Curtain call for Chilean artist Felipe Mujica
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Little did Chilean artist Felipe Mujica know when he was preparing for a show in Santiago in 2006 that his search for a curtain to black the room out would lead to a series of fabric works spanning collaborations with artisans from around the world.
“I was experimenting with video at the time and I needed to obscure the space, but I decided not to use a typical black curtain, which I thought was too serious,” he tells me over video call from his home in Brooklyn. Interested in geometric abstraction, Mujica thought a colourful curtain would be more appropriate, so enlisted the help of a seamstress in Santiago. “All of a sudden I had in front of me a beautiful artefact, permeable architecture, a drawing in space, with colour and forms.”
More than 20 of Mujica’s “drawings in space” hang in and around Miami’s Pérez Art Museum (PAMM), rectangles of colour which strikingly intervene in the Herzog & de Meuron architecture. These are the latest pieces from his Curtains series, where he collaborates with local communities and artists to integrate traditional design and craft into his cloth works.
On this occasion Mujica has partnered with Khadijah Cypress, an artisan from the Miccosukee tribe in south Florida, to stage a cosmos in fabric. Titles such as “Big Storm”, “Fire”, “Frog” and “Bird” refer to the motifs commonly used in Miccosukee patchwork which now appear on these sheets. Here, nature is sewn into simplified forms, then further abstracted in Mujica’s minimalist geometric arrangement. The artist describes this visual marriage as “two histories of abstraction going into dialogue”.
Creating dialogues and building connections seem to be at the heart of Mujica’s practice. Throughout our conversation he frequently talks about “opening up” his work to others. It’s a collaborative spirit he traces to his art-student days in Santiago, when he was often organising group shows with friends, and to his co-founding of Galería Chilena — “a commercial gallery with no physical space” — in 1997 to help fill the cultural void in Chile after the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Another important experience from this period was his art studies at the Catholic University of Chile, or rather the gaps in those studies. “We learned more about Bauhaus and the Russian Vanguard than our local history,” says Mujica. “We all wanted to go to New York or Europe and visit all these arts centres. We never thought, ‘why don’t we go to Mexico and study what happened there? What’s the history of the Mayan uses of abstraction or colour?’ These were not subjects in art or design in the 1990s.”
The traditional techniques from Latin American and Indigenous groups prevalent in Mujica’s work can therefore be read as a reaction to a Eurocentric art history only now beginning to include alternative narratives and methods of working. In part a research project, Mujica’s art uses fabric and materiality as a way of embodying and disseminating underexamined forms of artistic knowledge, “opening up”, in the artist’s words, “these other histories through colour, pigments and textiles”.
With their grand scale and minimalist designs, Mujica’s Curtains series directly recalls the vocabulary of European modernist abstraction, but each project is ingrained with the geographic and cultural contexts in which they were created.
Whereas the works at PAMM adopt local patchwork techniques, in a 2016 presentation for the 32nd São Paulo Biennale the artist teamed up with a Brazilian embroidery collective, producing large banners of cyan, mustard and tangerine stitched with triangular patterns. In Mexico in 2018, he partnered with Wixárikas artisans from Zacatecas, expanding the textural dimension of his panels by incorporating their beading techniques.
In order to remain sensitive to local craft histories, Mujica explains how he must be flexible in his process. Alongside his show at PAMM, Proyectos Ultravioleta and Von Bartha galleries will also present a selection of the artist’s Curtains, created during a 2019 residency in Nicaragua’s Solentiname Islands, at Art Basel Miami Beach. “I have to adapt to where I am because some places have a strong tradition of textiles, but in this case, nobody was sewing or doing embroidery. They were painters.”
He describes how he was inspired by a painted colour gradation technique used on wood-carved figurines, a process which he then reinterpreted on fabric. The results were hand-painted and hand-dyed cotton panels whose warm, earthy hues and slightly creased surfaces further emphasise the bridge between the poetic world of traditional craft and the sterility of modernist abstraction in Mujica’s art.
At PAMM, working with Native American techniques, this dichotomy takes on a more critical stance as the Curtains bring together “one official history of abstraction and one that’s been displaced, hidden and ignored”. But rather than trying to make overtly political statements with his work, Mujica says he is more interested in “the social aspect” behind them, “what kind of connections they can create between different people, institutions, spaces”.
All these threads come together at the physical installation in PAMM, where the public are invited to activate the works through touch. Suspended from cable systems, the Curtains’ moveable, modifiable nature lets visitors transform the gallery space as they play around with different colour combinations. For Mujica, this is another way of opening up his art to others. “I think it also makes people understand the works on a much more basic level,” he says. “It’s not intellectual. It’s physical. It creates a physical sensation that you’re changing something.”
Perhaps this will allow visitors to experience a similar revelation about curtains to the one Mujica had in that Santiago art space 15 years ago: they don’t have to just be used to cover or conceal; they can be used to reveal, even becoming windows in themselves.
To spring 2022; pamm.org