I had the great pleasure of meeting Colombian American Artist Yazmany Arboleda at the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit last April. Like his work, Yazmany radiates optimism, élan, and wonder in a world that increasingly seems bleak, fractured, and hostile. He has been engaged in the practice of creating what he calls “Living Sculptures” for over a decade, bringing people together to transform their experience of the world, and in doing so strengthening communities across the globe. Yazmany brings beauty, humanity, new paths of engagement, and a sense of meaning and belonging to cities ranging from Kabul to Johannesburg, Nairobi to New York.
Yazmany is the Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of the creative agency limeSHIFT. He is also Creative Director of the Brooklyn Cottage, Associate Director of Communications for Artists Striving To End Poverty, and a co-founder of the interdisciplinary performance collective Shook Ones. He lectures at UNC, MIT, and other institutions internationally about the power of art in public space. His work has been written about in the New York Times, Washington Post, UK’s Guardian, and Fast Company. In 2013, he was named one of Good Magazine’s 100 People Making Our World Better.
You are a trained architect, artist, writer (and might I add distractingly good dancer – still jealous of the spontaneous backflip on an Abu Dhabi dancefloor). You have so many extraordinary skills and talents to offer the world, how did you decide to make social practice art your primary career focus?
In 2007, I was privileged to have my first solo exhibition in New York City. The name of the exhibition was ‘The New Vitruvians’, and it was made up of large scale portraits. The people, from all different walks of life, were photographed and made to look like they were made of plastic. The photos were then printed three dimensionally onto 50,000 neon bouncy balls. For six months my family, friends, and co-workers came to my home and office (I was working as a creative lead at a communications and branding agency named Imagination at the time) to push bouncy balls into plexiglass sheets. The night of the gallery opening, I realized that many of the guests who were there to celebrate and experience the work had been robbed of all the late night conversations about skin colors, privilege and beauty that we had all had during the making of the pieces. They had missed out on the journey of getting to know strangers–people like yourself, who thought that going to help out an artist by pushing hundreds of bouncy balls into holes in downtown Manhattan would be a cool thing to do.
From that point forward, I began investigating how people engaging with art IS art. I begin thinking and experimenting with ideas about how the art that hangs on our walls and occupies our space could be more meaningfully transformative. I came to this: to have been a part of the making of the thing, to have told stories while there … THAT is important. It’s a visual manifestation that we are here, we exist and we are interested in finding beauty, together.
In the introduction to the essay “How Colour Replaces Fear” in the recently published book Art and the City: Worlding the Discussion through a Critical Artscapeyou describe how each of your projects aims “to provide the community with new tools to engage in dialogue, rekindle ownership of their environment and generate interactions that inspired love, inclusion, and belonging.” Clearly this is needed in our world now more than ever. Can you speak a bit about the importance of social practice art, what it means to you, and perhaps how that has changed over the years you have been involved in this type of social engagement?
What social practice art does, in my opinion, is that it transforms ‘art’ from an abstract noun into an inclusive verb. It turns the object-based narrative of art into a dynamic collective story that is also personal.
The academic Doris Sommer, who is the director of the Cultural Agents program at Harvard, believes that art is ‘that which has no name yet’. When I began building projects with communities, I attributed many of our choices to experimentation. We were creating, then studying responses, rapid prototyping, and creating again – beginning the whole cycle anew.
When I came up with Monday Morning, the project where local artists and activists give away 10,000 biodegradable balloons to adults on Monday Morning to honor them as they go back to work, I was interested in exploring how different cultures around the world would react to this gesture. In Bangalore the balloons were orange, in Yamaguchi they were green, and in Nairobi they were yellow. By the time we did the project in Kabul, Afghanistan, we had learned so much from our previous successes and failures that we were able to begin to formalize our process.
With time, we learned that one of the critical pieces of creating meaningful social practice art is to have as many of the stakeholders involved from the beginning as possible: governmental leadership, possible sponsors (private businesses that would benefit from the network being built and the visibility of the project when executed), NGOs, and relevant civil society organizations.
If you want people to have a feeling of belonging, then they must be present from the inception of the idea all the way through to the crafting and eventual execution of the art intervention. Working together, the team defines the scope of the work, the schedules, financial requirements, and project milestones. Being a part of the decision making process is critical to connecting with each other meaningfully.
When I began exploring the field of social practice art, I was creating experiments for myself. Organically, the work invited me to bring others into that experimentation and allow them to question, push, and pull the work, shaping it beyond my control. Learning to let go of that control and give it to all the people who bring this work to life continues to be my greatest lesson in life.
