Barbata brings South American, Caribbean culture to campus

By CiaraShook

As a video looped images of costumes being constructed and paraded, frenzied students, faculty and staff filed into the small lecture hall of the 916 S. Wabash Ave. Building to see artist Laura Anderson Barbata speak about using her skills in papermaking and costume building to

help communities.

Barbata visited Columbia on March 17 as part of the exhibition “Among Tender Roots,” which displays her work with the performance troupe Brooklyn Jumbies and her community-directed projects in Venezuela and Trinidad. The event was promoted by students enrolled in Rose Pritchett’s Introduction to Marketing the Arts course.

Dylan Weschler, a junior music business major, said the promotion of Barbata’s lecture was part of a midterm project in the class, that also meant to promote the Center for Book and Paper Arts.

“[Steve Woodall, director of the Center for Book and Paper Arts], thought this idea would kill two birds with one stone: the idea of marketing the arts in a hands-on sense and gaining awareness of the Book and Paper Center in the Columbia College community,” Weschler said.

Pritchett said students got the word out via e-mail and Facebook alerts, but the class also made approximately 300 “zine” flyers to distribute and leave at local businesses.

Students turned in a marketing plan for the two events as a midterm project, instead of writing a paper.

“It’s pretty cool because [the project] started near the beginning of the semester,” Weschler said. “[Pritchett] decided to kind of throw away our tests and papers in exchange for some real world experience. All of [us] students are pretty fond of it and it’s a better way to learn.”

Pritchett said her students got the word out well, even though some students, faculty and staff exposed to the promotion didn’t attend the event.

“This is also to get students to come here [to Barbata’s lecture],” Pritchett said. “It’s exciting to be able to collaborate between two departments.”

Born in Mexico City, Barbata worked in the social realm of the arts since 1992 and has initiated projects in South America, Norway and the United States.

“I became very interested in the environment and the natural world around us because I felt it could speak to us and show us a parallel between our inner lives and our inner growth,” Barbata said. “I felt we could see it clearly in nature and understand our own cycles and growth.”

Barbata went to Caracas, Venezuela, to work with people who have utilitarian objects very much like her sculptures.

“It changed my life and I asked myself, as a Mexican, ‘How are we seen as people from Latin America?’” she said.

Barbata explored how the people of the Amazon were perceived in pop culture.

“The Amazon has been used by a name—it sells,” she said.

Barbata showed how the Amazon and its people are portrayed in pop culture, using examples including the 1997 Tim Allen film, “Jungle 2 Jungle” and a cartoon regarding the domain name

Barbata said she wanted to stay and be able to contribute to the Amazonian community in a way that wasn’t exploitive, so she presented an exchange project to the Shapono community in the rainforest.

“I didn’t want to bring a lot of things, I wanted to work with what was there and with very simple technology available,” Barbata said. “With practice, they could make their own books.”

The paper was made with casaba fibers, but also from trash the rainforest had accumulated from the presence of militants and missionaries.

“We integrated [the papermaking] into the school program,” Barbata said.

She wanted to emulate a carnival-esque group much like the work of carnival designer Peter Minshall by creating street costumes and performances. She began working on the project in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 2001.

“Trinidad was a place that needed community projects and activities that were healthy and physical,” Barbata said. “I started to work with students doing types of portrayals.”

She took the carnival to New York City in 2007 and began working with street performance group, Brooklyn Jumbies. The project started as a workshop in Chelsea, in which the public could come in as they please to help put together costumes.

“I had pieces exhibited there that at the end of the show were going to be worn and become a parade in the middle of Chelsea,” Barbata said. “Hundreds of people saw this. They felt something different than what they normally felt in Chelsea.”

Barbata said she faced the conflict of making a project in Trinidad work in a place like New York City.

“The kids I started to work with here are from Brooklyn, whose lives are in Brooklyn,” Barbata said.“When we have the big, big costumes, people in buildings would come outside and say: ‘What is this? What’s going on?’ It was really great to shift what people are expecting. It offers the neighborhood and arts community something new and different.”