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Ai Wei Wei, See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, 2009

Starting from the premise that contemporary artists indicate and reflect social and cultural trends, it can be stated that artwork in turn reveals ideas pertinent tw its surrounding environment. I would go as far as to say artists are able to preempt social and cultural change. One only needs to look at artist Ai Weiwei not only for the social and political content of his work, but also for his ability to exemplify the grassroots discontent with the Communist Party’s rule of China on the rise amongst its younger generation.

Similarly, artists in developing areas of the world reside in environments where social and cultural complexities are at the fore of conversation. As a result, many artists in these regions carry with them an inherent social awareness that infiltrates their artwork. This awareness, coupled with the ability to converse with audiences in a direct and immediate manner (the outcome of exhibiting work in informal and therefore less filtered spaces), makes much of their artwork “truer” to, and indicative of, their surroundings. How they choose to internalize and express these influences often defines how we relate to their artwork within a global context.

Looking to Shantytowns

Fredy Alzate, El arquitecto descalzo (The Barefoot Architect), installation detail, 2010. Image courtesy Praxis Gallery.

Fredy Alzate is an artist living and working in Medellin, Colombia. He draws inspiration for his work by observing the city, specifically the informal environments of the favelas, or shantytowns, around Medellin. He begins his process by taking aerial photographs of the favela rooftops. He then creates drawings and sculptures that echo the shape and haphazard construction of these rooftops looking at their configuration within the social space. He further observes the landscape in which these homes are built repeating the forms of discarded tires and plastic sheeting in his sketches. His sculptural works are made from found objects reminiscent of the materials in the area such as the metal sheeting of the rooftops. Precariously balanced in the space, these sculptures echo the transient nature of the landscape impacted by the informal movement of people in and out of these favelas, mirroring not only the physical landscape, but also the actions of its inhabitants. His approach is analytical and he uses his environment as a case study from which he derives the shapes and forms in his work.

In 2009, French street artist JR covered over 2,000 square feet of Kibera shantytown rooftops in Nairobi, Kenya with photographs on water resistant fabric. To his credit, the artist adopted an integrated approach and employed members from the community to lay hundreds of images, depicting portraits of women from the area in various stages of facial expression. He even went as far as to wrap the train that passed through the area. On the one hand the project is an invasive intervention in an area that the artist has little conceptual rights to. He not only assumes permission to intervene but also assumes this community would want such a project in their space, echoing years of colonial attitude of “we are here to help you in a way we see best.” On the other hand the redeeming quality of the project is that the artist actively engaged the community in its production and implementation, providing employment and a practical solution to a fundamental problem — leaking roofs.

Then there are artists who use the ideas that stem from developing worlds as inspiration to create work that addresses human existence on a global scale. One such artist is Argentinian born Tomas Saraceno who adopts an idealistic approach by actively marrying his artwork with social and environmental ideologies. Inspired by inventor and designer Buckminster Fuller, Saraceno creates a series of space-like orbs as possible alternative spaces for people to someday live in. He is obsessed with creating a sustainable living environment that is free of borders and nationalistic affiliations. Having been exiled with his family to live in Europe for eleven years of his childhood, Saraceno has an acute awareness of what it means to live with imposed political and social boundaries. Using science as a basis from which to construct these worlds, Saraceno provides a plausible alternative living space reminiscent of what may be considered Utopia.

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Claire Breukel

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...