The Beauty of Others: An Interview with Photographer Teresa Bracamonte

View the interview in Spanish on Revista Jennifer

When I traveled to Lima for the PARC art fair, I met interesting artists and explored key sites of Peru’s contemporary art world. I visited galleries like RevolverLucia de la Puente and Y Gallery Lima, as well as institutions like Proyecto AMIL.

A project I discovered that interested me in particular was Lima Intrarrosa, a documentary photography series created by artist Teresa Bracamonte.

Before becoming a photographer Bracamonte was a painter, but her main career was as a high fashion model who also participant in numerous beauty pageants. During breakfast at her oceanside Barranco apartment, she told me that, one day a few years prior, she was watching TV and by chance saw a report of a transgender beauty pageant being broadcast. Upon seeing it, she had a strong, unexpected reaction of connectedness to the trans women: she saw herself reflected in them.

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Drawn in by this experience, she embarked on a two-year-long documentary project during which she lived within the trans community in Lima. Instead of viewing the women through the lens as if they were from one world and she another, she became a member of their community and a part of the intimate family of the trans beauty pageant participants. Through this devoted technique she established her relationship with the subjects of her imagery.

Bracamonte’s work interested me because her choice to radically change her lifestyle from modeling for the sake of this first-time documentation of a different yet parallel world to hers is something I viewed as unusual and remarkable. Her work also interested me because as a novice to the medium, she dedicated herself fully to exposing a sensitive otherness with a high degree of respect in both her process and the result, instead of hastily approaching the theme in a voyeuristic manner.

In the following interview, Bracamonte sits down with Artifactoid to discuss her inspiration for the project, insights she learned in the process, and future projects she has in store.

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Artifactoid: How did the project Lima Intrarrosa begin?

Teresa Bracamonte (TB): What initiated the project Lima Intrarrosa in 2012 was my discovery of the existence of the beauty pageants that were organized by the transgender community. This strongly called my attention because at that time I was dedicated to high fashion modeling, and had been called to participate in the Miss Perú pageant and other feminine beauty events.

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I discovered these (transgender) competitions on a television report, where a journalist was interviewing the winner of that night’s contest, who later went on to show the conditions in which she was living and they were extremely humble.

Artifactoid: How did you see your own experiences within those of the people you documented?

TB: Lima Intrarrosa covers diverse aspects of the transgender community in Lima. I think that one aspect I most identified with were the beauty pageants. When I photographed all that was happening during the show, and backstage, there was the same euphoria that I experienced in backstages of fashion shows, just before heading out to walk on the runway. At that time my main source of income was coming from high fashion runway shows.

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I believe that an artist always sees herself reflected, in one way or another, in that which she chooses to create a portrait of. Many times it is something unconscious; that the artist feels attracted toward a certain reality without being certain of why.

In my case, at the start, it was the beauty pageants and everything that they implied (the production of beautification, performance, etc). Later it became something deeper; I felt identified with the search for self-affirmation and the fight for being who you deeply want to be.

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I am a fan of Pedro Almódovar, and in is film “Todo sobre mi madre” (“All About my Mother”), there is a line spoken by the character Agrado, played by Antonia San Juan, that goes, “The more one resembles what she has dreamt of herself, the more authentic she is.”

There is also an element of rebellion: during a time in my life, I questioned a lot about the culturally established binary roles. I wasn’t fully understanding them; they made me feel uncomfortable. It bothered me – the idea of having to comply with certain expectations or attitudes just because I was a woman. I felt that men had certain “permissions” that women didn’t have, and that I wanted to have those permissions, too. This made me question my own feminine role.

Artifactoid: What were the most important things you learned living within Lima’s trans community?

TB: The most important thing I learned while living for two years with the transgender community in Lima, was the survival system that they had developed to be able to move forward in their daily lives. One aspect that interested me deeply was the recreation of family ties: the majority, upon suffering exclusion from their nuclear families, constructed a new family amongst themselves. The links that they create are even stronger than blood. Another interesting characteristic is the resilience and the will to be. That force to dare to exteriorize who they feel that they are, despite prejudgements and exclusion (above all in a male chauvinist country like Peru), is what I admire in all of the transgender people. There is also the sad side, which is the reality that they face each day, of exclusion and extreme violence. Life expectancy is low, and access to basic rights is null.

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Artifactoid: How does this project fit within your body of artistic work as a whole?

TB: Lima Intrarrosa was my first photographic project. I produced it over the course of 2012 and 2013. It marked the beginning of my trajectory as a photographer. Before that I generally used painting as my mode of expression. It was also the beginning of my line of work: I search to make visible groups of people and themes that our society hides, negates, disguises or masks. All of my projects can be viewed on my website. My starting point, as a visual artist, is to search for the beauty in what is considered grotesque, unacceptable or unchaste, and show it through images. My inspiration lies in awakening sensations through themes that we tend to reject or that make us feel uncomfortable.

All of my work revolves around this duality – the contrasts – of both concepts: the horrendous, and the beautiful, and the multifarious shades of each. I am on a constant search to provoke the spectator, and induce her to observe and question herself, but above all to submerge herself into realities that she might consider foreign to her.

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Through my work I constantly take on the challenge to overthrow prejudices, ideas, and stereotypes that we have deeply rooted.

Artifactoid: Are you aware of other artists in Peru working with the theme of transgender life, like Giuseppe Campuzano? Were you influenced by them, and how?

TB: When I was developing Lima Intrarrosa, in 2012, the only Peruvian artist I knew at that time, and whose work affected me, was Giuseppe Campuzano. I met with him when I was beginning the project. I remember that I bought his book, El Museo Travesti del Perú. He advised me to visit the exhibition that he carried out at the gallery 80m2 that year, where he created an installation based on newspaper cutouts that showed, over the longterm, how the media were treating the trans community in a denigrating and scandalous way.

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Artifactoid: Tell me about the idea of “double perception,” related to trans women who migrate from Peru to Europe. Why is it important to reveal this concept in your photography?

TB: One aspect that called my attention upon creating Lima Intrarrosa, was the desire of almost all of the women in the transgender community to migrate to Europe. Those who achieve this are called triunfadoras (“winners”).

Apparently, the triunfadoras experience a complex situation once they live in Europe. The term “winner” becomes contradictory, and we find ourselves facing a paradox between the concept of what it means to be a triunfadora, connected with the idea of success and the positive, versus the difficult reality that the triunfadoras live once they arrive in Europe. At the same time, the population that surrounds them abroad doesn’t know what it means to be a Latin American transgender woman migrant in Europe, and above all they don’t know that that they left their country perceived as winners.

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Therefore exists the “double perception:” they are two imaginaries of the same existence that are culturally opposite and contradict each other. Roland Barthes stated that, “The photo portrait is a palisade of forces.  The imaginaries intersect, face each other, and deform.” I view this theory in relationship to the triunfadoras.

I presently live in Paris, where I am producing a photographic project comprised of portraits of transgender women migrants from Peru, and/or South Americans who live in the French capital.

It’s not a “documentary” project, as I seek to translate my subjective point of view about beauty onto it. I am doing this to show the protagonists of my series as impregnable and glorious, in a manner contrary to how they are generally represented.

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Artifactoid: How did you arrive at your fascination for the objects of the people you documented, and why were they an important area of focus for this project?

TB: I realized that, through objects, I could show important aspects of the person I was developing a portrait of. I discovered that personal items give us information that is not evident when we only focus on the person. These things can communicate as much, or even more, than the physical body in and of  itself. I believe that a portrait can be made through objects alone.

