Populardelujo: A case study in the public humanities
Last year we were delighted to invite Esteban Ucrós back to Brown as part of our “Thinking in Public” colloquium. Esteban graduated from the Public Humanities program in 2010. He returned home to Colombia, where he’s continued his remarkable work with Populardelujo exploring popular design in Colombia and elsewhere in South America. He joined us on his way to Amsterdam, where he presented this talk at the What Design Can Do conference.
It’s a great honor to be standing here. More so when, to be honest, I wish I were still seated right there where you are. As Amy [Johnson] just said I graduated in 2010 from the masters program in Public Humanities here at Brown and it was such an oasis in my life that I really wish it would have lasted longer.
But I guess this is just another example of what makes Brown so good: the fact that some girls can think, hey, let’s bring this guy from South America and some academic board will actually say sure, bring him on! So thank you Elena [Gonzales], Amy [Johnson] and Robyn [Schroeder] for putting the eye on my project.
When you guys contacted me I told you I’d be happy to come. I was lying: I was terrified. What am I supposed to talk about? What on earth am I an expert in? What can I do to make all these smart and busy people leave the room with the feeling that it was worth it to sacrifice a pleasant spring evening on the porch to come hear me?
After some thought I realized that if there is something I am an expert in, that’s an expert in trying. So that’s what I will talk to you about: I’ll share with you the journey a couple of friends and I have gone through in the evolution of this project we called Populardelujo.
I think a sincere first-hand account of a case study in the public humanities is the best I can offer to you. I’ll try to be frank about the challenges we have faced, I’ll share with you both the achievements and failures and will do my best not to hide the great deal of naïveté, empirical learning, and twists-n-turns we have displayed in the process. As you’ll see, Populardelujo, the project, is impossible to separate from our own identity, intellectual and professional struggles. I really hope you’ll find this sort of “public confession” profitable.
Now, in case you were wondering “is this guy going to read out loud for an hour?”… Yes, I will. I apologize, I know is not very fun but believe me, it’s way better than the sort of torture of hearing me mumbling my clumsy English for an hour. OK, so let’s get started.
LET ME START by giving you some context. The country where I come from doesn’t make any sense:
• Colombia is the oldest, most stable, democracy in Latin America. But also is Colombian the oldest, probably most belligerent guerrilla army in history.
• Colombia is supposed to be slowly turning into this great place to live but I am afraid 1 in every 10 Colombians would not exactly agree with that.
•Colombia is the 7th most unequal country in the world. But–don’t ask me how is this possible–it is also the 6th happiest one.
I am not even close to being an expert in cultural studies, but I would dare to say that what defines Colombia, and to some extent what defines the rest of the so-called developing world, is mestizaje. But not mestizaje simply as a matter of ethnic mixing–which of course we have, but mestizaje as the coexistence in the same space and time of realities that are radically different, sometimes even opposite and contradictory.
Any of you who have ever been in Latin America have probably noticed from day one how in our countries development and underdevelopment, wealth and poverty, and modern and pre-modern ways of life coexist side by side. Settings as hybrid and incongruent as these are both tragic and fertile, both fascinating and sad, they feel both doomed and full of promise depending of the time of the day you look at them. From crossing a street to making a living, as a Latin American these violent contrasts touch every dimension of life and you both suffer and take advantage of them. On those contrasts resides the origin of Populardelujo.
* * *
IN MY 20’S I enrolled in a graphic design program in Bogotá. I was ec-sta-tic. I’m not exaggerating: ecstasy is the exact right word. You have no idea how thrilled I was.
We would devote hours to analyzing the clever graphic synthesis of Italian posters, of Aicher’s monograms, of America’s golden generation of logo designers. I would admire the elegance of Secession’s posters and the mastery of William Morris. I would spend hours and hours at the library learning how to become the pickiest type designer, and then I’d stay up all night trying to achieve than clean look of Swiss design.
Yes, that’s when I started losing my hair. But what did I care, I was in heaven: I was finally in close contact with all these works I admired so much.
However, as time went by I started to feel odd. We would spend the whole morning dealing with this stuff but then at noon I would leave campus and:
1.Grab a snack at a cafeteria like this:
2. Or maybe lunch in a restaurant like this:
3. Then with a full tummy, I would buy some gum at a place like this:
4. Drop a call to my girlfriend from a place like this:
5. And then I would stop a bus like this:
6. Make sure it was my route:
7. Get on board:
8. And look through a window like this:
9. I would slowly fall asleep while traffic like this drove past my eyes.
You get the point, right? Yes, in Bogotá there are banks, grocery store chains and upscale stores with neat world-class signage, but the visual culture that prevailed, the one that would fill your eyes, was a visual culture of this sort. However professors at college would not refer to it unless it was to make fun of it. For them all this stuff was exactly what we, “enlightened people of good taste,” were supposed to correct when we were finally out working in the real world. We kind of were “the ones called to civilize the awful graphic panorama of our cities.”
