Adela Goldbard FIG.1, born in 1979 Mexico City, is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice centres on collective, research-based processes. Her multimedia installations and performances often involve burning and destroying large-scale allegorical sculptures that hold special significance to certain communities. Goldbard’s work includes The Last Judgement (2019), organised by the University of Illinois at Gallery 400, Chicago, where she collaborated with multigenerational residents of the city’s Little Village Mexican neighbourhood in reconstructing local landmarks that conveyed their most pressing concerns around environmental justice, gentrification and repressive US immigration policy. The installation’s title refers to the first Western play performed in Mexico, Auto del jucio final, written by the Franciscan priest Andrés de Olmos (1491–1571) as an effective means of evangelisation and conquest. At the gallery, the pyrotechnic scenography built by the Artsumex artisan collective from Tultepec was presented with a multilingual narrative (Spanish, English and Nahuatl) in which a fictional Little Village Mexican immigrant reinterpreted the play’s leading character. Eventually, the papier-mâché sculptures were moved back to the neighbourhood and burnt in an explosive performance at La Villita Park. The artist drew from both the spectacular use of fireworks in Spanish evangelical theatre and Mexican effigy-burning traditions to reinvent the event as an act of aesthetic disobedience: a self-determined, celebratory protest.
Goldbard is currently working on a collaborative audiovisual project that examines the qorilazo (‘golden lasso’ in Quechua) cowboy culture unique to the Indigenous communities of Chumbivilcas in the Peruvian Andes. The project involves multigenerational Chumbivilcas participants and will rely on traditional dance, music and wrestling performances, re-enactment and docudrama to create narrative vignettes that address the region’s cosmovision, rituals and traditions, histories of resistance and contemporary issues, such as racism, migration, prostitution, machismo and mining. With this socially engaged project, the artist seeks to debunk outsider views of the ‘uncivilised’ and promote collective critical consideration of gender violence, inequality, sovereignty and neoliberal exploitation.
In this interview, Goldbard speaks to Ana S. González Rueda about the installation she was commissioned to make for the 14th FEMSA Biennial, held in the cities of Morelia and Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, in 2020–21. The installation concentrated on the events of 5th April 2017 as a crucial turning point for the P’urhépecha community of Arantepacua. That day, more than three hundred members of the Michoacán state police and army forces attempted to repress the community by attacking it with police cars, trucks, helicopters and a ‘rhinoceros’ armoured tank. Four community members were killed and another nine were detained. The previous day, a delegation from Arantepacua had attended a meeting with officials in the state capital, Morelia, to discuss a land ownership issue with the neighbouring village of Capácuaro. Instead of resolving the conflict, it escalated, and the Arantepacua community organised a protest, including setting up roadblocks, which prompted the police operation.
After this traumatic event, the community decided to reject and effectively expel the incumbent political parties as well as the local police. They sought justice by exercising their right to self-determination as an Indigenous community. For instance, they established a patrol called kuaricha and formed a horizontally structured communal council, which acts as the local authority. The state of Michoacán officially recognised the community’s decision to adopt self-government in 2018. Arantepacua continues to demand that those responsible for the 5th April operation are brought to justice. Co-authored with Arantepacua’s Communal Indigenous Council (2019–2021), Kurhirani no ambakiti (burning the devil): since that’s the only way they listen to us (2020) brought together performance and sound as well as traditional local textiles, pottery and woodwork to craft a retelling of the events from the perspective of the community in support of their ongoing fight for justice.
Ana S. González Rueda (ASGR): Firstly, I’m interested in knowing more about your collaboration with the Arantepacua community. How did you seek to integrate the community’s perspective on the police repression of 5th April 2017?