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Artifactoid: Do you plan to explore working with the masculine transgender community in Peru?

TB: For now it doesn’t form a part of my plans, since I am developing other projects, but it seems interesting to me. I may explore it in another moment; an artist should always be open to different and diverse possibilities.

Artifactoid: What are some of your goals for this project?

TB: I have finished a photographic book of Lima Intrarrosa, curated by Jorge Villacorta, including some testimonials and reviews. My goal is to publish it in the near future, and I am currently seeking support to do that. The book can be viewed here

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Artifactoid: What do you plan to do next?

TB: Currently as mentioned I live in Paris. I came to do a Masters in Photography and Contemporary art at the University of Paris 8. I am developing artistic projects within my line of work, questioning stereotypes, and using codes of representation that interest me about certain themes and distorting them through art.

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About the artist:

Teresa Bracamonte is a visual artist who was born in Lima, Peru, in 1989. She completed two years of General Art Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. She finished her studies of Plastic Arts in the Alternating Current School, where she graduated. She obtained the title of Complementary Baccalaureate in Arts at the National University of San Marcos. Then she studied Photography at the Center of the Image, where she obtained the first prize of her group.

Teresa, at age 25, had her first solo show curated by Jorge Villacorta at the II Lima Photography Biennial: Lima Intrarrosa. Her second individual show was in the city of Trujillo (2016). Bracamonte has participated in several group exhibitions in different places of his country, such as Ricardo Palma Cultural Center; The Museum of the Nation; The Inka Garcilazo Cultural Center; Gallery of the French Alliance, Euroidiomas Foundation, Cultural Center of the University of Lima, among others. She has also had the opportunity to exhibit twice in Dubai, in 2016.

She currently resides in Paris, France, where she is studying a Masters of Photography and Contemporary Art at Paris 8, La Sorbonne.

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Carolee Schneemann, Kinetic Painting at MoMA PS1

Above: Installation view, Kinetic Painting. Image © Artifactoid.

Museum retrospectives give viewers the opportunity to fully understand the career of an artist in-depth. The variation between the distinct styles of the artist’s work over decades is visible, as is their impressive generative capacity. One example of a great retrospective was the Constant Nieuwenhuys exhibit at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, where the artist’s whimsical, emotional and painterly techniques segued into highly conceptual and architectural ones spanning from the mid-century to present day.

Carolee Schneemann’s current retrospective at MoMA PS1 titled Kinetic Painting is special because it demonstrates Schneemann’s transformation from beginning in the postwar period as a female artist working within the confines of the masculine genre of abstract expressionism, to an artist who masterfully approached a diverse variety of media, fearlessly implementing new ideas. She created works, which, whether or not she intended them to be, were radical and activist.

On view through March 11, 2018, Kinetic Painting includes Schneemann’s paintings, sculptures, films, drawings and performances, ranging from interactive social experiments with friends, lovers, and pet cats, to pieces dealing with violence, mourning, grief, sex, gender, and the politics of the female body. For instance, in the below work, Vulva’s Morphia (1995) Schneemann problematizes if womens’ understanding of their own anatomy/physiology is defined in masculine terms.

Carolee Schneemann, Vulva’s Morphia, 1995. Image © Artifactoid.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll (detail), 1975. Image © Artifactoid.

Historically, Schneemann was part of the global avant-garde movement of Fluxus artists of the 60s and 70s who refuted the market and confronted the structures in place. Today, her influence continues to inspire creators such as New York-based performance artist and painter Theresa Byrnes who has previously been interviewed on Artifactoid. The above image depicts detail of the original manifesto that Schneemann pulled out of her vagina during the 1975 performance of Interior Scroll, one of her most famous and controversial works.

While Schneemann is most widely known for her performances, she has always defined herself first and foremost as a painter. Throughout her oeuvre, the two media are inextricably connected. As part of Schneemann’s love for painting, she is also interested in the limitations of painting and  ideas that may only be able to be expressed through performative action. Both this philosophy and her critique of abstract expressionism are revealed in works like Up To and Including Her Limits (1973-76), detailed in the below video clip courtesy of © MoMA:

When Schneemann debuted as a painter, the challenges for female artists were severe. After World War II, abstract expressionism emerged as a masculine, all-American painting style which flourished in the patriotic environment of the U.S. at the time and dominated the art market. Female painters were unable to reach the same level of success as male painters within this framework.

Siwin Lo, PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, notes,
“The climate of the art world before the 1960s in New York was a profoundly masculinist one, even though there were women who managed to attain some degree of recognition. In many cases, women artists had to navigate promoting themselves in an environment where they were considered women first, and artists second. For some, such as Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, their careers were read largely through their relationship to their male partners, a tendency that we still see in the discussion of many women artists. For Carolee Schneemann, coming up in this type of scene, the desire to be seen as herself as well as the desire to make art as herself would have been understood as contradictory. The fact that she was punished for painting herself nude really crystallizes the assumed incompatibility between the body painted, and the artist painting—for the art schools of Schneemann’s time, these two could not co-exist in the same person. By refusing to separate herself between being the object and the maker of her kinetic paintings, she points to the gendered hypocrisy of Abstract Expressionism, as if to say, “if Pollock famously locates himself within his paintings,* why can’t I?”
Confronted with these challenges, Schneemann was a pioneer and fearless visionary. However, she generally didn’t view her own work as shocking or radical even though others did. And, while she has achieved a major museum retrospective such as Kinetic Painting, she experienced a deluge of backlash and criticism throughout her entire career. There were critiques that her work was narcissistic, diaristic, and pornographic, among other things. Despite this, she kept creating, following her truth, and providing an original perspective, which I think can be a lesson to us all.

Installation view, Kinetic Painting. Image © Artifactoid.

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.” -Jackson Pollock, quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 48. Courtesy Siwin Lo.

An Art-Filled Home for the Holidays: Notes on Collecting, Giving, and Cherishing Art with Pat Bell

Above: installation view, portion of Pat Bell’s art collection festive for the holiday season

Collectors play a critical role in the art world, not only as tastemakers and figures who help shape the global art market, but also as supporters of artists’ careers, donors to institutions and nonprofits that allow art to become more accessible to the public, and more. Some private art collections can be visited like museums.

Prominent art collector Pat Bell exemplifies an individual whose passion for art gives back to the arts community. Her New York Times-worthy collection is located in her whimsical Victorian South Orange, New Jersey home. Pat graciously welcomed me to take a tour of her collection and speak with her about how it is curated.

In this Artifactoid interview, Pat discusses her beginnings as an art collector, institutional giving, and what she loves most about living alongside art.

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Artwork detail from the collection of Pat Bell

Artifactoid: When did you begin collecting art?

Pat Bell: I am going to tell you the story of my art collecting. My sister Pamela Bell was working for John Lee of now BravinLee Programs as an intern in the city. John asked me what I was doing with my extra money that I was making as a Financial Advisor at Merrill Lynch. I said buying stocks and bonds, he suggested looking at art. I said I knew nothing about it but I was willing to learn. He asked if I wanted to buy art I knew or art that was new, I said again that I knew nothing about art at all but new art of the day sounded more interesting to me. This was 1989.

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Artwork detail from the collection of Pat Bell

Artifactoid: How did your collection start out? What inspired you to start collecting? Was there a defining moment?

PB: John took me around to art galleries in Soho at the time that is where the art scene was. The first day out I bought a piece by Dotty Attie, and the “Sex Series”  by David Wojnarowicz. Both works spoke to me, and I realized that the thought of living with the artists’ work excited me. John took me around a number of other times, and then I became comfortable to go on my own.

