Published  01/05/2014

José Roca: interview

Many Waters, Many Voices
José Roca: interview

Waterweavers: The River in Contemporary Colombian Visual and Material Culture, curated by José Roca
Bard Graduate Center Gallery, New York City
11 April – 10 August 2014


To mark its 20th anniversary this year, Bard Graduate Center Gallery (BGC) has opened an exhibition that reaps the unexpected rewards that come from taking risks rather than resting on laurels. The gallery might naturally have chosen to capitalise on its specialty – historical exhibitions based on research into the decorative arts, design and material culture being done by its professors and students – but founder and director Susan Weber and director Nina Stritzler-Levine decided to show contemporary works of art, craft and design from a relatively unexplored area of Latin America.

The result of their leap into the unknown, Waterweavers: The River in Contemporary Colombian Visual and Material Culture, is an eclectic display of textiles, furniture, ceramics and graphic design referencing or using traditional craft techniques and patterns, and video installations capturing life along the country’s major rivers – the Amazonas, Putumayo, Cahuinarí, Magdalena, Cauca, Bogotá and Ranchería – and the Laguna de Guatavita.

One wonders if Weber and Stritzler-Levine realised just how far off the map they would go when independent institutional curator José Roca, a native of Colombia who now lives in Bogotá, agreed to take on the project.1 Inspired by a show of Andean chuspas – bags made from coca leaves – that would run simultaneously in the BGC Focus Gallery, Roca envisioned immersive environments in which the paradoxes, polarities and points of contact between diverse artistic practices are explored through the tropes of the river and weaving.2 The works themselves provide their own context as they interact with each other and viewers, who are given a minimalist illustrated pamphlet as their only guide to what they will encounter in the gallery spaces.

As Stritzler-Levine says in her preface to the Waterweavers catalogue: “This curatorial strategy, which is prevalent in exhibitions of contemporary art, would certainly be a departure for a gallery in an academic institution that prides itself on integrating material from extensive research projects in labels in text panels.”

Along with editor/writer Alejandro Martín, Roca also orchestrated a catalogue that, like a symphony, harmonises many themes and voices; in effect, the volume is another immersive environment filled with photographs, artworks, poetry, excerpts from literature, historical accounts and essays written by the artists.3

Although today the majority of Colombia’s population lives in urban areas, rivers and traditional handcrafts such as weaving remain essential to the country’s economy and social fabric. An intricate, mountainous topography divides communities, helping to preserve some indigenous cultures, their rituals and their crafts, but also providing black-marketeers with the ideal environment for illicit activities and violence. The artists and designers selected for Waterweavers evoke a multiplicity of ethnobotanical, social, cultural, economic and political concerns that might easily have proved unwieldy for the most talented of curators, yet Roca has done a brilliant job of weaving many threads into an enchanting tapestry.

Studio International spoke with him about the exhibit, some of the featured artists, and his role as artistic director of FLORA ars + natura in Bogotá.

Cindi di Marzo: Congratulations on an extraordinary accomplishment with Waterweavers. Given the time typically required to mount a show of such complexity, I was amazed to read in Nina Stritzler-Levine’s catalogue preface that you had little more than a year to pull the show together. How did you do it? 

José Roca: Thanks for your kind words. In fact, even though the actual time between the moment I was invited to propose a project and the opening of the show was very short, I have been working with most of these artists for many years. So it was a question of finding a good curatorial argument that would weave together, no pun intended, works or practices that I knew very well with others that were new to me. We worked under pressure, but the results have a certain spontaneity, I think, that comes from having to make decisions without much time to reflect on the implications.

CDM: Well, clearly it all came together gracefully, so I find it curious that Stritzler-Levine also mentions how, initially, you felt you might not be the right candidate for the job. What made you change your mind?

