An open conversation with Maria Trabulo and Kevin Boothe
In this open conversation with the artist Maria Trabulo and Kevin Boothe, founder of Towards gallery in Toronto, emphasis is placed on the recent exhibition Wake Up the Statues, which is an ongoing research project into the political dimension of cultural objects and the role of the artist in that process.
Maria Trabulo (b. Porto, 1989) is a visual artist and researcher who works between Porto (PT) and Berlin (DE). Her multi-disciplinary practise examines the role that images and artefacts play in shaping both personal and collective histories. Towards is a two-part project consisting of an online publishing platform as well as an exhibition space.
Josseline Black – What is the philosophy behind Towards, as a gallery and online platform? What challenges do you navigate?
Kevin Boothe – Towards came out of an interest in providing space for artists whose work I admire. The gallery followed a series of collaborations and seemed an organic next step. There are challenges with every exhibition or project we undertake. The past twelve months have been an example of this, but I think the challenges are part of what makes it so interesting. More than anything, our guiding ethos from day 1 has been “let the artist lead the way”. Our job is to act as facilitators.
JB – Adrian Heathfield has a wonderful concept of collaboration. He writes that collaboration is not about listening to what the other person has to say but in hearing what they don’t have to say. Hearing the in-betweens, reading the silences. Maria, with Wake up the Statues you have been in an ongoing exchange with different NGOs to archive photographic records of artefacts that disappeared in the civil war in Syria. What is your experience of collaboration?
Maria Trabulo – That has been my practice in the past few years. I don’t relate with the position of creating in solitude or creating objects that just serve to be contemplated. For that reason, I have this need to find a purpose for the art that I do. Necessarily this has to be political, or an important socio-political episode. I have to navigate the places where these episodes happen. I have been fascinated by the consequences that uprisings, wars, and revolutions have not only on people but also on objects. I remember the last decade really well because of its uprisings, including protest movements in Portugal and Spain and Greece. When I moved to Vienna, I came across people who have participated in the Arab Spring, so I took an interest in their stories. They could carry their bodies to Europe but they couldn’t carry their objects. That’s how I came to the Syrian Heritage Archive project and to the Day After Heritage protection initiative, and to another archive which is not used in this project. Initially, I approached them in 2018 because I was doing another project, The Reinvention of Forgetting. I was interested in how these two NGOs see these documents: this digital data. At the time, the civil war wasn’t as violent but still many sites were inaccessible. The Syrian heritage archive project works in such a way that they have a team in Europe and teams in the field in Syria, not necessarily with a background in archaeology or art history. They pay them to photograph. By paying these men and women to photograph with their phones, they are also stopping them from selling the objects that they find. It’s been fascinating. I try to make objects that tell the story of this human effort that is being employed in documenting this cultural heritage. They do this because they feel it’s the one thing that will identify them. It will be through common cultural objects and sites, that share the space that is Syria, that they can shake hands again.
JB – One of the things that fascinates me about the archaeological timetable is that it is fragile and in flux. Our understanding of history is never a stable narrative…
MT – There is also the time that is fabricated or historical narratives that are fabricated. The thing that attracts me to the cases of cultural objects that are caught in a tragic situation is that one single object can be a huge finding for history. If I destroy everything that represents you, all of your photographs and personal items, I am erasing you from the future. This is a political act and a military strategy. These NGOs are trying to prevent this from happening.
JB – You are building this 3-dimensional ethnographic imaginary. When I look at the exhibition photos of Wake Up the Statues at Towards, I wonder – how do you handle the language around what is being shown?
MT – That’s a very important question. Kevin and I spoke a lot about how to communicate this to others. How much to reveal. I think in this case since it was the first time that the pieces were being shown. It’s perhaps the beginning of Wake Up the Statues. This past year was the first time that I was trying to make sense of this material that I had.
KB – It was a central question as we were starting to plan the exhibition. The first thing, we thought long and hard about what to include in the text, to provide the viewer with context, without being overly didactic or prescriptive. The second thing that I can say with a lot of confidence, having lived with the work in a way that doesn’t come through in photography, is the understanding of what this work represents. It does feel very charged. In a way, it is rendered with looseness and shakiness. It is not trying to recreate cultural artefacts. It’s trying to open a conversation about history and conflict, and what do we owe these objects. The work is the vehicle to have that larger conversation. The work is also a celebration of resilience.
JB – Can we speak about Digging the Desert, a video work of yours from 2019?
MT – I’m very interested in this inherent destruction and reproduction, and destruction and creation that surrounds us. I like to go after stories of objects that are hidden or have been destroyed, and through them tell the story. In the case of Digging in the Desert, it was about the biggest collection of western modern art outside of the West, and it has been hidden since 1979, with only brief showings, depending on how flexible the reigning regime is. So, suddenly – it’s around 100 pieces -, and just because of a political shift, they become political as well; those pieces, those Picassos and Jasper Johns’ have become associated with the Shah and with what the previous regime represented. So, it should either be destroyed or not seen. I wasn’t able to see it and thus interviewed people that had worked at the museum and that had seen it, and from that, I reconstructed the story of 40 years of political history in Iran. In 2019, to tell the story with the right-wing turn that Europe has been having in the past years (and also the US and Brazil) made total sense.
JB – On this topic of exploring that which is obscured from view, what is your next or forthcoming project?
MT – I will continue with Wake up the Statues. Next year, from September on, I will be in Berlin full-time, so I will be in close contact with the team of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project. I will probably develop this even more in the next year or two. Currently, I’m in Portugal, and I’ve been doing a residency at the National Museum of Ancient Art about a piece that was tipped over by accident by a tourist. It was a huge scandal in Portugal also because it’s the most important public art history museum. Then the piece had to be restored, and once it was restituted to the main collection, people have gone there to see it just because of that story. It became important because it fell over and everyone saw it on Facebook, and it made the news. In my residency at the museum, I’ve been interviewing everyone who, in 2016, took part in this series of events and I’m trying to reconstruct what happened. My argument is that it wasn’t toppled by accident, the statue decided to jump by itself for attention. And indeed, it got it. At the museum they’ve shown me some of the news coverage – the Chinese art history newspapers talked about it. So, that’s how this archangel, Saint Michael, has become super famous. There is a comparison to the attention that we crave. We can see the museum as a deposit of memories, and as a deposit of people who intend to be remembered for posterity.