Venezuelanalysis sat down with artist and muralist Pablo Kalaka to talk about his new exhibition “A Caribbean Question” in the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the changes in Venezuela’s art scene under Chavismo, along with the challenges and goals of revolutionary artists in Venezuela today.
Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, you’re Venezuelan but were originally born in Chile, how has that impacted on you and your work?
Ok, well I was born in Chile, my parents were militants and worked with the Popular Unity in Chile with (Salvador) Allende*, and for obvious reasons, because the dictatorship happened in such an abrupt way, they were forced to go into exile. Many people stayed behind in clandestinity, others were killed, others were exiled, and well that was what happened to my parents. I was just one year old at the time, and so my life experience has all been in Venezuela, I consider myself to be Venezuelan. But I also have the cultural, emotional and existential stamp of Chilean life and history. How has that influenced me? It’s been very important for me. I feel like I have both Caribbean and Andean heritage, I have grown up in both of those waters. One of those experiences was concrete, the other was through the memory of experience, to live through my parents what they lived in exile. Being in exile is a very difficult experience, I don’t consider myself to be exiled, but my parents do, and being torn away from everything that defines you as a human being, by force, is a tear that can never be totally sewn-up. So I lived that experience through them, and that has a particularly special impact in my work, in everything that nourishes me and who I am and what I communicate. I feel that I belong to the Caribbean and the Andes equally.
Can you explain a little bit about your motivation for the exhibition and tell us more about some of the paintings?
This series in particular is an exhibition of just a few pieces of work, many are not included. As I said, if the Andean or the South are always present, then this particular exhibition is extremely Caribbean. In fact it’s called a “Caribbean Question”. I took the expression a “Caribbean Question” from Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The poet William Osuna refers to a conversation with Marquez in which he asked him about the Cuban Revolution, and Marquez responded that “for me, the Cuban Revolution is essentially a Caribbean question”. I really liked that expression, it really resounded with me and kept popping into my head. It was such an intelligent way of expressing something that is just there. And so I appropriated the expression for this exhibition, which I consider to be an initial demonstration of where I want to go, and hopefully each time time the exhibition will get progressively larger.
There are four walls to the exhibition, and each wall is specific. There is one which is the most strange we could say, and which has its own name: “The Sons of Kings” and those are the drawings. Those drawings are rooted in a quotation by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier**, and they are drawings, above all, of our Afro Caribbean reality, or to visibilise the Afro roots of the Afro Caribbean. They are African people and some are the Gods of the Yoruba religion. Changó (an important warrior deity) is there, Yamaya (the mother of life) is there, as well as Oya Yansa, who is the Yoruba God that represents the winds. They are figures which have a lot of strength and represent kinship. They are a very autochthonous reality, and come from a very personal motivation, and so they have their own wall.
Changó, a Yoruba warrior deity featured in the “Sons of Kings” wall of the exhibition (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis).
Then there are the dancing devils and the green skulls, which are not necessarily Caribbean but which flow quite naturally with that reality. They are linked to the sea, and so I wanted to create a kind of dialogue between the sets of Latin American masks and the Caribbean. The Venezuelan Yare Devil, which is the greatest emphasis of the whole exhibition, and then the characters on the other wall which I think are self-explanatory. The one which I call “Mother Heart”, the campesino, the salsa musician, the party-goer (rumbero), the santero, and the “devil or witch”. I didn’t call her that but that’s how people have been referring to her! And then on the final wall there are items such as the box, the guitar, the small paintings and houses, more playful, small artifacts. In a roundabout way they are recreations of an imaginary, I know that I’m not representing the Caribbean imaginary but rather a representation of the Caribbean imaginary – another angle to talk about that imaginary and recreate and reinvent it.
The “campesino” (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis) For a full image gallery of the exhibition, please click here.
Has it been difficult for artists who have emerged from the revolution and who are painting this kind of popular art, with popular subjects, to break with elitism within the Venezuelan art world and to capture these kinds of spaces?*** What is the panorama in the Venezuelan art scene today?
Well elitism in Venezuelan art in the second half of the 20th Century, because throughout the first half you have artists like Cesar Rengifo and Armando Reveron who are representing a different reality, and that was happening in theatre, in music, everywhere. Then at the beginning of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s that all went to shit, and we saw the emergence of elitist art and theatre, theatre which is totally disconnected from reality and which has a really bourgeois vision. What I mean by bourgeois is that vision which sees art as something above economic situations or problems, and that reaching the real “truth” of art is something totally outside of that reality. For example, Venezuelan theatre up until the 1970s was very influenced by Brecht, but then that disappeared, something similar happened with painting. In Venezuela there was no muralism until we started to do it six or seven years ago, and we still can’t talk as if there is muralism today. There are muralists who are doing what we can but there is no muralist movement as such. So Chavismo changed the rules of the game, not Chavismo, Chavez, and he gave protagonism to all forms of art that were interested in having an impact on the streets in a very real way, not just talking about the streets, but actually impacting on them, so circus, song etc. So we could say that there is a tendency, a fashion and a visbilisation of a generation of artists that previously would have ended up waiting on tables as opposed to exhibiting in these kinds of spaces.
