Viewing entries tagged
art

Tom Bogaert--International Humanitarian, Activist, Artist

Tom Bogaert--International Humanitarian, Activist, Artist

sun ra tom bogaert

I received an email over a year ago that I was intrigued by, but didn't quite believe was real. Tom Bogaert, a then Cairo-based visual artist, asked to use an article that I had written for Revive Music on Sun Ra for an multimedia installation in Egypt on the iconic jazz composer, bandleader, and musician who had a mysterious and poorly recorded transformation in Egypt, and Tom wanted to uncover it. As I watched the Sun Ra project progress, as Tom was making headway into connecting with music historians and former Sun Ra band members--deepening his research, I also deepened my research of Tom's work. I was fascinated to find out that his original career was in international refugee law, and that he only exhibited his first solo show in NYC at the Elizabeth Foundation Studio Center in 2008. I wanted to understand how someone could transition so boldly from law to art, and actually bring his passion for humanitarianism and geopolitics from a legal context into the visual realm. His interview below is a reminder that what propels and fuels you is what you believe in, and the most natural way that your message is communicated from you--even if to onlookers--the connections may seem disparate. 

Where are you from, and where did you spend your formative years?

I grew up in a family of cigar makers in a small town near Bruges, Belgium. I had a happy life there but I knew that I needed to do other things, that I had to leave. After high school I halfheartedly toyed with the idea of applying for film school but my mother disapproved and told me to get a 'real' diploma first. I settled with law school: no more mathematics and the university was in a real city. The fact that the cool uncle in the family was a lawyer also played a role. But to be honest I had absolutely no clue.

You were a refugee lawyer for several years for the UN. How did you initially become interested in these issues, and how did you decide to affect change in that way?

When I graduated from law school, Belgium still had mandatory military service for all able-bodied male citizens. I was deemed able-bodied but I really didn't want to go the army. So I applied for the status of consciences objector. I had to write a letter to the mayor of my hometown explaining my objections – the horror. I can't remember the exact words I used but my letter was based on a template given to me by an Anti War organization. My request was approved, and I did two years of Alternative Civilian Service in a center for asylum seekers in Brussels. After that I was employed by the Belgian Government Refugee Agency and later I worked for the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Cambodia and Thailand. Upon my return to Belgium I was appointed Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International. By then I had become an activist; absolutely dedicated to the struggle against human rights violations across the globe.

How was the transition for you--from the analytical field of law--to the conceptual field of becoming a visual artist?

As far as I can remember I have always made art and after participating in a few exhibitions while still working for Amnesty, the idea of giving up my day job and spending more time making art became stuck in my head. It was time for change. I also wanted to start channeling my experience as a human rights activist more into my practice as an artist and at the same time I felt I needed more distance from the seriousness of my activism and subject matter. So I guess the usual mixture of push- and pull factors. I officially stopped practicing law in 2004 when I was selected to participate in the Elizabeth Foundation Studio Center program in New York City. I moved with my family to the US, started working with 'Jack the Pelican Presents' gallery in Brooklyn and since then I've been fortunate enough to be able to work full time as an artist.

When did you decide that you were an artist?

It took a while, but I think that somewhere by the end of 2004 I started writing 'visual artist' as my profession on official documents. So that's maybe when I decided for myself that I was an artist. Almost ten years ago now.

Would you consider what you do, social innovation?

As an artist it's not my intention to try to fix certain things in society by making art or by being innovative in my production process. Maybe I can place this in the context of the art / activism discussion. I don't see my artwork as an extension of my refugee work – even though it directly confronts the intersection of human rights, geopolitics, visual art and propaganda. I realize that given my academic background and professional history, an autobiographical reading of my artwork is unavoidable. People assume that I'm an activist. I operate within the tradition of political art but I try to steer away from one-dimensional didactic socio-politics that is often associated with the activist canon of visual culture. And there's also the issue of preaching to the contemporary art choir.

My work and that of many of my colleagues is inevitably politicized by its rootedness within various geopolitical contexts - but that doesn't make us activists. I don't think artists are per definition activists - it's about choice and intention. An artist becomes a militant when he or she moves beyond the aesthetic, the opportunity, the conceptual, and intentionally and persistently intervenes in the 'real world.' I have huge respect for activists. Being an activist comes with extremely hard work, passion, dedication and sacrifice whether you are an artist, a plumber, a lawyer or indeed a fruit vendor.

As an artist it’s not my intention to try to fix certain things in society by making art or by being innovative in my production process.

How does your passion for geopolitics affect or inform your creative work now?

