is one of the most prominent contemporary Nicaraguan composers. Born in Mexico in 1960, he is a singer-songwriter, poet, painter and ecologist with more than thirty years of artistic life. The artist, self-proclaimed as the guardian of the beautiful, has granted me this interview from the comfort of his home. With a little Hibiscus tea, good humor and painting, the afternoon lies still and the magic begins…
By Christiane L. Vaca, Photography by Glow Ruiz.
Born in Granada, Nicaragua in 1972, Carlos Barberena de la Rocha comes from a family of artists, poets, painters and musicians; an environment that strongly influenced his artistic formation. As a young boy he left Nicaragua during the war and lived with his two older brothers, both talented artists. A self-described late bloomer, he eventually found himself experimenting with different mediums and becoming an artist in his own right. His works, including paintings, sculptures, photographs and engravings, have been exhibited all over the world in places including, the United States, where he now resides, Germany, Spain, Brazil and most recently at Covenant San Francisco in his hometown of Granada.
How would you describe your creative process?
-It begins with an idea that you work at. To me, it’s more like receiving, where you become like an antenna and you capture different situations, different images. That’s when the process begins to ‘digest.’ Then, when it’s time to apply technique, you already know what you want to work with. It’s a constant labor that begins with this process.
What is meant by the title of your exhibit, “Años de Miedo” (Years of Fear)? Is it in reference to any personal experience, or is it meant to be exclusively political or social commentary?
-I find it to be a personal experience. Thirty years ago, I was seven years old and many images from that time remain on my mind. I was watching my brothers run, having to hide all the time because Somoza’s guards were after them. I had cousins who went through the same thing and uncles who died during the Somoza dictatorship. Then experiencing the revolution, taking part in the protests out on the street that were broken up by the Guard, I think it was all experiences that I tried to channel into my art. All these very complex things make up Nicaragua’s history. When I left, people would ask me what was going on in Nicaragua, and I just got tangled up trying to explain about Somoza, the revolution, the Contras…you just can’t explain it. I think this is the idea for this series, a reflection on war and its consequences.
It’s interesting to note the structural contrasts going on in most of your pieces, a balance between simple and complex, black and white.
-Yes, I feel that the contrast between black and white gives the project more strength. Sometimes I think that this series chose its own medium. So, what better to illustrate fear than through black and white?
Do you believe that your art tells a story uniquely related to the Nicaraguan experience?
-No, it is decidedly not just the Nicaraguan experience. If you set this in another country that has been devastated by war, you’ll have the same thing. And what is important is to call them “years of fear,” because at the center of it all is the fear. It’s how different parties rule a population by fear, whether you’re a mother concerned for your child, concerned for your family, whether you’re being followed or threatened unless you turn your neighbor in. It’s the fear of living such a violent life. That’s the point of my exhibit, to reflect upon what we’ve lived through, the world over, not just Nicaragua. As you can see in a few of the pieces, some are about what happened in Abu Ghraib, some are in reference to article 5, Guantánamo, etcetera. There are different points of view.
Do you believe art to be an end unto itself, or do you think it should serve a higher purpose?
-I think that one creates art, first of all, to purge many things and to communicate them, whatever they are. It’s not like I’m hoping someone will change their life or opinions after seeing my work. I’m just exposing my point of view, like a writer or a musician; it’s an act of communication though, and should not be merely decorative.
“In chaos there is everything,” says Jean Marc Calvet as he stands in the studio with vaulted ceilings of his colonial home in Granada, Nicaragua. The room itself is filled with chaos, but it is contained. Organized confusion. Paints and brushes lay haphazardly about, but only on one table. CD’s, from U2 to Calle 13, bootlegs and originals, seemingly thrown around, are stacked and spread about only on a designated desk.
Then there is Calvet himself, wearing a button-up shirt covered with splashes of paint, and arms covered with splashes of tattoos, or is it paint as well? Perhaps both, as it’s hard to tell where the paint ends and the ink begins. Whatever the case, his appearance is contained by his persona, so to seem, just like the rest of his studio, that everything is exactly where it should be.
His paintings are the same. If you focus on a small part of one you may see madness, randomness, but if you step back, a bigger picture becomes apparent, revealing how the chaos inside gives it life. In that chaos there is everything. And in this room there is also Kaos.