Evidently there has been a very important paradigm change, but we are a long way from that change being structural as it should be, but the political scenario would have to change quite a bit in order for us to be totally ostracized and swept away from the Venezuelan cultural scene again. But for the moment these are some of the things we are doing and steps being taken. I don’t see the fact that my exhibition is here as something transgressive, what is transgressive is people within the institutions who are trying to put the breaks on this process****. We are in the place and the moment we need to be according the national reality. Culture at the moment is in the streets, there are poets doing their jobs, muralists doing theirs, and people like me who are essentially street artists. For us it is an achievement for them to open the doors of the museum, but it’s not the objective, it’s just another reality. Our objective is for art to be in the streets, and that’s a possibility that we have thanks to the Bolivarian Revolution, the fact that we can think about that and carry it out without being prohibited, or without being persecuted by the police or even cultural organisations.
Although capturing this space isn’t a priority, do you consider it to be important?
I am really interested in capturing these spaces, we must break the paradigm of “cultured art” and street art, art is art and that’s it. These museums which receive around thirty visits a day, why don’t they receive two hundred? Why don’t they go out to public spaces, or to the streets, adapt to other realities? Our job is to make sure that everyone has access to culture and that popular cultural workers have access to as many people as we possibly can, and that our work actually promotes real change, like I said, a change in social paradigms and human relations. We can’t have one attitude here (in the Museum of Contemporary Art) and another when we go to a barrio. For me, this space is just as difficult to gain as one in the barrio. So, it’s not a priority but it’s not to be dismissed either, all spaces must be covered.
Do you see your work as political?
Totally and absolutely yes. Everything is political. A painting has a political role, and the funniest thing you can say is that your work isn’t a political action, when the statement itself is a political action. Evidently if you assume a deliberate political stance, then the more political it is. I consider myself to be an artist who works in Magical Realism, but I still think there is a political weight there which transmits a message, even in this exhibition when I say that a “Caribbean Question” comes from a statement by Garcia Marquez on the Cuban Revolution. Maybe nobody finds that out, but it is always there, that political component. And murals are even more political. A mural allows me to tell a story, to be epic, not in the monumental sense, but in the sense that it allows me to tell the story of a historic, emotional moment in the history of a nation, continent or planet. Paintings are like small flashes, small impressions, the hard work is in a mural, because you have to tell a tale to someone who isn’t interested. A person who wants to come to an exhibition will come, but with a mural you have to talk to people just passing by on the street. And often the influence that you have on people is invisible or unquantifiable. You will never know how many people that mural manages to speak to, and so that’s where the hard work is.
“Free men and women” – an example of Kalaka’s mural work in Bellas Artes, Caracas (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis.com)
You painted what is now one of Caracas’ most emblematic murals on the government’s Great Housing Mission build in the bohemian zone of Bellas Artes. What were you trying to communicate through that mural?
I had already done a mural on the lateral wall of the building for the biennial celebrations (of Venezuela’s independence) called the Troupe of Quijotes, which were really fictional characters. I mixed a dancing Yare devil, with a lance-thrower, warriors from different eras, struggles and moments. I was left with the sensation that I had to do something in that mural, and above all in that space, more directly social. And so I wanted to represent the realities of that part of the city, the culture and social character of that block of flats. The mural is called “Chavez’s Dream” because Chavez is there, and you can see behind him a mountain of different characters, popular culture workers, a painter, a dancer, a salsa musician, circus performers, characters which represent people there – people working on the community construction of buildings (auto-construcción), urban agriculture, children as well. It’s also a mural about how street cultural workers relate with the reality of this community which is struggling to build a different reality.
Kalaka’s mural on the Bellas Artes Great Housing Mission block in Bellas Artes (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis).
The mural is entitled “Chavez’s Dream” (Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis).
(Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis).
Interview conducted, edited and translated by Rachael Boothroyd Rojas for Venezuelanalysis.
For a full image gallery of the paintings featured in “A Caribbean Question”, please click here.
* Salvador Allende was a self-proclaimed Marxist elected to the Chilean presidency in 1970. He was overthrown and killed in a US-backed military coup in 1973, giving way to decades of extermination and repression against Chilean leftists.
** Carpentier penned “The Kingdom of This World”.
*** The National Museum of Contemporary Art.
**** Part of the exhibition included a poetry reading of works by Caribbean poets such as Aimé Cesaire, Julia de Burgos and Nicolas Guillen. The museum’s upper management attempted to cancel the reading at the last minute, obliging the Ministry of Culture to get involved. Kalaka described the attempt as illustrative of the deliberate obstruction carried out by institutional hierarchies to block revolutionary change, and of the ongoing battle to democratize institutional spaces.