Interview with Rebeca Romero, now on Umbigo’s cover of the month

Mafalda Ruão interviews Rebeca Romero, author of the cover of the month of Umbigo’s online edition, exploring her multidimensional trajectory, lying in-between cultures, times and practices, to reflect on history through an invitation to imagine the world not longer imprisoned in the legacy of the written past. By letting the objects tell their story, Rebeca seeks for a reconciliation of the old with the new. An harmony amid timeless authenticity and pop-up fiction.

MR – In which way(s) coming to London, a heart of western civilisation, shaped your work?

RR – Once I got over the initial cultural shock that took place when I just moved here from Peru, I became intrigued by the difference and by all the situations of miscommunication and misunderstanding that kept taking place around me. I explore these concepts a lot, both in my sculpture and my writing. 

I love London, but I also hate it a little bit, as it happens to most of the people I know who relocate here. To me, living in the diaspora implies a constant remembering, to maintain a bond with my culture and my homeland keeps me grounded and the challenges that I encounter while trying to keep this bond alive often serve as an axis for the development of my work.

MR – I see your practice is often quite site-specific. As a displaced person, how important is to you to connect with a certain place or environment?

RR – I have worked in site- specific contexts but not strictly. Lately I’ve been focusing into creating immersive environments and atmospheres where I actually transform the space and not the other way around. Beyond it being important to me to connect with a place, what I seek to create is a close connection with the viewer and to offer them a safe space where they can ‘suspend their disbelief’ even if it is for a brief moment.

MR – From pre-Columbian iconography to advanced 3D printing techniques, from ceramics to sound pieces; from clay to cables; to be “in-between” is an inherent state or it came to you later with experience?

RR – I see this “in-betweeness” as my way of existing in the world, as a displaced person, having lived in Europe almost half of my life now, it is a feeling I think I’ll never shake off completely. In addition to that, I think that the Internet and the technological advances it has brought along has all of us feeling a little bit in that way, don’t you think? While physically in one place, we also have eyes everywhere, and we can be reached almost from and in every corner of the world – I think it has really altered our perception of time, space and access. We are constantly crossing bridges and borders without even noticing. I incorporate this constant movement into my work, which not only swings from to the past to the future but from North to South and vice versa.

MR – Artefacts and old objects from pre-hispanic times are the main source of reference and the starting point for your work. Do you believe that by reproducing alternative pieces of past events and twisting them into a new customised hybrids, we can invoke new realities capable to set us free from the violence and oppression of colonisation? In other words, is it possible to overcome the past by forging “new futures” and how can art heal and empower society?

RR – I understand artefacts as holders of history and in this sense I’m fascinated by the world-making potential that lays in them. If you really think about it, history as we read it in books is itself some sort of fiction, and whatever information we learn about ancient artefacts today is actually a mixture of fact and speculation infused in objects by historians, archeologists, etc. When we look at these objects we trust in the information that has been attached to them, given to us – they create a reality.

In the case of my work, my objects, texts, sounds, they attempt to be a proof of the possibility of difference, an invitation to imagine a world outside the legacy of the colonial enterprise. Imagination is not only a powerful tool but a catalyst for change.

MR – So the post-colonial world – as we know it – is only a facade of a modern colonial system? How to cope with this?

RR – Yes, I would say that what we are experiencing is some sort of post-colonial colonialism – white supremacy and capitalist profitability are some of the most visible symptoms of this malaise. I think a high degree of awareness in this respect is urgent, on how our actions contribute to the prevalence of this system. It is vital to understand that, just because we have done things a certain way for hundreds of years this does not mean that there is not other way of doing them. Current hegemonic world-views are not fixed. A different way to live in the world is possible.

MR – Speaking on how we see the world, in the work Promises from Paradise (2018) you resort to very eye-catching and sellable posters of Peruvian landscapes that expose how capitalistic mindset takes advantage of natural resources as tropical exotic touristic baits. Was this the intention behind the work?

RR – The Promises of Paradise series came to be as a result of a trip I did to the Amazon back in 2017. To witness first-hand the entire economic structure that has been built around the consumption of Ayahuasca across the jungle of Peru had a huge impact in me.

I’m fascinated by the power of the plant myself, I understand the appeal, but I feel the whole “spiritual tourism” venture has gone out of control, affecting the lives of the people from the region and, in my view, altering the essence of this ancient ritual.

I had these ideas in mind when I produced the work – how healing is something we seem to be collectively seeking but at the same time how unaware of the damage we cause in our quest for ‘enlightenment’. The whole thing felt like a huge contradiction to me, and I hope the work illustrates that.

MR – More recently in Haptic Chant (2022), dozens of fired clay sculptures are assembled on charcoal bricks, in a sonic performance. Is this project a symbolic way to express that artefacts are in fact true holders of history, from which we can reach memories and feelings?

RR – While making the ceramic pieces that compose Haptic Chant, I kept asking myself: What if these objects could tell their own story? Where they come from, what they’ve seen. It didn’t make any sense to me ‘translating’ whatever they had to say into words, as language as we know it is a human construction and whatever meaning I infused in them would be biased. So I focused on finding the way of freeing their ‘voices’, or in this case, the sounds that live inside of them.

We tend to be so uncomfortable with what we cannot understand, often dismissing what seems incomprehensible at first sight. So in a way, the listening of this performance presents a bit of a challenge – what I hope to be a freeing and even expansive exercise for the audience. Collective experiences of healing are something I’m very interested in at the moment and that I hope to carry on developing through my work.

MR – What is coming next?

RR – I’ve just completed a residency in Amazonas (Peru), where I carried out a site-specific research on archaeological sites, local artefacts, traditional pottery and oral traditions. I also produced a series of modular sculptures using foraged clay and natural pigments inspired by the region and its history. I will be using these objects to continue my research on the possibilities that lay in the interaction of traditional techniques and new technologies.

I’m also preparing for an upcoming show in Vienna later this year which I’m very excited about.

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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