I have always been a geopolitical news junkie – that is on the academic, theoretical level–and it was through my work with refugees and other victims of human rights abuse that I witnessed first-hand the concrete consequences of geo-politics in Europe, Central Africa and South-East Asia. After five fantastic years at the Elizabeth Foundation in Manhattan it was somehow time to move on. So in 2009 I followed my wife to the Middle East where we lived in Amman, Jordan for more than three years. In Amman, I started working on ‘Impression, proche orient' (IPO), an art project referring to issues relevant to the contemporary Near East society including the changes, politics, artistic identity and the New Arabs. Drawing on my experience as a foreigner living and working in the East, it was and is my intention to interpret understandings of the region - or lack thereof - from the inside out. As an outsider with the privilege of being given access to the inside, my aim is to use irony, gesture and narratives from the region by means of artistic production.

Drawing on my experience as a foreigner living and working in the East, it was and is my intention to interpret understandings of the region - or lack thereof - from the inside out. As an outsider with the privilege of being given access to the inside, my aim is to use irony, gesture and narratives from the region by means of artistic production.

What do you hope for your viewers to gain an understanding of after experiencing your work?

I make art that encourages viewers to interact and participate in serious scenarios. I don't make propaganda aimed to influence the attitude of the public toward a cause or position. I aim to provoke serious reflection but I have always tried to maintain a degree of lightness and humor in my work. The seriousness of the work and subject matter are often masked by this humor and by an intentional lack of high-production values.

What does it mean to you to be a creator? How does that hold you to account in the world? What parts of that enliven you or scare you? Or are those latter two one in the same?

Recently I was invited to participate in the 3rd 'Ghetto Biennale' in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Many things about the Ghetto Biennale seem problematic, from its name to its history, its art, its production, and its general progress. Participating in this type of context is risky on many levels. I don't work in a vacuum; I do feel I have responsibility, artistically, historically and theoretically but at the end of the day you have to make decisions for yourself.

One of the curators asked us: "Is it more politically correct or more ethical to eschew a slum neighborhood rather than to sit down and talk to its residents and hazard the consequences?" I decided to participate in the Ghetto Biennale and it was a fantastic experience – scary and exciting at the same time. Same thing with being an 'accidental orientalist' in the Middle East. I ended up in the Orient by accident – when I followed my wife to Amman. I understand that the issue of Saidian Orientalism – prejudiced outsider interpretations of the East as surveyed by Edward W. Said – that pervades my work is problematic. Constant self-examination and -criticism have indeed confirmed that there is very little moral higher ground for me to be left standing on. At the same time I seek to be more than a mere ‘Accidental Orientalist.’ Edward W. said: “there is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate."

Constant self-examination and -criticism have indeed confirmed that there is very little moral higher ground for me to be left standing on. At the same time I seek to be more than a mere ‘Accidental Orientalist.’ Edward W. said: “there is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate.

What is your creative process?

I pursue my practice by engaging an idea first, and then developing a plan that usually involves a combination of media, technologies and techniques, some of which are linked to conventional art media, and some of which are not usually associated with artmaking.

I've been told that I work in the tradition of the post-conceptual, the post-studio era. Sounds all very 'post', I would also like to be something 'pre' as in 'avant' - I'll keep you posted.

How do you approach creating an installation, and synthesizing disparate elements (sounds, words, images) into a multimedia piece? Can you use an example from a past exhibition?

For the Ghetto Biennale in December 2013 and after having done some homework I decided I wanted to do something with the local beer ‘Prestige’: a brand of American- style beer produced by the Heineken-owned ‘Brasserie Nationale d’Haiti.’ It is the best-selling beer in Haiti and the promotion campaign for it is based on a blatant nationalistic Haitian identity narrative. Fierce Haitian nationalistic discourse propagated by a Dutch multinational company – in order to sell more beer. So I invited Haitians to comment on the narrative behind the Prestige publicity campaign. In a mini survey, I asked about Haitian identity and possible ways of linking the results to a beer label. While interviewing and having conversations with people, Haitians and foreigners alike, I was acting less as an anthropologist, a sociologist or a visual artist and more merely trying to have a conversation with people about beer, multinationals and national identity. It was playful and a bit provocative and I wanted the project to reflect that attitude.

We gave a short introduction about the project and the interviewees and I were pretty soon on the same wave length and they understood what I was after. We talked about the benefits and dangers of foreign investments, about identity, about the old days and the new, about god and voodoo and death, things predictable and unpredictable - I guess we talked about life in general. After each conversation (we did about 60 – we only had a couple of days) we invited the participants to come up with a slogan that would best convey their thoughts. I then asked a local artist to paint publicity murals with the new slogans in downtown Port-au-Prince and I made 24 new Prestige etiquettes which we glued on empty beer bottles. They were presented in a voodoo temple and we had too many Prestiges at the opening event.

How do you reconcile fact from human experience in your work?

