Born in Comalapa, an indigenous Maya Kaqchikel community in Guatemala, visual artist Édgar Calel, who dedicates his work to his ancestral culture, reflects on movement and transformation. His paintings, videos, installations and performances have been exhibited across Latin America and Europe and In 2020 he will participate in the 11th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.
Édgar Calel and Fernando Pereira dos Santos, Sueño de Obsidiana, 2020. aprox. 13’, video still. © Sendero Filmes. Cortesia Édgar Calel and Fernando Pereira dos Santos. Photo: Chico Bahia.
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.
C&AL: How are these reflections manifested in your art?
EC: For me, art is a place of transit, like an airport full of people, destinations and origins. When I travel, I participate in the spaces where culture circulates. It was hard for me to understand the need to share in art. But only in this way did I discover, for example, that in my work there is a part consisting of orality linked to the bodily manifestation. And so poetry and performative action found a place in my art and revealed to me a plethora of useful expressions to describe what I wanted. I am not sure whether it’s a technique or an act on impulse. A few days ago, for example, I felt this urge and I ended up making an installation. I asked myself: where is the poetry inside me and inside my clothes? It occurred to me that poetry can exist in the empty pockets of my pants and I decided that this would be my work: I wrote some poetry in the pockets of my pants and exposed them on the outside. That’s how I’m building images. People recognize themselves in the symbols, and so we all enter an intimate dimension.
C&AL: This orality that you describe, how is that represented in your work?
EC: Let me tell you another story. This morning, I wrote a poem in the Kaqchikel language. It says: Ta tz’isa ri nu q’aq’ rik’in ri a chub. The Spanish translation is: “Sew my fire with your saliva”. It is a play on words; when you translate it you recreate it, perhaps bringing it closer to an original image or to the image in that new language. This is a form of displacement and a way to enrich life. Since I am not attached to a specific art form, I can afford to do those things.
C&AL: What significance does participating in the Berlin Biennale have for you?
EC: Representing a part of the Guatemalan population at a global event, I feel a sense of responsibility. Last year, I went to Berlin for the first time to attend a workshop and exhibit my work. It was important because I had to pay attention to the details in order to faithfully convey what I had wanted to envision. I worked constantly with curators and producers, and that experience left an impression on me because it was like the work of a machine that feeds on itself in order to understand: I shared things that became questions that then became reflections that turned into new questions and ended up transforming the artist and the work. The result is that, after that trip, I am preparing three pieces for the Biennale consisting of: a video, 38 drawings, a sweater and two photographs. They are different in terms of expression, but conceptually they are tied together by a common interrogation.
The plan was to go back to Berlin for two weeks, but due to COVID-19, I won’t be able to go. That’s why the work I’m producing revolves around dreams that I have been drawing using bond paper and charcoal; materials that I like and that I can easily find in Brazil where I have been stranded due to the virus. Since I cannot travel to Berlin, I find in them the place of transit I need to complete my work. If I had been able to go to Berlin, the work would have been different. How wonderful that life teaches you to create with what you have! Gestures like these lead to a path of humility.
C&AL: How have current world events like the pandemic affected your work?
EC: It is very complex, but at the same time very interesting. This year, I was expecting to go to London, Berlin and Canada. Suddenly, everything was closed. You wonder: What is happening to us? What is this pandemic? For me actually, many things have continued, but in a different way. I think: the more projects there are, on an international and migratory scale, the more desires are extinguished. But if my dream is to work close to the land of my family, then maybe the pandemic will affect me less. In that place, the pandemic is far away while I am closer: to my ancestors, to my food, to the ancient calendar, to the rulers of time. The pandemic came to help us to not think too far ahead, not to project too much. Life is now, not in the future.
Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, who made the interview, is a Colombian journalist and editor. He has been the editor and manager of different media and cultural projects.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen