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María Elena Ortiz: Travels in Aruba

This is the first journal entry for a series of research trips by María Elena Ortiz, the 2014 recipient of the CPPC Travel Award. She will visit new and established contemporary art centers, artist initiatives, and film festivals in the Caribbean countries of Aruba, the Bahamas, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago. Her research will explore film and video practices, through interviews with local cultural producers and artists, with the aim of strengthening the ties between art in the Caribbean and the Diaspora in the local community of Miami.

(Catalogue of “Tropisch Koninkrijk” (Tropical Kingdom), Museum de Fundatie, Zwolle, Netherlands, June 2014)

At the airport in Miami, I started to notice the other travelers to Aruba were mostly Americans.  Everyone at the gate wore beach attire, eagerly looking forward to vacation. I wondered about Aruba, an island part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and how it was going to be different than Miami, specifically when noticing ads of cruises and beaches on our gate, departing to its capital Oranjestad, a city with few art galleries but not an art museum. Osaira Muyale, an artist, was going to pick me up at the airport. Although this year the film festival was cancelled, I had meetings with several artists and professionals from the Aruba Biennial Foundation, Atelier 89, Foundation Insight for the arts-Aruba, and Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Caribisch Gebied. I was confident about embarking on my art research, which would pay close attention to video and film production on the island.

(Desert view of Aruba)

My arrival to Oranjestad was quite easy, just one plane ride away. Osaira picked me up; in her car, we started to talk about the island, which she explained was a desert with high winds and little precipitation, actually not tropical at all. I asked about the everyday language, and she explained that most Arubans speak English, Dutch, Spanish, and Papiamento – a Creole language that blends the previous three. At government functions people speak Dutch, but at home everyone speaks Papiamento. This Creole language captivated me. I am a Puerto Rican who grew up in the tropics, and I also had to constantly “defend” my Spanish/Spanglish language against the backdrop of American colonialism. I was taken with how Arubans resorted to alternative linguistic strategies. Additionally, I should point out that all Arubans are citizens of the Netherlands, which made me consider connections between Puerto Rico’s and Aruba’s post-colonial conditions.

Osaira took me to Union de Organizacion Cultural Arubano (UNOCA) – an organization founded in 1986 that currently has a group exhibition, Colección Sticusa, presenting works of Aruban artists from different generations, such as Toton Quant, Julie Oduber, and Stan Kuiperi. The latter group was probably the first generation working on the island that made images of Aruba in the 1950s. They depicted on canvas a range of themes that varied from landscape painting to subjective, surrealist, or abstract painterly gestures. After UNOCA, we went to Studio O Contemporary Art Salon, a gallery and restaurant established by Osaira in 2011. There, I saw Paradisepark (2014) an exceptional installation by Muyale that draws from the storytelling traditions of her Lebanese ancestry to reconsider the poetics of a hybrid globalized subject. Muyale created a series of kinetic blue sculptures composed of humans, plants, and animal traits, creating a dream-like state in which one hears a subtle lullaby.

(Installation view: Osaira Muyale, Paradisepark (2014), Studio O Contemporary Salon, June 2014)

That night, we went to a film and video event at Atelier 89, an art school dedicated to promoting local art and bringing international artists to Aruba through a residency program. It was founded by an artist, Elvis Lopez, in 1989. One of the courses focused on video and film production, and that night, students were presenting their final projects. A vast majority of the presentations reflected on social issues such as domestic violence and drug addiction. All the projects were edited by Ryan Oduber, a contemporary artist known in the region for his video works. Ryan, like most Arubans, did his university studies in the Netherlands. There, he created several videos centered on issues of displacement, alluding to the notion of a young Aruban living and working in the Netherlands. Now living and working in Aruba, Oduber has geared his video practice toward investigations on the yearly carnival occurring every November. During the video event, I also had the chance to speak to a representative of the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Caribisch Gebied, an organization that funds cultural projects in the island.

The next morning I met with Rebecca Roos, a filmmaker and producer involved with the Aruban Film Festival. After living in the Netherlands for a long time, Roos decided to return to Aruba, and consequently established Rebecca Roos Productions N.V. Roos explained the dynamics of the film festival and its struggles with local politics. At the same time, this festival has been instrumental for the production of film in Aruba, and to generate exchange among other Caribbean nations that are part of the Kingdoms of the Netherlands, such as Suriname, Curacao, Trinidad and Belize. Recently, she produced a film solely narrated in Papiamento titled, Abo So (2014). Roos also recommended the documentary Poetry is an Island, which focuses on the life of poet Derek Walcott, directed by Ida Does from Suriname. Together, we went to the archeology museum and the historical museum. Later that night, we visited an exhibition that had a few video works in Arikok National Park. This was a one-night event in the deserted park showcasing work by emerging artists, many of whom are currently in the Netherlands studying or working.

(Andy Warhol mural at Atelier 89, June 2014)

The following day, I had the opportunity to meet with the artist and director Elvis Lopez from Atelier 89. With this space, Elvis keeps local education active and enables international artists to visit and work in Aruba. At Atelier 89, I did studio visits with some of his collaborators such as: Nelson Gonzalez, a Venezuelan artist established in Aruba, and one of Atelier 89’s students, Germille Geerman, who primarily works with video. Nelson commented on the exchanges between Aruba and Venezuela over centuries, and he addressed those issues through his early conceptual works. Then, I presented my curatorial work to a group of students, artists, and other locals. From there, I rapidly went to Foundation Insight for the arts-Aruba and the Aruba Bienal Foundation. Both organizations are under the leadership of artist and curator Alida Martinez, who has been dedicated to these organizations. Foundation Insight for the arts-Aruba is a gallery that also has a residency program, and the Biennial has only occurred once in 2012. I met with Alida and Roly Sint Jago, whose governmental leadership has been instrumental for the Aruba Biennial, which has an upcoming catalogue.

(Presentation at Atelier 89, June 2014)

On my last day in Aruba, I had the great experience of visiting the studio of Ciro Abath. As a sculptor, Abath has been inspired by the desert climate of the island. In this type of environment, artifacts preserve extremely well over time. Therefore, one could walk around and find objects from the native Caquetio Indians. Ciro is known for taking some of these artifacts and recreating them as elegant giant sculptures. He also commented on contemporary art in Curazao and its ties to production in Aruba. Prior to that visit, I had the chance to experience a modern ruin in the shape of oil rigs. It was last managed by Valero Energy Corporation and has now been abandoned. Its nearby town of San Nicolaas is Aruba’s second largest city and is home to other active artists such as Glenda Heyliger and Mo Mohammed.

(View of the abandoned oil facilities, June 2014)

In this part of the Dutch Caribbean, I had a glimpse into an island where official art museums or galleries do not seem to play a central role in the art scene. I got the impression that independent initiatives, the majority funded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, are the artistic motors of Aruba. I became extremely interested in learning more about the island’s relationship to Curacao and Venezuela. Aruba has some similarities to Miami, especially when one considers that both have been rapidly developed for Caribbean tourism. But Aruba’s cultural differences with Miami embody the complexities of a post-colonial situation similar to other islands in the region.

(Visit to Ciro Abath Studio, June 2014)

The research for this project was made possible by the generous support of ICI and Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) through the CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.

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