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Artwork detail from the collection of Pat Bell

Artifactoid: Who is your favorite artist?

PB: I have so many favorite artists. Modigliani, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Lisa Yuskavage, Egon Schiele, there are so many more. I always thought that art works were just borrowed so that I do not have just one work that I just must have. It is easy for me to give them away. I do not become attached to them. I think I am a little different than many collectors in that respect.

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Installation view, portion of Pat Bell’s art collection and home décor

Artifactoid: Do you have a “dream” piece to own? What would it be?

PB: I do not really have just one dream piece. I see new photography and I love it and then I see another one and I love it too. It is easy for me to fall in love; I just fall in love with the works all of the time.

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Artwork detail from the collection of Pat Bell

Artifactoid: What are some of your favorite pieces that you own?

PB: Some of my most long lasting artists that are represented in my collection are Thomas Broadbent a wonderful water colorist, Willie Cole who speaks for himself, Alexis Rockman. Helen Van Meene a wonderful photographer who take photographs of girls who are coming of age. Jen Davis. Alec Soth. Bo Risden. Rachel Perry-Wealty. I could go on.

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Artwork detail from the collection of Pat Bell

Artifactoid: You have donated a lot to institutions. Where are some places people can go and see pieces from your collection?

PB: I have given works to the Montclair Art Museum, about 65 works. They actually did a show of all the works that I gave back in 2013 it was wonderful. Usually anytime you visit the museum, there are works up that I have gifted. I also have given works to the Newark Museum, some really special pieces. There is usually something on view there as well. I recently have a work to the State Museum in Trenton by David Ambrose; he is a wonderful artist. I have also giving Aljira works for their auction over the last ten years. Really great works that always draw attention to the event. Hank Willis Thomas, Willie Cole and so many more.

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Installation view, portion of Pat Bell’s art collection and home décor

Artifactoid: What would be your most important piece of advice for someone seriously thinking about beginning an art collection?

PB: I buy what I like not what I am told I should like. One thing that I have noticed in the art world as of late is that people buy names not works. I wonder if they end up with a collection that is full of spirit and inspiration then. I have always trusted my instincts and they have held me in good stead.

Artifactoid: How does collecting art enrich your life?

PB: I love art, it is like living with the souls of the artists; what a great gift.

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Artwork detail from the collection of Pat Bell

When 1960s Sci-Fi and Surveillance Collide in 21st Century Sculpture: Björn Schülke Vision Instruments at bitforms gallery

Above: Björn Schülke, Beam Engine #1, 2016, Brass, mirror, paint, electronics, solar cells, motors, laser, 7.1 x 15 x 9.9 in / 18 x 38 x 25 cm

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine

Would there be world peace if aliens attacked Earth? After all, doesn’t everyone get along better once they share an enemy?

In the divisive global political environment confronting us, I find myself wishing for the aliens to appear.

I started thinking about this after learning about Raumpatrouille Orion, or, “Space Patrol Orion,” (1966), the first ever German science fiction TV series, which inspired Vision Instruments, a collection of sculptures by Björn Schülke currently on view at bitforms gallery on NYC’s Lower East Side. According to bitforms gallery, Raumpatrouille Orion reflected a certain Cold-War era global attitude of idealistic utopianism, and the mentality of conquest and emphasis on space travel, which is also present in a lot of Schülke’s work.

Schülke was born in Cologne, Germany in 1967. Perhaps as an artist he was drawn to exploring the collective psychology of the environment into which he was born, utilizing Raumpatrouille Orion as his case study. But, what can we learn from Raumpatrouille Orion now? I think that some of the answers might lie in what else Björn Schülke focuses on in his sculptures.

Björn Schülke, Vision Machine #8 , 2016, Brass, steel, wood, mirrors, paint, camera, display, sensor, electronics, 15.75 x 11.8 x 14.2 in / 40 x 30 x 36 cm, Edition of 3, 1 AP (variant)

The other central theme of much of Schülke’s work is questioning the ways in which we interact with technology. To us in 2017, the “technological frontier,” its own universe without borders, can be compared to the physical universe within which exploration was idolized during the Cold War. At that time, we worshipped astronauts like rock stars. Today, we worship tech innovators like rock stars. That is absolutely not to say that we have stopped revering our astronauts, but rather to say that when it comes to astronauts versus tech innovators, the media has switched their “it girl” over the decades and the technologists are their latest sweetheart.

So, how are we interacting with technology, this thing that we worship? I think that one thing that Schülke is trying to say with his art is that we are giving it too much power.

His shiny, white, mechanical, stick bug shaped kinetic sculptures range from about the size of a football to the size of a refrigerator, and are mounted on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery, surrounding viewers from all sides. They each have unique sleek, futuristic designs, but are futile in function, clearly separating them from the product design prototypes of the tech world and setting them firmly in the art category.

Although futile, they each beckon us to interact with them. For example, we look to find our reflections in the tiny circular mirrors that some of them have, and look to see our images picked up by their cameras, even though their cameras are operating in connection with a surveillance system. This evokes the Privacy Paradox, in which we are tempted to upload mass quantities of information about ourselves onto the Internet, almost like a mirror of ourselves, even if it is at the risk of our own security – which we then express simultaneous concern about.

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Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

In addition, many of the sculptures are equipped with small solar panels that take in light and charge the small batteries within them. Once the charge of the battery reaches a certain level of fullness, the sculpture moves, and is brought to life, like a little anthropomorphic creature that we created, but that now has a mind of its own and operates without our assistance, catching us off guard.

This is not the first time I have seen the issue of surveillance explored in art. In fact I have seen it utilized many times, and have written about it on several occasions as I consider it one of the interesting current themes that the global creative community is having an active discourse about. You can see some of my prior explorations of this topic in my articles about The Privacy Paradox 2016 group show at Reverse Gallery, the artist Joel Holmberg at New Museum, the artist Lorraine Oades and her project TV Tracker (a part of a 2015 group show of artists from Quebec at Knockdown Center). To note, there is also a radio show on NPR right now called The Privacy Paradox.

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Björn Schülke, Supersonic #3, 2008, Fiberglass, plywood, steel, motion sensors, theremin, woofer, tweeter, amplifier, paint 22 x 46 x 15 in / 56 x 117 x 38 cm

So, back to my original question, what can we learn today from Schülke’s revival of ideas from Raumpatrouille Orion? I think that the obvious conclusion is that while it was the first German sci-fi television show, from over fifty years ago, those same issues in the show apply now. Today it seems that it might still require this threatening, alien outside force to attack for all of us humans to band together to achieve peace on earth. What shape and form would that “force” take if the show were remade today? Could it be something like climate change, or related to technology?

Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

Finally, it is this issue of surveillance resurfacing in both the outer space universe and the technology universe. During the Cold War era of Raumpatrouille Orion, sci-fi fear of aliens was this major allegory for xenophobia, fear of other countries, and fear of apocalyptic nuclear disaster. Sound familiar? At that time, a person might have asked, who are the aliens from outer space who are watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack? Today, we could think in those same terms, but digitally. Who is watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack, replete with our data?

