INTERVIEW WITH LETICIA EL HALI OBEID BY BECCA ALBEE
Leticia El Halli Obeid is a visual artist working and living in Córdoba, Argentina. Her work consists of sculpture, video, photography, performance, and installation. She has also worked in collaboration with musicians in order to create video components for live performance. El Halli Obeid is a regular contributor to Fe de Rata, a themed biweekly online magazine that covers local theater, literature, visual arts, and politics. The most recent issue was a collection of writings and visual art in response to/discussions surrounding war. http://www.federata.com.ar/ This interview was conducted via email in English May-2003.
BA: Leticia, can you give a little of your family’s background?
LO: I was born in Cordoba, while my parents were studying at University here. 3 years later (1978), they decided to move to the town where my mother was born and raised, since there was jobs and more tranquility and safety for them. The point is that my parents were militants and persecution of the militar government was getting too near. Their case was a sort of an internal exile, quite common at that time. Many other militants chose other countries to live, like Italy, Spain, Sweden, France. Fewer used to go to U.S., or in South America, Peru. But in the little town it was like being in another country...only much more boring!
BA: What is your definition of creative protest?
L0: Protest is the open expression of someone who does not agree with a certain state of things. To distinguish it of mourning: Someone brings a particular issue to public domain, someone makes a statement, expressing disagreement. O.K. It has to do then, basically, with an instance of being or becoming public. Becoming public is something art is dealing with all the time, isn’t it? Protest is the other huge issue in the arts. Isn’t art a protest against reality itself, by definition?
All these issues quickly get muddy because of two big clichés: the idea that only "protest art" (as we say here) has political content; and that such a content is always leftist. This "syllogism" has a partial truth: normally it is only the left that is interested in protesting, for the simple reason that it is usually the minority, although it tries to represent the majority (in the sense that we always have a majority of people in disadvantaged conditions)! At least this has been the situation of the left in Argentina traditionally.
Of course we can not deny that there are many degrees of violence and efficiency in a protest, and that there is a remarkable difference between languages and messages; the Cul de sac is that most of the expressions of protest tend to be easily absorbed by the system which the protests is directed to. On one side the arts try to escape that situation turning more and more hermetic, but this again ends up working as a way of stating differences and all types of discriminations between the spectators. Anyway, we must try not to see the phenomenon as a polarity. I have hope in our own capacities of being confused!
BA: What are some creative protests that have taken place historically in
LO: The story of creative protest is rich here, though quite bitter. Starting with our first book (our Divine Comedy! but in the XIX), Martin Fierro, which is the story of a gaucho who lives totally out of the law, and talks about his marginal condition, followed by the discussion that crossed the 20's based on the problematic identity and expressed in the polarity "politic art / formalist avant garde", the debate of the 40's around figuration (tradition) /abstraction (modernity), the 60's with national/international. Probably the highest point were the radical experiences of a group of artists who denounced the conditions of starvation in the whole province of Tucuman, in the 60’s. This event called "Tucumán arde" ("Tucumán on fire") was censored by the government; most of those artists renounced to art after it.
After 1976, when the last and bloodiest dictatorship in our history started, "politic art" became practically forbidden and persecuted. Music precisely illustrates the entire process: first people engaged in political militance saw in folk music a focus of resistance and a medium of protest (since it was a language suitable for the desire of building an “own identity”) all this in opposition to foreign rock & pop products (the Carpenters, the Bee Gees...). By the end of the dictatorship –caused, amongst other things, by the defeat on the war with Great Britain – the military government prohibited music sung in English. This was a big push for the local music, helping –against the primary intentions of the military – to grow a movement of “Protest music” in Spanish which paradoxically took its stile mixing influences of figures like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and many American folk musicians. Funny... Those Argentine musicians became the heroes of anticipation, reputation quickly turned into a sort of post-war shame. The immediately following genre was a pop movement which only wanted to talk about simple daily life, small things, dancing and having fun, parallel to a more politically aggressive punk movement....
BA: What is your relationship to these artists/movements?
LO: I was born in 1975, and like many of my generation I received all this in an unconscious level: the mixture between various folk influences, the ‘80s and its glamour, sentimental love songs, and the re-opening to the world (1990 found us connected to the worldęs music). I still remember the simultaneous feelings of freedom and betrayal when I bought my first tape: Madonnaęs “True Blue”, with that horrible introduction of “spanglish”, La Isla Bonita.A
Add one more thing to the coctail: tons of fears. 27 years after that tragic 24 march we are still dealing with all those fears. Argentina lost in that period 30,000 young persons (the survivors of that hunt would say “they were the brightest, the smartest and bravest ones, our most precious heads”), the so called “dissapeared” -by the government. That might explain why during all this time we havenęt had strong visible (public) movements of protest in arts. But this difficulty to define or perceive them has to do also with the increasing difficulty in defining public and private, basically...mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, huge issue.
BA: Last year, when the Argentine economy collapsed, was there a visible
artist response? How did you respond? I am interested in the photographic
workshop and the birth of this web magazine you are involved in. Also the
last issue was based on politics, bush, etc.
LO: 20th december 2001, Argentina: the worst politic, economical crisis in our full-of-crisis history... being connected to the worldęs music had a huge prize, it seems. 10 years of brutal neoliberal policies and globalization left a devastated reality. Was there an artist movement right away? Not at all. The first months we spent a lot of time trying to react, to understand, to adapt to that all-day-changing reality and during that time, art itself looked quite absurd in this context. For the art scene it was very scary as artists are used to survive working on those skills and languages that here are mainly related to visual arts –photography, design, advertising, teaching, writing, cultural journalism, etc.- and it seemed those professions were about to dissapear under the pressure of increasing poverty, like luxuries of other age. Well, they didnęt. They just became much more expensive to accomplish...and much worse paid. Artists are slowly starting to respond to this, questioning old ideas, habits, and beliefs.
BA: When I think of your work I think of a more quiet protest. It is
speaking to politics, culture, etc but in a subtle or minimalist manner…
LO: I’m deeply concerned with this idea: is there really an individual life, limit between “inside-outside”, individual-social life? Or is it time to admit we are not close cells, and our differences are not that big, outside the importance we want to see in “being unique”? But, I donęt want my work to illustrate ideas. So at times I feel trapped, not knowing how to go further. I feel I have many things to say, to celebrate, to protest against, and at the same time I like that very pop attitude, not approving nor condemnig facts, enjoying and hating and forgiving all together. I like contradiction, and I canęt help feeling afraid of the search for coherent dogmas, which is very proper of militants. Sometimes I see clearly how art shows, as a transparent box, the way the world turns. For instance, in Argentine arts it is really funny to see how an elite of rich people here adopt languages of the middle class in Europe or U.S. , then the terms eventually spread beyond the upper class, it is just a matter of time. In a wider sense, here many people dream of having houses with gardens like American gardens (In Argentina gated communities are called Countries.) , and private schools are called (in english) “High Schools” like in the movies of the ‘80s. Sometimes I have the impression we are recycling languages that do not match our bodies and gestures!!! My work is made of those questions and fantasies.
Córdoba, 16th may, 2003.
becca albee is a visual artist currently working in new york city.