I was very uncomfortable with this idea. Of course I believe there’s a lot to learn from other cultures and I would be the first to defend an open, universal education, but this had nothing to do with that: what we had here was a total denial of local reality. How could such a large phenomena, something so key in the dynamics of the economy, something so expressive, embraced so massively, be so indisputably unworthy?
It took me some time to understand that what I was being taught at college was not Graphic Design but a kind of graphic design. A kind of design I deeply love and admire but that is far from concentrating on everything that is good about visual communication.
So to sort of compensate for this narrow-view, a couple of friends and I (let me introduce them to you: this is Roxi, this is Juan) started this project we called Populardelujo. An initiative devoted to documenting what we, lacking a better term, would call gráfica popular. By which we basically mean graphic works created by “non-professional” graphic designers to help advertise products and services.
OUR FIRST INTEREST was purely aesthetic: it was all about design. Designers are always after what’s different and new and we realized that in their modesty these graphics contained an astonishing deal of graphic tricks that would have never occurred to us. Take for instance this poster, this mural or these designs for a bus:
I think they are remarkable examples of visual creativity and of the possibilities of the two-dimensional. And they would have never occurred to me because I spend too much time working on a computer and that has set me up for coming up with a certain set of solutions and avoiding others.
Gráfica popular is almost by definition produced by people who don’t have access to computers, therefore it is a visual genre that for years and years has been growing on its own terms outside of the realm of digital design. In the current state of things where computers have become the standard for producing graphic design that’s nothing but a treasure: we thought this visual culture was an incredibly rich library of resources and nobody seemed to be collecting it systematically.
So we wanted to fix that. We started devoting our Saturdays going to Bogotá’s working-class neighborhoods and spending the whole day taking pictures and talking to people. It didn’t take us long to gather quite a collection of photographs. As a graphic designer you always have this annoying fixation with doing something–I mean something tangible: this urge to come up with a product–so we thought of making a visual book.
We actually designed and laid out the whole thing but man, how were we supposed to get the money to print it? Who was going to sponsor a book about something most people saw as visual contamination, as the very aesthetic of ignorance and underdevelopment? None of us was very outgoing or good at pitching sponsors so we settled with creating a website instead of a book. All we needed was nine dollars a year for buying the URL: we would design the website ourselves and our friend Vladimir would give us some space on his server for free.
A website instead of a book sounded like a consolation price, that’s right. But only for about twelve seconds. Very quickly we realized what a perfect platform a website was for us. Rather than a definitive collection we had this gallery we could feed and feed endlessly. Rather than a closed, finished product, we had this perpetual-beta thing that we could modify in the middle of the night, to which sections could be added or deleted according to the shifts in our mood or thinking.
Looking back I am really glad we never published that book: it forced us to start this enterprise on a platform both flexible and ethereal. It kind of inscribed in the DNA of Populardelujo from the very start this notion that this was not a project that was defined by its format but by its subject of study. I remember writing in the very first description of the project I composed that “Populardelujo was a mutant, unfinished and unfinishable project that could embody many formats.”
I believe thinking of what we do on such flexible terms has been key for us.
* * *
ANYWAY, the online visual gallery we put together on our website was truly fantastic and many people would praise us for it. The curator of Museo de Bogotá, the official city museum, told us he thought Populardelujo was the true museum of Bogotá. I recall people who worked in advertising agencies telling me how in internal meetings our website was referred to as a required reference for any creative team to check out.
But once the collection was online and growing incessantly I realized I wasn’t satisfied with simply photographing and showing. Somehow I didn’t want to simply add another collection of picturesque photographs to the world: I wanted to say something.
Not sure what really: I wanted to understand and be able to articulate why I liked this gráfica popular so much, why I thought it wasn’t a matter of kitschiness but a matter of dignity and worth. It was more than aesthetics, technicalities, or graphic flair that appealed to me: gráfica popular sort of transported me to a specific world and set of values. I guess that what attracted me had to do, in a vague sense, with “the culture” they represented.
So this is when things got really challenging. You know the quote, right?
We could have spent our whole lives collecting and posting images but we really, really wanted to go beyond simple passive documentation. I guess without being aware of it, we were entering the thorny world of interpreting.
