The Human Rights Q&A: Political artist Carla Novi
“I wanted to tell the story of the protesters in Mexico City, whose lives have been transformed in the past year since the 43 students disappeared”
Artist Carla Novi, 33, grew up in Mexico City. In 2009, she moved to Glasgow to study for a Master of Fine Art at the city´s Art School. Her latest work, Desaparecidos (Disappeared), is a film about students who are campaigning for truth and justice for the 43 trainee teachers who disappeared just over a year ago in Guerrero, Mexico, while themselves being at risk of being disappeared. Funded by Creative Scotland, it premiered at Document Human Rights Film Festival on Saturday 17th October (www.2015.documentfilmfestival.org) at the CCA in Glasgow.
Carla’s work explores “human relations and their social context”, particularly in disempowered communities, and may take the form of film, sound installation, paintings, poetry or performance, motivated by the possibilities of participation and social change. She has previously produced work on the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh, “Rana Plaza” (2014), and gangs and youth issues in Glasgow and Mexico, which includes “Transplanting voices” (2012).
- When and how did you decide to respond to what was happening in Mexico?
When I first heard about the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa I was very upset. But what scared me the most was that I wasn’t surprised at all. I was terrified to think that Mexico has reached such a level of insecurity and violence that, when a tragedy like this happens, it doesn’t come as a shock anymore. Sadly, it has become the norm. What really touched me and motivated me to make the film was when I started seeing the movement of the people. Everyone was getting organised to go out to the streets and protest, regardless of their class and social status, because they had had enough.
More than 22,000 people have disappeared in Mexico in the past eight years. The numbers are horrifying. I was seeing all of this from a distance and I was very frustrated about this, so when I went to Mexico for a family visit in Christmas, I decided to get involved, and the best way I could think of was to make a film to document what was happening. I wasn’t sure what kind of film I was making at the beginning. I was just interested in the stories of people who were protesting. I was interested in how they decided to take a risk and go out to the streets to march, knowing that by doing so, they were putting themselves at risk of disappearing. So I began collecting their testimonies, and that was my starting point.
- What was your experience of making Desaparecidos?
It was intense. There was a level of risk involved at all times, but I only experienced a tiny fraction of what the protesters go through on a daily basis. It’s easy for me, because I only spent a few weeks there, and I was able to get on a plane when I was done filming and return to the safety of my home. But for the protesters, that’s not an option. They continue fighting day after day, looking after each other and doing what they can to improve the situation in Mexico. I really admire them for what they do. That’s why I thought it was important to tell their story. There has been a lot of coverage on the missing students and their parents, but not a lot of coverage on the people who are fighting in the streets everyday. These are people who have no direct connection to the students who disappeared, but who want to be part of the bigger picture, of a greater change, to try to rescue Mexico in a way.
I questioned my role several times as to how to represent the disappeared and the campaigners. While I was doing my research someone was criticising my work saying that the narrative was at risk of becoming too “urban” – this person was questioning why I was choosing not to go to Guerrero to speak to the families of the disappeared. In the process of making the film, the story also became very personal. I wanted to tell the story of a place I know well, which is Mexico City. I wanted to tell the story of the protesters that live there, whose lives have been transformed in the past year since the 43 disappeared. I also wanted to tell my story: how I have seen my country deteriorate gradually from a distance over the years; dealing with the frustration of being away and not being able to do much about it; and dealing with the transition of becoming a foreigner in my own country.
- What do you think art brings to our understanding and response to social, economic and political injustice?
I like to think of art as a tool that can help prompt social change. In order for this to happen, there have to be a lot of us involved in the process (artists, activists, audience, academics…etc). For instance, for the project I did about Rana Plaza, I brought a woman who survived the collapse of the factory in Bangladesh to the UK. We did a performance with her last year during Document and, by presenting these issues using the medium of art, it touched the audience in a much deeper way than if they were only watching or reading the news. All of a sudden, they were presented with a real person in front of them who was telling them all the details of what happened when the factory collapsed. Some people felt responsible for the tragedy knowing that they were wearing clothes that were possibly made in a garment factory similar to Rana Plaza. The level of awareness and empathy that art can sometimes generate is huge. But that is only the beginning. From there, it’s also important to have activists, institutions, and different organizations involved so that they can help take things into action, after awareness has been generated. And the whole time it’s crucial to have an audience that is receptive and open to make small changes in order to make a difference.
- In the UK, artists engaging in politics tend to be met with scepticism – is it different in Mexico, or Latin America generally?
Yes, I think it’s a bit different in Mexico and Latin America in general. I’m not sure why it is, but political art definitely seems to be more accepted there. Perhaps it has to do with the different structures in different countries. In a place like Mexico City, for instance, there’s chaos everywhere. No one can escape the reality of the place – you’re faced with social injustices all the time. Even people that live in rich and relatively safe neighbourhoods encounter poverty, violence and dangers around the corner from where they live, because it’s all mixed up in the city. In a place like the UK, everything seems a bit more controlled. Yes, there is poverty and many social problems, but somehow it’s easier to ignore these other realities, it’s easier to stay in a bubble and pretend that nothing happens around us. Even as artists, it’s easier to hide in our studios and not feel the social responsibility of using art in a more engaging way with our surroundings.
- What’s next?
I have a lot of hope in the next generation and I think that they will be instrumental in initiating a bigger change in the country. I’m still in touch with a group of political science students from UNAM (National University in Mexico City). They are in their first year and have a lot of enthusiasm and great ideas to change the country. We’re trying to put together a blog at the moment, to address different issues they are currently experiencing. The plan is to initiate a dialogue between art and politics to discuss and address these issues. Politicians have the knowledge, but sometimes the language they use is not the most accessible to the general public; artists have the sensitivity, but lack the inside knowledge that politicians have. So by working together I think interesting things can happen. I’m excited about it. I’m excited about having the opportunity to work with them. They give me hope for the future of my country.