"Art is becoming more widely appreciated as a universal language of invention and agency - the means through which we redefine culture, express our shared experience and envision all possibilities." -Yazmany Arboleda
This Spring, BRIC is working with artist Yazmany Arboleda to lead the Future Historical Society, a collective of Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene neighbors who are creating a public art experience that illuminates the personal histories of this community, while envisioning a more connected, interdependent future. Yazmany’s practice of art-making is grounded in a deep attention to the process of how people work together to create inventive, beautiful, large-scale visual interventions in the public realm. As an example, Yazmany recently returned from Kenya, where he’s been working with communities of faith to paint churches and mosques across the country a color he calls “optimistic yellow”, in a show of unity that counters the negative narratives of sectarian violence and division. His skill as a designer and architect is evident in his intricate and thoughtful sketches and planning documents. But it’s his skill as a guide through the wonderfully chaotic process of collaborative art-making that allows all of his co-creators to experience the joy and optimism of community building at its best.
In the interview below, Yazmany shares more of his artistic process, examples of past projects, and the thinking behind his unique practice and worldview.
BRIC: When you talk about your work, you often start with your own story. How does your personal history inform your practice?
Yazmany Arboleda (YA): As a queer, latinx, first generation American with a Colombian accent, my work has evolved from a desire to belong and to create belonging. I am interested in helping people see and be seen. When I was eleven years old, my family moved back to the United States after my father was assassinated and two of my uncles were kidnapped and murdered in Medellin. Growing up, I learned to counter the perception that Colombia was only a place of violence by speaking about the unexpected -- all of the delicious fruits that exist there and nowhere else on the planet, for example, or about my mother's resilient humor. By sharing stories that contradict expectations, we honor the people who live and thrive in challenging spaces, in spite of those challenges. With video, paintings, photographs, and especially people, I orchestrate elaborate, alternate realities that challenge certainties and unmask prejudices that lie just outside our collective field of vision.
BRIC: You’ve made socially engaged art projects all over the world, including India, Afghanistan, and Kenya. How do the specifics of a geographical place figure into your work?
YA: The specifics of a geographical place is what my work is about. I am interested in bringing people together and asking questions about who is present and what it is that we are interested in making together. Who are we? How do we see ourselves? What do we need/want the world to see? If it’s successful, the project should reflect the values of the community that created it together, whatever form it takes. In this way the people and all of the places those people inhabit are represented and involved inherently in the work.
BRIC: This year, you’ve begun multiple projects in New York City. What is different about doing work in your hometown? Or more to the point, why now, and why not before now?
YA: When I have been asked this question in the past, I have said that in developing countries it is easier to create art in public spaces because there is less bureaucracy, fewer policies for what one can and cannot do. When I look back now I believe that while part of this is true, there is also a kind of alchemy that happens when you are in a foreign place with people who are different from you. It activates the imagination and leads to boldness. My career as an artist has been entirely shaped by the people who have invited me into their communities to work with them. This year both BRIC and the Academy for Teachers of NY invited me to stay home and make art here with my neighbors, and it feels like a privilege.BRIC: What’s the role of aesthetic considerations, the impact of a coherent visual or sensory experience? Or, where does the “art” come in?
YA: While spending time with my family recently, my brother-in-law looked at his son and said: "He gets more handsome with everyday that passes." I looked over and added, "of course, he is kind of going from being a toad to being a properly formed frog." Without skipping a beat he looked at me and said "I disagree. I think it's that I love him more the more time I spend with him.”
I think this is entirely related to the work that I do. As people come together in the act of making they engage meaningfully with each other and create beauty. This is true not just in the thing that is being formed physically in the world but in the care that participants develop for each other, a kind of "emotional aesthetics."
Art is becoming more widely appreciated as a universal language of invention and agency - the means through which we redefine culture, express our shared experience and envision all possibilities.
BRIC: What’s your role as a lead artist (as is the case with the Future Historical Society), when the work is created with others?
YA: I bring the five pillars that I base all my artworks on - joy, collaboration, agency, color, and scale - into every project. I have many many ideas going in to initial meetings with communities. Sometimes the community latches on to one of the ideas and feels true ownership. Other times, we arrive at a new idea together. I learn many new things about the needs and desires of that community along the way. Curiosity and openness is key. The project, however, in whatever form it takes, will always be based on those five pillars.
BRIC: What do you hope happens in a project, after you step away?
YA: My hope is that we will have created a community of people who genuinely know each other and are excited to collaborate and bring forth new ideas and projects for themselves.
BRIC: Is there anything else we should know about your work, and the impact you hope it has?
YA: Yes! I believe that we are each other's medicine. I believe that all livings things, all people, are each a piece of God and by getting to know each other we gain access to new parts of ourselves that we would not know otherwise. Making art together allows us to authentically connect in a way that not much else does, because we are doing that making with meaning and purpose. What often occurs is that people are left with a true sense of belonging -- to each other.
The Future Historical Society is multi-generational team of community members joining together to create a neighborhood archive that honors the histories of our changing community, while transforming our vision for the future. The project will be installed throughout Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn during the BRIC OPEN Festival, April 24-27 2019. You can read more about the Future Historical Members here.