Your current project is Espejismo is a large-scale community installation of mirrors, asking people from all walks of life to lend their mirrors and their stories with the underlying assumption that by seeing how others see and by letting them see how we see, we can collectively move the world forward in a considered way. Each Espejismo project becomes a monument to, a reflection of, the community where it is created. It was first shown at Yale University and is now traveling to Carnegie Hall where it will be on exhibition there for a year. Can you tell me a bit more about this project, how you envision it traveling to other communities in the futures… perhaps to Santa Fe?
While we were at the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit, I had the privilege of meeting the inspiring president and chief executive officer of Vital Voices Global Partnership for women, Alyse Nelson. I shared with Alyse that we were looking to borrow reflections in New Haven: we wanted to hear about how people wanted to be seen by others, collect their stories, and literally ask them if we could borrow a mirror from them. We would lay all those reflections down next to one another, and we would tell each other stories. The original thought was that we would borrow each others reflections in hopes of helping the world see itself. Alyse connected me to Dr. Deqo Mohamed who was living in New Haven as part of the Yale Global Fellowship Program. When I met Dr. Mohamed for tea one afternoon she greeted me with a smile and a compact mirror. She shared that she spent a meaningful part of her life as a refugee in Russia and the United States. When I asked about what shaped her early on, she told me that when she was fifteen years old she was helping her mother deliver babies while a brutal war was engulfing her home town and much of Somalia.
“When people see you, what would you like them to know?” I asked. “I want them to include me in their definition of the word refugee. I want them to see me as a survivor of war and thriving physician. As a refugee, I pursued a medical education, came back to Mogadishu and helped build a hospital. That hospital is now a village.” Today, she leads all operations in the Hawa Abdi Village in Lower Shabelle, while ensuring the safety of the 300 families who have found permanent shelter in the community. This includes a 400 bed hospital and a school for all the children growing up there.
There are so many beautiful tales. Dr. Mohamed connected me with a safe-house for East African refugees in Connecticut. They too shared their stories and let us borrow their mirrors. Among the final tapestry of the installation were the mirrors of 14 undocumented immigrants and two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. The wide variety of humans that came together to create this first version of Espejismo was humbling. So the hope is that this idea gets picked up by people who want to see each other: better, differently.
One more Thing…
Who do you think is doing the most innovative, interesting, disruptive work right now and why?
The scale of this question led me, at first, to think globally. I considered Buddhist nun Pema Chodron and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I thought of countless miracle-working leaders across industries and continents. I thought of London-based aeronautical engineer Ryan Yasin who invented clothes that grow as children grow. Now THERE is a man who knows how to wear his artist hat. I wonder if people ever told him to ‘be realistic’?
Then, I thought locally, about the people who own acres of my own heart because they showed up to make things with me in the name of art. I finally settled on Consuella Lopez, a transgender hair stylist, community organizer and activist living in Washington, D.C. Consuella volunteered to be the hair stylist for a fashion show that I was orchestrating for my Master’s of Architecture thesis presentation at Catholic University. There would be a film, a play, a fashion show with all the clothes tailored from architectural materials, all about a building commissioned to house the Museum of Fashion and Textiles in New York City. I tell myself that less is more all the time and… after many years I have learned to make the gestures more nuanced and simple. But at the time I wanted… Pompadours like Tom Ford’s advertising campaign for Yves Saint Laurent’s Fall 2002 collection! Consuella Lopez showed up and showed us what a proud transgender woman looks like and feels like. She was professional, kind and incredibly talented – and the pompadours were fantastic.
Today, Consuella is the chief operating officer of Casa Ruby, a haven for the transgender community in D.C. She is now serving her third term as a Political Appointee for the D.C. Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs. She didn’t have any transgender role models when she was growing up, so when the opportunity came, she readily agreed to be the face of a campaign championing trans-rights. Her smile is on buses, train stations, and billboards next to the words “I am a transgender woman and I am a part of D.C.” As the master stylist for NBC Universal in D.C., she styles media personalities like Anna Wintour, Rachel Roy, Kellyann Conway and Paul Ryan, happily posing with them for Instagram. She shows up as her most generous self, regardless of that day’s TV guest, and shows them what a proud transgender woman looks like and feels like. She is a living example of what it means to live with curiosity, compassion, and courage. I suspect what drives Consuella to do the work that she does mirrors what drives many of us: she lives day to day looking for more people to love who are brave enough to love her back.