From the studio to the Street. About Eva Santos’ community work

Let’s imagine an artist working. It won’t be difficult to visualize her studio: a bright space, full of objects around which the artist moves, sometimes resolutely, sometimes hesitantly, in other moments absorbed in her own work. Apparently it is in this space where everything important happens, it is the place where the artist explores materials, brings into play her knowledge, her skills, where she deals with formal, technical problems and issues of meaning, she ventures in the unknown.

This artist is supposed to have a series of qualities: skill in the use of a specific material, sensibility, technical control, visual culture. She is supposed to have a language, a capacity to give visual form to an experience, ideas to communicate, symbols or metaphors with which to play. Even a style, a way of doing that will be recognized by the spectators observing her work.

This has been, with subtle differences, the dominant representation of the modern artist and her ways of doing. Nevertheless, Eva Santos doesn't entirely fit in this representation. Eva incorporates, besides all the previous qualities, a need to share her ideas, to take them outside her studio in order to promote initiatives of change based on art. The artist, in this case, believes in the potential for social transformation that creativity has. For that reason, we need to suppose in her another series of qualities such as empathy, generosity, the capacity for listening and having conversations and also, if necessary, skills to negotiate and resolve conflicts. She must be able to set herself aside and let others become the main characters in the creative work.

Eva’s personal work, her creations in fabric exhibited in the museum walls can’t be understood without grasping this other community, social dimension of her work, which takes her to embark on projects working with people to try to improve, if only a little, their lives through art. Quite often Eva offers, to groups and collectives of varied characteristics, a means to symbolically represent issues such as identity, personal experiences, self-esteem or shared realities.

Some of these projects have had the public space as setting. Specifically, in the intervention called From social housing to the neighborhood of light, Eva acted on a residual space in an Archena neighborhood with problems of social integration. Through the transformation of the space thanks to the collective creation of a public art work, it was generated a participative dynamics that simultaneously created a sense of belonging to the neighborhood and strengthened the connections among the neighbors. 

The school space (so needed of creative and transforming practices) has been explored in several occasions with projects such as From the garden to school or Violets in the backpack. In the former work, a space was transformed, in this case the school yard. In the latter, a more intimate action was performed, inside the classrooms, in the space of experiences and individual feelings. In both cases, the very clothes of boys and girls were used as material to capture identity references and to design powerful metaphors about what relationships with others are.

In the project Interweaved, the artist draws on the power of words and shared memories in order to create community. A group of women from different age groups and experiences were invited to sew and talk together and, while they were sewing and talking, a web, a net that interweaved ideas, memories and dreams and that finally spread over their heads, like a protective and warm ceiling, was generated.  

Collectives such as immigrant women or people with Down syndrome have also been the object of her attention. She herself has said it, her projects are her contribution to “the task our generation must assume: to erase borders between those included and those excluded from society.” In order to do so, Eva must train in building bridges, bridges that can be crossed to overcome real or symbolic obstacles in people’s lives. Always taking into account those groups who live, for one reason or another, in the margins of the system.   

In all these cases, Eva seems knowledgeable about the power of fabric and the act of weaving to create a space, a rhythm to, as Marián López Cao points out, inaugurate “the space of filiation, attachment, contact”. In the words of this same author, to weave is to create support, to create a new space on or under which to rest. It’s not difficult to establish the relationship with Eva’s sculptures: the knot or backstitch, the minimum constructive units of meaning in her work are elements of connection and construction, they unite fabrics, but also emotions, experiences, identities, fragments.

Nevertheless, if in her studio the artist has the conditions in which the work emerges and develops under control, outside that space hardly anything is. It’s not easy to work with people or to do it in a context foreign to the familiarity of the studio. When facing this type of challenges, the artist must quickly learn that she doesn’t work alone. She must be able to act in coordination with other agents such as social workers, neighborhood associations, collectives of teachers, etc. She has to negotiate times, deadlines, resources. She must stimulate dialogue and team work, imagine new forms of relationship among people, be patient when things don't go as they should and know to redirect efforts that have been unsuccessful. She must take into account details, deal with the peculiarities of each place. These are the skills of the artist who leaves her studio behind in order to go into the world. Who understands art in close relation with life. 

Her interventions, as it cannot be otherwise, are local, very specific. Using again the metaphor of fabric, they aim to stitch small deficiencies or needs and to act upon the social fabric. But despite their smale scale, they still have an effect. On the contrary, it is easier to track what has remained after the intervention. It is easier to go back on your steps and check the footprints in the walked path.