Art Publishing Now: Noah Becker In Conversation With Katy Diamond Hamer And Deianira Tolema

(Above, L to R: Deianira Tolema, Founder, D/Railed [Photo Credit Francesca Ciri], Katy Diamond Hamer, Founder, Eyestowardsthedove)

By Noah Becker, publisher of Whitehot Magazine

When I started publishing about art in 2005, it felt like there were no art magazines on the web. But rather than stake a claim at being the founder of online contemporary art publishing, I’ll keep it an active playing field and let history do its thing. I’ve always been a successful oil painter, so my perspective as an artist and publisher has spoken to this generation of art interested readers in a voice they recognize. I’m also a Jazz saxophonist – I read and write music. This understanding of time-based art has assisted me a great deal in my writings. But when I say art magazines I mean the development of websites devoted to contemporary art (in the sense of) and presentation of a print magazine online. My favourite art website at the time I started publishing was Artnet.com, where writers like Jerry Saltz, Charlie Finch, Ana Finel Honigman and Walter Robinson wrote regular columns. Paul Laster was another regular Artnet contributor at that time. As some of you know, since 2005 and the founding of my magazine called Whitehot Magazine, I’ve published over 300 writers. Now there are numerous multiple contributor based platforms devoted to writing about art. School of Visual Arts even started an art writing program for young art writers.

Some examples of semi-recent and long term platforms are: Art F City, Hyperallergic, Artnet, Artforum and so forth. Now in 2016, I find myself discovering new publishers who are dedicated to art and run their owns new platforms. Writer/publisher Katy Diamond Hamer and her site Eyestowardsthedove is worth looking at. Also publisher/writer Deianira Tolema with her site D/Railed is another that comes to mind.

My interest in their motivations for pursuing art publishing inspired me to speak with them for Artifactoid.

Noah Becker: Why do you write and publish about art?
 

Katy Diamond Hamer: I first started Eyes Towards the Dove in 2007 as a platform for my own writing and used it as a way to project my written voice into the global sphere. Not writing about art was never an option.  Initially I used the space to write about my own art practice as well as the work of others. Self-publishing became a way for me to truly learn about my own text-based practice and in doing so informed my taste and understanding of contemporary art. Having a blog which has evolved into more of a magazine format, is the entry point that has catapulted my presence in the art world and without having to deal with restrictions put forth by others.

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Ai WeiWei and Katy Diamond Hamer

Deianira Tolema: Art has been used as a reflection of hierarchical imperatives in relation to the concepts of luxury and power, to demarcate the social-economic and cultural differences between the upper and lower classes. Art, as we know from art history, started out about ten thousand years ago as a means to explore and understand reality. It started out on a more perceptual level, then developed into a the first social-political stratagems – perhaps the first forms of subliminal psychological manipulation of the masses, where the products to be sold were nothing more or less than false gods. High ranking members of society employed techniques of divination that anticipated what we now know as modern self-mythologizing. In this light, to answer your question, the main reason I write and publish about contemporary art is to offer art professionals and interested readers a broader perspective of what art can be and mean – regardless of current trends. Thus, my ultimate goal is to use critical skill to push beyond aesthetics, to analyze the role of art in contemporary society.

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NB: When you started writing about art what was your inspiration to get involved?

KDH: Initially it was my own painting practice. One of my best friends at the time was writing for Artforum and spending time with him had an impact on my own fascination with the written word, descriptions of art –both two and three dimensional– and process of constructing a sentence.

DT: I started studying art, psychology, and sociology around age ten after reading many fairy tales and books about Italian poetry. Italy, my country of origin, is literally covered in archeological sites left by the Ancient Greeks, and the remains of the complex architecture that survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Imagine growing up walking among the ruins of temples and theaters from thousand of years ago. Academically, art history has always been one of my primary interests. Writing poems and essays about the art that surrounded me came naturally. Also, it must be said, I received a rather rigid education at home.

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Deianira Tolema at Galleria D’Arte Merighi in Genova; photo credit and courtesy Francesca Ciri Capra

NB: What do you plan to gain from all of this?

KDH: After spending time in Miami for Art Basel this past December, I realized that looking at art really quiets my inner thoughts. There is something that in the process of looking allows me to be the best version of myself, or at least it feels that way! In regards to contemporary art, I always say that my goal is to look back before going forward. Observing and thinking about contemporary art would mean nothing if I wasn’t familiar with all the other movements that have come before. I love meeting people: gallerists, collectors, artists and other journalists. These interactions can be just as valuable as the art itself.

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Katy Diamond Hamer speaks at Art Basel

DT: Well, first of all, honestly it’s fun! Nothing has ever made me happier than art, not even food. Mind you, in Italy food is considered a source of maximum pleasure – especially in the South. Also, I’d like to set an example for future generations with my work, not just to be remembered, but to contribute to the public dialogue with blunt criticism of conventional thinking and bad art. To make my little contribution to the evolution of humanity. I’m making a living working as a writer with artists, editors, and curators. It’s a 24/7 job, so I’m planning to acquire more money, and of course, more knowledge.

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Artist Violetta Carpino for Italian Feminism in Contemporary Art (sneak preview). Photo credit and courtesy Luigi Ieluzzo. Image provided by Deianira Tolema.

NB: How do you know the difference between good art and bad art?

KDH: The world is full of art and New York in particular is nearly oversaturated. Typically, we can describe art in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ terms, yet I don’t think that is necessarily the end goal of the critic. Returning to what I said earlier about going back before going forward, I personally establish much of what I like or feel is culturally or historically relevant based on what has come before. Then of course there is the simple definition that could refer to the skill level of the artist and his or her particular pastry of a medium yet even with skill, art can be subpar.

DT: For me it’s very intuitive. I’ve always been obsessed with beauty and symmetry. Once, as a child, prior to an afternoon tea party at the home of my mother’s friend I was almost driven by a subconscious need to frantically grab all the teaspoons randomly positioned on a table and align them to one another diagonally in a way so perfect that another child freaked out. There was an awkward moment of silence in the room that lasted for a good ten minutes. Aesthetics is a subject that can be taught at school in such a way so by the end of the class most students will have a good understanding of the differences between good and bad art. But, there’s an innate element that very few people have – an aesthetic sensibility that can be learned with years of training.

NB:  How can you tell the difference between good writers and bad writers?

KDH: I tend to link art and writing together. They are both practices that involve a multitude of components wherein the brush stroke could be compared to the linear quality of the lines that make up individual letters. Good art writers are able to successfully communicate thoughts and translate the visual language into the visual written language. It’s not an easy task as each writer must establish a particular sound while also adhering to rules of grammar, word count and importantly knowing when to stop. I also have a hard time when someone uses too many words to talk about something simple.

DT: Writing is, and should be, less intuitive. It has a lot to do with actually writing well, expressing concepts clearly, understanding grammar, creating text objectively, making logic structures that will lead readers through your maze-like argument or assessment. At least for me, there’s no space or time for subjectivity. It really just boils down to a combination of technical details and natural skill. I always try not to look at someone’s resume’ before reading their writing, so that my judgment is not influenced by a prejudice that might affect my opinion.

NB: Is art important in the face of all the distress and negativity in the world?

KDH: Art is everything. It can be about action in the political realm, love that brings people together or a place of respite in otherwise visual collision.

DT: Art can be a distraction from the distress of the world, or a way to investigate and defy negativity. I think there should be no obligation for artists to do anything deeper than than the decorative, so long as the expression is somehow meaningful.

NB: Do you see how artists and collectors are often opposing to each other politically?

DT: I do know what you mean. I think this is one of the many contradictions in how the art world works. In its guise of balancer of the opposites art has always conveyed the tension between antithetical elements that keep the universe dynamically static, or statically dynamic. On a less philosophical and more practical note, art has always manifested contrasting realities – imagined as colliding and blending with one another on the same existential plane. The artist/collector juxtaposition is an extension of this implicit quality of art. It is a moot point, as long as there’s no conflict between the artist’s ethics and the collectors’ demands.

