Mixtapes and Ladders: the research tools of the 21st century

When I began to prepare myself to conduct an independent research project on the role of art in the South American feminist movement, I imagined that my language background in Spanish would be the most valuable tool I packed.  I thought maybe my developing skills in visual analysis as an Art History student would be a “runner up” in my travel tool box.  My packing list even included my mini polaroid printer so that, in the actual moment with an interviewee, I could print a polaroid of the artist, a work of art (if purchased), and me as a physical manifestation of our new connection.  I imagined each of these artists keeping this polaroid in their studios, inspired by the fact that a number of artists across the continent shared a similar image, just like they shared a similar goal: to use their artistry to propel the women’s rights movement.

I did not imagine that tipping two performers on the Santiago metro would earn me a “free” mixtape, and that the mixtape I handed off to the young woman beside me would in turn lead to a conversation about my project nor an impromptu interview with her once we exited the metro car.

The rappers from the red line that afternoon were truly talented, so I didn’t mind dropping a collection of coins in his fedora (yes, fedora).  I was ecstatic to in turn receive a complementary mixtape.  Unfortunately, I did not have a means to enjoy his mini CD—regrettably, “Walkman” was not on my packing list.   So after laughing at how much we enjoyed the live music, I gifted the CD to the young woman in the seat across from me.

Bacán!” she delighted.

“Bacán” is an expression similar to “awesome” and well-integrated into the Chilean vocabulary.  I responded with another Chilean expression that every exchange student keeps in his or her back pocket.  My metro friend visually and verbally expressed her surprise by my Chilean Spanish, which led to a discussion of my stay in the country, my travel plans for December, January, and February, and eventually my research project.  We were both getting off the metro at a station in Santiago with a train-length mosaic that promotes a positive childhood, beginning on the left with an image of a Chilean woman breast-feeding her baby–a surprising image for an American from a country where breastfeeding in public only became legal in all 50 states a few months ago (actually, the same day I arrived in Chile).

When we parted ways, I transferred from the red line to the green.  I was in Santiago for the weekend to interview an artist, Mikele Orroño, whose works primarily concern the manipulation of old and new female images to create a jarring effect; when I first encountered her art at a fair back in August, I was originally attracted to her collages of painted figures from the Renaissance and photographic images from pornographic magazines.  Shortly, however, I arrived at her home.  I was greeted by a six-year old boy. Mikele too is a single mom.  Since that Friday evening was particularly blustery and cold, she made us tea.  Towards the end of our conversation, Mikele revealed that she had planned a small “get together” with some of her friends and hoped I’d stay. I did, grateful for this developing friendship and hopeful I would network with other artists for my research.  Before she went upstairs to change, I purchased one of my favorite pieces that features the lower half and partial mane of the goddess Venus, from Boticelli’s Birth of Venus. Then I helped Mikele prepare a jar of navegado, a delectable Chilean beverage of hot red wine and spices that washes down well with cake.

Her son showed me his latest drawing as I stirred the currant-colored liquid.  I thought about the donation I made to the rapper on the red line that led to a bonus conversation with the woman from the metro as I wafted the cozy scent of Malbec and cinnamon.  This is, of course, my first time conducting an independent research project, so I don’t have the luxury of comparison to past experiences. However, the tools I never thought I’d need, the skills I never thought I’d be glad I “packed” when I left for Chile 3 months ago, seem so nuanced.  From mixtape culture to Chilean slang, to Renaissance art knowledge and interacting with children, this research is asking far more of me than I anticipated—but in the best of ways and with a glass of navegado on the side.

Because I was trying to play both independent researcher and study-abroad student simultaneously, I lost momentum with blogging and journaling.  The work I had to do to coordinate interviews and consistently seek out events + news related to my research on top of homework and thinking & speaking bilingually 24/7 exhausted me.  I’m back to tell you 1. the story above is from the very end of September and 2. Mikele and I actually stayed in touch throughout the semester.  The collage I purchased from her she exhibited in her first-ever gallery exhibition, so she invited me to attend on opening night.  I made the trip to Santiago yet again, and I’m so glad I did.  Mikele introduced me to her boyfriend, parents, and friends with a cigarette balanced between her delicate fingers holding her glass of wine.  In between introductions, she admitted how nervous she was but also asked me if she should give a speech–of course I said yes! In a pause in her speech, her boyfriend walked out with a birthday cake; the guests began to sing to Mikele as tears formed in her eyes.  She thanked my profusely for supporting her that night, but I can’t express my gratitude enough for sharing more than her art with me–she shared her life, her family, and one of her most intimate and cherished moments.  If nothing else good comes from this experience, I will always have that night.

