‘Always fighting against the machismo’: A conversation with Carla Maldonado on hybrid art spaces, indigenous rights, and SoMad’s current exhibition, FOGO!
Light pours in through the front windows at SoMad, a woman and queer-led art gallery, photo studio, and artist incubator located on the fourth floor of a building just below Madison Ave. It is a warm space; the hardwood lends it a sense of intimacy, and the variety of thriving green plants lining the windowed wall animate the room, breathing life into the stale, corporate air of midtown Manhattan.
I arrived for my interview with Carla Maldonado, one of SoMad’s directors, on a late Thursday afternoon, and entered through the elevator doors into the then-open exhibition, Counterweight.
With SoMad, like many small galleries in Manhattan right now, strict COVID protocol is in place and appointments are required for in-person viewings. Hand sanitizer is stationed right next to the guest book, and headphones (for sound/moving image works) are disinfected after each use. It feels safe—as much as one can feel safe in an enclosed space with strangers these days—to walk around and inspect the art, even at a glacial pace. I walked through Counterweight before heading to the back office to chat with Carla. I lingered for a bit in front of Amina Gingold’s quarantine-inspired film, Who’s There?, startled yet intrigued by footage of Gingold repetitively licking the peepholes of her neighbors’ apartments.
This was not my first visit to SoMad: I had come a few weeks prior with my friend Helen to see Bathing in Blackness, a multimedia exhibition showcasing work by Black artists centered around the theme of water and protest and futurity, featuring new imaginings of life resplendent with love and absent white supremacy. It was ethereal and captivating. We walked around (more than once) equally enamored with the space as we were with the show. Monitoring the space was Carla, with whom we struck up a conversation to learn more about the artists and the collaboration between SoMad and Bathing in Blackness’ curator, Kamra Hakim. We then got to talking about the mission of SoMad itself, touching upon the challenges emerging artists face in trying to find representation and a platform with which to exhibit their work to a wide audience.
“With some emerging artists, we look at people who we see have a lot of potential, but who sometimes didn’t have the privilege to go to a master’s school and learn how to do a perfect printing for photographs, or output their work properly,” Carla told me later during our interview, as we sat on a pair of funky colored couches in the back studio. “The art world’s really based on a language that you need in order to be accepted. And if you don’t go through the educational system that you’re supposed to, or have an amazing mentor — which is rare, right — then you’re just not accepted in it. So we’re kind of trying to break those structures, saying to them ‘You’re amazing, you should be an artist, and you’re not being accepted because you just didn’t have the privilege to get a master’s degree, or want to be in debt your whole life just to learn one thing or two that we can help you with.’”
Collectivity, community outreach, and collaboration are central to SoMad’s ethos. Formed back in 2018 by a group of three artists in the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts—Sara Arno, Serichai Traipoom, and a third artist who is no longer affiliated with the studio—Somad is a project-based platform that maintains a decentralized leadership structure. Even though SoMad is now run by Serichai, Sara, and Carla, the platform emphasizes collaboration, allowing artists the freedom to create what they want, and guest curators to organize shows specific to their respective visions.
“It’s not only about the three of us anymore,” Carla tells me. “We have the facilities and we have the structure, and the privilege to have this place in this location, so we are just interested in sharing it with people like us who did not find a place with all the opportunities, who did not have the privilege to be picked up right away from the art industry.” SoMad aims to break away from the exclusive, patriarchal, and often oppressive structures that uphold the art world. Carla and I spoke at length about these barriers, and the need for more accessible spaces and fewer corporate interests.
“I feel like the three of us really struggled with what the art world is, and how it functions,” Carla said when I asked her why SoMad was formed. “We went through a weird place where we were just like: do we want to belong to this system, or do we want to try to make something for us that is able to accommodate what we think is amazing in the art world? We want to be more open to people who did not have the privilege of a formal education or the “right” background.Carla officially joined SoMad after completing her MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media at SVA. Once graduated she no longer had her grant-funded studio in Greenpoint, and having already worked with her friends and participated in events at SoMad, transitioning her practice to the Manhattan studio felt like the natural next step. SoMad also offered Carla the kind of tight-knit artist community that she had moved from Brazil to New York to find.
“If anything is possible somewhere, the place in new york city,” Carla told me. “So that was the goal: to find a place where I could do things that I love, also have an artistic practice, and build a community where I don’t have to keep proving myself over and over again.
“That’s the struggle I had in Brazil,” Carla continued. “The fact that I had to prove myself, the fact that I had to fit in with the standards of what is expected from you. The fact that I was always fighting against the machismo that always happens there. People used to look at me like ‘she’s so crazy she’s so out of the box,’ and when I’m here in New York, people are like ‘oh she’s normal, like all of us.’” The effort to continue proving oneself is exhausting. Carla feels freer in New York, less constrained by the conservative cultural norms that dictate a social hierarchy in Brazil, and also in many places throughout the US.
There is a comfort in feeling and being accepted. When Carla first picked up a camera—a film camera that her father used to document family vacations—she was very young, and would make videos of herself doing all sorts of things a young kid with a camera might do, all while taping over sentimental family footage. Young Carla continued with this experimental work, in secret, until her parents inevitably found out. She didn’t film much video after that; it wasn’t until moving to New York that she officially began her video practice. “Maybe because it was something that I was ashamed of and was a secret, I blocked it from my life,” Carla said, mulling over the roots of her artistic career.
