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Laura Anderson

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Hi! Today and every day we wake up with news about disasters, both natural and environmental, as Ian mentioned before. Wars, hunger, drought... How can we process all this information? The world is speaking to us continually and it’s impossible to ignore. The knowledge of what others are living through opens our eyes and expands our conscience. And this awareness and experience that allows us to identify with others also brings us closer to our own voice, so that we can ask ourselves: What do I think? What is my responsibility? What can I do? All of us here have asked ourselves the same questions. And I found that for me the only place to find the answers is in my work. In other words, in the practice of art. Many believe that art is only concerned with aesthetic values and does not need to be useful to society. Meanwhile others think that art does not require aesthetic values, especially in contemporary art, but does need and must have a function in society. I believe it should have both. But, who understands – or rather, actually -- who here feels that they do not understand contemporary art? Raise your hand. Wow! Everyone understands it! No? Oh, noone! Ok, that doesn’t matter. I often don´t understand it either. But that’s why, if I had been a doctor or an engineer I could have found the answers in my work and maybe it would be more tangible for everyone. I am an artist. And I decided to ground my practice in the creation of works that find their purpose in the social realm through group participation. But the truth is that I didn’t always think this way. In the past, I worked alone in my studio. There I created works whose central motive was nature, like a symbolic mirror into the inner self. And the point of departure was seeds that I germinated and observed. I thought it was incredible, and I still think it’s amazing that a seed can live for years in a cupboard and suddenly, one day you choose one, give it a little bit of water, of warmth, of care, and it is transformed, almost as if by magic. And suddenly you have before you a new life that once it starts to change does not stop. It spoke to me so clearly of the experience we have when suddenly, we see things in a different way -- much clearer, more distinct. My drawings longed to capture this -- that which we cannot see but can feel. I was obsessed by it and hoped that the seeds would give me the magic formula that I could apply to my work and my life. One of these drawings took me to Venezuela. And, interested in the rain forest, I called a Venezuelan researcher -- who is sitting right there, by the way -- to ask him where to go. And he said, “In the Amazon, along the Brazilian border, live the Yanomami people, whose utilitarian objects are very similar to your sculptures. That's where you should go.” A few days later I was traveling 1,500 km south of Caracas. I am a child of the "concrete jungle." Many of you here surely are too. And I had no idea – although now it seems obvious -- what to take to a tropical forest. After all, my experience with the forest -- or rather with nature -- had been almost exclusively with those seeds in my studio that I germinated. I had watched them grow, but never had I imagined what it would be like to live inside that metaphor, this metaphor. My friend recognized this -- or took pity on me -- and recommended that I take some repellent for mosquitoes, bread and some soup pouches in case of emergency. And thanks to his advice the mosquitoes and malaria were left wanting, but the food lasted only one day. It had to be shared with many, and after that, only piranha broth and a worm or two was what I ate. On that voyage, overcoming rivers and experiencing quite a few hardships –and hunger– a revolution began to stir within me. It was as if one of those seeds inside me was waking up. I think that the shock -- yes, the shock – of this overwhelming nature in its raw state, -- so many bushes, so much green, so much humidity, such suffocating heat, -- was what shook me and my limited experience up. I felt that the forest spoke to me, and that it said, "In order for you to be here, you need to give me something in return." Now don´t think I had eaten one of those "strange" mushrooms along with those worms! I understood the message to be that respect and reciprocity are fundamental and universal values necessary to achieve a fulfilled and happy life. It seemed logical that as an artist I could not just be "inspired" before so much nature and such message, but that I had to act. And in this state of catharsis I reached Mahekoto-Platanal, a community along the High Orinoco of the Yanomami culture. Mahekoto certainly is a remote place; few things from the city reach here. But it is not completely isolated from the creole society. Here and in nearby communities, the Yanomami coexist with missionaries, with the army, with anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, dealers, garimpeiro miners in search of gold, politicians in search of votes... and even an artist in search for her own voice. This place is far from being a virgin forest and the majority are bilingual. They speak their own language and the Spanish taught in the mission schools. It was here that I met the Ortiz family. The Ortiz family is of the Ye'Kuana ethnic group, whose territory is further north, and at that time they were teaching the Yanomami how to make canoes and bongos, or curiaras, as they are called there. The process was marvelous, because they used only resources they had on hand, and because of their insistence on group participation. I immediately wanted to join them and learn to make canoes to integrate these skills into my own sculptural work. So then I asked if they would accept me as a student. At first the community did not agree. They spoke amongst themselves and asked me a question that was a marvelous gift. They said, "If we teach you how to make a canoe, what can you teach us in return?" What could I teach them in return? I