Adela Goldbard (AG): I first approached the Consejo1 Comunal Indígena de Arantepacua (Arantepacua’s Indigenous Communal Council) to ask for a hearing in the first few days of July 2020.2 Our first meeting was followed by several assemblies with community members, including one with the relatives of the victims of the attack by the police on 5th April 2017, whose approval was crucial for the project to continue.3 In these meetings, we discussed the importance of making their struggle visible through collaborative and creative work that could contest the hegemonic communications issued by the government and the local media and that would support their legal fight for justice. I brought a set of propositions that were always open to discussion, negotiation and alteration. My proposal involved a trueque de saberes (exchange of knowledges) with other communities of the Meseta P’urhépecha based on the understanding of traditional craft and first-hand narratives of resistance as essential decolonised modes of knowledge and communication. My proposal was centred on the construction and destruction of a life-size papier-maché effigy of a rhinoceros. At this stage, we discussed the creation of other components: clay diablitos (little devils), wooden police cars and pirekuas, traditional songs in P’urhépecha that narrate events of significance to the community, that would be made in collaboration with local craft makers and musicians.
Since the Consejo is the ultimate authority within the community and was elected through a genuinely participative process that has its origins in ancient times, every decision about the project was made in agreement with them via assemblies and meetings that frequently included other community members. The council members fed the community’s perspective into the design of the sculptures (diablitos, cars, rhinoceros), the final selection of images for the embroideries and the logistics of the community event at which the rhinoceros was burnt. Additional approval was sought from other community members when appropriate: the edited version of the interviews was run past representatives from the Teachers’ Union; the final selection of images from the communal archive was discussed with the normalista teachers who had taken them; the logistics for the burning of the rhinoceros were also approved by the relatives of the victims. Communications weren’t always easy: meetings were sometimes fraught and included persistent and valid cross-examinations by community members. Through dialogue and actions, trust was gradually established, and short-term and long-term goals were negotiated, resulting in several future commitments on my part, amongst them: the itineracy of the installation, an art-therapy workshop for the relatives of the victims, an art workshop for children and the creation of a community radio station.
Juana Morales and Valentín Jiménez were the council members who took on the responsibility of co-producing the project with me. We discussed the project, Arantepacua’s struggle and its importance for the region with collaborators from Cherán, Pichátaro, Turícuaro, Ocumicho and Nurio, who – based on those conversations but filtered by their own experiences, contexts and understanding of such conflicts – created the different components of the project, thus generating a trueque de saberes. This process of collaboratively creating the sculptural elements with the assistance of local artists or master-artisans followed a methodology similar to that which I have followed with other collaborators in the past: we discussed the initial designs and modified them according to their suggestions and expertise. An ongoing dialogue, mainly through WhatsApp due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was crucial for completing the sculptural elements, the embroideries and even the pirekuas. Through WhatsApp and periodic visits to Arantepacua, Cherán, Pichátaro and Ocumicho, I built strong professional and personal relationships with collaborators, especially with Ángela Esteban Felipe, a potter from Ocumicho; with Ignacio Ramos Guerrero, the youngest of the coheturis (pyrotechnicians) from Cherán; and with Valentín and la maestra Juana. This project would not have been possible without her trust and support.
ASGR: How would you describe your role in the creative process?
AG: I see myself as a weaver, a producer and a catalyst. My role was to intertwine the narratives generously shared with me; to propose, listen, modify and bring together the different components of the project; to mediate between communities and collaborators; to address any concerns raised by the project within the community; to unify the aesthetics of the multiple components into a complete and powerful project that would successfully reconstruct and preserve the collective memory of Arantepacua and make a statement about power, racism, oppression and, most importantly, about the significance of resistance that ideally could become a means with which to purge some of the harm inflicted on the community by the bloody events of 5th April 2017.
ASGR: Kurhirani no ambakiti brought several components together. Can you tell us first about the pyrotechnic performance at Arantepacua, which was at the core of the project?
AG: Every component of the project has a narrative aspect to it; each incorporates a particular point of view and a distinct temporal and spatial perspective that, when combined, aims to communicate the complex socio-political and psychological implications of what happened. Each component uses a distinct medium and craft that activates collective memory-making; however, the strength of the project comes from the weaving together of these different elements.
