A CHAT WITH BETSABEE ROMERO
Who is Betsabeé Romero?
Betsabeé Romero is a visual artist who has been fighting for over 25 years to construct her meaning and take it to the crime scene, where it needs to be taken.
What are the main topics that you tackle in your art?
Mainly mobility, borders, migration and gender.
You went to the Ecole du Louvre and the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Paris. What does Paris mean in your life?
Paris is the detonator of much of my thinking, it’s the reflection behind my artwork. It’s an emotional place where I’ve gone from feeling the loneliest person in the world to also feeling the most accompanied one. It’s where I found love, where I found the father of my daughter. Where I got to meet the best teacher of my life and my best friends. It’s a very important city for me, in every way.
And in your art?
Mainly in the theoretical reflection my work leans on. I first studied communication because I wanted to study philosophy. And I think that maybe Paris is no longer the center of the arts and it hasn’t been for a long time now but I think it is still the center of the curatorial and philosophical reflection. So it was very important for the conceptual part of my work which I think it is fundamental.
Latin-American art is having a very important moment of visibility. Why just now? How do you feel about it?
I think these waves of visibility for certain places are more of a cyclical situation that happens every now and then because Latin America is not the closest place to Europe in terms of the amount of migrants, the geographic proximity and colonization by France and its language. So in the end, it’s more about moments that eventually fade. Oddly enough, I left Paris 30 years ago in a moment of visibility for peripheral stories and places in postmodernity. There was this great exhibition “Magicien de la Terre” that gave some room to artists from other places such as Latin America. I hope that this time it will stay longer and it will give room to more communities and cultures rather than individuals.
It is a fact that women are underrepresented in the art world. From your perspective as a female artist from Latin America, how could these reality be transformed positively?
It is still a big concern that Latin America, even when it’s not at war, is the continent where most women die due to violence. Being a woman that has been able to study abroad, that has decided her life project the way that I have done it, is an exception. However, this does not confirm anything and it does not make this exception an example of “if you could make it, any woman can make it” because it is not true, it is hard and it is more a matter of luck or chance.
This makes me feel more committed to making this reality change completely from inside the system, from inside the art market where female artists also reflect this situation, where there are huge differences between living and dead people, between the richest dead man and the dead woman that is worth the most in the market. Despite being a worldwide situation, in modernity, Latin America gained visibility very subtly in the art world both for male and female artists. I think this opportunity has made men and women grow more or less equally and has also created some fluctuation where sometimes female Latin American artists have a high representation and then there are other times where they don’t.
Since the 70’s, with the international feminist movement, more room has been given to women around the world. The representation in museums, solo shows or galleries varies between 20% or 30%. Currently in Colombia or Brazil, women have a very important place. This is a clear example in Latin America; however, oddly enough, in Mexico, Frida Khalo’s country, maybe the most well-known image of a female artist in the world, there was a major setback. In the 90’s there was a wider visibility and the art market was more open to women. Currently in mainstream art, there are few Mexican women and their work is not highly priced.
Why did this setback happen in Mexico?
Due to globalization, Mexican art market lost interest in the gender discussion and also, of course, the academic paradigm is probably determined by a macho as well as the selection of artists at galleries. And even if it is not purposely thought to leave women out or not put them at the same level as men, it is a situation that does take place.
Do you consider yourself as a feminist? Is this reflected on your work?
I think that my work in Latin America, and all of the different problems that take place there, is not focused on gender. My first real and symbolic vehicle, to find other audiences and break the classism and racism that Iie within the art world, is the car. Cars allowed me to reach different types of people, they took me to the field, to work with communities in order to tackle different problems. My strategy has more to do with approaching other kinds of audiences different to those stereotypically known such as the art market, galleries and art fairs.
Would you say you use your work as a means of resistance? Why?
I believe art itself is a process of construction of knowledge that is exercised from the resistance towards many things. For example, the speed at which mass media generates its messages day by day due to the need to find a news item and get better ratings. So I think art should be in an exercise of resistance against this way of producing content, of producing culture. Art is a process that is done from another perspective, from a different type of depth and what one builds would tend to last longer and have a greater impact in terms of the reflection on what we are living. As far as art is a thermometer of what happens in the world, it is also a thermometer that must take the temperature of the heart of the world, of something much deeper than what is talked about day by day on social media, in the news, at the level of the complaint only. I believe that this would have to go deeper than that.
What is your creative process to make a piece of art, an artistic installation?
In general, before starting a piece of art, there are questions, there is some research that has been done before. The themes that interest me are things that I look for in the cinema, in music, theater, and the newspaper. So I try to keep up with these discussions every day. It is not the topic that matters but how you approach it.
Could you explain the concept behind your artistic Installation “El Cortejo” at Le Grand Palais?
This piece of art that I conceived for this place, for this city and at this moment has to do with my reflection about a moment of emergency in terms of mobility in big cities. I think we are in a moment in which we have to rethink ourselves as beings in movement. As we think of ourselves as beings in movement, we need to do it from a more collective and community oriented way and not think of ourselves as individuals who decide day by day how we move with, for or against other people. Thus, I believe there is no room in big cities for the individualistic, enormous and luxurious automobile anymore. So these bicycles are the other side of these vehicles which are over a century old, and they still fit our size, and are at our level of human beings. We understand how they move, they’re mechanical, they have never become digital, they’re comprehensible and are at our reach in terms of speed. I think it is something to which we will have to return and try as a community rather than as individuals.
You are deeply inspired by pre-hispanic art and the fusion of cultures. What is the message behind this syncretism?
We are at a time of much radicalization and separatism in terms of religion, class and politics. People define themselves in extremes and believe that it is valid to oppose everything else and I believe that miscegenation is the opposite: it is flexibility and it is openness. In Mexico, despite the fact that there was a violent colonization, what prevailed, as in other Latin American countries, was miscegenation because there were very strong and numerous cultures and the Spaniards had to negotiate with them, they had to mix with them and the cultures that they found had to do it too. So in the end, we found a culture that learned to appropriate what was coming in, make it their own and do it in a peaceful way. So I think that’s why after many colonizations in Mexico we can, for example, celebrate festivities like Halloween and nothing happens. This is because there is a palimpsest, where one thing incorporates the other and the strength that pre-Hispanic culture has, which is seen a lot on The Day of the Dead, has passed through Catholicism, pop, etc. This is the example that flexibility and openness make cultures mix and produce richer results than exclusion and separatism.
In your art you use many objects such as cars, tires and you mix them with pre-Hispanic symbology and art, could we consider this as some kind of protest against the neocolonial process that is still taking place in Latin America?
With tires I worked a lot with the idea of recovering the memory of what has been run over. I engrave on tires iconography of cultures, of moments, of architecture that has been run over by modernity and by colonialist processes.
Is it a protest?
It is a questioning and it is also giving asylum, symbolically, to the image of what has been denied, what has been silenced or omitted and what has been erased.
You value manual labor close to the work of an artisan. What is your relationship with Mexican artisans?
I consider that they are the most important intangible heritage we have in Mexico, I admire them and I always learn a lot from them. I am lucky to work with some great craftsmen for more than 15 years and it is a relationship in which I am very interested in dignifying what they do and also, on the other hand, insisting that craftsmanship also exists in art itself, that there is no difference. It is a form of rejection of speed as a category that for me is overvalued in the contemporary world.
Interview by Andrés Cobos for 85°
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