Personal encounters nourish my work; these experiences and memories are inscribed and expressed in the artwork. However, I have always been very reluctant to publicly share these personal elements on their own. I've worked in so many different places with so many great people; I don't feel comfortable blending the personal into the professional.

What does it feel like to finally birth a project? What is that initial feeling of letting go of your work and giving it away to the public and something bigger than yourself?

It feels great, intoxicating and therefore perhaps addictive, and all of the sudden your work is out there, in the open, and the public will see whatever they want to see in it.

A well-known art critic once described one of my Genocide pieces as an "effective, amusing piece, a metaphor for childhood play and angst." To be honest I was stunned. Also because I always provide a purely factual and descriptive text alongside my artwork – not to say that meaning only appears in text but simply to contextualize it; to draw some lines in the sand. What I'm trying to say is that when Gonzalez-Torres declares that "meaning is always shifting in time and space", this only goes for part of the artwork.

Constant self-examination and -criticism have indeed confirmed that there is very little moral higher ground for me to be left standing on. At the same time I seek to be more than a mere ‘Accidental Orientalist.’ Edward W. said: “there is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of co-existence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate.

Describe a time when you almost gave up finishing a project?

It happens all the time. I have a massive archive of unfinished projects, rejected proposals, rejected grant applications, missed deadlines – now and again when I look over these files, I might recycle an idea or a phrase.

What grounds you to continue waking up each day and commit to making art?

I'm constantly amazed that I've been able to forge a function for myself as an artist in society. And that this new reality coexists with my desire for otherness, for change and difference. And paying my bills and feeding my kids of course.

Describe what you are currently working on:

Very excited to be currently working on '1971, Sun Ra in Egypt' a research- and visual arts project about the life and work of Sun Ra, the legendary American jazz pioneer, bandleader, mystic and philosopher. The project focuses on Sun Ra’s concerts in Egypt in 1971 and after Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq this project is the sixth installment of 'Impression, proche orient.' It will take the form of performances, jazz concerts, a publication, video and an exhibition at Medrar for Contemporary Art in Cairo in May 2014. Political stability is still far of the horizon in Egypt and when I started working in Cairo the local art scene was having passionate debates about its relationship to the revolution of early 2011 and the perennial issue of the role of an artist in revolutionary times. I think maybe my choice for the 'less serious' Sun Ra as a resource for my project in Egypt should be seen in the context of my desire to further distantiate myself from the artist/activist connotation by means of a self-imposed estrangement from the usual seriousness of my subject matter. Not to say that Sun Ra is not serious, he was actually very serious about his un-seriousness. But that's another story.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Featured Interview - Food, Folks and Photography with Casey Kelbaugh's Slideluck

Comment

Featured Interview - Food, Folks and Photography with Casey Kelbaugh's Slideluck

1832_1074909755432_5973_n.jpeg

Eating great food and taking in great art while simultaneously making friends around the world sounds like what I want to be when I grow up. A friend of mine introduced me to Slideluck  by describing it as "an art show…local photographers present their work on a big slideshow and everyone brings a dish to share...like a potluck dinner. They do it all around the world. Tonight it's in Brooklyn. Want to come?” I agreed, envisioning some store brought hummus laid out on a table next to a few lone photographs in someone's dank apartment. I was wrong. The Brooklyn Bridge provided the perfect backdrop to an open air warehouse in Dumbo filled with people, an abundance of food, and a large screen.  In fact, that particular event won a place in the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records for the largest potluck ever thrown (479 dishes - dayum!).Inspired by his love for food, traveling and art, New York City resident and photographer Casey Kelbaugh, created Slideluck twelve years ago out of the DIY ethos of Seattle, Washington. Shaped out of a desire to build community and provide an artistic outlet for local photographers, Slideshow has evolved into a non-profit organization which produces international events centered around art and food. Kelbaugh and his team have traveled around the world; producing events in cities as diverse as Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Nairobi, Kenya, as well as various cities within the US.  In addition to producing events, the organization created a youth initiative to empower young people through photography as well as a green initiative, which focuses on making their events as close to zero waste as possible. Project Inkblot spoke with Casey about his love for traveling, the occasional exclusionary world of photography, and why there will probably not be a Slideluck in Dubai anytime soon.

When did you first develop a love for traveling?

Before I was doing Slideluck and before I was even a photographer, I was really into travel. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, and I ended up living with two Italian architecture students who were about 6 yrs older than me. I was 19 at the time.  They had dinner parties almost every night and they taught me how to cook. I learned the power of bringing people together around food. There was jazz and food and wine and really interesting people coming together on a nightly basis. That started for me the love of travel and the love of cooking, and the idea that food could be this catalyst for bringing people together.

Is that where you became interested in photography, as well?

