De tu Puño y Letra, An Artistic Approach to Social Issues in Ecuador
On November 25, 2015—the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—I presented a performance on family violence sponsored by the mayor’s office in the city of Quito, Ecuador. Quito was selected to take part in 100 Resilient Cities, inaugurated by The Rockefeller Foundation, in order to increase its ability to deal with physical, social, and economic challenges—social inequity was a key issue. This art project, created during my time as a resident at the Bellagio Center, addressed the issue of gender inequity and violence across Ecuador.
Led by Mayor Mauricio Rodas, local efforts to reduce violence before my arrival included the ONU Mujeres’ “Safe Cities for Women and Girls” project to report harassment on public transportation, and the 2012 “Cartas de Mujeres” project, where women across the country penned letters about their experiences of violence.
What can art bring to the conversation on resilience?
My art project, produced by the Contemporary Art Center, was a partnership with city government, organizations, artists, and universities—a year-long exercise in collaboration and creative design that culminated in a theatrical performance in an historic bullring in Quito.
The city of Quito is unusual in its support of art that contributes to the betterment of the public sphere, which is why I was invited to work here. I practice a form of creativity that sits half-way between activism and artistry. “Social practice art,” as it’s called, combines artistic explorations with concrete actions; engages with broad partnerships inside and outside the arts; and addresses substantial matters of public importance, often defined through a participatory methodology. Such art uses its unique expressive powers to evoke audience engagement with social issues and mobilizes new ways of performing civic responsibility.
When I arrived in Quito, I was introduced to the archive of 10,000 hand-written letters from Cartas de Mujeres. Reading some of them in their boxes, it seemed that project wasn’t finished yet. Could we create a public response to the letters through art? My work is based in a unique highly collaborative design process that engages scores of participants—drawn from a careful analysis of the local environment—in sessions to begin to ask questions about what might be possible. In Quito, we assembled scores of collaborators and began working together.
“We wanted to include men in the developing public conversation on gender violence, to create an empathic relationship between men and victims of family violence and to empower them to engage more fully in emerging civic conversations.”
We wanted to include men in the developing public conversation on gender violence, to create an empathic relationship between men and victims of family violence and to empower them to engage more fully in emerging civic conversations. We invited 350 male participants to take part in deeply impactful workshops on masculinity and violence. Each man “adopted” a letter from an unknown woman from the archives, interrogated his understandings of family violence with other men, and, through the vehicle of the performance, each made his support public.
Over 1500 people entered the Plaza Belmonte that November evening to witness De tu puño y letra (By Your Own Hand), the artistic reading, in five acts, of 56 letters that described the arc of gender violence—from childhood to marriage, and finally old age. Surprise interventions from live musicians seated in the audience added to the theatricality and poignancy of the performance. The authentic voices of Ecuadorian women were expressed by hundreds of men of all ages and from all walks of life.
The development of the work is, itself, a form of resilience-building: In the conversations before and during the bullring performance, examples of how to escape violence were considered, medical school curriculum was developed, and perceptions of masculinity were widely challenged. We supported civic resilience through articulation of the many initiatives of the mayor’s office and other organizations, and our project supported and validated the secretary of culture’s agenda detailing the importance of artists to community education and social change. Our project also served as a platform for research by the prestigious Instituto de la Ciudad into how art impacts people’s experience of public space and elevates themes in public discourse.
In the final act of the performance, hundreds of men took their letters into the audience where they huddled over candles to read “their” letters to intimate groups of two or three people. The audience exploded into conversation as people sat with open hearts listening and responding to each other, with more than a few tears, moving formerly hidden experiences into the full light of an inclusive public conversation.
Collaborators are too numerous to mention all of them but a few bear special thanks:
Mayor Mauricio Rodas, Secretary of Culture Pablo Corral Vega, Teatro Sucre Director Chía Patiño, Curator María Fernanda Cartagena, Producer Oderay Game, Sound Designer Bruno Louchouarn, Dr. Jorge Gabela of UDLA School of Medicine, Timm Kroeger of Cooperación Alemana GIZ, Director Julio Echeverría of the Instituto de la Cuidad, The U.S. Embassy, The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, and A Blade of Grass.