The main component of Kurhirani no ambakiti, the life-size papier-maché rhinoceros FIG.2, functions as a proxy for the ‘rhinoceros’ tank used by the police forces and allegorically embodies the harm and evil inflicted on the community. Commissioned to a collective of pyrotechnicians, or coheturis, in Cherán, the effigy was carried in a procession along the same route as the annual commemorative procession held to mark the events of 5th April.4 Afterwards, the rhinoceros was destroyed with fireworks FIG.3 FIG.4 and burnt in Arantepacua’s main plaza FIG.5 FIG.6 FIG.7 while the pireris (traditional P’urhépecha musicians) performed their compositions that narrated the events of 2017 and the community’s subsequent fight for self-governance. For the finale, the coheturis cut off the animal’s head, which was then hung as a trophy, accompanying the video documentation of the performance, at the Centro Cultural Clavijero in Morelia. The aesthetic violence of this action was intended as a form of purge and catharsis. Above all, it seeks to destabilise the politics of memory, empower community members and support the healing of collective trauma by dismantling the oppressor–oppressed, victim–victimiser dichotomies.
ASGR: Could you expand on the notion of ‘aesthetic violence’, which is also implied in the project’s title?
AG: Translated as Burning the devil: since that’s the only way they listen to us, the title suggests that violence is sometimes not only necessary but also the only possible means that the state or organised crime has left available to oppressed populations with which to contest violence. The second part of the title (since that’s the only way they listen to us) is a quote from one of the interviews with normalista teachers, and it refers to the use of roadblocks and the holding of trucks as the only strategies through which the oppressed can make themselves heard, which has proven to be true. This project aims to contribute to the reversal of hegemonic narratives of violence, to delegitimise the monopoly of violence – the exclusive use of physical force by the state extended to organised crime and transnationals – to wrest violence from the dominant and colonising discourse and unleash its aesthetic, ritual, collective and affective potential so that it can become a powerful tool for epistemic decolonisation and liberation.
ASGR: What is the significance of the embroideries, archival materials and the sound employed in the installation?
AG: The ‘embroidered resistance archive’ comprises two parts: a sound piece created with the recorded testimonies and twenty-five cross-stitched textiles crafted by female embroiderers from Arantepacua and the neighbouring town of Turícuaro FIG.8 FIG.9 FIG.10.5 The photographs and video stills were sourced from the Consejo’s archive and Auani Pascual, who has consistently documented the community’s and the Teachers’ Union’s struggles and was captured, along with other thirty-seven comuneros, by the Michoacán police the day before the 2017 attack. The interviews conducted with several community members (comuneros, normalista teachers, council members, embroiderers, kuaris) were assembled chronologically, narrating the events that led to the attack, its aftermath and its consequences. This cascade of voices forms the contextual basis of the installation by providing intimate, first-hand, unfiltered narratives of the events. Based on the communal archive, the embroideries also develop a chronology that, besides illustrating the oral narrations, adds tactile, sacred, feminist and critical layers to the events represented.
Despite its colonial origins, embroidery has been subverted by many Indigenous communities by becoming a tool with which to conceal and preserve their culture, traditions and narratives, a device for epistemic decolonisation. For example, through embroidered motifs, traditional clothing is frequently used to represent the ties between a community and the sacredness of their land and territory, and captures their cosmogony and history in order to preserve and transmit it. The sacredness of this preservation of culture, traditions and identity is usually deposited in the hands of women. Embroidering also strengthens relationships between women, who typically meet to work together and at the same time share knowledge and stories.
In an era defined by necropolitics, embroidery has also become a tool with which to demand justice and an increasingly popular means of memory-making; for instance, women’s collective embroidery of the names and faces of their sons and daughters to demand their reappearance and to defy the hegemonic act of forgetting.6 The Archivo bordado de la resistencia draws on this feminist approach to embroidery as an act of resistance against silence and repression. Preserving and especially transmitting the struggle of Arantepacua, within and outside of the community, is crucial to continuing and furthering their autonomy.
