Artist Talk: Arte de Base Communitaria

Community-based art from my vantage point sounds a lot like community organizing.

The projects described by artists Chemi Rosado Seijo, Jesús ‘Bubu’ Negrón, and Edgardo Larregui make me think of the possibilities that emerge at the edges between creative disciplines, in service and collaboration with communities. These art projects were incubated by professional artists in dynamic partnership with residents, democratizing the arts among marginalized communities, uplifting and nourishing community life, and sparking the possibility for new solutions small and large.

In 2002, Chemi Rosado Seijo began collaborating with the community of El Cerro in Naranjito, Puerto Rico to paint their houses green, honoring and amplifying the topography of the mountainside where the houses are built. Alongside this activity, the community built relationship and connectivity as children and adults participated in painting, art workshops and creating a museum/community center.

Jesús ‘Bubu’ Negrón has worked throughout Latin America on community-based art projects that deliver very concrete solutions, such as paving an unpaved street in Chiapas, Mexico or rehabilitating a basketball court buried by a landslide in Bolivia. In 2003, he worked with homeless people in Puerto Rico, who earn income by watching cars, to come up with uniforms and signage (the Vela Parking Services) that gave them a visible identity and recognition for their work.

“I use the strategy of art as a reason to mobilize people,” he said.

Projects shared by Edgardo Larregui inspired me to consider, in working to build community engagement and power, how to begin through particular points of resourcefulness and strength within each community. An artist’s vision can help to see the potential of carports, for example, as a site for neighborhood residents to share what they want to with one another—whether that be playing music, bringing horses from the field for kids to ride, or youth creating their own dance workshops. Other projects, such as El Caldo de La Perla, tapped into the history of local fishermen, bringing their catch together to cook a giant fish stew to share in a communal event. Dr. Recao in 2003 was an invitation for farmers in the community to collect the seeds of the herb recao (culantro in English), a key ingredient in Puerto Rican food, and mail the seeds to diasporic family members to plant in New York City. The campaign included street murals and street signs lifting up the healing properties of the herb, its accessibility and cultural roots, in contrast to fast food chains.

“Community art is not a painting, sculpture or performance. You are working with human beings, who are in need,” said Jesús ‘Bubu’ Negrón. “We can effect change in the community and in ourselves. Through our work, we have created new spaces for artists and people who are not artists to participate in art.”

Such is the social impact of artist-led, community-based change.