At that point in time, the early 2000’s, there was all this buzz about globalization, about its benefits and dangers. So somehow the only way I could think of these graphics was as this bold expression of cultural autonomy in the midst of a world that was rapidly getting homogeneous.
The 90’s had been quite intense in Colombia in terms of economic openness: a neo-liberal government took us from a state of things where most of what we consumed was locally produced and the choices were very limited, to this new state of things where we could get Peter Pan’s peanut butter at the grocery store, buy Levi’s 501 at the mall and watch MTV all night long.
Along with everybody else, my friends and I were happy about this: we finally had easy access to all these first-world stuff we cherished so much. But we were also uncomfortable about it.
The best words I can find to describe what we felt is this sort of “imminent cultural orphanhood.” We felt that our identity–whatever the word meant to us– was eroding in the face of globalization. That a time of great global interchange has come but we didn’t have much to offer, so we were losing more than what we were getting.
In this context gráfica popular, with its unclean look, its impudence, its millions of references to local culture, its total indifference to what the elites consider sophisticated and in good taste, felt completely the opposite of what was entering our culture from abroad. It really felt like a solid massive form of cultural resistance. Therefore, in this search for a discourse we began to frame gráfica popular around this anti-globalization theme and glorify it as the quintessential expression of “our ways”. Populardelujo was now about our thing resisting theirs.
With our cause having expanded from vernacular graphic design to “ourness,” our potential field of action became a lot larger: we spread the project horizontally to cover other forms of ourness we could collect, document and celebrate. Now that I look back to those times I think we had a bunch of clever initiatives. Let me tell you about a couple of them:
• Years before there was any Flickr or Facebook, through our newsletter we set up a public call for people in Bogotá to submit their old “happy birthday” picture. You know, this type of photograph everyone has in the family album.
We thought collecting these photographs was very illuminating. Yes, they are lovely snapshots of nostalgia, but more than anything they are loaded with information about ourselves: they say a lot about our customs. You know, the way your mother dressed you up for this special day, the way she decorated the house and arranged the table. These photographs are a really wonderful tableau of common people’s values in a specific place and time in history.
• Another nice little initiative we undertook during those days: we thought it was interesting to collect these “sordid e-mails” of obscure origin that are forwarded on and on warning people about horrifying events that supposedly took place in Bogotá.
I’m sure you have them here too: you know, these sweet little charming stories like the one about the guy who goes out partying and doesn’t remember anything until he wakes up the next morning naked in a bathtub filled with ice, looks at himself on the mirror and notices these two tiny scars on his back marking the holes through which his kidneys were extracted.
We thought this digital incarnation of the urban legend was interesting because it illustrated the idea of Bogotá in people’s minds. The perceived city, no matter how false it is, is often far more real than the actual city to the extent that it determines your daily routines and the opinion you perpetuate about the place you live in.
Anyway, as you can see we really stretched our original scope to the point of even collecting things that had nothing to do with visual culture. We would publish chronicles written by journalists, we would compose reviews about novels that took place in Bogotá, we would get interested in documenting local slang and so on.
The nature of the organization itself was also changing: now we were putting at least the same effort in curating contributions than in producing our own content, to the point that we started seeing ourselves as “a hub” rather than as a three-people project. On those days we would refer to Populardelujo as a “cooperative.”
Things became quite interesting indeed: we kind of turned into this e-magazine about “the real Bogotá” (those were also the days when we started using the tagline así es aquí: “the way it is here”).
We attracted a significant pool of followers and the most important media in town put an eye on us. One of the main cultural magazines in the country devoted an article to our work and Semana magazine, which would be the local equivalent to let’s say Time Magazine, commissioned us to write and article for a special issue about cultural heritage.
* * *
ALL THIS WAS GREAT, but I started to grow uncomfortable with the discourse over which we had built this whole thing. You know, the anti-globalization thing, the celebration of our modes of being, all this talk about “the strengthening of our identity.”
If there is something I have come to detest is chauvinism, fanaticism, nationalism and all their brothers and sisters. And I am afraid that without really aiming to do so Populardelujo was somehow turning into a good platform for that to thrive. Which was very uncomfortable to me. First, because while I have a great love for the place and the culture in which I was born and raised, I think openness, diversity and cosmopolitism is quite healthy for a society. And second, because in the context of an ultra-right-wing government, like that of Alvaro Uribe, celebration of identity didn’t only sound inconvenient but quite dangerous.
I guess that, to put in it plain English, I was maturing. You know how when you are a teenager you see the world in sharp black and white but then as time passes by your start noticing all the shades of gray in between?... I realized that if I took a good look at myself and the cultural setting I lived in there were no real basis for talking about us as opposed to them but rather everything was quite ambiguous.