…I became interested in photography when I was traveling in Tokyo…I heard about a photo workshop; so I went to it and I thought, wow this is amazing. It’s immediate, you’re engaged, you can help create the moment, and it’s interactive...I spent a year there trying to learn the craft. I had plans to continue to travel around the world and then in one week, my camera was stolen, I ran out of money, and I got malaria, and I was like 'ok, time to go home to Seattle and re-group'…around 1999 I was starting my own career and that’s when I started to get frustrated by the lack of outlets to show my work.

Because you felt the photography world was exclusionary?

There are a lot of different photo worlds; the editorial world, shooting for magazines, there’s the commercial world, the fine art world, and there are very steep pyramids where there is no access…especially when you’re starting out. It’s like, ‘ok one day I’ll show at this gallery’ but how do I talk to people now and get feedback and show my work? So I created Slideluck in my tiny backyard in Seattle. About 50 people showed up and everyone was really jazzed and we had an old photo projector and some music. It went really well and people were like, ‘when’s the next one?’

Lots of people, when they are creating something with momentum, speak of that moment where they know they’re on to something big. Did you feel that way?

I felt a little bit of that leading up to it, but I had no idea I’d move to New York. I was thinking of doing something fun that allowed me to take control and do something for the people, not waiting for it to happen. There was a very amazing DIY spirit in the art community in Seattle and I think Slideluck grew out of that. It grew very slowly and organically and in three years we did 20 shows in Seattle. No press, no big nothing. It was all very underground.

I moved to NY for my photo career. Slideluck was a hobby. I got here and I felt that same kind of void but I thought, 'no one in New York is going to want to do a potluck dinner'...but we decided to do the first one in my apartment, and it was packed.

In New York everything is very established and there’s a lot of commerce involved with the art world especially. Slideluck was always meant to be divorced from commerce - very much a celebration of art and creativity and community. I tried very hard to keep money out of it completely for a very long time but it just got to the point where we had to cover costs. I wanted it to be like, your potluck dish is your ticket.

How many people showed up?

About 150 people, which was bigger than the biggest show we had had in Seattle. People were hungry for this kind of authentic engagement and for the opportunity to show their work and get feedback, and the content was very good. We were like, we’re definitely doing it again but we need a bigger place. We found a studio in Soho and it was a really beautiful space that was twice as big and twice as exciting…the energy was electric.

In New York everything is very established and there’s a lot of commerce involved with the art world especially. Slideluck was always meant to be divorced from commerce - very much a celebration of art and creativity and community. I tried very hard to keep money out of it completely for a very long time but it just got to the point where we had to cover costs. I wanted it to be like, your potluck dish is your ticket.

What do you think people were so excited about?

It all goes back to authenticity for me. You don’t just buy a ticket. You’re actually getting your hands dirty and making something you care about or making a family recipe and that makes you a bit more invested. So everyone is helping to build and create the night. And every night is unique because it’s always in a different location, the people are different, the theme is different, the food is different so every event is bound by this common structure…yet we’ve managed to maintain that backyard potluck vibe. It hasn’t taken on the art world pretension. It’s always been really warm and friendly.

Being able to travel through Slideluck must be a dream.

Yeah, I would say that. It’s different than backpacking. Backpacking is a fantastic way to get out and meet all of these interesting people but often you’re meeting people from all of these other countries and then you’re all on the outside looking in. The difference with this is that all of our growth has been by demand. So if a place like Tel Aviv or Bogota approaches us because they want to do a Slideluck, we build it together…it’s the most exciting way to travel because we go in and we’re building something that is totally new and everyone is so excited and we’re meeting all of these creative people. It’s not a one off - it becomes a part of the community. It’s been amazing. It’s changed my concept of what travel can be.

Have you found that certain cultures are more receptive or less receptive to the idea? Have you faced any obstacles in regards to that?

Well, in terms of reception, after every Slideluck someone will come up and say thank you so much we’ve never had something like this before and I guess you could say, that is the biggest reward. A Potluck is a Native American tradition – it’s called a “Potlatch” and it comes from the Seattle area actually, on the Northwest coast. The first year in Berlin this woman showed up with a head of lettuce and I’m like,' what’s this? And she’s like it’s a salad and I’m like, it’s not a salad, it’s a limp head of lettuce' [laughs]. Amsterdam was very interesting - we had a potluck curator and everyone arrived with dishes and everything was laid out so beautifully…I was talking to people and I was like, ‘do you all do a lot of potlucks?’ and they’re like ‘we’ve never heard of it [until now]' and they totally communicated what it was about but it was a brand new experience for everyone in the room, so that was interesting.

Then there was the Middle East; my dad lived in Dubai for a couple of years and I tried to have a Slideluck there and it’s just not going to happen.

