Art that raises awareness

27 July 2021

How can artists give a voice to those who need to be heard? How can we put artistic language to work for the most vulnerable among us?

We found some answers in the fascinating work of three ”la Caixa” Foundation fellows: Miguel Sbastida, Andrea Santolaya and Gema Álava, who seek to use their art to build bridges between cultures rather than walls and barriers.

Art against climate change

Quite some artists have been committed to fighting climate change for many years. Among their ranks are the American artists Lars Jan and Mel Chin, and the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, as well as Miguel Sbastida, who has dedicated himself to the cause with visually impacting work. Miguel, who completed an MA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2015-2017) with a fellowship from the ”la Caixa” Foundation, works with installations, performance art, photography, video and drawings. And he always does this in close contact with the natural world, or rather in the natural world.

Some of the pieces he has produced include Walk Like a Glacier (2016), in which he carried a piece of ice down a hill, continuing the erosive action of a glacier with his body, or "High Tide" (2018) in which he threw seawater against a cliff, during a complete tidal cycle.

Miguel Sbastida carrying a piece of ice down a hill on Walk like a glacier (2016).Miguel Sbastida - Performance ‘Walk like a glacier’.

Miguel works in reaction to very specific cultural and environmental situations. His performance interventions take place in non-urban spaces, in dialogue with processes over time and geological and climate agents. The goal: “To blur and question the anthropocentric division that we have created between the human and the non-human. 

In other words, we are not the centre of everything, and we have to change the way we think about and interact with other beings and materialities. There is a lot of research behind Miguel’s work. One example of this is how he is affected by the pollution caused by the Altos Hornos tips in the Bay of Biscay from 1920 to 1970, some of which has returned to the shore, causing a set of crystallised waste to appear on the beaches. “What I find most interesting about industrial waste is the collateral way in which natural processes have transformed and integrated its components into a set of post-natural geologies. I remember picking up coloured pebbles on the beaches, which I later realised were actually fragments of fire brick. Some of them looked like volcanic rock, but they are actually the waste from the foundries.” Rubbish that we throw away and that “comes back to haunt us,” he said.

‘Technofossils of the Anthropocene’ project photograph of a mountainous terrain.‘Technofossils of the Anthropocene’ project photograph.

What does art have to do with all this? The visceral and emotional impact that it has in a very direct way on the viewer can really play into other fields of knowledge. At the end of the day, “the art object places the spectator in the middle of the problem, triggering a process of questioning and motivating a bodily reaction” he said. 

Miguel uses his current project on colonial botany and specifically invasive plant species as an example of this. To do this, he reads up on the subject, contacts scientists, researches ecocriticism and postcolonial theory related issues, etc. Therein lies the essence of his work: “I’m not just trying to create objects or experiences that can feed into and change our way of understanding and interacting with the natural world, but also ones that have the scope to directly impact the issues to which they refer.” Whether it’s a desert, on a glacier, among huge rock formations or near the coast, there’s a leitmotif that runs through Miguel’s work, which he has put on display and won awards for in the USA and Europe: to seek out parallels between the way the body and the ecosystem work.
To get to this point, “the fellowship from the ”la Caixa” Foundation was absolutely crucial in my professional development”, said Miguel. “I wouldn’t be working at this level if it wasn’t for my time studying in the USA and the personal and professional guidance of the people who were with me in the process.”

Photographing insularity

Awarded a ”la Caixa” fellowship in 2007 to do a Master in Fine Arts, Photography, Video and Related Media at the School of Visual Arts, New York, Andrea Santolaya has photographed the intimate life (and often loneliness) of the members of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the Warao people in the Orinoco Delta, Venezuela and the boxers of the gyms of New York, USA.

“Pico do Refúgio”. Self-portrait by Andrea Santolaya. Photo selected as the banner for the Volvemos exhibition in collaboration with Photoespaña and Hofmann, (Spain).“Pico do Refúgio”. Self-portrait by Andrea Santolaya. Photo selected as the banner for the Volvemos exhibition in collaboration with Photoespaña and Hofmann, (Spain).

We asked her if she was specifically drawn to people who lived a little on the margins, in difficult conditions. However, she said that “it’s not so much the idea of living on the margins, so much as living with an origin, belonging to an enclosed space and living with it... Everything really comes about as a response to an urge to ‘form part of’ and approach places where the shared roots come from belonging to a centuries-old land (the Russian Old Believers), forming part of a dance troop in the birthplace of ballet (the Mikhailovsky Theatre), taking on an opponent in the ring (the Golden Gloves), or being part of a team (the Biarritz Olympique), or perhaps to inhabit more complex places, such as an island prison by the sea (the Boa Nova).”

For Andrea, the camera is a visual tool that allows her to give an aura of timelessness to the bond between people and places, families and communities, she told us. In terms of the role of photography (and art in general) in showing a more vulnerable group of people or to give voice to those who often go unheard, she wanted to draw attention to the power that images have to generate change. However, she also said: “To tell a story in images, you need to gain access and know when to hit the button at the right moment. The first part takes time and a certain amount of dexterity in understanding intimacy, while the second part can be learnt.”

But, apart from “showing the viewer underlying realities for the first time,” Andrea also seeks to tackle universal themes from a local perspective. Moreover, the fact that she has gotten close to communities with low literacy rates, a lack of resources and little access to culture has opened up new horizons for her. “I’m starting up new projects connected to the education sector through photography workshops. This based around the following pillars: photography as a tool for creative development, social inclusion in small communities and the arts understood as a space for emotional education.”

She has seen first-hand how photography has a positive impact on getting across values and emotions. One example of this are the island communities, and she’s proud to have been selected as a new artist-in-residence by the Plano Nacional das Artes at their headquarters in Lisbon to keep working on the project on the De Fenais a Fenais on the São Miguel Island to give a photography workshop that begins with secondary-school students from Escola Básica Integrada de Rabo de Peixe.

Regarding her photographic work on the native people of the Orinoco Delta (Waniku. Donde retumba el agua), she says she based her piece in an interpretation of the founding myth of the Warao people. “Instead of focussing her work on the representation of change, progress and the ongoing acculturation, I wanted to give space to their roots and everything that hovers around the Orinoco worldview. A series of portraits of women in the water reinterpret the myth of The Buen Brazo archer about how they reach this far-flung place. I’m interested in speaking about origins and playing with the timelessness of the images.”

“El arquero Buen brazo”. Photo from the exhibition "Waniku. Donde retumba el agua" of an arrow in a lake.“El arquero Buen brazo”. Photo from the exhibition Waniku. Donde retumba el agua.

With a PhD thesis at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Madrid written about the idea of photography as a tool for change, Andrea can now say, at this point in her career, “that over the years I have achieved a very particular photography language which I have used to depict the lives of small communities where timelessness is the most visible bond.” 

In conclusion, she added: “Photography has become a tool for me to plunge into worlds which I would never have been able to access otherwise. I have seen how images can transcend and impact a community. Not just as an image, but also as a way of bringing about ideas, critique, preparation for communication and creativity, as also for breaking down barriers to create a positive effect and growth, especially in people who lack resources.

The power of the most vulnerable

Gema Álava was awarded a fellowship from the ”la Caixa” Foundation in 1996 to study at the San Francisco Art Institute of California. A cultural advisor for the World Council of Peoples for the United Nations, an interdisciplinary artist, speaker and writer, Gema defines her artistic output as such: “There is always the common idea that, through objects, people, places or events that are often labelled as vulnerable, we can communicate an extraordinary strength.”

Gema Álava, in her studio, making a piece of her work.Gema Álava, in her studio.

One example of this would be her work on the power of coping and dexterity in adapting to challenges inspired by people with disabilities. They can “teach us something —she says— in this pandemic which is forcing us to adapt and limit our movement.”

Moreover, she has pieces inspired by people who live in extreme poverty, with whom she worked at the United Nations. Her goal: “To advocate improving conditions that one is born into, which shouldn't be a source of shame, but inspiration for change, especially through the law.” 

Another example is that of the women living in shelters, from whom Gema learnt “the importance of finding your own value, your own potential and your own self-esteem to build healthy relationships instead of toxic ones, and to do better as human beings throughout our lives.” This has all led her to the conclusion that: “A social or cultural barrier is sometimes defined as life itself; barriers that have existed since prehistoric times. No one can tear down human nature, but we can get educated and balance things out to focus on our scope for overcoming things and human empathy.”

To take a closer look at Gema’s work, you need to look at her project Hexagons. In 2017, the artist started to work placing 24-carat gold hexagons to draw attention to people and places with huge amounts of talent and inspiration. “Each hexagon tells a story of growth, hope or resistance.” These pieces are placed on the floor, and people can tread on them. “When they get so trodden down that they disappear, I don't complain: because it’s an example of human resistance when faced with difficult situations,” she said.

One of the hexagons form the interdisciplinary art project founded by Gema Álava. A photograph of a gold sheet resting on the ground.One of the hexagons form the interdisciplinary art project founded by Gema Álava.

She has worked for the MoMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and runs private tours in museums. She also made mention of her TRUST ME project, in which she takes people on tours with their eyes closed and gives them the verbal descriptions normally given to blind people or people with visual impairments. Gema, who talks about these performances in her new book "How to lose the fear inside a museum", says goodbye with this final comment: “Let’s work together, because the time for being self-centred is over.”

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