I wonder if you have a sense of how it is to be a Latin American or if you experience something similar in your very personal identity issues. As a Latin American they teach you at school how THEY brutally subjugated US, and how after THEY committed all kind of abuses WE got sick of it and kicked THEMout of here.
But then you–well, ME–look at yourself in the mirror and realize you kind of look more like THEM than like US. You frankly look more alike the “villains” than like the “victims.”
So, who are you? Digging your family history only pushes you deeper and deeper into limbo:
I mean, my mother’s last name is Pinzón: there where two Pinzones sailing with Columbus on the first trip. Manuel del Castillo, one of my great-grandfathers, used to make his peasant workers kneel down and kiss his ring. That doesn’t make me look exactly like part of the lineage of the oppressed, right?
But wait, on the other hand didn’t one of my grandfathers–the so-called “Negro Ucrós”– descend from a black woman from Cuba? Wasn’t one of my aunts scrubbed like crazy by a relative who couldn’t stand that her skin was so dark? If I am really a sort of European left behind why do I have to beg and crawl to get a visa and humiliate myself to enter airports in Europe?
So as you see, as a Latin American the simple thing of determine if you are a local, an invader or someone brought by force is simply impossible to settle. You are all those things at the same time and you better learn how to come to terms with that.
When it came to local customs, and particularly when it came to gráfica popular, things were no less ambiguous. Was gráfica popular really a cultural expression I could call “mine”? Yes, as I showed at the beginning, gráfica popular was all around my daily life and in that sense it was mine. But in some other sense it wasn’t: gráfica popular is produced by the local impoverished working class, a class I don’t belong to. Actually, for the standards of the upper-middle class to which I belong, it actually is exactly how poverty, bad taste and backwardness look like.
Wasn’t that class conflict within my own society far more important, more critical, more painful, than that other abstract and anachronistic one about “us resisting the evil imperialistic forces”?
We Latin Americans are very good at ranting about the atrocities the First World commits against us, but we are not equally quick at identifying–let alone vocal at denouncing–the exact same kind of attitudes we display in our turn when we are in a position of power. Racism, classism, segregation, simplification, patronizing, stereotyping… we exercise all that towards peasants, indigenous, black and low-income populations within our own society.
As all these ideas started to grow on me I realized it was right there where Populardelujo could really make a contribution. So we began to try to move the project out of this place where we had cornered it with this talk about the protection and celebration of “our ways”.
* * *
ALL THIS WAS HAPPENING as we had started to make things outside of the Internet, which was a must-do for us because the Internet, as fantastic as it is, still has limited reach within the Colombian population.
2004 was a key year for Populardelujo: we were invited by the French Alliance to conceive an exhibit for this small gallery they had at their headquarters in Bogotá. This invitation was part of a year-long series where they would host creative professions that usually don’t have room in museums. The best exhibit of the year would be presented in Paris.
Populardelujo won first place. Our exhibit was titled “Quélegancia la de Francia” and was about identifying all these elements of French culture that had been naturalized, sometimes in very candid ways, in Bogota’s ordinary culture. The point would be made with a collection of about 200 photographs that we had collected after extensive fieldwork.
But we really wanted our exhibit to be visually bold and the prints we could afford were tiny. Digital printing was expensive those days so we came up with the idea of involving a street advertiser we had come to know recently: Mr. Jorge Montesdeoca.
We talked to him about the thematic silos in which we had classified the French influence and asked him to create a painting to introduce each. He did a fantastic job: these are the paintings he did for glamour, celebration, pedigree, cuisine, automotive, and people’s favorite: and illustration of what Colombian bricklayers in a wonderful display of black humour will call “their French-Colombian meal”: a meager lunch composed of a baguette and a bottle of this local soda called “Colombiana.”
Taking the exhibit to Paris was a big achievement, but it was nothing compared with the revelation that it was to work with Jorge.
The French Alliance gave us about $US 400 for producing the exhibit and we paid Jorge 100 for his paintings. We were always concerned by how poorly paid the work of street advertisers was and here we were in a position where we were able to pay a person we admired whatever price he considered fair for his work. Besides, even if we didn’t get any money for ourselves out of this (everything to the last penny was spent in producing the exhibit) after the show was shut down, Populardelujo would own the paintings, which would be the beginning of a collection.
But more important than anything else was the way in which involving Jorge enriched the meaning of the show. First, his interpretation of the topic brought new angles that we (as conditioned as we were by our very own cultural perspective) could have never thought of. And second, the physical displaying of originals painted by his own hand made the exhibit feel a lot more real and significant: it kind of gave a spirit and a pumping heart to what otherwise was just an intellectual exercise by some middle-class kids with cameras.
