Pablo Helguera is a Mexican born, New York City based, socially engaged artist whose multi-disciplinary work has strong connections to language, experiential learning, and cultural identity. His artwork takes the form of social practice art, where the artist and the viewer are interrelated participants in an artwork’s process. Many of Helguera’s socially-engaged art projects make associations to the ideas of progressive pedagogical theorists like John Dewey and Paolo Freire, who stated that successful education is contingent upon a balanced and ethical partnership between the teacher and students. Helguera’s work acknowledges that humans are not tabula rasas (blank slates), waiting to be filled with knowledge at different points in their development, but rather constructors of metacognitive skills, prior experiences, and knowledge. In order to successfully do this, the educator must bypass the traditional role of being the arbitrator of knowledge and become a collaborator in developing an educational experience that is upheld through common participatory activities. Traditional art, like traditional education, views the artist, cultural critic, or institution as the arbitrator of aesthetic and cultural value. However, social practice art transcends enforcement and embraces a participatory shared experience between the artist and the public.
Helguera’s socially engaged projects focus on the embodiment of progressive education and art. When these two disciplines are utilized together they have the transformative ability to enact social change through interdisciplinary and multicultural communication and human relationships. In this respect, his work is largely about a qualitative process where the artist is constructing knowledge and educational experiences collaboratively with the participants who enter into the artwork democratically. Helguera and his collaborators exchange knowledge through the use of oral, visual, and literary tradition, which explores personal and collective identity.
In 2006, Helguera initiated The School of Panamerican Unrest, a four-month long road-trip across the Panamerican Highway. Helguera’s journey started in Alaska where he spoke with Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of Eyak, which is a Native Alaskan Language; and concluded in Puerto Williams, Tierra del Fuego where he spoke with Cristina Calderón, the last living speaker of the indigenous Yaghan language that was spoken by the Yaghan people of the Southern Cone. Throughout the trip, which included twenty-seven official stops between Alaska and Chile, Helguera set up a portable schoolhouse to examine the relationship between art, immigration, and cultural identity within a Pan-American framework. These topics were explored through public performances, discussions, and film screenings.
In 2013, Helguera continued to explore themes of language, immigration, and cultural identity through Librería Donceles, a non-profit used bookstore containing Spanish language literature. The bookstore became the first of its kind in contemporary New York City, a metropolis with over two million Hispanic and Latino individuals (roughly 25% of the city’s population). Within Librería Donceles, visitors had access to a wide variety of Spanish language books as well as a cultural hub where readers can connect with physical books and enjoy a diverse selection of great literary works. Visitors had the opportunity to assemble inside Librería Donceles and organize poetry readings, book discussions, or collaborative performances.
The temporary bookstore highlighted the importance of advocating for bilingual language speakers within multicultural communities. Traveling to other cities, Librería Donceles revealed the benefits that exposure to their native language has on the Latin American diaspora within a city such as New York and other metropolises where the project traveled to such as Phoenix, Arizona, Seattle, Washington, and Chicago, Illinois. The proceeds from the sales of books was donated to support local literacy programs for immigrant communities.
In the spirit of education, art, and literacy, the video above (from PBS’ The Art Assignment) features a great creative prompt from Helguera where participants of a small group will each choose a play, select several lines from their play and arrange them together to form a combined play. Starting at 7’55” in the video, there is an example of a “Combinatory Play”at Librería Donceles featuring Helguera and two other participants.
On April 11th, 2018, Helguera launched La Austral, S.A. de C.V at El Museo de Los Sures on the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighborhood, which is a historic cultural hub for Puerto Rican, Dominican, Polish, Italian, and Hasidic Jewish communities, is the perfect fit for this collaborative dispensary of oral narratives. Visitors take part in storytelling workshops and can hear stories told by various facilitators who worked with Helguera in bringing this project to fruition. All of the facilitators are immigrants to New York City and include artists, activists, educators, poets, and writers. The project was inspired by the turmoil surrounding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, who are facing increased hostility from Right-Wing partisans. The use of storytelling is a practice that spans time and location and brings people together in a communal environment.
Participatory art’s focus on human relationships brings together a multitude of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives. The multilingual and multicultural connections that are established as a result of interdisciplinary communication and process-based partnerships have significant ramifications across our collective culture. Furthermore, bridging the gap between speakers of different languages in order to open up new and exciting relationships between different cultures is indicative of the importance of incorporating bi-lingual learning in the education system. Bi-lingual learning is rising across the United States, and has strong benefits for both native English speakers and students whose native language is not English. Garcia (2009) cites research by Thomas & Collier (2002) that supports how educators can scaffold an emergent bilingual student’s learning by building upon their strengths via a dual language curriculum. In other words, educators can help English language learners become proficient in speaking English by using the students’ strengths and comprehension of their native language to discover commonalities in the way we all communicate. The result is that the students are able to think, communicate, and strive using both English and their native language in tandem. This also has the same positive effect for English speaking students who are immersed in a bilingual environment where they learn to make bilingual connections throughout the curriculum. Incorporating a dual language pedagogical approach has positive effects on everyone from students, schools, parents, and the communities at large.
It is time that we move towards a democratic approach to embodying our collective experiences through art. Art’s most powerful function is not as a pure aesthetic object for us to treat as sacred, but rather a process-based experiential event where we learn and construct knowledge together. Art-centered interdisciplinary projects such as the aforementioned works by Pablo Helguera, strengthen our appreciation of multiculturalism by establishing mutual empathetic relationships between different communities that exist within our local, national, and global landscape.
La Austral, S.A. de C.V. is on view through May 13th at El Museo de Los Sures, 120 South 1st Street, Brooklyn, NY 11249.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Garcia, Ofelia. (2009). Emergent Bilinguals and TESOL: What’s in a Name? TESOL Quarterly, 43(2), 322-326