JR: I am not a specialist in design or applied arts, nor a scholar in any area of material culture, which are BGC’s areas of interest. But then I thought that this could be a good opportunity to try out a more experimental curatorial approach, and since the BGC was game, I decided to do it. I asked Alejandro Martín, with whom I have done many projects in the past, especially publications, to work with me as an adjunct curator and co-editor of the book.

CDM: How did BGC’s plan for an exhibition of chuspas spark the ideas that inform Waterweavers?

JR: With the intention to better understand the context in which this hypothetical exhibition would be read, I tried to learn more about the past and upcoming exhibitions at BGC. In doing so, I learned that what eventually became Waterweavers was to be shown alongside an exhibition titled Carrying Coca, curated by Nicola Sharratt, focused on the traditional woven bags used in the Andean region to carry coca leaves. The title of Nicola’s beautiful show led me to think about curatorial framing. What if Carrying Coca had been my show? As a Colombian, I could clearly picture myself being asked at the immigration desk in New York, “What brings you to the United States?” and having to answer, “Oh, I'm just involved with Carrying Coca for an institution in New York.” Context is everything. So I decided that my show would reflect on the Colombian context, and many pieces do reference the cocaine trade.

CDM: Colombia’s troubled history of colonisation and exploitation of natural resources such as gold and rubber pervade the works in the show, as do the more recent violence and drug trafficking along the riverways. You say in your catalogue introduction that younger artists are not as interested in pursuing these themes as they were at the end of the 20th century. Why is that?

JR: I think that when the political situation was more complex and drug-related violence had escalated – which was roughly 1995 to 2005 – many artists reflected this in their work. But since the situation is somewhat better now, many have focused on other themes. The younger ones, who came of age in the latter part of the last decade, probably did not explore this territory at all.

CDM: Where did you grow up and were you aware as a young person of the importance of rivers and weaving to the survival of many people in your country?

JR: Well, having being brought up in Bogotá, a sprawling city of more than eight million, the people that live in the isolated rural areas where war is waged are not in my immediate environment. [But] I do travel extensively in the country, and have visited many of the areas referenced in the exhibition and book. This includes the Amazon forest, of which Colombia shares only a small part but which is, nonetheless, half of the country and about the same area as France. And I have had a house for more than seven years in Honda, a colonial town that used to be the main port on the Magdalena river, and have learned firsthand about the problems there. Regarding weaving, it is a craft that is prevalent throughout Colombia and the entire world, I would say.

CDM: How did you select the artists and designers for the show?

JR: The exhibition grew organically from some specific pieces that I thought embodied the concept. I kept adding works with the spaces at BGC in mind. As happens with most of my curatorial projects, the exhibit was curated “on site”, [with me] thinking all the time about the experience of the visitor.

CDM: Please explain your vision of the immersive environment and curatorial strategy of what you call “figure/ground”.

JR: It is very simple, really. In each space, there is something on the walls that creates an immersive environment and usually gives context in the form of landscape, and then the more sculptural pieces are in the centre. This way, the visitor is immersed in the space and can experience the sculptural works while inside it. Some of the works in the centre of the rooms are furniture, so the visitor can actually use the objects instead of looking at them, which is what typically happens in design museums.

CDM: Without contextual wall texts, visitors are allowed to form their own impressions as they move through the gallery spaces. Those with little knowledge of Colombia or Latin American art and design will, therefore, have entirely different responses from people from that area of the world. You already commented on how “context is everything” with regard to Carrying Coca. Can you describe a case in Waterweavers where motifs and themes will yield very specific ideas and memories for Latin Americans?

JR: On entering the second gallery, visitors will be inside a space framed by papers and fibres tinted with natural pigments hanging from the ceiling or lining the walls. One of the walls displays a floor-to-ceiling video projection of a river scene, as viewed from a boat navigating the river. The idea of “jungle” is very abstract, as are the terms “Amazon” or “Latin America,” for that matter, especially if you haven’t been there. But suddenly gunfire explodes and visitors see ripples in the water created by machine guns fired by soldiers in a boat. This creates a rupture; it is no longer a “jungle” or the “Amazon” as virginal ecological frontier, but the Putumayo area in Colombia where guerrillas, the paramilitary, drug traffickers, illegal miners and other illicit actors wage war.

