Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends
Four Artists Reflect on Charis
The traveling art exhibition Charis—Boundary Crossings: Neighbors Strangers Family Friends features work by seven Asian and seven North American artists. The show grew out of a two-week seminar in Indonesia sponsored by Calvin College’s Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and led by the Plowshares Institute. Over that period, the participating artists traveled, ate, worked, prayed, and lived together. In the months following, they created work in response to their experiences. The Charis exhibition will travel to ten or twelve venues in North America through 2012 before heading to Asia. We asked four of the participants, Barry Krammes, Emmanuel Garibay, Daniel Enrique García, and Roger Feldman, to reflect on what they learned. Their responses are collected here.
A Conversation with Daniel Enrique García
Daniel Enrique García was born in Trujillo, Peru, in 1967. He graduated from the Catholic University of Peru in Lima with a degree in linguistics and Latin American literature. He obtained an MA in communications at Wheaton College and later an MFA in filmmaking at Ohio University in Athens. As his thesis project in film school, he produced and directed Lurigancho, a documentary about the lives of minority incarcerated men in Peru’s largest prison. In 2006 he directed and produced the documentary Drawings and War about the experiences of children abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north of Uganda. He recently finished The Gift of All, a documentary about the nature of philanthropy and community engagement in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he currently teaches media production at Calvin College. He was interviewed by Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk.
Image: What artwork from outside your culture has challenged you?
Daniel Enrique García: Before I answer I think it’s important to say that though I make films I do not consider myself an artist. I’m not trained. I don’t have a thorough understanding of art history, so I don’t feel like I have authority to speak about art in general. My opinions are mostly perceptions.
I am very rooted in the place I come from. Latin America is rooted in Europe through Spain, and until relatively recently Spain was stuck in the sixteenth century. My personal formation is less plastic, less formal, less pictorial. I grew up as a Southern Baptist pastor’s kid. So words were allowed, but images were mistrusted. But words are for the imagery. That’s the beauty of how we communicate. The first things that struck me artistically were poems about social reality: the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, the Chilean Pablo Neruda, and popular music about struggle. I grew up watching a military dictatorship do terrible things to people, and so for me art had to have some sort of social function. This has so deeply permeated my perception of what is noble, what is true, what is worthy to be praised, that I feel a detachment from any endeavor that is removed from the basic elements of social interaction and human life. I enjoy abstract art, but I find it very intellectual. It’s located in only one section of my mind. It appeals to a very individual kind of participation, to a degree that I sometimes find self-indulgent.
I did feel the influence of the West. When you grow up in a poor, underdeveloped country, your cultural boundaries are not really shaped by your own language or territory. You grow up with Michael Jackson and Madonna, and then Bono. But if you dig a little bit you find other things. I read Walt Whitman in college and was thrilled by him. He was not necessarily a Christian, just somebody who would just go out in the wilderness, but I found him theologically appealing. His statements were so universal, so powerful, so spiritual. I studied Latin as an undergrad. I studied European history thoroughly. I specialized in literature and took numerous classes—Russian literature, German literature, British literature, American literature. The West was not foreign to me.
Image: Your family permitted literature rather than the other arts. Why were you allowed to use words?
DG: It’s a Protestant tradition. Sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura. We have a certain pride in knowing the Bible, and this is a little rivalry with the Catholics. Catholics understand the rituals, the Eucharist. We understand the Bible. We’re people of the text.
Slowly I was allowed to do other stuff—but it was looked down on a little bit. I grew up in a church without paintings, except for awful western posters of white, blue-eyed Jesus. That was my art. I understand now why it never appealed to me, because it was foreign in the worst way possible; it was alien.
But when someone would read poems of Victor Jara about surviving the dictatorship, or tell me stories about the young Che Guevara, somehow that appealed to me. I remember my father going to preach in the jungle, alone. For me these were manifestations of true art. For me, an artist should somehow be a prophet, somebody who can say something true about our human condition.
Image: Do you see that happening in contemporary art?
DG: Yes, but you have to think a lot to get it. It’s not accessible to the masses. It’s hidden within the codes of the tradition. This is something I learned in Indonesia, by putting eastern and western art side by side.
Image: How would you say that the work done by the Asian artists relates to what you’re describing?
DG: When you look at the Charis exhibition, without seeing the names, with no training at all, you can tell which paintings are eastern and which are western: there are humans in the art from Asia, and none in the art in the West. The Asian art is figurative. It’s direct. There is a sense of storytelling. It’s accessible.
They’re not interested in abstraction because they need to sell their art. The economic structures are clear: anything that isn’t appealing to buyers won’t work. On the other hand, their theology is very much alive, because they need to dialogue with the religions. Even very well respected and established artists like Emmanuel Garibay always have a biblical element mixed into their work along with all the cultural curiosities and intuitions.
I also learned that western art is more dependent on economics than I thought it was. You’d think that because in the west we have to worry less about our basic needs, we’d be freer in our art. But we are also subject to the financial context of our world.
Image: The Asian artists in the exhibition seemed very cognizant of what the western market asks for. Yet they were still able to separate themselves from that to create powerful artwork and not necessarily succumb to what the West was demanding.
