New Yorkers are no strangers to public art projects. Remember the cows? Or, just recently, those pianos? How about any weird thing going on in Union Square or Grand Central Terminal…ever? As varied and as numerous as these projects are, few of them have a real point. That’s where the chicos of descolonizARTE come in. According to their blog, this brand new arts organization is an “ongoing series of projects that seek to connect social justice with public art in a way that is accessible and fun. descolonizARTE roughly translates to ‘decolonize yourself.’”
I spoke to the group’s Steven Deheeger, Fabiola Casas, and Chris Alfaro about their possibly controversial first project: cabezudos. Don’t know what a cabezudo is? Tsk tsk.
Tell me more about your work with the South Bronx CSA
The South Bronx CSA is an incredible organization in the South Bronx whose mission is to create affordable access to fresh produce for everyone in the South Bronx while working towards a food system that is democratic and respects the dignity of food chain workers, from our farms to our restaurants. Check it out. Ultimately, descolonizARTE and South Bronx CSA have similar missions: decolonize and empower our communities. Other than that, they’re pretty unrelated.
Tell us about cabezudos.
As a project, descolonizARTE is the intersection of history, activism, and practice through various mediums of public art. Cabezudos are giant head masks made out of paper mache that are found at celebrations and protests across the Latin American world. Having spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico (and washing down mounds of bacalaitos with Medalla), I came across a cabezudos workshop in San Juan that my great friend was part of, loosely related to Bread and Puppet Theatre. Though I’ve never made traditional “cabezudos” per se, I have made giant paper mache masks. The last one was a pig. That said, we’re many people and people have varying levels of experience from beginner to expert.
This project will be fantastic. We are people from all walks of life (sort of based in the South Bronx but from all over the world). Members include immigrants, students, mothers, educators, activists, and others from our vibrant community who are eager to participate in this project. Our first project as descolonizARTE is making the cabezudos masks in time for May 1st, International Workers Day. Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible and introduce people from various backgrounds to this art form. Also, we’re thankful to the POINT, the inspiring community nonprofit organization, for generously offering their space two night a week for our workshops to occur.
Community members are being asked to choose a figure from a social justice movement they’re inspired by and that speaks to them on a personal level. Some ideas current members have for masks are Óscar Romero, César Chávez , and Comandante Romona of the Zapatistas. Over the course of the next four months, we’ll be gathering twice a week to work on our masks while learning about the leaders we’ve elected and sharing our new-found knowledge. We’ve already started documenting the process and hope to share our work with various organizations and galleries along the way. Our first project will culminate in our appearance at International Workers Day, where important issues close to the Bronx community, such as immigrant and poor people’s rights, are celebrated.
What is National Worker’s Day? Why are cabezudos a good fit for it?
International Workers Day celebrates nuestra lucha as people, and more specifically as workers and immigrants. It’s the original #occupy movement. You could Wikipedia it, but really its a time when all sorts of different groups – unions, immigrant organizations, community organizations, students, and more – come together to say, “Hey! We’re here whether you like it or not and we’re not messing around!”
What does the title “descolonizARTE” mean to you?
The name “descolonizARTE,” I think really accurately captures what we’re trying to do. It’s refreshing to hear people talk about decolonizing instead of occupying (pero sigue la lucha occupiers!). Descolonizarte is a spanish verb that translates into “to decolonize yourself.” Of course, the “arte” is capitalized, meaning art – to decolonize yourself through art.
Again, descolonizARTE is the intersection of history, activism, and practice through various mediums of public art.
The project is inspired by the history and role of art in social justice movements across the world, notably cabezudos and murals. Cabezudos, or big heads, are the traditional Latin American giant paper mache masks that are frequently seen at parades and demonstrations throughout the world. Typically, the masks depict culturally significant icons, such as important musicians, writers, and leaders, that resonate with people and their identity. Murals have also played significant roles in social movements, from Diego Rivera’s frescos of the Mexican revolution to Works Progress Administration’s commissioning labor muralists during the New Deal. Art has always played a role in making social movements accessible, fun, and vibrant for the public.
What’s next for the group?
We’re going to paint the town red – socialist red. No really, we have a couple mural projects on the horizon with Comite de Trabajadores Agricolas that ascribe to our values as descolonizARTE. Please, if you’re reading this and want to participate, feel free to reach out – we are completely inclusive! (Se habla español y amor)