Cross-stitch is the embroidery technique most widely used in the P’urhépecha region of Michoacán for traditional dresses called huanengos. Since the introduction of digital printing services in the region, any digital image can be printed on canvas and then cross-stitched. Photographs and still images from videos taken by community members became ‘pixelated’ tactile images reinterpreted by female embroiderers who, through their labour and affect, transformed them into tools for remembering and resisting, and into pulsating artefacts of collective memory. When the pixels of the digital images become hand-made cross-stitches, the archive is sacralised, and the community’s current struggle is reinterpreted (from a feminist perspective), inserted and preserved as part of their cosmogony and ongoing fight for decolonisation and self-determination.
AGSR: How did diablitos (little devils) contribute to the narrative?
AG: The four hundred clay devils FIG.11 FIG.12 dressed or painted with police and military uniforms, were made in the P’urhépecha community of Ocumicho by Ángela Esteban Felipe, in accordance with a traditional craft of recent conception.7 Diablitos from Ocumicho are mischievous and irreverent figurines usually portrayed in humorous domestic situations transgressing morals and good manners. From their inception, the diablitos have been influenced by the taste of foreign clients and suggestions made by federal cultural agencies that have facilitated their commodified character. However, the permissiveness and transgression of Catholic or conservative morals reveal the potential of the craft. This critical potential is revealed in frequent reinterpretations of socio-political issues such as migration, labour and exploitation. El enjambre (the swarm) addresses the excessive use of violence by the Michoacán police and seeks to make visible the disproportionate nature of the attack of 5th April by turning the culpable soldiers, policemen and armed civilians into devils. As an embodiment of harm and evil, the diablitos channel Arantepacua’s inhabitants’ perception of the police since the attack.
In my most recent visit to Arantepacua, when the art-therapy workshop and a second concert took place, the wooden pickup trucks were brought back and given to the children so they could transform them from police to kuaricha cars. This activity represents the transition to self-governance that the community struggled for and achieved after the attack. Through making and playing, the workshop encouraged intergenerational memory-building.
ASGR: Could you tell us about the songs? They also seemed to add a meaningful and powerful dimension.
AG: The commissioned pirekuas and rap songs add an affective layer to the overall narrative structure of the project.8 Mostly in P’urhépecha, they narrate the events of 5th April, commemorate the lives of the victims and praise the strength and fighting spirit of the community. During the 4th December event, the community’s appreciation for the pireris (pirekua composers) was evident: the audience asked them to perform more than once so that they could listen to the compositions repeatedly. Like the embroideries, the pirekuas carry an ancestral sacredness that has the power to incorporate the themes that are sung about into the historical cosmogony of P’urhépecha communities. The songs were recorded in Radio XEPUR’s studio in Cherán, the most important radio station in P’urhépecha, and then assembled into an album that includes an edited version of the interviews and was distributed in Arantepacua during a concert that marked the conclusion of the project.
ASGR: How do you understand the relationship between the objects – textiles, little devils, patrols – the collaborative process and the video documentation of the performance? How do these elements interact to enhance the critical and political potential of the installation?
AG: For the installation at the Centro Cultural Clavijero, fragments of all the songs are alternated with extracts from the interviews, while in the background the explosions from the pyrotechnics can also be heard. This polyphony of voices, music and sounds, distributed through the gallery, is a crucial component of the immersive character of the installation. The cathartic impact of a pyrotechnic performance can never be exactly replicated by its documentation. Nonetheless, in this multimedia installation, the video documentation of the procession and burning of the rhinoceros, the layered oral components, the darkened room, the spotlighted embroideries and the sculptural elements – including the dramatically lit head of the rhinoceros hung on the wall as a trophy – combine to create an affective experience for the audience that aims to intensify the critical and political power of the installation. This aesthetic experience points to the psychological and traumatic complexities of the attack. The installation critically addresses the politics of memory by suppressing and counterattacking the hegemonic narrative of the government disseminated by the media that justifies their monopoly on violence and delegitimises the use of violence by oppressed communities. In this work, the attackers have no say; they’re depicted according to the perceptions and decisions of the attacked. This enables the latter, empowered by their own narratives, to break the dichotomies of oppressor–oppressed, victim–victimiser.