After the exhibition came down, Mikele offered to deliver the collage to Valparaíso.  We met up for lunch and caught up one last time.  She signed the back of the frame, we finished our pizzas, and she left.  Mikele, thank you!

To take advantage of being in Santiago for Mikele’s exhibition, I arranged to meet with other artists–and boy was that weekend productive! The next morning I had plans to meet with up muralist Estefania Leighton.  To make a long story short, I ended up where I needed to be about an hour later and only thanks to a very kind Uber driver.  He let me out along the curb by a bridge that crossed Rio Mapocho that runs through the heart of Santiago.  I crossed the street that runs over the bridge and peered over into the river to find 2 older gentleman talking with a younger gentleman who was painting something on the wall of the river.  There was a ladder 6 ft to my right.  One of the men called up to me (the river sits about 15 feet below the streets) and asked if I wanted to come down.  Because I had checked out of my Airbnb, I had my overnight bag with me, plus hot coffee in hand, and a camera strapped around my neck.  Knowing the artist I was meeting was painting somewhere along the same wall upon which the ladder rested, I accepted the man’s offer to climb up and take my coffee and purse so I could safely descend.  It turns out, one of the older gentleman was Alejandro “Mono” Gonzalez.  I couldn’t believe my luck! He happened to be the one who organized the festival in which Estefania was invited to paint.  He walked me down to her mural and later let me interview him briefly.

I had a great conversation with Estefania, talked with a Venezuelan artist, then climbed back up the ladder to go meet another artist for lunch.  Danae Ale was someone I met at the ARTE STGO event back at the end of August.  Her illustrations are simple and sophisticated, the kind of poster a 23 year old post-grad female might frame in her New York apartment.  Her sister attends the same university as I did in Valparaíso and studies art at the same building where I took a class, so Danae mailed the prints to her for me to easily acquire–no climbing down ladders or attending gallery exhibitions for these pieces!

Lastly from that research-heavy weekend in Santiago, I met with Andrea Aguilar in her apartment.  Her technique involves layers of colorful leather and using an exacto-knife to slice or cut the fabric in order to create a very unique, “trippy”, and 3D image or text on an often large scale (3′ x 5′).  Her friend knocked on the door when I was there, but she is working towards her doctorate in feminist literature, so her contributions to the conversation were obviously enlightening.  Andrea asked me not to film, so I will have to find a way to incorporate her knowledge into my documentary because her insight was so beneficial to my research.  As we talked, we shared a chocolate-filled croissant-type pastry and very yummy coffee as she pressed a pineapple and spinach for fresh juice.  Her friend lit a cigarette out the window.  The warm sun filled her apartment.  We had ourselves a fine afternoon.

To wrap up this overdue blog post, I’m excited to tell you (whoever you are) that I’ve safely and happily reached Montevideo, Uruguay.  I spent a fun week in Buenos Aires, Argentina with my mom and brother (John Estes ’15) before taking the ferry to Colonia and then a bus to Montevideo.  I arrived last evening a little homesick after saying goodbye to my family, but I got settled in my hostal before heading out to walk in my neighborhood.  I quickly took care of errands like getting a sim card, cash, and padlocks for my lockers.  Shortly after, I stumbled upon (not hard to do given its size) the Christmas market in Parque Rodo.  I must’ve walked the length of all the stands 4 or 5 times before I found a woman selling handmade leather purses which caught my eye.  I wasn’t even in-country for more than 4 hours before I introduced my project and asked if I could interview her (for comparison, it took me 2-3 weeks in Chile to get the ball rolling)! Proud and motivated, I bought a kebab and walked down to the beach to watch the sun set on my first day as a solo traveler in a new city with an old project.  Having my research project was a fortunate way to integrate & immerse myself in Chilean society, and I was glad to always have a family to go back to after weekends in Santiago.  Plus, the past 4.5 months certainly developed my Spanish and question-asking skills.  However, I’m excited to discover which nuanced skills and unusual tasks this project and new location will bring, be it more ladders and mixtapes or mastering the art of hostal-living and market shopping.

 

Chao,

Lydia

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