Teaching Demo on Betancourt Exhibit (2015): Cheryl Hartup

I           Idea for consideration / Broad question

 

How might you connect with your origins, using your body as the site for this encounter?

 

II          Problem

 

In the aftermath of the Mexican revolution, there was a renewed interest in the country’s indigenous past among artists and intellectuals. This attention to native cultures was not a formal movement, but a current of thought that came to be known as indigenismo. Artists traveled to Mayan ruins in the Yucatán to record newly uncovered architecture, sculpture, and painted reliefs, and pre-Hispanic art influenced formal elements in their work like line, form and color. Some artists portrayed indigenous culture as a point of pride, an idyllic timeless paradise to honor and protect. Others depicted Mexico’s never-ending history of racism and exploitation of native peoples. Mexico’s policies to address “El problema del indio” ranged from assimilation to separation.

 

Contemporary artists continue to bridge the distant past and the present in their work, through an understanding that is unfixed, deterritorialized, and yet grounded. Their investigations question, What are roots? Who gets to decide, label, categorize and define what ‘roots’ are? Is the implication or notion of origins an imposition or an expectation? In what ways can roots be limiting? In what ways can they be expansive and liberating?

 

Édouard Glissant (1928-2011), a Martinique-born intellectual, was close to the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Félix Guattari (1930-1992), whose theories related to “rhizome” root structures directly informed his thinking, offering a model for defining cultural identity. Early in his book Poetics of Relation he outlines this relationship:

 

“Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari criticized notions of the root and, even perhaps notions of being rooted The root is unique, a stock taking all upon itself and killing all around it. In opposition to this they propose the rhizome, an enmeshed root system, a network spreading either in the ground or in the air, with no predatory rootstock taking over permanently. The notion of the rhizome maintains therefore, the idea of rootedness but challenges that of a totalitarian root. Rhizomatic thought is the principle behind what I call the Poetics of Relation, in which each and every identity is extended through a relation with the Other.” (Glissant Poetics of Relation 1997: 11).

 

Glissant advocates for multiplicity, creolization, and roots that intertwine and mutually assist each another.

 

 

III Projects / Call to Action

 

Write an impassioned letter or poem to a historic figure that played an important role in your or your family’s country of origin or cultural background. Explain why you selected that person from history, your choice of tone, the theme(s) of your urgent communication.

 

Make a short video for your grandchildren many years in the future. Select a spot that relates to your family’s country of origin or cultural background and film yourself speaking to them about your “roots”.

 

Select an everyday object and transform it so that it looks “Indigenous” or “Latin American.” What qualities of your transformation are stereotypical. Document the object before and after its transformation. Discuss your thought processes and the changes you made.

 

Indigenous peoples developed complex systems of glyphs and signs as their written language. Design a glyph or sign to signify who you are and share your thought processes.

 

IV Wide-Ranging, Flexible Questions

 

How do you think of your roots, in geographical terms? Culturally? Historically? Specific individuals?

 

What feelings or sensations do you associate with your earliest memories? What role does nostalgia play in your re-collections?

 

What are your favorite senses to use when you connect with your origins?

 

Do you have objects that represent your origins? If so, what are they and what qualities or associations determine your affinity with these objects?

 

Do ancestors have a role in your life?

 

 

Carlos Betancourt

 

After hearing from the students about their projects, let’s consider how Carlos Betancourt’s Interventions in Nature VI Series: Intersection addresses the broad question: How might you connect with your origins, using the body as the site for this encounter?

 

What’s going on in this image?

What do you see that makes you say that?

What more can we find?

 

Where is the concept of origin located in this work?

What do you think is written on his body? (Why do you think the writing is backwards?)

What do you associate the color red with? (potentiality, a vital force, the power to make things happen, something intense and extraordinary here and now, blood, energy, desire, war, power. It is a very emotionally charged color and anything with emotion is alive.)

Why do you think the artist chose to represent these three moments in time?

Why do you think he chose this format?

What does the man’s pose communicate or symbolize to you?

What temperature do you think the water is?

 

Key words: transition, transformation, become one with nature, ephemeral, spiritual renewal, body as a canvas for creating art, mutual mutation

 

The work is called Interventions in Nature VI Series: Intersection. What I’d like you to do now is draw a diagram of all the intersections you see happening in the work. Sometimes 2 things may be intersecting, sometimes 3 or more things. For instance, this work shows the intersection of painting, photography and film. Also, think abstractly like the intersection of remembering and forgetting, etc.

 

Students share their intersections. (center and periphery, presence and absence, remembering and forgetting, inner and outer ecologies, fragility and malleability, the individual and the collective, consistency and change, gathering and scattering, reinvention and renewal.

 

There is an organic flow of fleeting relations that cycle back and reverberate over time. Betancourt’s life has been a series of intersections with people, cultures old and new, objects, architecture, urban life and nature, the high brow and the low brow. He was born in Puerto Rico--an island defined by its in-betweeness--geographically, politically, and socially. Betancourt uses collage and mixed media as a way to re-examine and organize the world around him and to solve the composition of an artwork.

 

Do you have any questions for me?

 

The figure on the beach is Richard Blanco, a poet. I would like to share with you a poem he wrote that I feel relates to Betancourt’s work. It is titled Some Days the Sea and it was published in 2012. Have the students read the Spanish or the English text and discuss themes of time, memory, and metaphor.

 

If there is still time, mention that Carlos Betancourt is influenced by the work of Ana Mendieta. She too used the body, in her case it was always her own body, as the site for connecting with her origins. Ask students to compare and contrast Betancourt’s Interventions in Nature VI Series: Intersection with Mendieta’s Untitled (Silueta Series) and the artists’ strategies for working.

 

To conclude: “The experience of creating art in general can be as simple and as fulfilling as picking up seashells.”

 

How does Betancourt’s statement affect your interpretation of his work?