Latinamerican Art

Interview with Betsabeé Romero, Zurich, 19 June 2016, Second Part

I believe that Mexico has the richest production of popular art in all of Latin America. In my opinion, it surpasses its contemporary art. In your work, there is a deep Mexican element. When you assess your production, how do you think it differs from popular art?

As an artist, I think it is very important to have a clear position on this issue. Popular art in Mexico responds to living cultures that have rites and traditions, that respond to a calendar of celebrations, that have motifs related to an eclectic religiosity, which in turn has fused several colonizations. It is particularly interesting how, despite all this cultural mix, the pre-Hispanic has been slipped in and resisted with many of its languages, traditions, and celebrations. 

Popular art is not a commodity produced from scratch. And luckily, it’s not only produced as tourist commodities. Popular art continues to respond to its origins, it continues to be made from the cultures from which it was born and which sustain it with their historical and ethnic motivations. These are cultural processes that have functioned for centuries as forms of cultural resistance in order to keep reproducing and recording their memories.

In Mexico, it is our greatest intangible heritage. It is invaluable. I see a lot of distance between the Delft porcelain, which is now manufactured in China, or the Talavera from Spain, which has become distorted. These are traditions that have been stripped of their cultural origins and are now only produced as tourist objects, as kitsch. Popular art becomes kitsch when it is emptied of meaning; as if it no longer had a soul and nowhere to truly regenerate itself. When I meet with the artisans that I work with, there is meaning and reason behind everything.

In popular art there are no personal productions. They are an integral part of the families and of the collective heritage. They are not «signature» pieces, except for the work of certain artisans who have entered the market as producers of objects—generally done with decorative intentions and the highest quality—which have given them economic opportunities outside their community. These great masters are respected in their own communities for their craftmanship, but also because they still uphold a heritage that they themselves consider to be collective, and that is very fortunate because it guaranties the survival of their community, their culture, and their values. Many of their symbols have encrypted meanings that only they know and share among themselves.

Everything we do as visual artists ultimately comes from a personal life decision, from a project that is usually individual and quite solitary. The work dialogues with a very complex history, but almost always without a community with whom to negotiate and generate collective projects.

Popular art, on the contrary, is the result of reproducing collective codes and cultural resistances; it comes from a territory where the goal is to maintain the traditions and languages ​​they have absorbed from their elders. They must collectively reproduce and share what they learn to identify with as children and continue to do so for generations. Therefore, the starting and finishing points are very different from the ones we work with in the art circuit.

However, many crafts and traditions are being lost because they cannot survive. In my art practice—in total admiration and recognition of that which popular art has taught and given me all of my life—I think it is very important to dignify, value, and make visible the precarious situation in which these people are generating culture. Luckily, there are collectors and institutions that encourage and support these artisans, but their communities continue to be attacked and exploited.

In what sense?

In Mexico and in the world at large we are still dominated by a very racist and Eurocentric culture. All non-Western cultures are devalued.

In Mexico they still refer to the «three cultures.»

Yes, but the indigenous cultures that are still alive in Mexico constitute 10% of the population; everything else is mestizo to varying degrees and has been westernized in multiple historical moments. In this sense, even if one likes certain objects and learns the craft, it is never the same as when they emerge as part of the culture and traditions that generate them, reproduce them, and preserve them.

For 20 years, I have worked directly with many artisans, reinterpreting everyday western objects and revisiting popular celebrations, such as the Altar of Our Lady of Sorrows or the Altar of the Dead; rereading the full context in which objects are made and used within rituals. I have worked during all this time with the same group of artisans whom I profoundly know and who profoundly know me. The idea is to highlight the multiple and often mestizo origins of their production, how they do it, the rich value it possesses, and how marvelous they are.

Joel Flores Osorio, San Agustín Etla, Oaxaca, 2015

When I work with them, they know that I will propose some changes in the medium, in the forms, in the materials, in the colors and, above all, meanings. At first, they don’t know how each object will become part of the whole, but in the end, they like to observe and discuss with me the processes by which their works come to possess other meanings. They always want me to create something different. I used to sometimes think that they would not like it because it would be like betraying their traditions, but that was not true. Don Antonio, for example, with whom I make the scaly waxes, came to talk about what we would be doing that year. I suggested to repeat a specific model and to only change the palette, but he said to me: «No, maestra, I always come with the hope that you and I will do something different. I’ll give you more time. I can wait, but don’t tell me that we’re going to do the same thing over again.”

What is folklore to you, Betsa?

I hate that word. It’s always used from abroad to talk about our cultures. Kitsch and folklore for me have to do with tourism. What do you think it is?

For me, in folklore customs manifest themselves without any evaluation.

When someone writes something about me and the word folklore is used for some reason, my hairs stand on end. But I’ve come to realize that people don’t do it in bad faith. For me, folklore is something that is taken out of its context, such as our folkloric ballet, which is great, but it is a flattened, false, softened, sanitized stylization of the dances of many regions of Mexico, all unified in a very decorative language for the tourists. However, these dances originated from initiation rituals, ancestral conflicts, implorations to the stars, etc.

Do you think that our foundational concept in Daros Latinamerica made real sense? I mean the idea of ​​uniting all Latin America countries in some way.

Absolutely. It was of fundamental importance, first because in Latin America we have a colonial past with many things in common, as well as political and historical issues that could make us understand each other more easily than cultures from other continents. Also, in almost every country we share the same language. These common symbolic, historical, and linguistic references are very interesting because of the possibilities they give us to generate a constant cultural and artistic dialogue between all the countries of this continent. But instead, what has happened – given the way the market and art history operate – , is that we are all trying to circulate and be consumed by the North American and European market. We don’t realize the power we could have together.

Thanks to Daros Latinamerica and other initiatives, Latin America opened up. Colombia, for example, is now on the map of global contemporary art, when before it almost did not exist artistically. There is a greater interest and curiosity today than before, but artists continue to dream of working from New York or Berlin, quoting Derrida and other authors without understanding them, since we seem to need to digest their thoughts in order to produce anything of value.

What is your favorite country or place in Latin America?

I really like Colombia because of the friends I have there. And I also have a deep relationship with Argentina. My professor in Paris was Antonio Seguí and my university colleagues over there were Argentines. These ties have persisted in many ways. I have a love-hate relationship with Cubans, but always a close one with many friends that I love and admire.

Malinalco, 2015


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