Why?

Because, traditionally, [in many Middle Eastern cultures] when you host people you spend your last dime so that there is so much food that no one in a million years would ever be able to finish it, but to ask people to bring something is almost offensive. To say 'ok, come over but you have to bring stuff as well'…it just doesn’t fly.

Is that what you envision? A Slideluck in every city in the world?

I’d love to see it spread that way…we haven’t been able to accommodate it in that way. We’d love for it to be de-centralized so that more people are a part of it. We’re re-launching our website so that each city can have their own page. It will be a lot more accessible and easier to control.

This project has taught me that with commitment, comes great reward. I have made this project a priority for 12 years. Had I continued to bounce around, dabbling here and there, I don’t think I would have been able to make the impact Slideluck has made. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes easy.

What have you learned from the process of creating this organization?

I think I had a tough time committing to what type of medium I wanted to work in, then what type of photographer I wanted to be, then whether I could stay in one place.  This project has taught me that with commitment, comes great reward.  I have made this project a priority for 12 years.  Had I continued to bounce around, dabbling here and there, I don’t think I would have been able to make the impact Slideluck has made. I learned that nothing worthwhile comes easy.  There have been some very tough moments in this process – financially, emotionally, creatively – but throwing in the towel has never been an option.  I think the longer I stuck with it, the more crystallized this feeling was.

The other thing I have learned is that people are willing to go to great lengths for something they believe in.  At this particular moment, there are teams of individuals volunteering their time and resources to make Slidelucks happen in San Francisco, London, Bogotá, Dallas, Atlanta, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam and Washington, DC.  All of whom are doing this on their own volition and because they want to make their community a better place.  The mere fact that this is happening blows my mind.

What were some of your favorite Slidelucks?

That’s hard. Nairobi was way up there…400 people showed up, beautiful weather. It was a really mixed, interesting crowd…the work was all local and we even had some paintings so we had a really older generation as well as young people. Panama City was also amazing, we were in the ruins of a 400 year-old church and it was in the old part of town and we were bbq’ing and we had a really packed house and great vibe. [Our] second show in Baltimore was phenomenal. We got this funky space and we had a really beautiful photo exhibition. There was a live Delta blues band afterwards, there was a bonfire. The work was great, the food was great. Someone set off 17,000 firecrackers. And then there was the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art also hanging out so it was a good mix.

To view photos from Slideluck Nairobi, click here.

It must be great to attract such a wide range of people who otherwise might not mix.

Oh yeah, totally. War photographers and fashion photographers…these people do not hang out. It’s a very mixed group…it just gets boring when it’s the same people. We did one in Toronto where we had really important curators who picked really important photographers. We didn’t do an open call due to a timing thing and it was the most boring show we’ve ever had. It was so predictable. Everyone had already worked together and it didn’t have that random element of chance and that excitement of opportunity.

Would you say that random aspect is what makes the events so good?

Yeah, I mean we’ll never do that again. There has to be an element of an open call. Sure, the curator can pick some of the artists but there has to be an opportunity for anyone to come out of the woodwork.

What do you want people to walk away with after a Slideluck event?

I want people to feel engaged and inspired and I think that’s a lot of what happens. People are energized. They walk away like, 'holy shit'. The events are very educational. You learn a lot about a lot of little worlds and what’s going on in the world during the show. So I think if people walk away feeling more grounded in their community and more connected, if they feel inspired creatively and intellectually, and if they’ve made new friends, then that’s the goal.

For more information on Casey Kelbaugh, click here.

For more information on Slideluck, click here.

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Slideluck Potshow

Comment

Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

Comment

Sheryo's Imaginary Creatures

My boyfriend met Sheryo at our neighbor's going away party this past summer, where I made a grandma move and went to bed early. They kicked it for a while on our building's rooftop with some folks, drinking beers and sitting stale in the mid-July humidity talking about her street art exploits. "You've got to meet this girl!" he kept telling me. "Her work is ridiculously dope."

Sheryo's work is like your childhood's dream cartoon show. Her characters are blocky, bold, and off kilter. They are playful, and mischievous, and totally saturated with bright colors, and strong lines--like the kind in a really good coloring book. 

When I finally met her, it was at a North Brooklyn bar, where we ate salty tacos in the rain, and talked about each of our travel experiences in Asia. Sheryo, originally from Singapore is a pixie of a woman, and ferocious as hell. She met her Australian boyfriend while he was traveling in South East Asia. They connected over a shared interest in street art.  When he was ready to move onto the next leg of his trip to Cambodia, he asked her on a whim to go with him. Of course she did. That's the kind of person Sheryo is. By the time of our meeting, they had been together for several months, and were living in Williamsburg on work visas. 

