Edgar Calel, born in 1987, is a Mayan Kaqchikel visual artist from San Juan Comalapa, a town of 40,000 people in the department of Chimaltenango, Guatemala. This is where he lives and works when he is not traveling, in residences or exhibiting his works abroad. Through various art forms, including painting, installation and performance, Calel has concentrated his work on the notion of migration and how it mutates memory and culture.
The artist spoke to C&AL from his residence in Brazil, where the coronavirus pandemic has forced him to confine himself and, using local materials, is creating the work he will exhibit at the 11th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2020.
C&AL: Tell me about your origins and your career as an artist.
Édgar Calel: I was born 80 kilometers from Guatemala City, in Comalapa, a place full of references to the country’s art and history. I grew up among creative people – my dad is a painter and my mom is an artisan weaver – and with strong roots in the Kaqchikel Maya heritage. However, at a certain point I knew that I needed to improve my painting technique and reach a deeper understanding of art. So in 2005, I entered the Rafael Rodríguez Padilla National School of Plastic Arts. The school was in Guatemala City and that forced me to commute by bus every day; two hours in each direction. I became an observer and took advantage of my time to walk around, visit museums and look at people. Later, I began my life as an artist: I won a scholarship, left the country and visited many places. But that experience in my hometown and those commutes as a student shaped me in a decisive way.
C&AL: How does that story explain your interest in movement and migration?
EC: When you look at a country’s art history you find little community involvement. So for me, I have always wanted my work to be related to the place where I was born and where my body first learned to vibrate in the world. I carry a culture within me. But now that I travel so much, I ask myself, where is my culture when I am not in that place? It remains in the body, traversed by what we live, and it remains in the memory, where we transform the culture and reproduce it. For me, migration is not only physical. Traveling has allowed me to learn about different thoughts and arts, the ideas of the Kaqchikeles as well as those of the Guaraní. Under this notion of movement, it is possible to establish a synchrony between the different kinds of knowledge of the world. Traveling, in other words, means continually recognizing my presence in different places.