Son vitales los encuentros
cuando nada es lo que habita
Sólo queda preguntarse si es mejor
Sr. Presidente. Neoclásico.
It was the first decade of the millennium; Venezuela adhered, as today again, to GMT -4. Maracaibo celebrated art annually in the streets of the traditional neighborhood of Santa Lucía, and also in the wide terrace that serves as anteroom to the Maczul. It was called an event called Arte Unido and, for one night, it allowed everything to happen in the Museum. Youth scattered over concrete and grass, looking at art, making art, imagining art. The breeze, the soul, and the dawn were abundant. Heberto Añez Novoa was one of the usual suspects.
This is the account of a recent encounter, which took place under the cheerful influence of surprise: the strangeness of finding ourselves, young people, still here. Today he is known in other latitudes as Sr. Presidente (“Mr. President). A musician and visual artist, Heberto lives and creates in his city: Maracaibo. He loves it, and for years it has fueled the soundtrack of his nights full of lake, breeze and rock: first with the band TLX and, since 2011, with his alter ego, Sr. Presidente. Like many young Venezuelan musicians, he acknowledges that it would make more sense to work in a country where the industry were more developed, but he remains here, resisting. In spite of the migratory crisis, he manages to surround himself over and over again with talented people, and make art. Ilustre ventanal de estrategias (“Illustrious window of strategies”), his eighth record, was released at the end of 2015 –metaphysically, through digital label Entorno Doméstico, and physically through Mexican label Intolerancia Records.
Finding myself in his city –which is also mine–, I proposed that we get together to visit a space that, from its birth, and with ups and downs, has managed to host and agitate Maracaibo’s cultural life: the Zulia Museum of Contemporary Art, Maczul.
Day 1. (or how long must I wait?*)
We had agreed to meet at the museum at two in the afternoon. Despite the breeze, the heat was intense. It had been a few years since my last visit, and I while I waited I sniffed around the structures installed on the edges of the anteroom: a kind of beach bar with tables and chairs made of planks of wood, where the only human trace was the boundary tape all around. The staff informed me that this was a café still not operating, one of the projects by the new management to make the museum more livable.
I go over the visuals: on the other side of Av. Universidad, the unfinished structure of la Universidad del Zulia’s (LUZ) Great Hall, a mysterious promise, older than Maczul itself. A little further on, in the earthy and green mosaic of the city, stands the new rectorate of the University: an imposing and multicolored building of colossal proportions. Back on my railing, I look up … Judging by its corrosion, and performing a careful exercise of memory, I conclude that the entrance ceiling must not have been restored for at least ten years.
Maczul is a rare specimen, atypical within the museum fauna of the country: it does not belong to the Foundation of National Museums, although it is not alien to it either; its 13,000 m² lie in 3,6 hectares of land that belongs to the University of Zulia, but it has managed to escape the university crisis. It was inaugurated in 1998 thanks to the joint efforts of LUZ, the national government, the regional government, the city government, and the private sector. One could infer that it is this mestizo origin what protects it.
When Heberto arrived at three o’clock sharp, they closed the doors of the Museum. Here I must explain two important issues about the context: The first is to say that the Maczul is difficult to access in the chaotic public transport system of the city, and that Maracaibo has very serious problems regarding individual mobilization: finding a taxi can easily take more than an hour. The second issue was informed to us by the workers of the institution: the air conditioning system of the Museum had been damaged for some months**, so they were working on a reduced schedule, from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM. We sat in the unfinished café to reorganize ourselves.
We rescheduled the visit for the following day, and decided to refresh the afternoon with a few cold beers in a shack facing Lake Maracaibo. From the table we could hear the swing of the waves and we gazed at the flat horizon, framed to the left by the Plaza del Buen Maestro and to the right by the coastal patios of El Milagro. “It’s the closest thing you can find in Maracaibo to those places on the banks of the Limón River,” he said, encouragingly. “When we were in college, Agustín [Rincon] and I went all the time [to those restaurants]: we would take the bus from El Moján to the exit of Maicaíto, and we had beers for five bolivars when they cost twelve here.” We spoke a bit about the university, about our friends, about his time in the Faculty of Experimental Art at LUZ. We unintentionally drew a brief map of the diaspora. We also returned, verbally, to the Maracaibo of Calle Vieja, Ganja Alegría, Rollertec and Pony Park.