Calvet’s most ambitious work in terms of sheer magnitude, Kaos, the four-meter by four-meter behemoth towers over the room, its red eyes seemingly following my every move. The work took close to two months and a custom-constructed wooden staircase to complete. It features a giant skull surrounded by intricate layers of bones, people, creatures, hearts, names, eyes, flowers and God knows what else. When I first saw the painting, several weeks before, I remembered it being somewhat threatening in nature, yet today as I gaze into Kaos, the skull’s expression seems almost friendly. According to Calvet it is more likely me than the painting.
“In the painting there is love, death, life, everything. One day you can see the painting while you are sad and you’ll find sadness, one day you’ll see it happy and you’ll find happiness. You see the painting according to your feelings,” he says.
Over the years Calvet’s own feelings have changed drastically. Nine years ago he had never even picked up a paintbrush and when he finally did start painting it was with his hands. Born in Nice, a port city in the south of France, Calvet, a former street kid and agent with the French Special Forces, had become frustrated with the life he had lived and in the 90’s began traveling as a last resort to find a greater purpose. Instead, he found a house in Costa Rica where he decided to isolate himself and give in to the demons from his past and present. The plan was to go out in a haze of rum and drugs until his body could take no more and would put itself mercifully out of its misery.
But it was an uninspired suicide attempt one particular night during the nine months he spent in exile that would turn out to be just the inspiration he needed. The story goes that on this night he binged even more than usual, wanting to finally die. High on drugs, his brain flooded with crazy, with voices surrounding him, taunting him, Calvet encountered some cans of paint behind a staircase. He opened them up and began splattering the contents all over the house in a frenzy of drug and life-induced emotional rage. Once the cans were empty he used his hands to move the paint around, in essence turning this would be tomb into his first studio.
Back in the present, the tormented Jean Marc Calvet of art world lore is seen only in paintings. These days at his home, in his studio, the man himself appears at peace, perhaps even happy, living with his fiance Victoria and her 11-year-old daughter whom he has adopted. Things have changed drastically during the past nine years. Soon after freeing himself from self-imposed purgatory he moved his life to Nicaragua, and at the suggestion of a friend, to Granada. It was here that he truly taught himself to paint and here that he finally found a place to make a life, reborn as a Granadino.
“I put everything in a truck and came to Nicaragua, straight to Granada. I feel good here. I don’t feel like a foreigner, but as if I was born here. The Latin culture runs through my veins. I feel like a Nicaraguan painter not a French painter,” says Calvet.
Over the years his style evolved naturally. His early works involved more dripping of paint, but as his style has been refined and sophisticated, his paintings have become filled with intricate images inside of larger ones that seem to have been meticulously planned. However, he insists that is not the case. Calvet, who refers to himself as a sponge and a witness, says he takes what he has experienced and what he sees and simply paints without thinking.
“I am very frenetic when I paint, I don’t know if the yellow matches the white or the black, I don’t make any calculation, I don’t have the patience,” he says. “I’m like an antenna, I take things, transform them in my mind and make a ratatouille until something comes out. I don’t plan what it’s going to be. It’s an organized mess. Unconsciously measured.”
Music also plays a big role in Calvet’s process, evident by the hundreds of CDs in his studio. It is no surprise that a majority of the over 100 paintings he has completed are named after lyrics from songs.
“I use music as a river. I put it on according to my mood. If I’m sad I play sad music, happy, happy music, etcetera. I listen to everything from salsa, to Pink Floyd, Perro Zompopo, to French music,” Calvet says. “Different music for each part of the painting. For example I tell myself this part of the painting needs Pink Floyd, this part needs Italian music and so on. I can spend two days painting with the same song.”
According to Calvet it is this spontaneous process that keeps him evolving as an artist and keeps his paintings honest.
“If it‘s not honest then for what? For money? Ooohlaa…” he says shaking his head. “You’re better off to sell pizza.”
His point is clear, and although you would have to sell a lot of pizza to come up with the $50,000 some of his paintings have reportedly sold for, the honesty and evolution of his work cannot be denied. Instead of running from his tortured past or trying to pretend it never happened, Calvet uses his art to take control of it and move forward.
“(For a long time) I did not want to see what I had done, I did not want to take responsibility for it. Now I open the door and I feel a little fear in the beginning and I grab things that are pieces of my life, pieces of things I have around me and at first they are black but I transform them to color. From negative they become positive. It’s a constructive evolution.”