We were really surprised by how perfect this model of collaboration with Jorge resulted. Content wise, it totally enriched the topic, and aesthetically, it allowed more unique-looking exhibits. Also, it generated a very well-rounded reward for both the painters and Populardelujo: painters got both recognition and a decent income, and Populardelujo would be doing something concrete to protect the cultural expression that it documents, and would slowly consolidate a collection of works.
This model felt so right that we were really looking forward to new opportunities to apply it. A new one arrived soon. In 2006 Colombia was the Invitee of Honor to Guadalajara’s Book Fair, which is the most important book-fair in Latin America, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia wanted to commission us an exhibit that would be presented as part of a broad cultural programming about Colombia.
We envisioned this as an exhibit where we Colombians would show Mexicans the admiration our pop culture feels towards theirs: when it comes to pop culture México is truly like a big brother for Colombia. The exhibit took its name from a mariachi song: (“I like you so much). This time we had a budget of $US 10,000 so we were able to “indulge” ourselves in commissioning works. We chose five street painters to work on five real-size characters that would work as icons for the different realms of “Mexican influence” around which we had divided the exhibit. Eventually, besides their works, many of their insights ended up being part of the exhibit.
In this exhibit as in “Quélegancia la de Francia” we were very strict in giving proper, visible and generous credit to the painters. We had these sections where we would hang their framed portraits and present a text about them and their work.
Eventually these appendixes would grow and overtake Populardelujo as a whole.
Anyway, portraying the French or Mexican influence and so on was nice, and I think we did an OK job documenting facets of our ordinary culture in fun and alternative ways... I told you only about two exhibits but we have done many more about different topics.
But honestly, what really started to feel transcendent and strikingly special to me were these extraordinary human contacts we were experiencing on our fieldtrips, as we collected information and commissioned works. Audiences responded very positively to our exhibits so we realized we were in a position where we could kind of bridge those deep and sharp class furrows I was telling you about at the beginning of this talk.
More and more the exhibits, the newsletter, the prints we produced, started to feel like an opportunity to share the wonders we discovered as well as the harsh reality we witnessed as we spent time with these painters and got to know them well, as we walked their neighborhoods, as we visited the places they have decorated, as we were invited to enter their houses and workshops and got to know their clients, neighbors and families.
I realized the best part of Populardelujo happened right there, on those Saturdays we where wearing our shoes out. On that morning when La Sombra invited us to come in and check out his trophies of lucha libre, on that evening when we sat with the Santamaría brothers and drank far more beers than we should, on that day when we were invited to come check the rooftop where Roberto paints his banners. I realized that the best service we could do as a project was to try communicate this sense of empathy we experienced on our fieldtrips and do our best for other people to somehow experience it as well.
* * *
ALLOW ME to make a parenthesis here. I guess that now that a government entity entered the picture–you know, this Ministry of Foreign Affairs commissioning us an exhibit for Mexico–it is a good time to talk briefly about politics. I guess you are interested in that, right?
There is indeed a political agenda behind the government paying for an exhibit of this sort: I guess supporting the kind of work we do is an easy way for government to show a sort of “social commitment.” And that’s perfectly fine for us unless we become a tool for propaganda, which I don’t really think has been the case.
Rather, we have often stepped on some toes. In Guadalajara, for instance, we decided to include a good deal of references to the world of drug-dealing and narco-culture, which along with boleros, mariachi and lucha-libre is a truly key and massive link between México and Colombia.
You would think this was the last topic a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as concerned as they always are with “projecting a positive image of the country”) would want at this international venue. But, surprisingly, not a single thing was censored, not the slightest commentary about it was made: mariachi songs that celebrate the heroic deeds of drug dealers resounded in the gallery and Mr. Pablo Escobar dressed as Pancho Villa got a full page in the exhibit catalogue.
In general, I am not a big fan of our government’s policies but I think this shows a surprising commitment on their part to free speech and a healthy disposition to deal with reality no matter how inconvenient.
So I am afraid I don’t have a tale about political persecution to tell. Rather the opposite: not only were we allowed to do whatever we like in Guadalajara, but in 2008 we applied for an award from the Ministry of Culture and our project, filled with references to informal economy and marginality, won the main prize: about $US 7,000. A year later, I got a Fulbright scholarship, the one that allowed me to come to Brown, that was partly supported by that same Ministry of Culture.