Sheryo's art has become a traveling graffiti show, which is now a self sustaining lifestyle, sometimes supplemented by a handsome list of corporate clientele. As I write this, she's in Cambodia commissioned for the branding of a new hotel. Last I heard from her, she had managed to get herself chased down the street by a flock of angry cops for beautifying a wall, and broke her ankle on the get-away route. The self proclaimed "spirit painter" is confined by no limits, and evokes her childhood to draw up the most imaginary characters, and will stop at nothing to actualize her imagination. Here's a little glimpse into her head:

At what age did you start to become fascinated with drawing different types of characters? 

The first thing I ever drew was a squiggly apple. I remember the moment my pencil hit the paper. It was bliss. The characters came shortly after. Characters were always sorta my thing...they were like toys but even better.

You mentioned before to me that your mom doesn't really get it, and she often asks you what is going on in your head. Along those lines, where do the characters come from, and how do they relate to one another?

My mom's really supportive but she says she doesn't know where I got my drawing skills or characters from because no one in my family's an artist, and I have eight aunties haha. I just tell her it was the sunday cartoons, '90s sci-fi movies and the horror books I read. I also had a nanny and her son taught me how to draw bubble letters. I remember watching certain movies so many times, Total Recall, Robocop, The Shining, Back to the Future, Kingpin, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Beetlejuice, wrestling (WWF). I really do remember my childhood in vivid detail, but recent adventures escape me for some reason, I think these characters all came from my childhood.

Is there a certain world in your mind where they all exist and interact with one another?

Yeah, I party with them all the time.

You mentioned that Singapore is a very Westernized country. What were some of the positives and negatives of that growing up as it related to your art? 

As you can tell by now, most of my art's influenced by American movies and culture. I don't think there is any positive or negative from it, but I do hope Singapore had a stronger culture I could tap from.

You're quite the globetrotter these days. When did you start traveling heavily, and how much of it was made possible through your art?

I started travelling a lot at the end of 2009. There was just so much to see, to do, to learn and to paint! I got addicted to painting walls in new places, meeting rad artists, getting lost--everything was so fresh and fun. Last year I went on a volunteer art teaching project at the Thai/Burma border with the Little Lotus Project. It opened up a lot of things for me. I was really glad to be able to be a part of this project. I think I took more than I gave from the children and families living there. I hope to go back soon and also do more community-based projects wherever I go.

How would you describe the experience of being a woman within graffiti/street art culture, where the majority is dominated by dudes?

It's not too big a deal. It's good. Just do what you do. Put good work out. Get the boys to help move your ladder around because it's too heavy...

If someone took your art supplies away forever, what would you do?

Go batshit crayyyyzeee.

Did having bigger access to the world--through travel--change any fundamental beliefs or ideas that you previously had?

Definitely. In general, you just grow a lot more by meeting people on your travels. Some good, some bad, they mold you and make you awesome. I think material possessions are overrated. Live simple. Have faith. Always give people the benefit of the doubt. Make your life count. Do things that make you happy. You know, all that stuff you get when you google self-help related topics. LOL.

What are things in everyday life that inspire you? You mentioned cartoons that you used to watch growing up and still now, but are there other things like food, music, anything else that helps color your imagination?

Real life people on the streeets are the best.

How many hours a day do you spend "working,"and do you even consider what you do work?

Nah, I just consider it drawing. I want to make good drawings everyday. I share a studio with the Yok (another dope artist) and we inspire each other a lot.

Any last words of wisdom, or insights you'd like to share about yourself? 

I paint food.

To see more of Sheryo's whimsical characters, visit her Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitterwhere all of the photos in this article were graciously borrowed from.

Words by Boyuan Gao

Comment

Maya Azucena and Rae Maxwell: The Beauty That Emerged From Violence

3 Comments

Maya Azucena and Rae Maxwell: The Beauty That Emerged From Violence

Singer-songwriter and cultural ambassador, Maya Azucena, and photographer/multi-media artist RaeMaxwellare like those two gals you meet at a friend of friend's around-the-way get-together and immediately feel in the midst of good company. They're sharp, powerful, beautiful and funny; the kind of women you can chat animatedly with about world affairs and then effortlessly switch to deep ponderance over why so many urban menfolk choose to shout out, "God Bless you ma" in lieu of proper come-ons. In short, they're my kind of women.It's easy to see why the duo are a good match; Maya's talkative and open nature is perfectly symbiotic to Rae's subdued and introspective vibe. CultureFphiles spoke with the uber talented ladies about their work on Lines In My Skin (LIMS), an online photo essay, shot by Maxwell, detailing a day in the life of a woman in an abusive relationship. Azucena plays the starring role, pulling from her real-life experience in a former abusive relationship of seven years. I was drawn to LIMS via the juxtaposition of images; Azucena’s initial joyful disposition contrasted sharply with images of her and her abuser in their home. I was also intrigued by Maxwell’s use of color, saturation, and tone.