His personal evolution as an artist has also put him on an international stage. His work can currently be seen at galleries in Paris and Costa Azul in France, Granada, and New York, where 24 of his paintings are part of an exhibition entitled ‘Redemption’ at Monkdogz Urban Art Gallery. And despite living nine years in Nicaragua, it was only this April that he had his first solo in-country exposition at Managua’s Galleria Codice, where he unveiled the aforementioned Kaos as well as two new self-portraits. There is also a film project in the works with English filmmaker, Dominic Allen, who has completed close to 30 documentaries, most notably one on Nelson Mandela. The documentary, entitled Calvet was shot in 2008 and will be released later this year, first on the BBC and then on the festival circuit. There are plans for a feature film as well.
For Calvet, the recognition and acclaim come second to the connection painting has given him to himself and that he is thus able to share with those who view his art. He says that inside each artist is the search for immortality and through this exchange with the audience it can be achieved. He insists that as a person he is not afraid of death and everything that has happened in his life, up to painting and beyond, has been a gift. Therefore, if he were to die tomorrow he would die happy. This is what he tells himself, yet in the next breath he admits that his subconscious does fear death. Perhaps what it truly fears is becoming irrelevant.
“Subconsciously I’m afraid of death. I’m afraid that it ends. Thus to not die, we must leave something, so that we are not dead. And so we are not afraid of death, because we can’t die. We die, but we don’t die. And so, I am immortal,” he exclaims, stomping his foot on the ground. “Death does not touch me. You see, I stick my tongue out at death…but with respect.”
Knowing that his paintings, his expressions will live on after he is gone seems to put Calvet at peace with the thought of dying. Painting has already given him his life back once and he feels resurrection will be possible again.
“You’ve left your balls, you’ve left your guts, you’ve left your penis, you’ve left your knowledge, you’ve left everything there inside (the painting). Therefore, someone arrives in front of it and if you’re lucky it will call to them, and you have a painting that makes them respond somewhere inside and there will be an exchange. And at that moment, at that very moment, I am sure that I will be alive.”
As far as looking ahead to his death, Calvet says with a laugh, “I want to be buried in Granada. I already picked a spot in the cemetery close to the pulperia, just in case I get thirsty or need to buy a cigarette.”
Like many before him, Dirian Mejía, immigrated to the United States with the hope of a better paying job and a better life and in doing so he found what he needed, but not in the way he had originally planned. While working construction with other immigrants, legal and illegal, from all over Latin America and listening to their stories and hardships, something inside him changed. He had a moment of clarity where he realized that he was living somebody else’s life. He wasn’t being true to himself and it had left him feeling trapped. Suddenly jobless and fed up with the hedonistic materialism he was surrounded by in Miami, Dirian rented a small studio apartment and for six months he lived there alone with very little contact from the outside world. He had no TV, no internet, no radio and no newspapers. But he still had the stories. They haunted him. These migrant tales, bottles of wine and an untouched box of paint supplies – a gift from years earlier – would be the final path to finding his calling and living his life.
How did you become interested in the culture of migration?
I used to work in a construction site installing cabinets for kitchens and vanities. I was listening to stories of all the illegal immigrants on my job site. Stories from everywhere in Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico, and I started documenting that in my head. And it was not only the way they get to the United States but how difficult it is once you are living there. Nothing really represents you. You only know the basic things for that country. There’s a foreign language you don’t know. Laws you don’t know. You don’t know what applies to you what doesn’t apply to you. So no flag is going to protect you, nothing is. After listening to so many stories it really moved me inside and I said I need to put this on something, either paper, to write something about it, or a newspaper, or just something – and the only thing that I found really close to me was paint.
Did you see any of yourself in that because you grew up in Nicaragua and went to the States?
Yes, somewhat. I mean I didn’t suffer the same because I took a plane and I went over there. But I was working as an immigrant as well. My family didn’t have any money so we used to live in a really tiny apartment with what eight, nine people, two bedrooms only. It was a difficult time for us. You learn and you grow after you’ve gone through so many things. You try to understand society or whatever is around you at that time. So I was really feeling that sort of love or passion for these people that even though I got there another way we all suffer together once we get there.
Of the stories you heard from the immigrants were there any that really stuck with you?
Many stories got to me. The gangs in Guatemala or Mexico would totally take advantage of them. Las Mara Salvatruchas are there. The women cry. The children cry. They take money. They beat the crap out of them. Many stories hurt my heart. They marked me.
Your current exposition is entitled ‘Las Viudas’ (The Widows). Can you explain how these viudas came about in your work and what they represent?