But that there is not a political persecution doesn’t mean this is a fairy tale. In my opinion the cultural sector in Colombia is very discouraging. Populardelujo survives because we don’t even try to make a living out of it. Many of the things we do don’t produce any profit, and when some does we put all that money into a Populardelujo savings account. We save it for buying a camera, a tape recorder, to subsidize future initiatives or to commission works. The last penny we get gets reinvested in the project: none of us gets a penny out of Populardelujo.
Working like this has its benefits: it allows maintaining the “purity” of the project, but being realistic, it’s quite unsustainable. Populardelujo lives in a very fragile condition: it survives only because the three of us have other jobs and a sort of insane reserve of energy and good-will. The day we get tired of devoting our spare time to this or have other obligations that won’t allow us to, that will be the day when Populardelujo ends.
Also, this permanent condition of Populardelujo as “project on the side” done on nights and weekends with small budgets, condemns Populardelujo to always being this sort of mom-n-pop thing. We would probably never be able to craft initiatives with the quality I think we would be capable of if we could devote all our attention to it, and for sure we will never be able to reach the amount of people and produce the impact we would like to.
Alright, end of the parenthesis. I don’t want to depress you.
* * *
BY 2009 we felt we were kind of “hitting the ceiling”: we had done millions of things including a large exhibit abroad, we had been awarded by the Ministry of Culture and I was packing to come to grad school. After these years of expansive growth we felt we needed to regroup.
Also, since we began with Populardelujo the interest in Bogotá had thrived and there were now a good deal of magazines, TV shows, websites and so on that dealt with “ordinary Bogotá”. And some of them were actually really good. So we decided to go back to basics and work on what we did better: from then on we would concentrate all our energy on vernacular graphics and the people and culture behind it. Like, let’s choose a smaller subject of a study but let’s do it really well.
The symbol of this re-focusing was this book we published that same year with the support of an art organization in Puerto Rico.
This is a book about three painters we had gotten to know really well: Jorge, Roberto y Arnulfo. It was, yes, a way of consolidating our relationship with them on a tangible product but it was far from being just a summary of what we knew about them so far. Actually we used the book project as an excuse for deepening our understanding of who they are: up to that point we had focused on their work on the streets, now we wanted to get more personal. We wanted to explore their inner selves, understand their motivations and the personal stories that made them who they are: to really reconstruct the complex characters behind gráfica popular.
To do so we conducted a series of more personal conversations and we asked them to share with us personal papers and ephemera. We also commissioned them to make paintings that were not replicas of commercial works but that somehow explored personal issues.
What we discovered had a striking effect on me. Meeting these guys on a deep personal level totally changed the way I saw gráfica popular, it made me revise many preconceptions we had: one of them being that their work was simply charming rustic advertising. As we got a better understanding of what kind of people they are, where the inspiration comes from and how the works get commissioned, one of the things we noticed was how the frontier between commercial and personal work was really really hard to draw. If you will allow me to, I would like to devote some time to talk about this because I think it’s truly fascinating.
Gráfica popular is advertising. And advertising may be full of clichés and lies but even at its worst if it doesn’t depict reality, it depicts the hopes and standards of happiness, beauty and success of a group of people. However, I would go further than that and I would tell you that at some level, gráfica popular is more than plain advertising: it is a form of self-expression we don’t have a name for.
Let me explain that. With Populardelujo we really really wanted to go beyond simple passive documentation. So we made a big effort to figure out who the people behind these graphics are. One of them was Jorge Montesdeoca, whom you already know, and I think his case illustrates what I am trying to convey really well.
We had a hard time getting to know Jorge. He wouldn’t write his phone number on his works and he didn’t have a paintshop. He was “this guy that passes by every now and then.”
When we finally got to know him we were surprised from the first second. First, he wasn’t Colombian–he was Ecuatorian–and he wouldn’t write his phone number because he didn’t have one. He didn’t have one because he didn’t have a home, not in Bogotá, not anywhere else. Actually he hadn’t had a home after the one he had in Rio de Janerio thirty years ago.
Rio de Janeiro! For us in Latin America hanging around like that is hard and expensive. We have quite a set of monumental obstacles: the Andes, the Amazon, the stupid nationalisms, the incompetence of our politicians…
…and here we were seated in front of this penniless man who had not only been in Quito, Rio and Bogotá but in more that 120 places all across Latin America. The length of his trip? 40 years. His only means of survival? Painting murals and signage for business. It was such a humbling experience to talk to Jorge. He was so cosmopolitan, so cultured, so free of prejudices… virtues that I ignorantly and reflexively tended to associate with the wealthy.