The explicit and allegorical, satirical and sacred, affective and critical, political and therapeutic layered components are presented as a unit (in Arantepacua, during the community event of 4th December, as a multimedia installation in the Centro Cultural Clavijero, and as a multimedia publication coming soon). This compound and complex network of multiple perspectives, voices and narratives intends to critically challenge the intelligibility of the events: is it possible to truly comprehend such cruelty? Is there a way to understand what happened? The words ‘We will never be able to forget’ can be heard in one interview.
The only possible response this project can offer to undermine the state violence exercised against the community is to use dramatic violence to make visible the excessive use of violence by the police; to use destruction as a memory-building artefact with which to contest and subvert physical, ideological and structural violence, and to recover and celebrate situated narratives. The project advances a radical approach to the legitimate use of dramatic violence to invert the politics of memory and to help heal collective trauma. We used the aesthetic, ritual, collective and affective potential of violence as a tool for epistemic decolonisation and liberation, bearing in mind that, as Frantz Fanon maintained: ‘Decolonisation is always a violent event’.
ASGR: The installation questions, or perhaps attempts to destabilise, the distinction between art and crafts that entails the exclusion of crafts and Indigenous communities from both the Western art canon and the museum space. Are you interested in claiming these practices within the sphere of contemporary art? What is their importance today?
AG: The hierarchical distinction between art and artesanía results from a racist, classist, colonial and often misogynist discourse of power by some of the institutions that legitimise art (museums, galleries, universities) and their influential leaders and managers (board members, curators, critics, gallerists, collectors, scholars and even artists). The arguments for this distinction are always flawed and reveal a profound misunderstanding of the production and social role of cultural objects within Indigenous and mestizo communities (usually rural, poor and marginalised). Artesanías are usually neglected as aesthetically inferior because of their connections with everyday life, because of their ornamental, domestic, utilitarian and even celebratory character, for their lack of innovation and symbolic value. Can we argue that the (commodified) art objects on sale at art fairs are not ornamental, domestic or utilitarian? Are they not used as ornaments to embellish domestic spaces and as signifiers of status? Much of the art made in Indigenous communities is ornamental, but that is usually a result of the influence of the capitalist market and the makers’ need to survive. But much of this art also has a profound sacred, ritual and cosmogonic role for the communities that produce it. Communal artistic practices preserve and complicate oral memory, critically challenge morals and hegemonic narratives, express identity and connect humans to their territory, land, tradition and culture. To contest the dualistic, stereotyped and ignorant hierarchical classification of popular art versus contemporary art, it is crucial to understand the socio-political role of art made in Indigenous communities and to decolonise the prevailing idea of art based on the Western canon. A narrow, colonial and capitalist conception of art will never accommodate such a rooted practice or its urgency in a world in economic, ecological, social and even aesthetic crises.
Kurhirani no ambakiti questions not only the distinction between art and artesanía, and the exclusion of the latter from the Western canon and its institutions, but also the colonised and racist perspectives that prevent the trueque de saberes practised within the Meseta P’urhépecha from happening elsewhere. Although the installation at Centro Cultural Clavijero was secondary to the community event in Arantepacua, some of the main goals of this project (making visible the attack by the police, giving voice to the community’s struggle, delegitimising and re-legitimising the use of violence, dismantling the victim–victimiser dichotomy) would not have been possible without its presentation in a sanctioned gallery or museum space. But more than vindicating popular art within contemporary art and its institutions, it is necessary to decolonise contemporary art and generate a paradigm shift that would allow art to move away from commodification and closer to everyday life by renewing or eliminating alienating and stagnant institutions.