Michelle Angela Ortiz
Michelle Angela Ortiz is a self-described ‘visual artist, muralist and community arts educator’ living in Philadelphia. Ortiz was born in the U.S. to Colombian and Puerto Rican parents. She is deeply committed to combining her artistic practice to ideas of social justice particularly around issues of cultural and personal displacement. In meeting and speaking to Ortiz It is clear that this is not vague rhetoric. In the many local and international projects she has worked on in the last dozen years, in Philadelphia, Argentina, Spain, Ecuador and Mexico, to name a few, Ortiz has not only executed dynamic public imagery but she has created profound and transformative experiences for the neighborhood participants as well. Ortiz is a revolutionary in the most generous sense of the word; she catalyzes change at the grass roots level, embodying the ideals of dialog, cultural exchange, collaboration and self-representation. Her recent project, Aquí y Allá was a cross-national exchange between artists and communities in Philadelphia, Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico and was sponsored by the U.S. Consulate. In describing one of the figures in that mural, Ortiz stated that “She is present without apology, you cannot ignore her.” The same could be said of Ortiz herself.
This conversation took place on March 29, 2013 in her studio in South Philadelphia.
MAD – Lets start with one of your most recent mural projects, Aquí y Allá. It’s a remarkable painting with multiple layers of symbols and information, from maps to photo realistic portraits. I like the use or reference to the Aztec Sun Dial which function as halos and as apertures or portals between lands, between realities. Could you speak about the formal decisions that went into making that mural?
MAO – When I think about creating a mural, I am aware of the connection to place, where it is going to live and for what purpose. It is crucial to consider how the site will shape and inform the content especially when I am creating imagery on that scale that speaks of a community that is often ignored.
The idea of the Aquí y Allá (Here and There) Transnational Project merged various interactions with the community and the projects I was leading both in Philadelphia and Mexico. I created the project to explore the impact of immigration in the lives of Mexican immigrant youth in South Philadelphia in connection with youth in Chihuahua, Mexico.
In the mural, you see the portrait of a young immigrant girl named Diana. She crossed the border with her family at age 8. Now, 16, Diana participated in the project and lives a couple of blocks from the mural. Surrounded by the map of South Philadelphia, the image of Diana represents the immigrant child that has arrived to the United States.
In the constant daily bombardment of images in the media we seldom see ourselves. Imprinting this larger than life portrait on the wall is about visibility and about showing the strength and resilience of this young person. I wanted to lift the image of Diana to such a scale that her presence could not be ignored.
When I began to create the design of the mural, I always envisioned two circles that point to two different places, two different stories that exist in the same realm. Diana is one of the two figures present within two circles that are inspired by the Aztec calendar and resemble compasses. Each compass directs the viewer to the place where the figure resides. Each circle holds several panels created by teens in Philadelphia and Mexico. The panels represent their stories. Diana painted an image of a bird in a cage of thorns that represents her painful journey to the United States and the sorrow of being separated from her father who was deported 2 years ago. Student Fredy painted an image in homage to his grandmother who raised him and passed away waiting for his return to Mexico. Student Diana painted words of hope she used during her journey and the importance of honoring cultural traditions in a new country.
MAD – What about the boy in the mural, who is he?
MAO – He represents the child who has been left behind. The model is a young boy who lives in the neighborhood about a block away from the mural. He was born here but his parents are from Puebla Mexico, which is where a majority of Mexican immigrants are coming from to Philadelphia. Before making the mural, I was traveling back and forth to Mexico, talking to families about this phenomenon, of leaving children behind only to be reunited years later when they were teenagers. The stories were heartbreaking; one girl said to me “What does my mom look like?” It’s like a punch to the chest. I saw where she lived, where her grandparents lived, and when you see the lack of resources there, you understand that the money her mom was able to send home for new shoes or new books provided a slightly better life, but the personal and familial sacrifice is enormous. I wanted to suggest those hidden stories beneath the larger narrative about immigration.
MAD – Did you photograph him? His movement is so lively, so animated; it looks like a film still.
MAO – Yes, I am always taking photographs to capture the natural movement of the model. I don’t want them to look posed. While photographing Diana for her portrait, I asked her to sing a song while I was photographing her. Being surrounded by Aztec symbols, I am aware of the danger of turning them into static indigenous sculptures, instead of the living beings that they are.
MAD – Do you know the work of the Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide?
MAO – Yes! The portrait of Diana was inspired by one of Iturbide’s photographs.