It happened to be that as a kid Jorge became fascinated with the stories about distant places and cultures he heard from his mother, as well as from the novels of Verne and Salgari. He was also fascinated by the figure of General Bolivar and his vision of Latin America as one single nation. So as soon as he could he threw some paintbrushes in a bag a set off to see the whole wide world with his own eyes. From then on his whole life has been a sustained effort to make economical and national constraints irrelevant and to liberate himself from any kind of strings, including the sentimental ones. I swear to you that I haven’t known another truly free spirit like Jorge’s.
After knowing all these, how wouldn’t you think of his “commercial work” scattered in modest surfaces all across Latin America in a completely different light! His murals are not the clichéd landscapes you could easily take them to be: his sirens and galleons, his depictions of local customs, his bucolic beaches,– his cheerful bananas!– and his scenes of the outter-space, are yes, graphics for decorating commercial retail environments, but they are at the same time a bold declaration of a Latin American of modest means of the right of not having other constrains than the ones imposed by your own energy, will and curiosity.
So as you see, what I think you have in many of the so-called gráfica popular is really a hybrid form half-way between advertising and self expression.
When you think about it really makes a lot of sense. The urge, the compulsion, the primal need for expressing one’s -self plastically is not exclusive of the wealthy. There’s no question about it. Highly sensible, inquisitive, tormented spirits crushed by a restless need for self-expression are equally likely to appear in any economical strata of society. However, when you are born at the bottom of the pyramid you don’t have the spaces and time the ones at the top do to indulge and give free rein to that need. If in general it is hard for anyone, anywhere, to make a living as an artist, just imagine how unthinkable it would be for someone who was born in a Latin American shanty town.
But if you know artists you know they don’t give up just like that. So what do you do when you can’t get the whole of what you want? You negotiate and try to get a good deal. As I see it, many of these painters have found in these works they do for business a clever way of expressing themselves at the same time they ensure themselves their daily bread.
The owners of the establishments, in their turn, act more as patrons than as conventional clients: they don’t force the artist to adapt to a certain style but they hire him because of his signature style and to a large extent allow him to decide the motifs.
Thus, these commercial establishments scattered all across modest neighborhoods in Latin America end up kind of being the galleries, the museums, the art books, the fanzines, the websites, and the Flickr galleries that working class Latin American artists don’t have.
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OF COURSE, you have to be willing to read between the lines to catch that. To be perfectly honest I am the first to ask myself if I am not deceiving myself by believing I see artists trapped in the form of signage painters. And just when I doubting it, men like Arnulfo Herrada enter the stage.
When we first meet Arnulfo we would keep asking him about the work he has done for businesses in Bogotá. But he would always divert the conversation towards some esoteric ramblings that sounded like pure non-sense to us… It was always the same, so at some point we kind of quit insisting and started to actually pay attention to what the guy was saying… And we were amazed.
It happened to be that from early in his life Arnulfo was both blessed and cursed with the ability to see and hear things most of us can’t. During his sixty years he has been recurrently visited by spirits, both good and evil, that deliver messages and take him on trips. Flying over the waters he had seen catastrophes to come, he has had a glimpse of both heaven and hell, he has seen people turn into donkeys in New Year’s eve, and more than once he has been visited in his room by Satan himself. He calls all these “revelations.”
One can only imagine how painful it would have been to live with all these inside you for sixty years.
Who knows how many spirits like this are trapped in poverty and humiliation. As anyone knows well, self-expression is not a nice-to-have but is a basic human need as vital as water or oxygen.
I don’t know if the word for this is art and I’m not really interested to get into that conversation. To me it’s self-expression and to me that encapsulates all its importance.
So as you can see, for some time we have been really invested in trying to show audiences the rich complexities and nuances of these painters’ personalities, and to somehow put Populardelujo at their service as a valve for self-expression.
For a long time people like Arnulfo have been “flattened” and “simplified”. Their lives, when not completely ignored, written or explained by others. Almost always in terms of “the masses” and almost
always as one-dimensional: “the working class.” As if a work force is all they were… All of which only contributes to perpetuate the false idea that people like him are nothing but shadows in history: “the blurry people in the background.”
Along that same line there’s this idea from Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor that I think kind of synthesizes what I would say Populardelujo is about these days: “Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need”
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ALRIGHT, so after finishing grad school and going back to Bogotá I was eager to use the first chance we got to make an exhibit infused by this sort of new spirit that propelled the project. Populardelujo was already 10 years old and we realized that, almost without noticing it, we had gathered a collection of more than 200 original works. A collection that I would say is the only one of its kind, at least in Colombia. So we conceived of an exhibit that would celebrate it.
