), Thais Beltrame, and Alexander Cruz Sesper (aka Sesper). The group collaborated with Les Crayon Noirs, in Paris, to produce a series of aerosol cans made of porcelain from Limoges known collectively as the Bombe X Famiglia series, featuring an image by each artist. Not only does this project represent a step into the modern world for a traditional French technique, it is also a vibrant crossing of societal lines in terms of signifiers of the luxurious and the proletarian.

In Colombia, the quashing of drug cartels in the early 2000s led to dramatic reclamation of civic spaces. Medellín, for example, once a center of drug trafficking, was reclaimed through the work of the mayor Sergio Fajardo and architect-designers Alejandro Echeverri and Giancarlo Mazzanti. The promise and vibrancy of community engagement is evident in the video Capítulo 4 la conquista del espacio: Arte Público, produced by the Colombian Ministry of Culture and El Vicio Producciones. It features a medley of collaborative works: the Venice Biennial, a street festival in the Venice neighborhood of Bogotá; Ciudad Kennedy, a merging of memory and reality by artist Miler Lagos; the Museo de la Calle, a traveling museum by Collectivo Cambalache, where goods and services are bartered; and the Bricolage Project that encourages the use and reuse of objects in unsuspected ways in both the domestic and the public spheres.

Interpersonal encounters and the choreography of inhabiting space inform projects by Argentinian designer Diana Cabeza in Buenos Aires. Her infrastructure designs include bus shelters, street gratings, and public seating. One of the latter, Lace Cloth, a series of seating forms, encourages interaction among people by substituting the usual linear form with a face-to-face arrangement. She notes: “As Latin Americans we have a finely tuned sense of the communal character of public space and look for appropriate solutions to the massive scale of different places. Our elements are supports that qualify the community rites promoting social integration. The particular character of the surfaces of this series is also taken into consideration in order to serve the ideals of place and identity.”

Artists and designers in Latin America have questioned the navigation of personal and civic space by addressing the theme of violence in contemporary society. At times, the expression is almost uncomfortably ironic, as in Jorge Diego Etienne’s gun-barrel pencil holder Choose Your Bullets, which the designer describes as “[responding] to the current situation in Mexico, where violence seems to have taken over our life.” This seemingly innocuous desk accessory is sculpted out of aluminum by artisans in Monterrey, Mexico, and each piece is engraved with a serial number. Etienne’s project can be seen as an attempt to co-opt and thus nullify the effects of guns. Pedro Reyes, who is also from Mexico, pursues the same goal: engaged in a long-term collaboration with the police department in Mexico City, the artist refashions confiscated guns into musical instruments, such as Guitarra. Another Mexican artist, Teresa Margolles, incorporates jewelry and trophies that belonged to the victims of crime— policemen, government officials, and civilians—in her installations.

Turning to the power dynamics and dysfunction in the border zone between the United States and Mexico is the subject matter of Eduardo Sarabia’s ceramic work A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, which draws on the convention of Talavera blue and white pottery. Sarabia sought to present the “other side of Mexican culture” as an antidote to the “drug-war imagery [that] had become such a deeply embedded piece of that culture.” He decorated the familiar Talavera ceramic form with contemporary Mexican images (such as marijuana leaves and scantily clad women), creating an effective vehicle to engage a dialogue about these issues.

Surviving drive-by shootings is the subject of Monaco-based Brazilian designer David Elia (Design de Gema) in his somewhat macabre Stray Bullet Chair and Bulletproof Side Table, in which stainless-steel eyelets approximate bullet holes, and shell casings decorate a glass top. São Paulo–based architect-designers Marcio Kogan and Isay Weinfeld created a totally enclosed and secured city in their installation Happyland I. In Happyland II, they presented accoutrements and accessories that would help a citizen survive urban danger: a suitcase was packed with necessities in case of a kidnapping, while specialized architectural elements included Gradil, a spiked fence with pistol crowns. These designers are not working from a merely superficial sentiment: a 2013 study on global homicide conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime identified eleven of the top thirty most violent cities in the world as being in Brazil.

Notions of personal space and identity assume a particular importance in a world where group uniformity has dominated. Individuals with African ancestry have a singular sense of identity in societies that purport to suppress ethnic difference in the service of national harmony. The mechanisms of class and race, however, are still all too evident in the lives of these individuals. Liliana Angulo Cortés’s documentation of designs for Afro-centric braided hair in Colombia and other parts of Latin America, as well as in the United States, tackles imagery and design items that often feature stereotypes of black people. Project Quieto Pelo (Stand Still Hair) demonstrates a global sense of identity on the part of African-descendant peoples, uniting them despite linguistic and cultural differences imposed by their history as slaves and colonials. The Panamanian artist José Castrellón documented another kind of challenge to uniformity in a series of photographic portraits of men and their “priti baiks”. Castrellón is interested in the personal ways in which a collective sensibility is manifest. In this series, the artist focuses on how young men throughout Panama use their limited resources to transform their only vehicles for transportation into something unique, reflective of their individual identity.

The dynamics of class and race are also explored by Peruvian designer and activist Lucia Cuba in Articulo 6: Narratives of Gender, Strength and Politics. Her line of dresses, masks, aprons, and shoes documents the forced sterilizations implemented during the government of Alberto Fujimori in Peru between 1996 and 2000. Cuba conceived new designs for traditional Andean polleras (fiesta skirts), printed with the names of victims (mostly indigenous women), texts of the legislation, and portrait medallions of Fujimori and the USAID logo (US Aid for International Development, an organization Cuba implicates in this policy). Fashion and politics have a long association throughout history, and Cuba’s project brings to light a history of severe violation of personal rights.

Makers in this Theme