I asked Carla if she would consider moving back to Brazil. “I’m not comfortable there,” she responded. “There’s a lot of violence, especially with Bolsanaro being president. Things are not looking great. I have a lot of friends who moved out of Brazil too, and the ones that are there, it’s not that they’re choosing to be there, it’s just that they don’t have the means to leave. It’s not a beautiful place to live right now. I mean it’s still a beautiful place—and if you fit in the perfect box, it could be great. But if you don’t, even just a little bit, then it’s gonna be hell and you’re gonna have to fight your whole life to be who you are. And I just want to be my own person. And that’s the thing I can do here in New York.” Carla’s move to the US was an act of self-preservation. Yet she still holds Brazil close to her heart, and maintains an intimate connection with the culture that drives her to make work inspired by, and in support of, Brazil and the progressive movements that are working to dismantle oppressive systems.
As her practice developed in New York, Carla found herself shifting away from personal work that documented her queer community and friends towards work that was more explicitly political and environmentally-driven. She specifically began focusing on Brazil and the ecological devastation plaguing the Amazon rainforest. “I had to step back to start talking about Brazil,” Carla explained, reflecting on why she gravitated to the subject of her home country after moving away. “I also feel like there’s something about when you move from your homeland, and when you look back on it, you see a lot more beauty in it that you used to take for granted.” In 2019, Carla returned to Brazil to work with the Cipiá indigenous community in Manaus on the film “Dystopia of a Jungle City, and the Human of Nature” (2019). Her goal was not to tell their story, but rather to work with them to produce something important and empowering that would reach a wide audience.
Dystopia of a Jungle City, and the Human of Nature, which was adapted from its original four screen installation, opens with a single, red-filtered clip set against blackness. The clips are selfie footage from 2019 that belong to Wilson Lima, the current governor of Amazonas in Brazil. Lima is seated next to the newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro in a helicopter that is flying over the Amazon rainforest. They are both giddy with excitement and drunk with power over the opportunity to exploit the country’s natural resources for their own financial gain. “The Amazon forest is my economic strategy,” proclaims Bolsonaro. “Every other country wants to exploit it too, but the Amazon is ours, not theirs.”
The violence that has proliferated in Brazil since Bolsonaro was elected president has ravaged communities and wreaked havoc on the environment. “I saw them before Bolsanaro got elected and after Bolsanaro got elected,” Carla said of the indigenous community she worked with. “I was lucky enough to go there when they were just afraid of the idea of Bolsonaro getting elected, and then when I went back afterwards, they told me that they cried everyday when they learned Bolsanaro got elected. The first day of office Bolsanaro took away so many of their rights. It’s so evil.”After completing her film project with the Cipiá indigenous community and returning to New York, Carla knew she wanted to continue supporting efforts by the Indigenous Peoples’ Articulation of Brazil (APIB) to protect their land and culture. One way to do this was to make art: Carla’s practice in 2019 focused exclusively on Trump and Bolsonaro, and included responses to Bolsonaro’s denial of the criminal fires destroying parts of the Amazon rainforest, as well as his efforts to shift blame for the fires on indigenous communities. Bolsonaro’s policies and actions have endangered countless indigenous lives; his ultimate goal is to erase the history and culture of Brazil’s indigenous peoples through violent, exploitative means.
Sonia Guajajara, indigenous activist and the executive coordinator of APIB, has been leading the fight to unify, strengthen, and mobilize indigenous communities throughout Brazil. Born among the Guajajara people in the Amazon rainforest in Maranhão, Sonia was a vice-presidential candidate in the 2018 election, and continues to push for human rights legislation to protect the hundreds of indigenous communities for whom the rainforest is their livelihood.
As Carla continued creating work that highlighted indigenous activism and responded to deforestation in Brazil, she realized there was more she could do to support on-the-ground efforts. While speaking with her studiomate Sara last fall about putting on a fundraiser show to benefit APIB and Sonia Guajajara, Efrem Zelony-Mindell, who at the time was curating the exhibition Tangents at SoMad, overheard the meeting and chimed in, eager to help. He knew a few Brazilian artists who would be interested in participating, and had a curatorial background that would prove useful for organizing the show.
“Y’know I’m not a curator per se,” Carla said. “I can look at work, I can make sense of it, I can put things on the wall, but I don’t have experience with it. So it was nice getting his [Efrem’s] experience and my knowledge of Brazilian culture and Latinx culture.” Carla and Efrem reached out to artist friends and put out an open call for works by Latinx artists to be exhibited at SoMad, with 50% of proceeds for works sold going directly to APIB. Nineteen artists are included in the exhibition, whose works range from photographs to sculptures to paintings. One of Carla’s photographs, Self-Portrait Over the Bridge, taken during her time in the Amazon, is featured in the show. It depicts Carla’s reflection in the water: a blurry, abstract portrait that swims in heat and electric blues. “That’s how I look at the Amazon forest right now: moving, and blurry, doesn’t really make sense,” says Carla. “But there’s still the idea of wanting it to be there, and remembering what it looks like, but not being able to see it very much.”
The exhibition, titled FOGO!, is an embodiment of the resilience and the relentless spirit of environmental activists fighting to preserve their ancestral lands. “Fogo” translates from Portuguese to fire in English. “We’re not trying to showcase works about fire,” Carla clarified. “We’re just trying to showcase work from Latinx people that don’t have a lot of representation and opportunity here [in the US] and in New York…There’s a lot of personal work in the show that addresses the cultural background of Latinx in general, and whatever that means: religious, personal, portraiture, paintings…the works are very much about what it means to be Brazilian or South American right now.”
Carla and Efrem have collaborated on a multi-layered, politically relevant exhibition that brings together artists from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Puerto Rico into one room. FOGO! offers viewers multiple windows with which to understand the current political and environmental climate across Latin America. It is a must-see for anyone who cares about the Amazon, the environment, and indigenous communities around the globe.
Just before we finished the interview, I asked Carla one last question: does she believe the world can be saved from environmental collapse?
“Yes,” Carla responded. She sighed. “Still hopeful.”