Thursday, March 12, 2020

Ancient Art and Modern Kids in Alotenango

The early afternoon light makes colours pop out even more. Overwhelming fuchia-pink and purple bougainvillea grows over bright white walls, set against a deep blue sky. Dramatic clouds of cotton white and menacing grey, with little shades of grey (much less 50) in between, flock around the top of the volcano.
Blurry colours flash by the windows as the bus speeds over the highway, weaving in and out of traffic, faster than the Knight Bus in Harry Potter. Music blares over the speakers, but not loud enough for the driver to stop talking on his phone. Who needs hands on the steering wheel when the bus and its load is protected by a teary-eyed Jesus over the rear view mirror, flanked by two Playboy bunny silhouettes?
No room for more thoughts as the ayudante wriggles his way through the isle, squeezing through tight packed bodies while charging $0,50 for the ride. Just ten more minutes of elbows, buttocks and thighs. I'm on my way to work.

A little over a year ago I promised the kids of the Escuela Comunitaria de Arte (a municipal art course) in Alotenango to come back and here I am, for a series of workshops and the creation of a mural. And as usual in Guatemala, the project is yet again one big lesson in patience and flexibility.
My initial plan was to paint a mural in the classroom where the course is being taught. The teacher and kids were all for it, we got the new mayor's permission too, but after the Christmas holidays, the space looked like this:

Now, two months later, the space looks like this:

And since the mayor has only recently been installed, things are moving sloooowly...
Nonetheless, teacher Rolando and his students have been assigned another space, on the top floor of a lawyer's office, which is located above a convenience store and something they call here a “bookshop”. It sounds big, but it isn't, much less for 20 students. But it does have a perfect view over the soon to be painted wall, a stair-step-shaped partition of the sport complex across the street. When we asked the mayor permission to paint this wall, I was planning on the side within the sport complex, but this side, facing a busy road, is much more visible. And since we didn't specify which side we wanted to paint in the first place, we decided to go for the more public side. But I'm getting ahead of things...
The soon to be painted wall, the sport complex and in the background the Agua Volcano

I started preparing this project back in December and the worksheets I was working on soon turned into a 45-page manual. It begins with a section on murals throughout the history of art and goes on to explain in detailed matter how to create a community mural, including on how to collaboratively decide on a theme and design. Adding a section on art history might seem a bit unnecessary, but most of the kids I wrote the manual for have very little access to any cultural context, and I know from experience they are actually very much into it. Especially this group of 20 students. The youngest is 8, the oldest in her 60s, but most of the students are between 12 and 16 years old. So far I spent a whole week teaching art history and it was great fun! From the earliest cave paintings we went on to study the Maya murals of Bonampak, San Bartolo and Calakmul. The Romans taught us about fresco technique and in the section about medieval art we discovered how the image of Jesus Christ has changed over the centuries, with lots of intercultural Copy/Paste. The kids had no idea that the first depictions of Jesus were actually of a chubby boy with curly hair and a wand. Or that Nike's logo represents a wing of the Greek goddess of victory.
Furthermore we dove into the Renaissance, the Mexican revolution, all the way to today's graffiti and street art.

The teacher has asked me to consider including some samples of different art movements in the mural, even before he knew I was going to teach some art history workshops. So that was a given. To take the idea even further, I figured it would be nice if the students would paint several famous artworks on the wall, as if they were hanging there, framed and all. It would not only be a great exercise in painting a mural and a fun exploration through the history of art, but a permanent art exhibition in the classroom!
If only the space hadn't been stocked up to the ceiling with toilets....

Plan B. We still painted famous artworks, but on cardboard. Unfortunately on a much smaller scale (because of lack of space), but otherwise with pretty much the same techniques. It wasn't easy, especially how to figure out what scale to use for the grid, but all in all the students did well and learned a lot. We have a few more things to go over before we start the real work on Monday....

This project in process is being sponsored by Dr, Jim Bader. The manual is sponsored by the Dutch foundation Colour4Kids.

To be continued!