In all these projects there are stable elements. People change, places change, but the will to establish connections, to favor communication in the group, to search links that will allow the construction of an shared identity, to reclaim the importance of experiences narrated by less heard voices remains. I believe what is essential in all of them is the communicative aspect. I think that what Eva does is to create situations conducive to talk, share, recognize ourselves in the other, form community.  This is the essence of what has been known as community artist, he (or she) who is able to put art means to the service of a group of human beings and who can position herself in the exact point between being and not being, in the point that allows the flowing of that communication without the need to dictate words that give meaning, just pointing out the elements that create the syntax which make it possible.

 

If we understand art as the creation of metaphors generating meaning, to explore the possibilities of those metaphors in order to help people think and act on what is really important in their lives, is an urgent enough task as to dedicate our time, our effort and our hope to it. Eva does it because she has the courage and will for it, she feels called by situations of inequality and she has bet on getting out of her studio and inviting those who need it to sew with her. Her generosity helps, without a doubt, to build a better world.

Alfredo Palacios Garrido

(Trad. María Dolores Alcaide Ramírez)

 

 

Santos, E. (2006). Universidad, Arte y Cooperación. Comunicación en el III Congreso Universidad y Cooperación al desarrollo. Madrid, 26-28 de abril de 2006, p.378

Cao, M. (2015). Para qué el arte. Reflexiones en torno al arte y su educación, p. 192

Sew-unstitch, weave-“un-weave”

 

The Moirai weave the intricate paths of life and they do it as a group, for the benefit that it gives; in the braiding of the thread itself experiences which support and give shape to existence come together. If something characterizes the work by Eva Santos is her constant reflection between the self and the other, the other inside the self. The fabrics she uses form a net that gives meaning to these experiences, as is clear in this exhibition which gathers the works created throughout a period of fifteen years in which she sews and unstitch, weaves and “un-weaves”, working alone or with the participation of other people, under her thoughtful gaze.

Iron is the matter that gives shape to her first works as a sculptor. They were pieces, according to some, not really appropriate for her, but Eva likes challenges, with “I can too” being one of her life mottos. Forged by the heat of the feminist movements and with a strong social commitment, the artist will find in the act of weaving and sewing the seed that will nourish her artistic praxis. She will interweave from her womb, like the women from Chinchero in their waist looms, giving conscious body to the experiences that have shaped her as a woman and as an artist. Moreover, she doesn't hesitate in using the expressive resources of photography, installation or performance, broadening thus the multidisciplinary character of her work. 

She starts this phase by weaving on top of what has already been made, and in it she will reflect on the significance of the environment in people’s development and the importance of playful activities in childhood. The concept of a game not played takes shape in “Ring of blanket,” an esparto carpet in which a text has been weaved and children’s clothes simulating playing have been sewn, while the little ones are in fact working in the factories. In them, they make, for a paltry salary, the clothes that will dress people in other countries with better living conditions. The work welcomes an introspective space and simultaneously invites to reflect on children’s exploitation and the inequalities that feed an unfairly globalized world.

As a striped flag, a large fabric serves as base on which Eva sews fragments of fabrics which represent twenty-one vaginas in the act of water breaking. The moment of giving birth is presented, changing the canvas’ bidimensionality and uniformity. With the incorporation of these add-ons, the artist strains limits, and what is private becomes public and politically uncomfortable. We can establish a clear conceptual connection with the sculpture “Hon” by Niki de Saint Phalle, since both emphasize femininity and maternity. In this work, the risks assumed by women during pregnancy and labor are highlighted, depending on the country where they live, hence the title “Sri Lanka”.

Eva Santos uses performance to belong as a woman in a temporal and unstable body, where the idea of identity subjected to patriarchy and cultural development is revealed. “Green is not only a color” is the title of an action created in Murcia (2007), in which she builds a new outfit dyed in bright green, color of natural rebirth, over her black dress. She pins green pieces of fabric with cut out and embroidered words: harmony, equality, opportunity, growth, etc.; with them, she gradually creates her desired outfit, being aware of the statistics which reveal how far we are from achieving these ideals at a global level.