LIMS premiered as an installation and panel discussion at the Brooklyn arts and event space, Free Candy, in March of 2012 drawing roughly 100 attendees. CultureFphiles spoke with May and Rae to chat about their experience creating LIMS, how they navigate their own process of creation, and the far-reaching effects of the project.

How did Lines in My Skin come to fruition?

Maya: I was introduced to Rae through a common friend and I thought she had an incredible eye. In the course of us meeting, we also had this mutual artistic respect and so we just put it out there, like, let’s do something together. I had this vision of dealing with my domestic violence experience. I was in a very abusive relationship [for seven years] and I thought that she would be able to handle something edgy and dark. I knew it was going to be a very vulnerable experience for me and Rae’s work inspired me to have the courage to approach the idea.

Rae: I didn’t know that.

Maya: Yeah…I was brainstorming and I could see this visual image of me in a fetal position on the floor. I sent the idea to Rae and she responded that she had had a vision of that the night before. I was blown away that she had somehow come up with the same idea without us even consulting one another. The synergy somehow felt divine. I had a specific visual to photograph the interaction between me and a man. Rae had the idea to start with me being very composed, beautiful, free…and then gradually show the descent to me being balled up on the floor.

You’ve mentioned in the written piece of the photo exhibit that you believed you were strong, and that’s why you stayed in the relationship. That alters the image we have of women in abusive relationships as weak or passive.

Maya: And the thing is, is that at the time I had the same persona. My nickname was happy-go-lucky. I’m motivational and inspirational and identifiable and very sunny… people had no idea this guy kept me up all night punching me in the arms or pulling out a knife on me. I didn’t tell anyone. A couple of my best friends knew he was abusive but they didn’t have a clue of the extent.

Did you view the abuse as your own personal battle?

Maya: I didn’t view it as a battle. I viewed it as me trying to help him become the potential I saw in him…he would often say to me, ‘well, you know what I’ve been through.’ But what occurred to me was that your reasons do not constitute an excuse. You have reasons - but you are not excused from your actions and that’s what I got confused in my own reality. The other thing was that I didn’t think I was being abused. I knew I was with an abuser but…it’s just a weird perspective. I was like ‘I’m strong, I’m not one of these girls, I’m not afraid of him’ so I didn’t realize I was suffering the same circumstances of a person who is afraid to leave. It was like an addiction. I stayed because I was obsessed with succeeding. We were going to succeed at this thing. I thought I could believe in love for the both of us, and those were my errors.

Rae, how did that affect the way you came up with the storyline and shot everything?

Rae: I feel like the first time we really spoke about it [the abuse] was when we were about to shoot. We spoke briefly about the visual goal but I didn’t know her actual situation until she was in my home. I’m glad it happened that way because we wouldn’t have the product we had now. We must have about 150 photos from that shoot but we selected 50 to tell the story.

Maya: I wanted it to be really daring. I love Rae’s instincts. She pushes boundaries – she has contrasts in the images…unexpected combinations. I am, personally, wanting to push my fans expectations of me…I wanted them to be able to really get how severe an abusive relationship is.

How did that feel?

Maya: It felt very vulnerable because this is one of the first times I’ve dealt with it in art.  I write about it [and] I sing about it in my songs but it’s sort of peripheral…but this was very literal.

I feel that having the courage to tell your story is the very thing that can change peoples lives and that’s more important than your privacy on the issue…as vulnerable as it makes me feel to share it, the courage to share it is a power that I think can change young women’s lives so the risk is worth it.
— Azucena

Were there moments where you thought, I don’t want to do this anymore?

Maya: No. Never. I feel that having the courage to tell your story is the very thing that can change peoples lives and that’s more important than your privacy on the issue…as vulnerable as it makes me feel to share it, the courage to share it is a power that I think can change young women’s lives so the risk is worth it.

Rae, you mentioned you had experience with domestic abuse; was that hard for you when shooting? 

Rae: I think I’m really good at locking emotions, sometimes to a fault. I tend to be very visual but feel like there is a madness going on up in my head…I tend to shoot in the dark a lot with no lights - so when I was shooting, I had to ignore my own fantasy of what I think she [Maya] experienced and try to focus on what she experienced at that time. I also was thinking of what others close to me have experienced with domestic violence so I wasn’t even thinking of me, I was thinking of what other people had told me, and trying to focus on the task at hand.

Maya: It was actually very practical and technical. I didn’t feel super emotional during the shoot. It was seeing how the photos manifested once I saw how she captured these moments. I was like, wow - you do get it.

