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Different spaces, same home
by Muhammad Yusuf June 05, 2014
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Ecuadorian artist Maria Veronica Leon Veintemilla could be anyone’s dream idea of the ideal “glocal” artist – global in outlook, yet very locally inspired. She was born in Quito, has worked in Paris and is now based in Dubai. Each of these localities has impacted her aesthetics, proof of which is in her creations.

Perhaps the very fact of being born in Ecuador itself makes one halfway “glocalised”. The country’s culture is arguably as varied as its population and politics. Mainstream Ecuadorean culture is a mix of Amerindian, Spanish, African, North American and other Latin American influences. The country’s mixed heritage has ensured the existence of a wide array of arts and crafts, literature, architectural styles, and musical rhythms.

The majority of Ecuador’s population is mestizo, a blend of both European and Amerindian ancestry. African influence is also strong. The artists range from folk artisans, working in a variety of forms, materials and traditions to modern painters, sculptors and ceramicists producing beautiful representational and abstract works.

Ecuadorean art goes back a long way – all the way to the Pre-Columbian era, in fact. Pre-Columbian artisans produced a wide range of pottery, paintings, sculpture and gold and silver work. Intact pottery figurines dating from 3000 BCE have been discovered. After the arrival of the Spanish, art came under the influence of Spain.

Veintemilla proudly acknowledges the ownership of all these mores and values in her works. The world came to her quite early. “My father was a politician”, she said in the course of an interview, where her voice alternately rose to majestic heights and fell to hard-to-catch whispers. “He showed us the importance of word-pictures”.

“I have had an eclectic life”, she said. After graduating from the School of Fine Arts, Quito, where she specialised in painting and printmaking, she moved to Paris. “Paris is the place”, she said, “where all the world comes to express itself intellectually. It has been a good place for me, since I have always wished to communicate with any culture without complications”.

She is vehement in her opinion that there are cultural similarities between South America, West Europe and the Middle East. “When I started with my art”, she said, “I realised that men and women created artistic and literary language to communicate universally. We are all instruments of expression”.

According to her, Arab and South American cultures have the same values in life, which includes respect for parents and family. “The nature of our love is warm and generous and is especially seen in the way we welcome guests, even unexpected ones”, she said. She could have a point there.

Furthermore, similarities are seen in the way intangible things are shared, the way (dining) tables are arranged, generosity, connective energy, religion and its values – many of which are expressed in art.

She found fresh beauty in the UAE and discovered a new aesthetic sense here. “Dubai is a contemporary urban jewel”, she said. “It is clean and the movement of people is impeccable, even on TV screens”.

She found it exemplary that traditions are fiercely held on to, even as the world is embraced. “Traditional Arabic music”, she says, half incredulously, half amazed and fully impressed, “has electronic sounds!”

She acknowledges her debt to the Italian School of Art (Renaissance period), the Flemish School and also the Spanish School. But she would rather be her own person as an artist than be indebted to them in a way she loses her identity. This could be another of the reasons that draws her to the Middle East, with its known capacity to digest influences rather than be digested by them.

Her works are noted for the use of red, black and plenty of gold and silver, all exploding together in fiery fusion. You will also find yellows, greens and blues in profusion, along with a variety of shapes and forms that include squares, circles, triangles and numbers. One critic has termed her being “disconcerting in her originality”.

It was a minor confrontation at Venice Biennial 2007 that sparked her interest in numbers. “During that time”, she said, “the world had got into its financial crisis, when numbers were flung around – though, for me, it was not just a fiscal crisis, but also a social and moral crisis.

“Also, I thought that artists have now to be businessmen who deal in numbers and the market. They are programmed like any businessman! I saw art as part of an immense amalgamation of galleries, dealers and big operations. By bringing in numbers into my work, I wanted to give another perspective. I wanted to break the paradigm of art”.

In recent years, she has produced video art, video installation, video-poetry, digital books and digital photography. But in Dubai, she has gone back to the ancient ways of art making, meaning, to the old fashioned way of using acrylic and oil on canvas.

She has painted Emirati women with an instinctive flourish, that could have come only from deep admiration of the subject. Two works titled ‘Identity Crystallisation’ and ‘Contemporary Identity’ show abaya-clad women. The former has a diamond in the place of the face – is she hinting at the wealth of Dubai?

“Listen!” she said outraged. “Probably we don’t need to express this specially, since it is everywhere! The diamond represents enlightenment – it is a reflection of the light of a new woman with contemporary values. The diamond’s light is liberating - though it is part of the commercial market here”.

‘Contemporary Identity’ was inspired by “the cool way the women project themselves here”. Though every part of the body is covered, it represents identity. And identity represents culture.

“I lost my freshness and youth in Europe”, she said, with a sigh. “I tried to recover my innocence; but it was not possible. But I have always tried to be playful, if only to rescue my original qualities”. Elements of folklore, sharp geometrical lines, primitive style making – these, through their silent presence, are part of the cultural baggage she carries.

She is infatuated with colours. “I come from the coast, where earthy colours are found”, she said, when questioned on her obsession with colours. “As my teacher used to say, a rich piece of art is full of colour”.

For her, colour is an universal principle. “A box of colours is the same in every country!” she said. She considers herself an Integrationist, someone in whose thoughts and on whose canvasses, the Left and Right, Rich and Poor and Liberal and Conservative, are equally honoured.

You’ll be right at home here, Veintemilla!

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