Widows. That specific word represents the loss of your husband or wife. I took the word and I said I’m widowed from my country because I left behind so many things and that’s what happens when you die you leave things behind. When you leave your country, you are leaving behind everything: your roots, your Grandmother, your Grandfather, el barrio, your friends, your language, your flag, whatever represents you. So las viudas represent the pain that individuals suffer every time they migrate and leave these things behind. That is how I wanted to project the definition of las viudas. Adding to that definition is the people that ‘died’ during the process of crossing the border, whether killed literally, or killed inside, for example by being molested. They take away your dignity they just don’t care. You can be black, white, a girl a child whatever. They just don’t care. They totally destroy you inside out. Las viudas also represent that pain, that suffering.
Do reactions to your work influence how you create?
Not really because my paintings are an expression. The only thing that can change that or manipulate that is what I receive from the people that are suffering. My art is something that really has a meaning, a definition of the pain that society is suffering right now.
Do you have concerns that people might see your work differently than the way you see it?
It really doesn’t matter to me how people see my work. I don’t need to literally type something for the people to understand my art, because art is so huge there are so many techniques and so many definitions of art. The artist doesn’t go around and tell you ‘I was thinking about this specific thing when I painted this.’ I paint. You can make your own perception of what the painting is expressing.
From early on, the life of Lonnie Ruiz Gómez was filled with imagination and darkness. Literal darkness. He grew up in Managua, Nicaragua, in a place where many days his family was without electricity. To pass the time his Grandmother would tell scary stories, and he and his friends would go off and create their own dark tales, characters, and games. Lonnie credits these imaginary adventures with helping him develop a heightened sense of creativity.
Many years later, Lonnie would enter a contest that would change the direction of his life and uncover his passion. The contest was ‘Cuentamelo Otra Vez’ and participants were asked to tell a popular story using three illustrations. Lonnie had always been into drawing, but this contest was a chance for him to try something a little different. He submitted his illustrations and was awarded third place, but more importantly, he discovered his natural ability to tell stories through his images, and in the process opened up an outlet for his creativity. Where words had sometimes failed him, Lonnie found that he could express his inner self and his imagination visually. The following year he entered the contest again and took first place.
In 2007, ‘Un Naufragio Inesperado’ – written by Ulises Salazar Medrano – became the first book published using Lonnie’s illustrations. He also calls it the project that opened his eyes and made him see clearly that illustration was what he wanted to do with his life. The characters Lonnie creates are often peculiar and a bit odd, a little scary and sometimes ugly, yet at the same time they are cute and endearing. There is a sense of weirdness and contradiction in his illustrations. His details are impeccable, soft colors and textures, creating beautiful compositions. As dark as some of his work is there always seems to be playfulness to it. In this way it is no surprise that the work of Tim Burton is one of his big influences.
In addition to Burton’s work and the work of other illustrators, Lonnie says a little bit of everything is what inspires him.
“To be a designer you must always be looking everywhere. We are like a video camera that records every image that passes in front of our eyes, and in the creative process we recycle it.”
To see more of Lonnie’s illustration work visit his personal blog at: www.pinol-ilustrado.blogspot.com
Cande lives in a world full of dreams of love and beauty; a fantastical world filled with color and magic. As a little girl she would wake up early in the morning before the sunrise to go outside to her garden. There she would begin to paint and draw with crayons, marveling at the way the colors would appear to change as the sun’s rays began to shine.
Being raised in a family full of artistic talents, her grandfather was a painter and her mother, Norma Elena Gadea, is one of Nicaragua’s most recognized and loved singer-songwriters, helped Cande develop and awaken her imagination as a young girl.
Now in her early 20’s, Cande, or Maria Candelaria, continues to share her unique world through her art, designs, and photography. A self-described mediator of feelings, her style has a propensity to be retro, vintage, and full of color.
Cande creates without limits. Photography, collage, painting and drawing are all parts of her artistic repertoire. She is constantly experimenting with different combinations of techniques, media, and tools. Her fascination with vintage Polaroid cameras is apparent in much of her work, both as a photographic tool and as an object in her compositions.
While art is her true passion, she also takes on commercial photography and design jobs, including work with the popular Nicaraguan band Malos Habitos. No matter what she is creating, it is important to Cande to feel a personal connection with the designs she crafts. Through her art, she strives to transmit her emotions, memories and feelings, and provide us with a different way to see life; a way where fantasy is the beginning of everything.
To see her gallery visit: www.cande-knd.deviantart.com