MAD – I must have subconsciously recognized that. There is that iconic image from her Juchitan de las Mujeres project, which shows a woman with a corona, a crown of iguanas perched on her head. Such a strange and powerful image. I lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s and one day while I was driving down Sunset Boulevard (or Cesar Chavez Boulevard in that part of town), there was this enormous mural of that image on the side of a building. I don’t know who painted it or why it was there really, it just appeared like a mirage or miracle hovering over the street.
MAO – I love her work, the diversity of her representations of Mexican culture. Have you see her Chola portraits? Look at those and look at the image of the woman with the iguanas on her head and think about how these are, in a sense, coming from the same cultural background.
MAD – There must be complexities in negotiating community work. Can you talk a little bit about when your own esthetics or vision might come in conflict with the community you are serving?
MAO – I always feel that whatever comes out of the community project is very much influenced by the structure that is initially put in place by the artist. I hear a lot from other community-based artists who complain, ‘Oh, they want rainbows and flying doves….” And my response is to ask, ‘what kind of structure have you set up to get them to think aesthetically about composition and design? And what examples have you shown them that represent narrative, storytelling in a way that both the message being conveyed and the art practice are on a high skill level?’ I don’t assume that I cannot have a deep conversation about art and design with someone who is not an artist. It may not be the same as with someone who is trained to be an artist, but we all can see and when someone feels impacted by an image you can begin to have a conversation about how and why it works.
When I begin a project and I am meeting the community involved, I don’t begin with low expectations, I don’t imagine the most conventional or clichéd imagery. A perfect example is the Aquí y Allá, project which involved teenagers here in Philadelphia and in Mexico. I created an eight-week curriculum and every day of those eight weeks, those teenagers were engaged with art, were exposed to a variety of artists, artists of color, artists who are engaged with similar social struggles who they can identify with. This includes prints by Jose Guadalupe Posada, Puerto Rican political posters, and images from the Civil Rights Movement. The students were also exposed to the artwork of the four graffiti/ street artists that I previously trained in Chihuahua, Mexico (David Flores, Juan Carlos Reyes, Oscar Gallegos and Antonio Leal) who traveled to Philadelphia to work in collaboration with me in the project. I think that in this kind of environment it is the responsibility of the artist to teach art that is relevant to current social issues. If you do this, the result is going to be more sophisticated; the people involved are going to consider the impact of any mark they make and this will, in some ways, pre-empt the clichéd image.
I want to add, that as an artist working in communities, I am aware that I am still an outsider entering into another world. When I begin a process with the community, I am clear about my intentions and I would never ask a question that I am not willing to answer myself. Being involved in this collaborative creative process, it is clear that having artistic skill is not enough. Sometimes the conversations can be intense, there can be disagreements and when people are talking about their experiences there can be a feeling of hopelessness. It is necessary for the artist to be skilled in facilitating difficult dialogues, identifying themes, translating themes to visual representations, and doing this with integrity and respect with the community. I am committed to issues of responsibility, accountability, ethics, aesthetics – a larger dialogue that is most needed in the field of arts and social practice.
MAD – On that topic, on your website there is short documentary about your project in Buenos Aires in which community engagement seems very central to the process. Here you are, a North American artist, one with roots in Latin America obviously, but you drop into a poor working class neighborhood in a big city in Argentina, so how are the challenges different there in that environment?
MAO – I was working with an organization called Talleres Protegidos, which translates as Protected Workshops, which is a social service agency that serves individuals suffering with mental disabilities. Even before I went there I was in conversation with the director and the staff and my basic questions were ‘How would you describe the community you are working with?’ and ‘What is the biggest issue?’. As I mentioned before ‘place’ as a concept is a common denominator in how I approach a project. This particular neighborhood in Buenos Aires is called Barracas, and is home to numerous institutions for the mentally ill or disabled. Talleres stands out because they don’t isolate their patients from the rest of the world; they give them meaningful work, mostly making furniture, amazing furniture for all the hospitals in Buenos Aires. And since Talleres was already so good at providing mentorship to their patients, it was a relatively smooth entrance for me when I arrived.
I worked with 20 patients and their mentors, so a total of 40. What you see in the documentary are the sessions I did in the first two weeks in which they wrote poems about how they were seen by others in their community. Its not simply painting or drawing I employ, but lots of writing and theater workshops, which helps identify and develop themes and images for the content of the murals.
Here is a phrase that one of the patients wrote from the writing workshops, “En los tiempos de perder la lucidez, encuentro tu alma llena de luz.” (In the moments that I lose my lucidity, I find your soul full of light.) I don’t think anyone was expecting such profound beauty to come out of such simple and direct questions.
In addition to generating material for the mural, one of the goals during my residency was to train the mentors and local artists in community arts processes. Sustainability is very important to me and the trainings allow for the local artists to continue this work within their own communities beyond the life of the project.
