Memory and Migration: An Interview with Sculptor, Betsabee Romero

Concepts of human migration are explored in a group of sculptures by Mexico-city based sculptor, Betsabee Romero. The project, entitled Signals of a Long Road Together, is the fourth iteration of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project and the only public art space featuring changing installations of contemporary works by women artists in Washington, D.C.

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The New York Avenue Sculpture Project is organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in collaboration with the DowntownDC Business Improvement District (BID), the DC Office of Planning and other local agencies.

Romero’s connection to cultural traditions is evident in her artwork as she redefines cultural borders and works symbolically to re-signify her materials as a process of decolonization. “Culture is not about borders or walls. Culture can cross a border,” Romero says. Migration, she concludes, is fundamental to humankind.

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(New York Avenue Sculpture Project installation rendering; Courtesy Betsabeé Romero Art Studio)

People are forced to leave their countries for many reasons. Nobody wants to be a migrant and live all the horrors that it entails. ~ Betsabee Romero

In our interview with Romero, she talks about migration and the interplay of memory and how it’s at the heart of her artwork.

You’ve created an outdoor installation for the New York Avenue Sculpture Project in DC made of carved and painted tires assembled into a totemic structure representing human migration, specifically Mexican migration. How did this concept evolve initially?

I have been working for a long time on projects about memory and migration. I do my work by recycling used tires – one of the worst waste products of the automobile industry — trying to re-signify the material itself as a process of decolonization (as the history of rubber represents one of the worst examples of colonialist exploitation) and remembering rubber’s Mesoamerican origins as well.

I carved used tires, bald tires, whose tread have been worn out by the speed of vehicles, especially ones utilized in public transportation. In Mexico City, they are used until they are completely bald and dangerous.

I redesign each tire, carving each again, but by hand and slowly, contrary to the original industrial way. I look for the traces of what has been crashed on the highways, by speed, or by modernity.

In this case, I’m looking for unknown migrant family traces that have been crashed on the real and symbolic highways and borders. They get a presence in my work, I try to dignify their memory and their arduous journey. They have left long traces on history, and their memory needs to be dignified. 

As a Hispanic, female, artist, how are you planning to further cultivate the narrative through your art that raises the voices of women and minorities in America?

As a Hispanic, female, artist, I have been very privileged in the midst of thousands of women who could not study, to decide their own projects in life, to defend their way of thinking. I aim to open these spaces to other women.

Unfortunately, the Hispanic population is not an exception in this male-dominated society. In my case, gender issues in the art may be crossing borders to give a unique voice defending all minorities in America.

Art doesn’t change reality immediately. But it is important to get visibility as a woman, and as a member of an ancient and highly-developed culture, because culture exists where people write, sing, cook or dance. Our culture has been existing and developing on both sides of the border for a long time. Culture is not about borders or walls. Culture can cross a border and continue to live even within a song or within the aroma of a dish. Art is part of this human compromise to raise awareness about what ‘official’ history wants to unfairly erase humanity.

How did studying in Paris and Mexico City influence your artistic direction?

I had a wonderful opportunity to study in one of the most beautiful fine art schools and in one of my preferred museums in the world — in Paris. After finishing my studies, I felt a lack of knowledge of my own culture. That is why I went back to studying the Mexican history of art, especially pre-Hispanic and colonial art. I am convinced there was a lot to learn about our own aesthetic values since pre-Hispanic times.

There are still many indigenous cultures, and their knowledge about ecology and collectivity is essential in this extremely individualist moment of the world. If we don´t get closer to our ancient civilizations that have had to survive with all kind of obstacles, we won’t be able to survive what’s going on now. With money and power, the occidental world is destroying the world in a very accelerated way. In my work, I look at these ancient cultures with urgency. We are so lucky to have them so close and so deep in our history.

You’ve said, “All of us are migrants between life and death.” What are you referring to and is migration at the center of most of your work?

Migration is part of the fear that many politicians sell to the conservative population all over the world to become powerful. Migration is a fundamental part of this global world where, unfortunately, the richness and quality of life is extremely concentrated, provoking the most enormous social differences I have ever seen.

People are forced to leave their countries for many reasons. Nobody wants to be a migrant and live all the horrors that it entails. Unfortunately, human beings have been forced to leave their land, their family, their life, since the beginning of history.  Our small individual life is a migrating path between life and death.

 What’s next for you?

I have an exhibit in Toronto at York University Gallery, where I have been working with a Mississauga community and with art students, as well. The exhibition will be open from September 14th through December.

I will have an opening at the Rubin Center in El Paso, where I have been working with the art school about “La Bestia” (Also, known as “The Death Train” referring to a network of Mexican freight trains used by U.S.-bound migrants to more expediently travel the length of Mexico). And, in October/November in Madrid and Varsovie, Poland, I will do Day of the Dead altars dedicated to all victims of gender violence in the world.

This vibrant installation will light up the neighborhood just east of the White House Sept. 28, 2018, through Sept. 20, 2020.

 

Feature Image/Photo Credit of Romero: https://azarts.gov/az-artworker/az-artworker-betsabee-romero/

 

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Cecilia Mencia is a culture journalist and founder of DCTrending.com.