KDH: Well, the question is fairly directive and leans towards this being something that you believe. Do you think they are opposing? Simply stated, artists are the creative force and collectors are those who support process, enjoy living with art objects and often play a role in the way that art is perceived at a later date. Artists can be collectors but it’s much rarer for collectors to also be artists.

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NB: Is there anything positive you feel that you could do in our current political climate through your publishing platform and your writing?

DT: Talking about Italy and Europe, there is much more that artists could do. I think of what American artists have been doing, for instance, in the wake of their presidential election. Unfortunately, after hundreds of years of taboos reinforced by the church and the demonization of creativity, and the economic crisis, I feel that, with some rare exceptions, we do not easily embrace art as a form of protest in this area of the world. Paradoxically, some of the best politically charged contemporary art comes from Europe. I’m trying to use D/railed Magazine to to talk about useful subjects. It turns out it’s not easy to keep all the writers focused on one theme. They have different academic backgrounds and priorities and address our readers on provocative, socially challenging topics without forgoing art talk. I hope those who come across my magazine can follow my lead. As far as I know, I’m the first Southern-Italian woman to have broken so many gender, classism, and cross-cultural barriers with a contemporary art project with an international impact. I hope they follow my lead and fight male chauvinists and win by flying solo and proving them wrong about any leftover claim of intellectual superiority (which is a big deal in Southern Italy, where the heterogeneous culture has yet to produce a generation of self-thinking, ambitious and independent women so powerful that they can shake the planet with a single thought). Imagine an army of American-like Southern-Italian amazons marching to war. To finally witness something like that – so rebellious and even erotic – before I die would make my day for a long time. I also want to keep bringing my Italian/European perspective to other cultures in front of an increasingly international audience – to produce a butterfly-effect in the minds and souls of readers who come from entirely different cultural contexts (which makes me sound even more megalomaniacal than usual). So back to your question, the only thing I can do in this precarious political climate between Brexit and everything else, is to keep doing what I’m doing with the help of some of the top art writers in the world.

KDH: I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last month and a half for obvious reasons. I had been concerned about Trump winning the Presidency but two weeks before Election Day those worries started to subside. Now that he will be taking the highest political office in the United States, I find that art and the art world need to be more important than ever. In 2017 I am planning on being much more aware of the marginalized, black and brown bodies, queerness and female artists. Those who feel repressed, need to be heard.

NB: Would you encourage other people to start writing and publishing about contemporary art?

DT: No, I wouldn’t. I’m actually encouraging all the high school students I know to not pursue a career in this field, unless they have a really special talent. It’s not for everyone.

KDH: Yes! While the web has changed since I started and is much more dynamically competitive, having one’s own online venue to develop, share and practice is a worthwhile venture. There is an entrepreneurial aspect and strength that comes with the freedom of being able to self-publish and I would encourage anyone with a desire to be seen and heard to take the bull by the horns and go for it.

hamerpanelKaty Diaond Hamer

NB:  Is there anything specific you have noticed that you want to share about your experience in the art world?

DT: There’s an aspect of it that concerns ‘judging a book by its cover’. That, in my opinion, is rather superficial and interferes with art’s poetic/spiritual potential.

KDH: The art world is smaller than one might imagine. For anyone initially starting out, it can seem scary and unwelcoming but can be penetrated with the right amount of effort and desire. If the passion is there, keep going. I’ve had ups and downs in my career but art is all I know. My advice is to never give up and never stop looking.

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Author Noah Becker is a New York based painter and the publisher of Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art. Follow him @noahbeckerstudio, @whitehotmagazine.

A Compass for Kuitca: Artifactoid Exclusive Tour with Sotheby’s SVP of Fine Art Eric Shiner

When I was based in Buenos Aires during the fall of 2011, there was a time when nearly every Saturday night I would go to the Universidad Torcuato de Di Tella for the weekly opening nights at the Beca Kuitca, an artist residency founded by Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca in Buenos Aires in 1991. Many of the artists who were participating in the Beca Kuitca at that moment are incredible creators who I feel lucky to know, including Eduardo Basualdo, Florencia Rodriguez-Giles, Juan Tessi, and Nicolas Mastracchio, among others. It is beautiful to think about how Guillermo Kuitca, aside from being a hauntingly skilled artist who is included in the TATE and MET collections, developed this amazing, influential program to give back, and provide more growth opportunities to some of the premier rising artistic talents in Argentina today.

Eric Shiner, Senior Vice President of Fine Art at Sotheby’s and former Director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, shares my reverence for Kuitca, and below, I am pleased to publish excerpts and photographs from my recent tour with Mr. Shiner for Artifactoid of the Guillermo Kuitca solo exhibition he curated, Terra Nullius, featuring works by the artist from the early 1990s through 2010. Below, Shiner shares his curatorial concept, his expertise on pieces from several of Kuitca’s most important series, as well as fascinating details about the artist’s life.

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I was really thinking about doing an exhibition about being lost, prior to the U.S. presidential election, because I think so many of us were just completely aimless, tired, frustrated; all of the many things that come up when you are heading into such a momentous period and momentous occasion with so many repercussions tied to it. So I wanted to do a show about being lost, and I immediately thought of Kuitca because I loved his work for ever and he’s such a phenomenal artist and has always been just below the radar even though he should be well on the radar, or above it in so many ways. And of course he’s had such an incredible exhibition history with the things at MoMa, project space show at MoMA in 1991, to the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1989, and on and on and on. So I thought that that would be a good thing to do and because his work is very much about being lost, and it’s about displacement, about migration, immigration, persecution, psychology, and the way humans navigate space and think about space. It seemed that that would be a good topic at this precise moment in time. So, I decided to call the show, “Terra Nullius,” in Latin, (“No Man’s Land” is the English translation), to really capture that idea of not really knowing where we are, feeling displaced, and perhaps, with certain political implications, people rethinking their own geographies based on the result. One way or another, depending on who won [the election], one group of people was going to feel displaced, disconnected, and that’s ultimately what I wanted this show to reflect.”

kuitca1Guillermo Kuitca, “Everything,” Mixed media in two parts on canvas, 120 1/8 x 65 in. ea., 2003

“In this huge two-panel work (above), which is just exceptionally beautiful, Kuitca does exactly that with the maps in that they make no sense whatsoever. You’ll have Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania next to Ottowa, Canada, for example. So they’re not actual maps, but there are some semblances of reality within it that you’ll also see. In addition to a bird’s-eye view of the road system, there’s also a topographic map blended into the piece – you could read weather map patterns into it – it’s just a complete combination of all of the many layers through which we view our world; and that’s why I just absolutely love this piece; in that it’s so complex, and also, strangely, for me at least, a lot of the work is incredibly meditative and calming — that this is something you can stand in front of and stare at, and for me it’s an incredibly calming thing, but maybe for others it has a completely different vibe.”