If you can establish trust, amazing things can be created. I shared with the participants the story about my aunt, who suffered from schizophrenia, who had been in and out of mental institutions. I can almost always find stories from my own family history that helps me identify with the community I am working with. I thought about my aunt while working on this project, I remembered visiting her in institutions, these cold white rooms that we were not allowed to even hug her. It made me realize that mental illness is not just a challenge for the individual affected but the entire family.
Talleres was already an exemplary organization but still there was a bureaucratic separation between the Director, the mentors and the patients. So I mixed up the groups while we mixed colors and many of the patients turned out to be excellent colorists who then taught the mentors and the Director how to mix vivid and interesting colors. On the day of dedication of the mural, the Director spoke about how the process created a sense of equality between them, how important it was for them to all work, shoulder to shoulder, for the same goal.
MAD – Artists who are exhibiting within the sanctioned art world are, one imagines, hoping to be noticed by critics and collectors and ultimately have their work enter the canon of art history somehow. For those who are working with socially engaged or community based projects, this hoped-for process of validation is necessarily different, don’t you think? How is your work assessed, remembered or valued? Not monetary value but value in relation to culture, although I cannot imagine how one determines that. I guess in some ways its anecdotal, its also a leap of faith.
MAO – It’s about being realistic. I know that a mural is not going to resolve the immigration reform issue that we have. I know its not going to give citizenship to the students I am working with or get them entrance into a college or university. I am completely aware of that. But the work is part of the process that sheds light on the communities’ voices. The artwork creates awareness and places a face and name to the many undocumented immigrants who have been deported or of a family member that has been ignored because of their mental illness. Although it’s hard to measure, the process, the collaboration has a real impact on the people involved and beyond that, it impacts the people who see themselves in the artwork present in that public space. A single artwork is not going to bring about world peace but it can create a safe space for someone to speak up for the first time, to make a mark about their experience and their lives with no judgment, and to have the opportunity to collectively transform public spaces as a platform to present a visual affirmation that honors and values their stories. From rival gang members working together in the same room to individuals reclaiming a space of destruction to a place of healing… whether the change is large or small, I am a witness to those changes that happen in communities when given an opportunity to see their world through the creative lens.
MAD – I find that cynical question of efficacy usually comes from those invested in the art world. I don’t think that same question is asked of someone making a painting in their studio, they don’t have to justify their work in terms of how it is directly impacting the world. There is this suspicion, even hostility towards the gesture of wanting to do something positive and direct. Without going into detail, I am quite convinced that a small handful of media activists saved my life in the early 1970s. I was on the wrong path, and one day someone put a camera in my hands and asked me if I wanted to learn how to use it and how to develop and print my own pictures. It didn’t happen overnight but my life changed directions. Later I taught there myself, it was called the Somerville Media Action Project, just outside of Boston. Most of the kids were poor, working class white kids from the project and you never knew who was going to be turned on, or when, or for how long, but what was important was that you provided an opportunity for them to imagine life outside the project mindset. In your case, I’m sure you have encountered skeptics who look at a painting on a wall and think its just decorative symbolism. What is often not understood is the process and experience of getting that mural painted, the teaching, collaboration and the pride of accomplishment. That kind of thing is immeasurable in conventional art world terms.
MAO – Yes, I do feel that I have to constantly justify how my work is impacting the world. I come from an immigrant working class family where art and culture was and is part of our every day lives. As a child I did not visit galleries and museums to have access to art; rather art was constantly around me… from hearing the traditional songs of Puerto Rico sung by my father to making intricate paper flowers with my grandmother in our kitchen… we did not think of those things as art but as part of our everyday lives.
Early in my career, I decided to step out of the four walls of my studio and begin to work in communities. I began to teach and create murals and mosaics with diverse communities in Philadelphia and Camden. I became inspired through the interactions that emerged from conversations with my students and community members and I saw that they were reflections of my family. They all carried with them a lifetime of stories and believed that their realities were unimportant and had no value.
These experiences really shaped and directed my art practice in neighborhoods and public spaces. As an artist, knowing about Marcel Duchamp is as important as knowing about my grandmother’s struggles. I believe that the walls in a neighborhood are as important as the walls in a gallery or museum.
Unfortunately, the art world does not always see the importance of creating art with communities in non-traditional spaces. The art world is built on a value system based on financial gain. It is a challenge to navigate through this system and continue to make art that is deeply rooted in community, socially engaged and that contradicts and challenges the economic and social power structure of the gallery/museum institution. I am trying to find ways to better communicate my process since the mural is the culmination of a complex series of interactions. For me, value is placed in creating a process that is collaborative, accessible to the public and challenges social issues through the arts.