We spent the afternoon talking. We talked about TLX and its permanence in time. Although with different dynamics, it is an ongoing musical project, “because Roberto [Jiménez] is more sickly in love with Maracaibo than I am,” he told me. He also said that for some time he’d been working with former Guaco member Ronald Borjas, on his solo project. “It’s a very stimulating environment, surrounded by talented people. In fact, there are several ex-Guacos, and some are enthusiastic about what I showed them of Sr. Presidente and want to start playing with me.” He had managed to put together a band of seven people, but, one by one, for different reasons, were leaving the country. In a matter of months, it turned back into a one-man project.
Now he is regrouping, putting his band back together. “Ideally, I would love a band of about 12 members: two drumkits, two keyboards, a pair of guitars, bass, voices, beats, maybe a trumpet … ” He also has projects of concerts in public spaces, which are yet to find funding. “I would love to play on that sort of platform under the lookout in Park La Marina,” he said, “but with the litigation between the mayor and the governor to decide who would restore it, and that soon they both forgot about it, no one who really cares about producing such an event.”
Day 2. (or the hidden question)
Maczul is an authentically tropical museum. Its corridors and open spaces shelter greenery that explodes in the eye when the sun touches it; it leaves the eye dazzled, clean, ready to receive –and also obviate– what the Museum offers –and sometimes lacks– inside its halls.
Room 1 was closed to the public, because they were shooting a short film inside. The current direction of the Museum, in charge of artist and teacher Lourdes Peñaranda, is looking to fill the institution with life, including activities and art workshops as much private initiatives. Now the areas of Maczul can be rented for events as diverse as congresses, Quinceañera parties, and weddings … “They do not repair in expenses!” Heberto laughs. “Marrying in Maczul seems to me complete madness… But I find it even more maddening that you propose an art project here and they say ‘no, no, you cannot’ (laughs)”. The room housed Error de sistema by Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto, the result of a residency at the Museum.
In the side room, Ética estocástica expandida, by Ernesto Montiel and curated by Lourdes Peñaranda, was exhibited. On the floor and walls were drawings, reticles and three-dimensional structures whose shapes and volumes had been determined by chance. There were also sheets of calculations and notes that accompanied each exercise. We mentioned how much it pleased us to see the work of a new artist, although several years older, of our generation. “He says the resulting colors did not please him,” he told me. “Then why did he use them?” I asked. He explained that it had been an exercise in surrendering control, implementing a rigorous artificial and randomly codified system that produces, curiously enough, rather organic results. “I happened to visit Ernesto in November , a week before he left the country, and he was working on one of these works and showed me the system. I did not know it was for an exhibition here,” he mentioned.
The small space of the room was enough to make the first drops of sweat appear.
Room 2 is spacious, two-leveled, and, at that moment, just for us. Alter-ego. “Lecturas del retrato | Colección Mercantil” we read on the wall. Angela Bonadies, Manuel Cabré, Juan Calzadilla, Amalia Caputo, Marisol Escobar, Antonio Herrera-Toro, Suwon Lee, Arturo Michelena, Luis Molina-Pantin, Francisco Narváez, Alejandro Otero, Claudio Perna, Jorge Pizzani, Héctor Poleo, Armando Reverón, Luis Salazar … These are some of the names that assaulted us and anticipated the sensible banquet we are about to enjoy.
We began our tour through the sectionÍconos de poder. Paintings, sketches, engravings … a succession of atypical representations of heroes. A 1822 portrait presented an unknown Bolívar: skinny, with flashes of madness in his eyes. The image of an Israeli bill with Einstein’s face and an atom stamped on it, photographed by Molina-Pantin, made us reflect on the border between the real and the fictional, and gave way to a question on the Venezuelan heroic fetish: “How much longer will we wear out the same tired referents? When will we have money with the face of Jacinto Convit, Cabré or Reverón on it? Really, it’s been 200 years, how much longer will the overexposure of Bolivar last?” he inquired.
We moved towards portraits of great beauty and romanticism. We could barely believe the beauty of the pieces. We spent time in silence, unable to break the commotion.
Two immense portraits of strangers paralyzed us and invited us to scrutinize them: “4. Saddam Hussein,” we read in a picture of equal proportions hung next to the photo, and soon we located it. “5. Indira Gandhi,” we read, “3. Sonora Matancera Record”, “11. Fragment of the family of Carlos IV by Goya,” “1. Sirius “, “2. Syria,” “16. Banco Consolidado advertising drawing”. These are Angela Bonadies’s inventories. “Have you ever made an inventory of your room?” I asked. “Not at this scale, but I’m constantly at it, because I’m kind of obsessive. I know everything I have, but I have not reached this level… though it’s very tempting!”, he laughed.