CDM: The catalogue has a lovely musical quality and is quite effective in blending disparate voices from the present and past, diverse types of writings and dramatic visual imagery. Have you used this format for print before?

JR: Not to the extent that we have with this book, although in the catalogue for the Eighth Mercosul Biennial 2011, where I was the chief curator, we included texts by writers, architectural historians and others to expand the context beyond art.

CDM: Some of the participants in Waterweavers make works that not only employ local craftspeople and materials, but also help to preserve their techniques. Can you describe a few examples?

JR: Susana Mejía is learning from the women in a specific part of the Amazon how to extract pigments from plants before the elders in these indigenous communities die, and with them their ancestral knowledge. The younger ones do not want to make the great effort of extracting these pigments and find it easier to buy ready-made Chinese dyes at local markets, or to buy ready-made garments, also imported from China.

Álvaro Catalán de Ocón, Ceci Arango and Lucy Salamanca’s pieces are based on their exchanges with communities that weave natural fibres; these designers work with local craftspeople to produce the pieces.

Jorge Lizarazo has created a workshop that employs more than 60 weavers who bring their knowledge and are taught new techniques; the younger, inexperienced ones are initiated into a craft.

CDM: Why has industrial production in Colombia been limited, and how has this situation favoured local craftspeople and artists who prefer the “handmade”?

JR: Colombia never had a large industrial sector, and few are willing to spend the big money needed for research and development. Many designers have not found a space where they can design prototypes for industrial production, and have opted instead for designing objects that are produced by craftspeople in small quantities.

CDM: As artistic director of FLORA ars + natura, your contemporary art space in Bogotá featuring artists exploring the relationship between art and nature, you pursue objectives similar to those you manifest in Waterweavers. Is the BGC exhibit an extension of what you are doing with the centre in Bogotá?

JR: In a way, yes, this could have been an exhibition that would have worked very well at FLORA. Some of the artists, such as Susana Mejía and Alberto Baraya, have been shown at FLORA in the past. But the scale of Waterweavers is beyond FLORA’s capacity, both spatially and financially.

CDM: Part of your curatorial experience is in international art fairs. Is there a relationship between such efforts and the work you are doing with local communities?

JR: The art fair part is relatively new in my work as a curator. I have only done the Solo Projects at fairs in the past year, and largely because I have come to agreements so that the fairs will sponsor an artist to have a month-long residence at FLORA. My experience is, above all, local and Latin American, although I have curated or co-curated many international exhibitions and biennials in Colombia, Brazil, Puerto Rico and the US.

CDM: What new projects are on the horizon for you?

JR: To further develop FLORA’s programme. We have just bought another house in Bogotá and want to expand the space so as to have more artist studios.

CDM: Thank you again for your comments, Mr Roca. Waterweavers is, indeed, a grand achievement.

1. In 2012, Roca was appointed Estrellita B Brodsky Adjunct Curator of Latin American Art at Tate, London. Trained as an architect, Roca is also artistic director of FLORA ars + natura, an independent contemporary art space in Bogotá.
2. Carrying Coca: 1,500 Years of Andean Chuspas in the BGC Focus Gallery (11 April – 3 August 2014) highlights the use of coca leaves for handmade textiles, as well as its function as a stimulant, making it a controversial symbol for international campaigns against drug trafficking.
3. Waterweavers: A Chronicle of Rivers was designed by Irma Boom and edited by José Roca and Alejandro Martín, and retails for US$55. Texts include excerpts from The Vortex by José Eustasio Rivera, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez and Upriver: Between the Cocaine and the Gold by Alfredo Molano. 

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