How did you feel when you were choosing the photos?

Rae: The first person who saw the photos were my mother. When my mother saw them, she started bawling…and I thought, maybe we have something here. When I’m looking at my work I just feel like I fucked it up. It takes some time. When you’re looking at an image or video over and over again, I lose perspective. So, sometimes I have this terrible fear.

Maya: When I saw the photos I was like, she nailed it. I felt so good about the decision to do this project with you. I had no idea until we were at the panel for the installation that you had any personal experience with domestic violence until then.

Rae: Because this was about you.

Maya: I know but I had no idea that this was relatable to you. When I saw the images I was blown away.

Can you elaborate a bit more on the fear you were feeling? Do you often question if the work is good or not good?

Maya:  I was entering new ground on this project because my forte is singing. It was very vulnerable for me to write my story [the written element to the photography installation]. I wanted to make sure the writing had literary integrity so that people wouldn’t get distracted by some inadequacy there and lose the actual story.  So, there was a bit of a fear and an anxiety in exposing myself in that way.

Rae: I never look at the photos as I’m shooting because I feel that that is a luxury. We used quite a bit of film that day.

I have this weird thing with technology which sort of makes me a hypocrite since most of my career relies on technology these days, but I feel like the images I just lit and planned out…I feel like it’s almost not fair to see it after I take it…not until I get home and put on my Thelonious Monk or have a glass of wine and I can edit and then I get to see everything that I’ve created.
— Maxwell

What do you mean when you say it’s a luxury to look at images when you shoot?

Rae: I have this weird thing with technology which sort of makes me a hypocrite since most of my career relies on technology these days, but I feel like the images I just lit and planned out…I feel like it’s almost not fair to see it after I take it…not until I get home and put on my Thelonious Monk or have a glass of wine and I can edit and then I get to see everything that I’ve created.  Aside from lighting yes – you have to look at the picture to make sure you’ve got the lighting right more or less but once I start, I don’t look- I can’t look. So of course I’m sort of doing it to myself because I don’t really know exactly what I have just created. I just feel like it’s not fair to be able to see that…because it was never like that. No great art was created like that a hundred years ago and I have a bit of a grudge about that.

How did it feel to be at the actual exhibit/installation?

Rae:  I never imagined I would end up at an event like that where there was so much support and unity. It was kind of hard to be in a room where we were the center of the attention and that was kind of strange for me but I felt so happy that I got to do this with you and that I got to help you do this.

Maya: It was groundbreaking for me. This is the furthest I have revealed this particular element of my life. I guess I had to be ready but I was super glad it was with you. It’s also the kind of thing that if it is handled improperly, it wouldn’t be effective. It was very important to me that a person who doesn’t relate to the story at all can pull any image out and it has artistic value.  This purely on a photographic level is a dope ass fucking project…if you pull any image out, it has integrity as a piece of artwork.

What did you take away from this experience? 

Maya: I went to Tanzania after the exhibit. I was doing a performance as part of a community event to discuss domestic violence in the community of Arusha and the surrounding area.  A male choreographer from Madagascar, who lives in Arusha, saw Lines In My Skin online and was so moved by it that he performed a modern dance piece to it in Tanzania with 8-foot high images from the photo shoot behind him and quotes from my story in rotation. He actually dressed up as a woman in a relationship and danced with a male counterpart and did this intense dance. By having the courage to tell this story… seeing how it can impact people globally and the power of art to do that and how profound it is. It was groundbreaking in their community. One, a man talking about domestic violence in Tanzania is incredibly unusual and the fact that he was so moved he dared to do something that was never before done, dressing up as a woman and performing a modern dance…this is stuff we can imagine in New York. It is unimaginable in their community. That allowed me to see the potential of this project.

It was very important to me that a person who doesn’t relate to the story at all can pull any image out and it has artistic value. This purely on a photographic level is a dope ass fucking project…if you pull any image out, it has integrity as a piece of artwork.
— Azucena

Rae: The fact that I even got up on a discussion panel was unimaginable for me. I realized that if I didn’t, I would be the thing that gets women into trouble in the first place. Where they hold themselves back from doing what they really should do. I felt like I would be such a hypocrite if I didn’t just get over myself and get up there and talk. Personally, that was fantastic but the thing about me is that I’m shooting a lot for other people and so I felt so happy that I was able to give something to Maya in a way that made her feel like ‘ok, I acknowledged and I dealt with it in the best way possible.’ I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I was able to give her something out of such a shitty experience. That to me is what keeps me going. I want people to look at my work and keep something that I created with and for them.

To hear and learn more about Maya Azucena's music and her humanitarian work, click here:

Purchase images by Rae Maxwell

View Lines In My Skin in its entirety

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credits: Rae Maxwell

3 Comments