We saw a fabulous Cabeza de negra by Narváez. We encountered an installation piece by Luis Salazar. We looked for Waldo in a drawing by Carlos Julio Molina. We saw works made with materials and techniques that we played to guess, given the lack of information on the tags in the room. “I love Manuel Cabré”, he told me in front of a small piece that we deemed a graphite drawing. He told me he owns “some small pieces by Cabré and Venezuelan art of the 20th century,” and I believed they were actual small pieces. He laughed and clarified the pieces are really books: “I collect many things, but not Cabrés.” He told me about a collection of nearly 300 vinyl records that he had started at the age of nine. From then on, he had never stopped collecting things.
We noticed some portraits by Reverón and photos of him made by Victoriano de los Ríos. Heberto got excited and announced that Reverón is his favorite. “This guy is a magician,” he said. “His degree of mystery is major to me. That is why I always question the hypothesis of his total madness: I relate it more to a theatrical theme, coming from a much purer place … He had extremely figured out how to work with light!”
We went out to the intense clarity of the post meridiem, happy and absolutely sweaty. It was difficult to identify what was exhibited in Room 3. Under shy lighting we glimpsed at pieces that spoke to us from photography and video. In the end, we found out they were the results of a workshop coordinated by Lorena González: Prácticas vs. Teoréticas: El “cuerpo-en-vida”. La representación en conflicto.
The rooms in the Museum connect like passages and, without realizing it, we fell into another one. A framed press announcement read: “To my wife, with all the sensitivity that my great love grants me.” We loved it. Sense of humor is –it seemed– also a generational trait. We read the tag: “ROOM 5 | Patrimonio nacional: Melodrama y poder | Conrado Pittari Volcán.” Some paintings reproduce telenovela photograms as seen on YouTube, in low resolution, at the precise instant of a glitch; a “dropping.” A digital error perfectly rendered by the human pulse. In the Audiovisual Room, a dramatic scene starring Amanda Gutiérrez and Carlos Olivier was playing in a loop, with the audio of a dramatized reading. Lupita Ferrer, Jean Carlos Simancas and Nohely Arteaga were other familiar faces we identified as icons of a certain country-time. “Millenials don’t understand telenovelas as a cultural referent in the same way as our generation,” we commented.
“11º Salón Regional de Jóvenes Artistas”, we read with a sigh. “Oh my God, I’m old!” he exclaimed. We entered knowing that the content would be controversial; it always is. The first work we observed had received an honorable mention. “Sound piece and glass spheres intervened with various materials,” we read. Silence. “They mean marbles!” we agreed, and confessed to not understanding the concept of this piece. We were thrilled by a rickety wooden table on which a map of Venezuela had been carved, below it a phrase that could be read through a mirror on the floor. We had fun categorizing the works in two classes: I would put it in my house and I would not put it in my house. We wondered about the entirety of what the jury had considered, as they’d admitted so many pieces that called for the frank use of descriptives like ‘horrible,’ ‘cliché,’ and ‘trying too hard.’
With some exceptions, it is odd for a couple of former regulars to not to recognize the participants’ names. We remembered that a few years ago the Salon –which traditionally had been very rigorous in accepting only regional applicants– opened its call to young artists from all over the country. We did not know the reasons, but were inclined to consider two: a) in order to be more inclusive, or b) to mitigate the effects of the exodus of young Zulian artists. We moved in the purest speculation. What we did know for sure is that they now granted both a regional and a national first prize.
The national first prize winner disappointed us; it was a small white painting with a tiny Venezuelan flag in its center. To see the regional first prize we needed to climb a ramp to the upper level. We found it was a portrait of Bolívar made with bits of Coca-Cola paper. We could not identify the other winning works. Heberto confessed that, although he had not shown his work for some time, he continued to make art: “All my life, I have never stopped and I don’t think I can, it is part of what I do… but I stopped applying to salons…” “So did I,” I confessed. We shared some disloyalties that are best left off the record.
We entered a small room and, for an instant, I thought we had stumbled upon the most complex piece in the show: an installation with various elements and overlapping chalk messages. However, Heberto clarified that I was not the first to be confused by this unidentified recreational space. The thermal sensation inside the room was at least two degrees higher than the rest of the already-warm hall, so we escaped swiftly.
We traversed the hall again towards the exit. A guard escorted us, announcing that it was nearly 3 in the afternoon and thus closing time. A final glance at the group show reiterated the bitter aftertaste of this account of young art –banally political and boring–, once more legitimized by our national art institutions.
As we left we were charged with a strange sensation. “At this time young artists are very lazy… and I think it’s a symptom,” he said. I divined in his expression a question I, too, had been asking myself: “Where is our generation?” But I did not say it. “We must return,” he said, leaning on the railing as we waited for the taxi. “As long as we are young, we must return…”