We managed for a couple of cultural institutions to open up their doors to us and so with most of the money Populardelujo had saved over 10 years we put together this exhibit titled 4 FIERAS. We presented it in Cartagena and then in Bogotá and I think is the best we have done so far. Not only did we exhibit the painters’ work, some of it painted live in the gallery, but we also exhibited the terms of our relationship with them.
I am very pleased with the way we presented them and of what we wrote about them: I had always thought that the sign that I had put together a good exhibit was when I felt completely proud and at ease about having the painters and their families in the room reading the captions and seeing with their own eyes what we had done with the information we had collected from them. And happily that was the case with this exhibit.
But as much as I like the exhibit, what I am really proud of is the programming we attached to it. We came up with these activities: demonstrations, talk-shows and workshops where the painters were the main stars.
I would hate to sound grandiose but I think that at their tiny level these activities have helped bridge the gap that separates classes in Colombia to a extent we haven’t achieved before: we have gathered in the same room people that would hardly talk to each other, and that’s a lot more than what a beautiful coffeetable book can do. In the end, if you are after “giving voice” to people, there’s simply no better way than sit with that person face to face, shut up and listen carefully.
That bring us to 2012. This year we had the fortune of inviting Elliot Tupac, a Peruvian printmaker who creates amazing posters for advertising shows in Lima, to give a talk for a group of design students at the very design school I attended as a undergrad. It was especially meaningful to me because I felt I was kind of closing a circle, you know: I was bringing a “non-professional” graphic designer to this nice auditorium where ten years ago I would only hear about the Bauhus and so on. It was really nice and I think kids were quite interested and glad to get other perspectives about design. I think there’s been some slow shift about valuing gráfica popular, in the design world at least.
Next week I am heading to Amsterdam to give a talk at a design conference (What Design Can Do 2012) and actually one of the things I will stress is how design, how a designer’s mind frame, can be a tool for the humanities. I think designers, if they are not busy only working on coolness and “innovating”, if they are not busy just “designing”, have a wonderful, a special sensibility for identifying the beauty and worth of what most people consider insignificant… and that’s a real valuable skill in a world where more and more we need to learn how to co-exist and deal with difference.
And I guess that’s it, I am looking forward to what comes next but in any case I keep researching and documenting more and more gráfica popular all the time and tracing what lies behind. On Populardelujo’s blog I kind of try to post all these discoveries that one day may turn into a project or something… The blog is a nice tool actually, it is like a notebook for me.
Just to give you a sense, one the findings I am most excited about these days is this visual culture that thrived around the sound-systems African Colombians started building on the Colombian Caribbean coast in the 60’s. It’s fascinating and many people in Colombia don’t have a clue about it. I for instance, was never talked about any of this at the graphic design school. Incredible, right?
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I AM FINISHING NOW and I want to thank you for this opportunity to reflect on Populardelujo’ internal processes. Now that I look at all of it retrospectively I realize Populardelujo’s history looks like quite a pin-ball. Kind of annoying and exhausting, right?
I guess it would have helped me a lot to know what I was doing before doing it, but I came to gain some perspective over what I was doing, understand its theoretical bases and realize the tradition in which it fell only a couple of years ago when I came to grad school. Until then all this had been a completely empirical thing.
Also, I think Populardelujo may be very irritating–and perhaps even irresponsible–from a scholar’s point of view. Put simply, our project is not separated from our personal learning, from our identity struggles and from our relationship with the place and the cultural setting we live in: in the end this is a project that is about us as much as it is about vernacular graphics and its painters. This absence of distance, of detachment, may well make Populardelujo the worst example of professional public humanities and quite an example of picaresque curatorship. But to be perfectly honest I don’t care: I guess I’m not really as invested in contributing to the progress of “objective, scientific knowledge in the humanities” as I am invested in doing something to contribute to a more fair society.
As a designer, as someone who works in the public humanities, I cannot change distribution of wealth. But I can do a lot to solve a fundamental form on inequity.
Beyond the inequity in access to opportunities and material goods in Colombia there is a rampant form of inequity that I would say is the parent of the rest: the way people treat other people. Colombian society is profoundly classist: expressions of the working class are systematically devalued both by ignoring them and by insulting them when people make fun of them or treat them in condescending and patronizing ways.
As long as people don’t show towards the experiences of others the respect they want for their own I don’t think a society has a promising future. I like to see Populardelujo as the way my friends and I have managed to work on that problem within our particular context. There are certainly others forms of wealth and we can do a great deal to identify them and try to get people to see the dignity they have.
JUAN ESTEBAN DUQUE, ROXANA MARTÍNEZ, ESTEBAN UCRÓS