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“I wanted to put together this main gallery space, and then the two wings on either side. I wanted to focus on maps and floor plans here, and then in one side space, put two paintings from the “Crown of Thorns” series, and in the other side space, two pieces from the “Beds” series. I also wanted to mix it up in terms of the different ways that Kuitca looks at maps: some very crisp and clean, some bordering on abstract. And of course, include this work (below) which is a complete ode to cubism.”

kuitca14Guillermo Kuitca, “Lontano,” Oil on linen, 76 7/8 x 64 1/2 in., 2010

kuitca2Guillermo Kuitca, “Untitled,” Acrylic on canvas, 76 x 117 3/8 in., 1990

“This one (above) is twenty-four different grids of maps based on real places in some cases, and in other cases, not. I love that the zoom is different in terms of how high up you are looking into the space, so the scale is completely different from square to square. Here, you are much closer, and here, you are further out, and again here further out, and further out. I just absolutely love the way he’s thinking about the veins and the arteries of a city – of a space – and the way that water, rivers, or other areas become blank. It’s just a great piece – and again for me, very meditative.”

kuitca5“Untitled,” detail

“I was speaking with a group of architects from Brazil about this work, and one of them brought up the fact that today, we understand geography in our world in a completely new way through technology. In the old days you actually had to have the physical map that you would unfold – a paper map – and that was how you would chart your course; you would figure it out or probably write it down, and either memorize it or figure out how to navigate that way – left here, right there; landmarks, etcetera. Whereas now, all we do is turn on our phone, plug in the address, hit “go,” and follow its lead without really paying any attention to where we’re going; we just know that we’ll get there. It was such an interesting conversation to have, because that’s the reality of what we’re doing right now.”

“And of course, it goes without saying that Kuitca has a huge map collection. He collects vintage maps and atlases, and he uses these things as his inspiration and as his guide.”

kuitca6Guillermo Kuitca, “Crumlin Road,” Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 59 1/8 x 70 7/8 in., 1993

This painting (above) is of Belfast. It is fantastic. It’s on a terra-cotta ground, painted with a very terra cotta color, smudged, so it’s abstract in the background, and the map is superimposed on top of that. This is Belfast in Ireland, and it shows the dividing line between the Protestant side of town and the Catholic side of town. So, even though it’s only a road [Crumlin Road], it is the dividing line, and a site of war and conflict. The thing that I love about this work is that every church is demarcated.”

kuitca7“Crumlin Road,” detail

“Kuitca obviously has a very conflicted view of religion. Growing up third-generation Eastern European Jewish in Latin America (an otherwise Catholic place), I’m sure has a lot to do with his feeling displaced, lost, and not horribly religious – so how do you factor all of these things in? Both of Kuitca’s parents were psychotherapists, so you can just imagine how they (and he in turn) thus had to deal with religion and human psychology, their place in the world, being intellectuals in Buenos Aires, and all of the things that come along with that.”

“It’s very interesting to think about how Kuitca grew up, and of course, to remember that he was a child prodigy as well. As a young man, well, as a little boy, he showed huge talent in painting and could copy anything, and really was a star painter right out of the chute. It’s interesting that someone with such huge talent chose not to be a representational, or even an abstract, painter, but instead, to do something based not in painting, but in geography, cartography, and concept. And obviously, his hand is so incredibly skilled.”

kuitca16Guillermo Kuitca, “Sacramento,” Oil on canvas, 72 x 36 in., 1990

“This is Sacramento. It’s a really lovely work. It’s based on a map company that Kuitca particularly liked, which was prevalent in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He loved the color palette, with their yellows and their green major highways. As you can see, it’s fractured into 11 canvases, so here Kuitca is literally fracturing the landscape through the use of these small canvases as opposed to doing it on one big one. Then you have the void, where it’s not filled in what’s going on in these spaces, and it may or may not actually be real as to where these roads really go. Often times, in Kuitca’s works you can see that a road leads to the same place, or to absolutely nowhere if you really start to analyze.”

“Why did he choose to work with this particular map? One may ask. It’s really just a matter of what maps Kuitca comes across; now this one [Sacramento] could be read as the epicenter of California; Sacramento is the state capital, and it’s the title of the work. It’s obviously also a Spanish name of an American capital, and could deal with the things that play off the “sacred” and the implications of “sacra-“ in terms of the root of the word in a sacred lexicon. But, Kuitca is focused on areas all over the world, and there’s no rhyme or reason, except in a painting like Belfast where Belfast is very specific. The painting around the corner of Mexico City (below) is also very specific.”

kuitca20Guillermo Kuitca, “Idea de una pasión,” Acrylic on canvas, 78 5/8 x 75 in., 1991

This is Mexico City, and it is just absolutely phenomenal. Here Kuitca takes his map, based on Mexico City but again not exacting at all, and all of a sudden, the roads turn into thorns and brambles of thorns. Then you read the idea of violence, persecution, and bloodletting into this, and of course, sadly, Mexico City has the stereotypical view of being a dangerous place, even though for those of us who go there often, we are aware that that danger is unlikely. It’s just like any other city in the world where everyone is careful, but otherwise it’s not that dangerous. In addition, the imposition of Christianity on indigenous culture – I’m very convinced – is present in this work. Indigenous religions are very very different from Christianity, and the Spaniards came and put Christianity on top of Mexico. I think obviously with the implication of the crown of thorns, that’s very much there.”

kuitca21“Idea de una pasión,” detail

“To note I love this particular area of the painting (shown above), which is not a real place, but instead becomes a spider web or what could be read as a roll of barbed wire, so it’s like a trap.”

kuitca8Guillermo Kuitca, “Corona de Espinas,” Oil on canvas, 60 1/8 x 70 3/8 in., 1994

“And this is Kuitca’s homage to Cy Twombly, of course, but instead of it just being a free-spirited release in form and space, here, Kuitca is very carefully hand-painting all of these brambles of thorns. And again it is obvious that this could be Christ’s crown of thorns or it could just as easily be a reference to barbed wire and persecution, to concentration camps, to genocide, to all of those things; it’s all very wrapped up here.”

notredamekuitcaGuillermo Kuitca, “Untitled,” (Marble flooring plan of the sanctuary and part of the choir of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris), Graphite and ink on linen, 77 1/2 x 63 in., 1999

“This one (above) is graphite on canvas, and it is Notre Dame in Paris. It is from Kuitca’s series of church floor plans. The image is first laid down in graphite, and then Kuitca uses an emulsion with water and some chemical agents to get the graphite to blur. He moves the canvas around so that it bleeds and blurs and stains, and I see this as the Shroud of Turin in many ways. This is the idea of the body of Christ represented in the architectural form of the church, bleeding, melting – either into the architecture, into Paris, into the city, it’s just so beautiful.”

notredamedetail“Untitled” detail

“The image is also a very powerful sculptural form in and of itself. It is as if it is both a floor plan and something achieving actual elevation at the same time.”

kuitca9“Lontano,” detail

“This painting (above) is exceptionally good. It’s based on cubism, the history of art, and the history of painting. Kuitca fuses this with another very central tenet, which is his inclusion of the floor plans of apartments or domestic space. As you know, Kuitca started off doing floor plans of his own apartment, and then just started playing with that form, that cube, of our lived environment, which is a formal element in the painting. I love that in this work the floor plans are very rigid, rectangular or square – very straight edged, straightforward – but are then surrounded by chaos.”

kuitca10Guillermo Kuitca, “Untitled,” Oil on canvas, 75 x 96 in., 1995

And this (above) is from Kuitca’s “beds in rooms” series, and it is so – well – you can really tell that his parents were psychoanalysts when you look at a painting like this! It just becomes theatrical in many, many ways. We brought a group of school kids in last week to show them this, and they immediately said, “Somebody got murdered there!” because of the blood red and the overturned furniture.”