DG: I think the artists were mature. I didn’t see them guessing at what they were supposed to be doing. They were driven by years of doing this work. They knew they had this chance to interact with western artists for awhile, but they also knew that this wouldn’t necessarily change their lives. They have paths that they will continue on. I would say the American artists were peeking into what the Asians were doing more than the other way.
It was a discovery for me. Back in my own country, when I seek out artists, I will not necessarily look just in the churches. You can find artists anywhere. The elements that make someone an artist are theological, existential, financial, socio-political, as well as elements of character and temperament. Art does not happen in a vacuum. Art is a response to things. The fact that we can point these things out more completely and more immediately in countries like Indonesia or Colombia, where survival is an issue, makes it more tender. There are certain biblical principles that I always think about, like why Jesus was always talking about the poor and defenseless. I think it’s because when we are in situations where we cannot depend on anything but God’s provision, some dimension of our humanity comes out that otherwise is hidden in the numbness of comfort. I like that immediacy. I wish we westerners had had the chance to dwell more on that dimension of the lives of the Asian artists.
Image: Was there anything else you felt was overlooked? Anything you would have liked more time to discover?
DG: It was such a blessing just to be there. I wish we could have locked ourselves in for three days without going out. Artists relate to each other in a different way than other people do. If you’re going to organize a conference for artists, I think you need to leave them alone in a room together for hours. Art appeals to so many deeper dimensions of our being that you cannot do it without time. It’s like wine. You can even make wine without grapes, but not without time.
Artists need to be together, especially artists concerned with spiritual matters. I think Christian artists especially have a fundamental communality whose backbone is spirituality. That will flourish, but it takes time, especially when you’re talking about people who live in different conditions. When I interviewed Wisnu Sasongko I said, “I don’t want you to just do the PR stuff. I don’t want you to just talk about art. I want you to talk about your life.” And immediately he said, “We are struggling with poverty here.” Why don’t we talk about those things? The fact that we don’t is the most important indicator that we should. We should talk about poverty; we should talk about the hardship of being a minority religious group, and how that interacts with their art.
A true artist will give something of his or her own life to every piece, something rooted in interior experience. In the novel My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, after Asher has his first exhibit, he is heartbroken because everything was sold. He says something like, “I just sold my life here. I need to have another life now if I want to make another exhibit, because that was my father going away, my mother going away.” It’s easy to talk about painting, but it takes more time for an artist to talk about the roots of their paintings—spirituality, family, all that stuff. A true connection among artists needs an atmosphere where we can go deeper and find that common spirituality. It’s something you nurture over time.
Image: Tell me about the piece you made, The Viewfinder Machine. It forces viewers to kneel and bend forward in an awkward position and put our whole heads into it, and through the lens we see images of little girls in costume, dancing.
DG: I like documentaries, even though I’ve been kind of sick of thinking in a documentary mode. If I’d had a chance to spend more time with a dancer’s family, to see how they cook, how they eat their food, what their routine is, how they wash their heads and hands, how they talk to each other, then perhaps I would have been able to see beyond the show that they were putting on for us.
There were moments when I saw hints that the dance was a performance that had nothing to do with their actual culture, the way they really live, like the gamelan player you saw checking his text messages during the exhibition of ancient shadow puppetry. So much art is like our fingernails, just dead cells hanging there out of an old experience. My piece is an attempt to explore that. You’re kneeling, looking at these girls, but you don’t realize that these girls are also kneeling in front of the culture that is imposed upon them by their parents. Culture is an artifact that first comes about by natural combustion, but then it becomes an imposition on our kids, something we dress our offspring with. We paint their faces with the culture.
It’s such a delicate thing, and one that should be more an act of prayer. My intent with The Viewfinder Machine is that I wish we could be in prayer-mode every time we look at somebody else. Otherwise we dress our act of observation with our own questions. It will be all about us. It will be tourism, not meditation.
Image: The kaleidoscope effect is interesting. I wonder how that changes the viewer. When I saw the work exhibited I heard a lot of “ah-has” when viewers would suddenly see the faces.
DG: I think it’s amazing how we love to amuse ourselves. And it’s inevitable. We’re carrying a language, which is our own experience, and we never see anything without any filter. The mirrors in the kaleidoscope are our personal filters. The tiny piece of visual information at the very end of the tube is just one part of what we perceive. Much more of what we’re seeing is how that image resonates with all our own personal stuff. The mirrors are a natural force that pushes us to try to make sense out of things. And they create a very nice, coherent, formal, matching sequence of images. But they are themselves not the image. The image is a tiny little thing out there that doesn’t belong to us. A kaleidoscope is a reference to that process of communicating ourselves to ourselves more than really reading the other. But the other is there. If you take away the original image, the whole kaleidoscope will be blank. Nothing bounces, nothing reflects. But whatever we look at, most of it is exponential reflection of our own take on things.
Image: Do you think that’s a global experience, or is that a western thing?
DG: I think it’s a human thing. As a westerner, you don’t realize what a strong pull the myth of the noble savage has on you. You always hope that people in other circumstances less polluted or combusted or loaded with cultural saturation than your own will have a purer, cleaner, more innocent, kinder glance than you do.
I do think that people who suffer in peace purify themselves. I do think that the glance of a saint is less polluted than my glance.