Again green in “Cholita”, an action created in Kassel (2007). Eva makes extensions with a greenish fabric that she braids with her hair. With this braid the artist shapes a time of resistance, fight and identity expression. According to Nelly Mendivelso, hair braids used to be maps for black captives who risked their lives trying to achieve a more dignified one. In the performance, standing erect on the grass with her white dress she braids her hair, like the Bolivian “cholita” shows us her indigenous and female condition with pride. 

The action “Zancad-illa” was created in Cartagena in 2012. Eva Santos goes up and down the steps of two stairs facing each other, while she gradually introduces alternatively one of her legs in one of the legs in a leotard and in the other one she stuffs clothes which are given to the artist by the audience. Once filled, it acquires the connotation of a phallus preventing the development of women in the patriarchal system. The consecutive tights gradually thicken her legs and the penises grow like a heavy bunch, which trips her hindering her ascent.

The school uniform, the shirts that shrank as their owner was growing up, the pants from her first pregnancy, the jacket that accompanied her in her maturity, among other outfits, were forgotten. The artists remembers them and provides them with a new identity, she uses her own clothes for the creation of each one of the following pieces: “Why did my uniform have a tie?”, “Till the neck”, “Spring”, “Knots”, “Knot I”; making  thus self-portraits of her codified body, in which she treats as object a reconstructed time and weaves thoughts and feelings that live in her memory. Making present what is absent, specific moments from her childhood, from her pregnancy, the raising of her children, her evolution; they are narrated in the garments with the incorporation of embroidered drawings and texts or other elements such as bells or small hands, giving corporeal nature to her pieces with these extensions. Through physical traces in the materials and fabrics she makes present the emotional and affective mark.

The hotel rooms’ bland smell, the functional order, the asepsis of the elements that live in them and their temporary nature, are the concepts the artist changes in the photography works titled “Nesting”, created in 2010. These places are contaminated by the subtle aroma of her clothes, which hung, scattered or knotted, distort the space’s neutrality. Eva Santos builds nests of concentrated symbolism which function as shelters and where she feels rooted. Modifying the room’s environment, she transforms the no-place, as Marc Augé called the anonymous spaces, in an inhabited space, provided with identity.

The dresses belonging to her grandmother are sewn and intervened with crochet by the artist, with the collaboration of her sister Mari Cruz. United, both sisters sew and weave the garments together, in an act of grief in which they cancel their usefulness and create the installation “From grandmother” (2012). The new fabric, when placed on the ground, becomes an intricate path and the spectator, as an active participant, experiences the visual route that leads to the origins. 

Before the creation of this path, the artist and her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter remember the affective connection that unites them with those garments. Thirty-two photographs bear witness to an action that expands its limits of documentation in the gestures and complicity of the mother-daughter’s looks. They help each other to put on the dresses belonging to the grandmother, this act turns the symbolic ritual of getting dressed and undressed into an umbilical cord that joins them in an invisible way to the absent body, condensing moments lived with her in an eternal now. The photographic images adopt an emotional dimension, going beyond the medium that contains them. The maternal lineage constitutes the conceptual core of this series, the stories narrated here articulate an emotional discourse, weaved with the experiences lived in their bodies of women belonging to their lineage.

To narrate the misfortune of being woman and refugee is the installation’s challenge. Screwed to the wall, we see eight hangers in descending order holding skirts and a teenage girl’s pants. In the clothing, Eva Santos has embroidered with red thread the maps of the countries women cross in their flight from armed conflicts. The ONU recognized in 2000 that armed confrontations affect women differently, in migratory routes women are exposed to extreme levels of sexual aggression, even suffering gender violence in refugee camps. In this exodus, mortality rate for mothers rockets, since needed services of hygiene and health are non existent, therefore the artist reflects on the drama that is to menstruate in the hard trip between wars and with the abuses they suffer. Their menstrual fluids, present in the red seams, mark the outline of the countries they cross in their exile. But it is necessary to show the feeling that there is an order in the devastating chaos that goes with them, therefore the artist orders the garments in the hangers.

The exhibited works show us a look immersed in the bits and pieces of the artist’s memory and emotions, in which to explore her experiences in other women’s and theirs in herself. In a real and kaleidoscopic world, Eva Santos challenges us to reflect on birth, childhood, youth, maturity, evolution and death through her own body confronted with the feminine other’s corporality. She invites us to go beyond our own limits and to experiment in the other’s shoes, through the rich and emotional visual and conceptual universe that her work articulates. 

Concha M. Montalvo

(Trad. María Dolores Alcaide Ramírez)