“If you take a look at the doors in the painting, it’s as if the painting asks, which door do you choose? It really forces you to think about which way you go. Through the black door, or, is that a white door? Or is it a closed door? Is it good or is it evil? What lies behind? It’s also interesting that Kuitca was very good friends with Pina Bausch the choreographer. They collaborated often on her stage sets; she was a huge influence on him and he on her. So when you think about Pina’s stage sets, they’re very much like this: simple, stark, just a few pieces of furniture – and just in doing research for this show, I came across this one little essay explaining that relationship and it was like, oh okay, of course! This makes total and complete sense.”

“Also Guillermo of course literally has painted on mattresses, and has hung those on a wall or has made them sculptures or bed sculptures. The bed is a site of ‘human psychogeography,’ and obviously our beds are very very important to us in terms of where we sleep or rest, have sex, enact our lives, where we have insomnia – I mean the bed is both site of trauma and absolute calm. So it’s interesting that several artists have honed in on that.”

kuitca11Guillermo Kuitca, “Untitled,” Oil on canvas, 72 1/2 x 108 in., 1998

And in the work here (above), it’s a reflection of the same space, but also laid on top of an incredibly complex abstract work; just in terms of the staining and the mark-making that’s going on. When you start to look into it, things are more or less matching, yet completely blurred and nothing like the others at all, so is this a reflection in water? Is it a reflection in space, with the overturned beds again going on? And yet, either way it’s not a perfect reflection, because in one place, the chair is upright, in another, upside down and, in another it’s turned over on its side. So beautiful. The color palette is just incredible.”

kuitca22“Untitled” detail

“So ultimately, I was very happy with this show. It’s beautiful, and also, sadly, even more timely than I ever expected it to be. Now that we’re facing a totally new direction in our country, and the implications of what’s to come – with immigration, and ideas of walls, and architecture – from that angle, these things will take on very new meaning. But again, based on one’s politics, some people are elated and thrilled, whereas others are scared and miserable, and I mean I guess that’s always the human condition. And in many ways, when an artist is looking very specifically at how we navigate space, how we inhabit space,and how we position our own identities within it, I thought that they don’t get any better than this.” -Eric Shiner, SVP Fine Art, Sotheby’s

Many thanks to Mr. Shiner from Artifactoid for this thoughtful tour. Unfortunately this exhibit is no longer up, but please stay tuned for more beautiful upcoming shows at the Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery!

Women Photographers in Exile: A Conversation With Curators Christina De León and Michel Otayek

Images by Kati Horna, “Bombed! Shelled! Besieged for two years – but Life goes on!,” The Weekly Illustrated, December 3, 1938 [author unknown]. Private collection, New York.

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

I had had this event on my calendar for weeks, looking forward to unofficially celebrating the election of our first woman president at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, coinciding with this wonderful panel discussion on the topic of women photographers in exile. When the night of November 8th turned into the morning of November 9th , and election results were in, there was a different somber attitude across New York City than I’d ever seen before. As shocked and devastated as I was about the results of the election, I decided that I needed to go to the event that I had been looking forward to for so long. When I headed toward the subway to go uptown, the weather outside was grey, drizzly, and dark, and then the energy inside the subway car felt like that of a funeral. But when I got to this panel event put on by Americas Society in the gorgeous ornate colonial building of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts on 5th Avenue, celebrating the work and accomplishments of these incredibly powerful women photographers during wartime during the earlier parts of the 20th century, I was absolutely uplifted and inspired again in a way that I really needed to be at that moment. It was a night of applauding courageous and creative women who broke boundaries, fought for what they believed in and revealed acute insights on dark times with their art and activism.

In the following interview, I sat down with the curators of both the panel discussion and the exhibition, Michel Otayek and Christina De León, to speak about their motivation and inspiration behind shining the spotlight on incredible talents Kati Horna (Hungary), Lee Miller (United States), Grete Stern (Germany), and Margaret Michaelis (Austria-Hungary; Poland), among others. Each have such an incredible story that I have linked to their Wikipedia pages, but in short, from what I’ve gathered, all of these women, in face of the political turmoil of Europe mostly in the 1930s including the rise of Nazi-ism and the Spanish Civil War, fled from and moved between different countries, in regions including Europe, Latin America, Africa, Australia and the U.S., to take action photographing in often treacherous zones. They produced images for everything from mass publications like Vogue, to activist anarchist propaganda in Spain, to art photography which also sometimes included shared common interests in both surrealism and architecture.

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Kati Horna, Helen Escobedo, 1960; gelatin silver print, 8 x 8 in. Private collection, Mexico City.  © 2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What led to your focus on Kati Horna? What most intrigued you about her work at the onset, and what were some of the most interesting things you discovered about her through your research putting this show and panel together?

Michel Otayek: Kati Horna’s work during the Spanish Civil War was the subject of my master’s thesis at Hunter College a few years ago. My doctoral dissertation at New York University, currently in progress, takes a more expansive view at her trajectory by means of a comparative analysis between her work, before and after exile, and that of Grete Stern. Early on in my research about Horna, it became clear to me that the meaning of her images was inextricable from their circulation in print. Throughout her career, she produced work specifically for the press. In a way, the true medium of her practice was the printed page, rather than the photographic print. In the pages of print materials, text and design bring to bear on what we are to make of photographic images. At the same time, one must also consider of the specificity of the audience (for whom is this magazine crafted?) when thinking about the sense-making power of images. Our exhibition at Americas Society stays close to these ideas. By presenting a rather eclectic array of print materials in dialogue with a selection of vintage prints, we argue that Horna was keenly aware of how circulation determines meaning—a circumstance she was sometimes able to exploit to great effect.

Christina De León: I was familiar with photographs by Kati Horna’s that were mostly taken in Mexico, however I was not aware of her earlier career in Spain with anarchist publications and through research for this exhibition I came to discover the story of a deeply complex and fascinating photographer. What most intrigued me about Horna’s work were her portraits, specifically of women, because she never relied on sensationalism or angst.  Her photographs invited viewers to look deeper into their own reality and served as a reflection of human conditions that encompass all of us. She also displayed an extraordinary depth of field for real-life phenomena generally viewed as banal or otherwise routinely overlooked, which she often captured with a clever sense of humor. Our archival research uncovered an incredibly diverse amount of photographic work, much of which will probably never be seen, because it is not associated with her formal production, but it’s an interesting insight into her practice and how she maintained herself financially. For instance she took wedding photographs, society portraits, images for popular photo-novela magazines, and she took innumerable picture of animals—there are many amazing photographs of cats.

Artifactoid: For the panel presentation, you discussed Horna’s work in the context of several other female photographers from the perspective of mobility and exile, including Lee Miller, Grete Stern, Margaret Michaelis, Marianne (Gast) Goeritz. What would you say is the single most outstanding quality about each of these artists, and what would you characterize as some of the most important threads between them that connect and amplify each of their bodies of work?

MO: I try not to reduce a photographer’s practice to a single, characteristic trait. I think there’s more to Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, than the decisive moment, or to Robert Capa than battlefront intrepidness. As a remarkably versatile craft, photography gave women such as Kati Horna and Grete Stern a great deal of mobility—across national borders, most obviously, but also across communities of artists, intellectuals, and political activists. There are significant commonalities in the work of these two Jewish women, including the fact that both learned their craft from photographers specializing in advertising work (József Pécsi and Walter Peterhans), which I think gave them a sense of photography as a tool to construct images rather than just document reality. Having lived in Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, both were led to exile by the rise of National Socialism. But whereas Stern left Europe for Argentina in 1936 and was celebrated early on as a pioneer of modernist photography in her adopted country, Horna’s involvement with the anarchist fringe of the Spanish Civil War resulted in a much more precarious exile to Mexico, where she arrived in late 1939—and into which culture she struggled to assimilate for a long time. For a variety of reasons, while Stern has long been part of the canon of modern Argentine photography, Horna’s work continues to be, in my opinion, unfairly underappreciated, even in Mexico.

