By Mary Ann Chacko
Maria Pena, a Colombian painter, visited the South Indian state of Kerala for the first time in 2012. She came to attend the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art, held in the historic and water-bound region of Fort Cochin. She immediately felt at home in Fort Cochin; its coast, old and rustic colonial buildings, and loud music reminding her of many parts of Colombia, especially Cartagena. Eager to be back, she self-organized a month-long visit to Fort Cochin where she spends her time drawing inspiration from the town’s everyday sights and painting. She also offers workshops.
I first heard of Maria Pena through a feature on the artist, published in The Hindu’s ‘Metro Plus’ supplement. The article notified the readers of an upcoming talk by Maria at Springer Studios, an Art and Entertainment Café in Fort Cochin. That is where I met her.
Maria Pena studied art in the Academia Superior de Artes de Bogota with a specialization in painting. Her oil paintings on canvas are inspired by Surrealist painters, particularly Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, and the photography of Ann Hamilton. Before she paints a picture, Maria creates a model of the painting using a collage of photos, drawings, and real objects. Thus her paintings are “not from memory.” The Surrealists, Maria explains, “paint real things, but the scene depicted in the painting is not real.”
In Springer, Maria exhibited a series of paintings titled “The Fabric of Time.” These paintings, especially the ones she had painted in Colombia and Australia, depicted the themes of migration, place/landscapes, and memory. Fabric is a central character in all of Maria’s paintings. Clothes, as Maria pointed out, have an intimate relation to memory. Clothes that are left behind evoke memories. When someone leaves or passes away we remember them when we see their clothes, evoking “absent presences.” At the same time when we leave a place in a hurry, as refugees and, sometimes, as migrants, the only things we carry with us are the clothes behind our back, bringing us memories of places left behind.
The landscapes in her paintings form the background depicting landscapes left behind such as that of Chile or Colombia. The faces in her paintings are almost always covered with cloth. Maria explained that she did this to establish a dialogue with the viewer; it could be anyone’s face, even that of the viewer. One person in the audience asked about the absence of animals in her paintings. Animals, for Maria, “just are. We have to learn to be. I am inspired by the emotions of people, by landscapes, and cultures.”
As she sifted through the photos she took in Kerala, it occurred to her that the Lungi or sarong, a traditional garment worn, predominantly by men, around their waist and the Newspaper, best capture the culture of Kerala. In this painting, she took newspapers and blended it with the painting. One news item features Kerala’s campaign against the pesticide, Endosulfan. It reminded Maria of the struggle of farmers in Colombia against government efforts to force them to use genetically modified crops.
Besides painting, the purpose of Maria’s month long stay in Fort Cochin is to “deliver talks about her work (such as the one I attended) which allows her to interact with the viewers, creating networks with other artists, and conducting workshops in order to contribute to the community.” The day after I met her, she was conducting a workshop about the first steps of painting. Maria is a huge champion of pop-up art, or the concept of “localizing art, taking art out of the galleries and exhibiting it in unexpected places.”
During her stay, she met an American who conducted classes on empowerment and leadership in a school in Perumbavoor in Ernakulam District. He invited Maria to come and speak to the students. She held a pop-up art exhibition and workshop on interpretation and appreciation of art for the students of that school. Maria, who has taught Spanish and art in primary schools in Melbourne, was very impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and excitement to learn, something she lamented she missed out on in Melbourne. She especially appreciated the students’ respect for elders and admired the fact that tradition has been preserved alongside changes in Kerala.
Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She is an Editor of Cafe Dissensus. Read more of her work on her blog, Chintavishta.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Lucknow’s Many Muslims”. Edited by Prof. Nadeem Hasnain & Aseem Hasnain. The rich array of essays explores various facets of Lucknow, a ‘Muslim city par excellence.’