had to think quickly! Well, all of us here have seen books with photos and stories about the various indigenous groups of the Amazon, but not one that is written and completely made by them. So I said: "You know how to read and write. Wouldn't you like to share with others your own version of your history have a book, made by you, that lives alongside those of so many anthropologists that have passed through here? If we adapt the technology you currently use, we can achieve it." And so we reached an agreement and made a mutual commitment: The Ortiz family would teach me to make canoes and I would teach Yanomami, Ye´kuana and Piaroa groups to make paper and then books. The question "What can you teach me in return?" had an impact on my life. It was the key I needed to open the door of reciprocity. And from that moment on, my life and my work changed radically and forever. I devoted myself to observing and studying the world in which I found myself and all the things around me so we could produce paper and then books. And I must admit that at first, I did not know how to make paper from fibers without a studio. In fact, our first test, looked like a poorly made tortilla (that could also easily resemble contemporary art). There was a lot to do and a lot to learn. With time, we began to create groups of paper-makers and in Mahekoto-Platanal, headed by Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe the project was named Yanomami Owë Mamotima, which means: "we saw, we learned and now we make it alone." And as a fundamental part of the project, each new student had to immediately become a teacher who shares information and knowledge, so that the techniques continue to multiply. Shortly thereafter, we finished the first book made by the paper-makers in Platanal, titled: Shapono. This book won a national award and today is part of important collections and libraries around the world. We can be certain that the voice and perspective of the Yanomami coexists with that of academics, classics and important literary figures, and that their unique and singular vision can be received by whoever wishes to listen. Some may ask, what can this mean to someone who lives in the jungle? Well, not only is it a source of income for the community, but also by mobilizing themselves along with their Shaman, to put on paper their own history in their own words, they were able to experience and have their perspective and voice widely heard while strengthening their own culture when faced with other dominant cultures. Also, Shero, the leader of the project, has shown his work in many countries and has led many workshops. Also, they will soon build an intercultural Yanomami school as part of an exchange project between Yanomami architects and architects from Universities. This very question, "what can you teach me in return?", led me to replicate a similar project in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, in Cotacachi, Ecuador, and in Trinidad and Tobago, where each one continues growing and following their own path. The same scheme of exchange of knowledge has also helped children and adolescents find their own voices. In this yard, filled with youth practicing on stilts, volunteers provide them with activities that keep them active and off the streets where their health and safety have always been at risk. I approached them and asked if they'd accept me as a volunteer artist. The challenge was to find a way in which the youth wouldn't abandon their stilt practice, and it seemed to me that the natural path would be for them to connect their practice with the ancestral African tradition. Just as in the paper project, by making art using what we have on hand, it was possible to achieve our goal. We worked as a team utilizing materials we found and had on hand. Many were gathered from the discards of stores. I don't know if it shows. Everything is useful to us. Up to this day, they have received many awards, documentaries about the group have been made, they have been invited to participate in musical videos, and a beautiful photography book was published. The recognition and exposure of their practice, strengthened the commitment of each one of the youth to their practice and to their ancestral legacy, and filled them with greater self-respect and pride. And today they are the cultural promoters of their communities, their practice, their tradition and their country. This same structure has been replicated in New York and in Oaxaca. If we erase the boundaries where we traditionally exercise our talent and develop personally and professionally, we can then contribute to the construction of a multi-cultural society that educates, nurtures and respects itself and blossoms in this great planetary jungle. The practice of give and take -- of exchange and barter of knowledge, where goodwill comes together -- is one of reciprocal value that elevates all os us. Just like walking on stilts, which is to walk with an elevated perspective, right? I like that metaphor. Thank you. For those interested in knowing how I did in my efforts to construct a canoe, I can only say that, besides having my hands covered with blisters, and being told to stick to making paper rather than filling the village with crooked canoes, the impact it has had on my life, my hands and my work is evident. These actions cannot be realized in the solitude of the studio, the home or the office, because in these places it is harder to hear what the world is saying to us and even more difficult to share with others what we know. For this reason, I invite you to look at your surroundings with new eyes. Listen and learn with the spirit of sharing. It’s an exercise of reciprocal appreciation. Let’s all learn together: me from you and you from me. Just like seeds that sprout, this never ends. Sounds utopian and poetic, right? Well it is! But also, possible! Thank you very much.

Video Details

Duration: 16 minutes and 56 seconds
Country: Mexico
Language: Spanish (Spain)
Views: 74
Posted by: marigari on Mar 17, 2012

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