CDL: It’s difficult to point to a single outstanding quality for each of these photographers, because there are so many! But an interesting commonality among all of them was their ability to seize the opportunities offered by the growing field of photography as a means for personal, political, economic, and artistic emancipation.

Artifactoid: Since you focus on foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, I wanted to ask you, what are some of the biggest risks and dangers that these women faced in doing what they were doing, during the time they were doing it? What were some of the biggest challenges they had to overcome that may not be obvious at first glance?

MO: In addition to Horna and Stern, I am also currently researching the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall, both of whom arrived in Venezuela in the late 1950s. Though a generation younger and having arrived in Latin America two decades later than Horna and Stern, Brändli and Segall also had to carve out their own spaces, as émigrés, in an occupational field still largely dominated by men. Something I find in common among all four is somewhat of an inclination towards the countercurrent. What I mean is that in their trajectories one notices either an engagement with themes ignored by the greater culture or, conversely, a disinterest in some of the topics most conspicuous in the work of other photographers in their adoptive countries. For example, between 1958 and 1964, Grete Stern committed herself to the production of an extensive photographic record of the indigenous communities of the Argentine Great Chaco. Driven to photograph the living conditions of these communities by a personal desire to help improve them, Stern was later greatly disappointed by she perceived as a generalized indifference towards the plight of Argentina’s indigenous cultures by the country’s elites. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that in Mexico, a country with a robust tradition of folklorist photography, Horna should have remained largely unconcerned with popular and indigenous traditions—themes that have fascinated generations of photographers there, from Hugo Brehme to Graciela Iturbide.

12d_-un-mariage-chez-les-oeufs-a-marriage-of-eggs-1936

Kati Horna, Un mariage chez les œufs [A Marriage of Eggs], 1936; gelatin silver print. Private collection, Mexico City. ©2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most surprising photographs taken by any of these artists?

MO: Much of Kati Horna’s work speaks to her refined sense of humor. The more of it one looks at, the more sensitive ones becomes to her penchant for infusing even the soberest or most mundane series with an understated layer of comicality. Oftentimes, the humorous streak of her work is not immediately apparent. But on occasion, she produced series that were downright hilarious. Such is the case of a delightful photo essay about city fashions such as bulky mini-skirts, published in July 1962 in the Mexican weekly Tiempo, in which every photograph is taken from the ground looking up, monumentalizing the subjects’ rears while keeping most of their upper bodies invisible. We were not able to include this series in our exhibition at Americas Society but it is certainly one of my favorites. While we are in the subject of personal preferences, one of the works by Bárbara Brändli I like the most is her 1981 book Los páramos se van quedando solos, in which photographs and interview transcripts document the vanishing rural communities and linguistic patterns of the Venezuelan Andes. While not a bold statement of design such as the celebrated 1975 photobook Sistema Nervioso (produced collaboratively by Brändli, John Lange and Roman Chalbaud), Los páramos se van quedando solos manages to convey the melancholic allure of agrarian life in the highlands of Western Venezuela. It is a visually austere but surprisingly sublime photographic pastoral.

CDL: I think I would say I was more inspired than surprised by the photographs taken by these artists.  In viewing these images it’s obvious that they did not hold back and you can see the urge to push further and go beyond conventionality. Their work reflects a raw individuality and a complexity that mirrored their lives.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest curatorial challenges that you faced when putting this presentation together, and how did you overcome them?

CDL: When organizing an exhibition it’s always a challenge conveying a person’s life’s work through a small and subjective selection of pieces. The goal is always to highlight key moments in a manner that is both engaging and thoughtful, but when you enter an artist’s archive the decision process can be daunting. While our exhibition is focused on Kati Horna’s relationship with the illustrated press, it was important for us to show her professional and personal transitions, as well as her vast networks in Europe and in Mexico, which was something we kept in mind throughout the entire process. Conveying Horna’s images within a framework that spoke to her political ideas, artistic curiosities, and deft eye was crucial to understanding the work we selected. In addition, it was essential to show the circulation of her images and their ever-changing contexts. For us the exhibition design and the display devices played a paramount role in helping to create a dialogue among the images and publications on view. The design was especially important because many of the images were printed in a small format and we wanted visitors to engage with its intimate nature. In many museum and gallery settings there is a tendency to keep a distance from the work, but in this case our intention was for the public to get close and become familiar with Horna’s images and her photographic practice.

Artifactoid: What new meaning, if any, is added to how you view these photographers and their work, in the context of our current, intense global political situation right now? Is there anything about their work that you see in a new light, due to current events? And, which current artists, if any, would you say could be considered modern equivalents of the photographers you focused on in this exhibit/panel?

MO: Perhaps we should put it the other way around. Thinking about what a handful of truly remarkable women were able to do with their cameras as they traversed some of the great upheavals of the 20th century has given me solace as we wake up to a global state of affairs in which, suddenly, it seems acceptable again to disparage minorities, and influential figures feel emboldened to express their contempt for the equal dignity of women. As you know, our panel at the Institute of Fine Arts about women photographers in exile was held the day after the presidential election in the United States. Many of us in attendance were shocked and deeply pained by the election’s results. The timing could not have been more apt for an evening of serene, almost therapeutic conversation about talented, courageous women and the challenges they had to overcome in their own times. Their careers can be looked at from so many different angles that one could establish pertinent comparisons with numerous artists working today. Someone that comes to mind in regards to Kati Horna is Zoe Leonard, whose phantasmagoric photographs were recently on view at an exquisite show at Hauser & Wirth, just a few blocks from Americas Society. Although conceived to operate within very different parameters of public display and circulation, Leonard’s work is concerned with preoccupations that come through in some of Horna’s most personal series: the condition of statelessness and the need to reconstruct personal history.

CDL: In light of the current political unrest, I think its clear that although there has been significant progress, women continue to face many of the same challenges and prejudices they did seventy or eight years ago. Nevertheless, women are still pushing ahead and working to defy stereotypical notions about what kind of work they should or shouldn’t be doing. This defiance has been happening throughout centuries and endures today. The objective for us as a society is to continue to shed light on their work and integrate these women within a greater canonical narrative and not refer to them just as historical anomalies.

View the exhibition of works by Kati Horna, “Told and Untold,” at Americas Society through December 17th, 2016.

About Christina De León and Michel Otayek:

Christina L. De León is a doctoral candidate at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. From 2010 to 2016 she was the associate curator at Americas Society where she worked on modern and contemporary art exhibitions and publications. She co-curated the shows For Rent: Marc Latamie (2012), Cristóbal Lehyt: Iris Sheets (2013), and Told and Untold: The Photo Stories of Kati Horna in the Illustrated Press (2016). She contributed to the catalogue Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela 1940–1978 and has written articles for Review and Americas Quarterly periodicals. De León held previous positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. She holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Michel Otayek is an art historian and doctoral candidate at New York University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He holds a degree in Law from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and an M.A. in art history from Hunter College in New York. Otayek’s research addresses the role of practices of visual culture, including photography, in the articulation of discourse. His work is particularly concerned with collaboratively produced cultural artifacts such as illustrated periodicals and photobooks. Currently in progress, Mr. Otayek’s dissertation undertakes a comparative analysis of the work in exile of photographers Kati Horna in Mexico and Grete Stern in Argentina. As part of his interest in foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, he is also at work in research projects pertaining the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall in Venezuela.