Oscar Cornejo: To pass back through the heart


*Editor's note: New York-based artist Oscar René Cornejo visited Guatemala in May 2017, on a site visit for Yvonne. He participated in studio visits with artists in Guatemala City, Comalapa, and San Pedro La Laguna. Here, he reflects on his first meeting with artist Edgar Calel and his return to visit Central America for the first time in six years.  -LA

It had been six years since I left the land of volcanoes. Between 2004-2011, I worked in southeast El Salvador organizing and running artist residencies that engaged the community my mother grew up in through free art programs, until extortion made it impossible for me to continue. I now found myself back in Central America, in May of last year. Urgent memories rose to the foreground. This embrace of the past and the present, relinking me to my parents' native region, reminded me of Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces. A particular thread in the text, drew me in: “Recordar: To remember; from the Latin records, to pass back through the heart”. A spirit of agency re-sprouted within me, calling for a rigorously-fought future. I thank Laura for re-tilling the landscape and creating the conditions for this new growth. Social and cultural capital is really hard to quantify and I share my greatest of gratitude to her and Piedrin’s capacity to foster a psychological and physical space for the displaced and exiled.

My first few days in Guatemala were days of recalibration. As I started trying to understand my place and role in new time and place, I kept hearing about Calel. Oral testimony, anecdotes, and shared experiences of Calel revealed enigmatic codes laced with colloquial wisdom, recalling a familiar place I had not seen yet, waiting to be experienced. He visited Yvonne wearing a bright yellow shirt. He entered, radiating joy, at the height of the day, his work is one of temperance. He shared his photographs - his feet stepping on infrastructural urban details to reveal the hidden word INDIO - exorcising the decaying modernist dream with the courage and stoic spirit of a resilient Maya. His charcoal drawings, burnt gestures of time sitting on the surface of thin sheets of paper evoking the undecipherable. After an impromptu visit, candidly talking, and sharing work with each other, we headed out to a cantina. I was at home. We listened to mariachis and corridos and talked about art, artists, and our extended community understanding. Calel is part of a larger community of contemporary artists in Guatemala whose concerns I share, even before I could define that sharing.  In the spirit of the old corridos, we expanded on regional nuances by making hidden transcripts visible through testimony: by song, letter, word, body, ritual, an artifact.   

The windy roads trickled into Comalapa and dispersed into streets that led me to the entrance of KIT KIT. KIT KIT was the home of Calel’s grandmother, now a meeting point for artists and their extended community. Calel had fused his grandmother's words, KIT KIT, with mud on a thin coat of white lime that insulates the walls of the house. Her words resonated with my own memory of solidarity: in El Salvador, I had transformed my mother’s abandoned home into a school. In Comalapa, Calel pulled on a blue thread that matched the color of his shirt, and fished out a key from his pocket. We entered an enclosed open-air garden. Hidden amongst the dirt and foliage, eroded stones collect rainwater where I imagine chickens would drink. Calel remembers his grandmother calling in chickens and parrots early in the morning: "KIT KIT KIT". We walked into the green and past it, the smell of moist dirt underneath us, upon another entrance. I step through the threshold of a door and the sky greets me. As if staring at a skylight cut into the side of a wall, Calel has stacked cardboard skies. Opened up and flattened out boxes are covered in mobile and modular sky paintings. Worlds within worlds, home to inexhaustible daydreams. To my immediate right, at shoulder height, homemade and shimmering, jagged charcoals sit on the shelves. I ponder their potential, ready to be harnessed through a spark to become a raging flame, a steady ember. At a distance I see three bottles of firewater embedded in cement. In sequence, they consecutively shift at about 22-degree angles. The liquid inside, reaffirming an internal level that connects all autonomous objects. We pay our respects to the shrine of the site. Gratitude.

We walked to Calel's home. Sweet hot coffee warms our bodies. Candles greet us. We light them and bond them to a stone plinth. After unsuccessfully lighting my candle, Calel’s shared sage words with me. Soon after, my flame held. Near the entrance to the heart of Calel’s dwelling sit hundreds of handmade clay spheres. His dirt floors take form in these meditative objects, borne of Calel's and his family’s hands: transformations through water, saliva, heat, and touch. Calel articulates how they dry through the retention of the heat and light of the sun. He describes how the wisdom of the object is released through action. In my studio, I had a ritual of having my meditations absorb into the heart of a material. It was exciting to experience the reverse as Calel shared with me that the heart of the material absorbs us, forms our mediation. The spirit of matter. Words fall short. The vulnerability, strength, and warmth that Calel shared with me is the embodiment of coexistence, a different way of understanding what a studio visit can be. It is this constant articulation of the nuance of experience and language that is a testament to the revolutionary struggles of Central America. Solidarity and camaraderie didn't die with the Cold War. Diaspora is no longer a word on a page. In Comalapa, I had a moment of estrangement: I began to see familiar things for the first time. I no longer felt esoteric and opaque. The way Calel's philosophy emanated from the objects he harnessed resonated with me. There was a syncretic understanding that didn't sacrifice the spirit of what it means to be human, the dualistic nature of it all. It was an estrangement in the form of wisdom and camaraderie. I can not wait to come back to Comalapa, to re-align my physical state to the spirit of a place. For now I will meditate on Calel’s gift. A round earth. Small and expansive. Full of potential.

- Oscar René Cornejo