Monday, October 05, 2020

Somerville's Julia Csekö: A weaver of art and words

Interview by Doug Holder

I am a poet, so I work with my words. My canvas is a computer screen or a blank piece of paper. So I was pleased to find an artist who incorporates words into her art. Cseko, through her murals and other works confronts racism, consumerism and other vital issues head on.

DH: You moved from Brazil to Somerville--quite a contrast.  As an artist-- how has your experience differed?

JC: It is a huge contrast indeed and even though I’ve lived in Somerville for almost 10 years, you never fully get used to it, although you adapt. 

I’m from Rio, so, for starters I didn’t grow up with seasons like we have here. The low temperatures are something I still struggle with every winter. Pretty early on I learned that the Brazilian sense of humor can be a little abrasive to New Englanders and to not kiss my friends on the cheek when I greet them (not that we’d be doing a lot of that now regardless!). I do miss the warmth of my Brazilian friends and family, as well as the general festive and beach-city vibe in Rio. The tropical chic fashion, the stunning views, the late nights and incredibly fun and indescribable experience of Carnaval in the streets. 

On the flip side, Rio is an astoundingly unequal and violent city, where you have to know the no-go zones, have to be informed about ongoing turf wars around the city and have to be very aware of your surroundings all the time. As a white Brazilian I many times was perceived as a gringa, or tourist, which was quite unnerving, and quickly solved by speaking the language in the local Rio slang (and accent). 

Either way the experience of growing up hearing intense firefights near my house and ducking for cover is still vivid in my memory, and I can recognize many different types of firearms by their sound to this day. 

I do love the sense of tranquility and safety I experience living in Somerville. The concentration of higher education organizations is really something, and I never take it for granted. I live right next to Tufts, where I did my MFA, and I love the diverse and fascinating people that are attracted to this area. 

It is much easier to make plans here, perhaps because of the cold? People honor their commitments and I cannot say the same about the cariocas (people from Rio). I love the fall colors, and the flowers in the spring, which “surprise me” each year, and a sense that this is a city with the benefits of a small town and big city all at once, such as museums, concert halls, galleries, public transportation, and an international population, still it is fairly quiet, traffic is bad but not unmanageable, and it is relatively clean. I also appreciate Boston’s skyline, which is beautiful, but not overwhelming. Rio can be overwhelmingly big sometimes, and just going from here to there can be an adventure in terms of traffic and the fast pace.

DH: You incorporate the written word in your art. How do you decide to weave this element in your work?

JC:This started early in my BFA at the Federal University of Rio, probably around 2004, when I was about to graduate. The course was very hands-on and the theory was not addressing the issues I was interested in, so I did my own readings. I was fascinated by Philosophy and Poetry, and was eager to share these ideas with my fellow art majors (and anyone really). How to do that without tapping someone on the shoulder and reading to them? I decided to make paintings that would share the work of these authors on a monumental scale. Using bright colors to lure people’s attention. My desire was to create murals from the very beginning, but making public art does not come easy, so I started making paintings hoping that they would lead to public spaces. I wanted to take literary works that might be too obscure/controversial, or perhaps too dissonant to mainstream consumerist culture to the most public settings possible. Another reason to use text is a desire to let the viewers’ imagination construct their own imagery. I provide ideas, and they can illustrate them and hopefully bring them to fruition within their own internal dialog.

DH: Your works often deal with racism. In fact a mural of yours at Emerson College--
incorporated the words of the late civil rights activist John Lewis. Why did you take the words of Lewis--as there are many other texts you could have used?

JC:Whenever I work in a public space or receive a commission, my work becomes a collaborative effort. In this particular case, the work was responding to a very specific event. Earlier this year (2020) the Emerson Administration found anti-semitic and white supremacist graffiti at the Piano Row campus. They were quick to engage their community in a conversation, asking the student body how they would like to respond to the incident. The idea emerged to create a piece of art in response to the event. The Emerson Contemporary Gallery curator Leonie Bradbury put together a student advisory board and a conversation began between myself and the group to decide what text would be a good response to the hateful graffiti found on campus. I originally proposed working with a woman Jewish author, and Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism was close to being the selected text. However, on July 30th 2020, the very day we were to decide the author, Leonie sent me the essay written by John Lewis published that same morning on the NYT, on the occasion of his passing. We were both in awe, it was beautiful, it was uplifting, it was incredibly hopeful and it was a historical moment that we were witnessing. We took the essay to the student advisory board and after a brief discussion we all agreed that John Lewis was speaking loud and clear against white supremacy and all forms of bigotry as he did his whole life. It was a way to honor him and his memory, and to respond to the desire of the student body to use a text that showed hope and conveyed a message to guide us into a better future, more just, more equal, more peaceful. 

DH: The mural is titled " The Coney Island of the Mind." That's also the title of the great beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetry collection. Were you influenced by Ferlinghetti?  Any other poets?

JC: Oh, Ferlinghetti definitely inspired the title of this series, I love his work. There is something about the beat generation poets that viscerally attracts me, a certain spontaneity, an ability to criticize openly, to think critically, look for alternatives and to perhaps search for ways to course correct, or just admit fault, admit fallibility and vulnerability. I love their call to be less rigid, more in touch with our needs, instincts and desires. We live in a time that is so conflicting. People in power are allowed to essentially behave like buffoons and criminals in the public sphere for anyone to see, while people who live paycheck to paychecks are expected to fall in line and behave. Wealth accumulation has never been so absurdly unequal globally. As a pacifist, I don’t condone looting or rioting, but I am surprised that it doesn’t happen all the time these days; people can only take so much abuse before snapping. 

Either we get to a point where we are all accountable for our actions and words, or we will get to a point when no one will be accountable. I believe that words have meaning and power, and that they should not be used lightly. We see so many words lose their meaning these days. We need to reclaim the power and meaning of words, and hold our leaders accountable to what they say. We need leaders that walk like they talk. We may be far from this right now, but I believe in course correction. It will be a long process and it starts with taking education way more seriously. We can’t form people to be a workforce, we need to form people to be citizens. We can’t expect people to vote or make good decisions when voting without having a good education. For that to happen we need social equality to sweep in simultaneously, since if you are living below the poverty line, survival becomes prioritized over education. This is a complex conversation, and we are just scratching the surface here. I hope that my work will contribute even if in the slightest way for course correction, to reclaim the power and meaning of words. I read and admire many poets, but ironically, I am back to the beats, and I am just starting to work with Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. I realized I need more women authors in this series. After 16 years making these paintings in a non-linear way I want to be more intentional about representing a more diverse selection of authors, less Eurocentric and less patriarchal. I was shocked recently to look at my bookshelf and discover the much lower number of women/queer writers and artists on there. 

DH:Why should people view your work?

JC: I hope folks will become curious about the ideas and authors I share; I hope they will share my excitement in these ideas. As an artist I find that one of my roles is to educate myself continuously in hopes to be able to educate others. As an educator I believe that I learn from my students in the same measure that I teach them. I am hopeful that we will reach a point where the vision of Brazilian Philosopher and Educator Paulo Freire will be common sense, and that critical pedagogy will clear the way for an education and communication based in dialogue and diversity, freeing our minds and bodies from oppression.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so happy to learn about this interesting poet/artist living right in my neighborhood!