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Rainbow Actions: An Interview with Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa
Robert Barry , November 29th, 2015 08:10

On the eve of his live streamed action for the Tate’s Performance Rooms series, tQ's Robert Barry talks to Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa about colour, humour, and trauma

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, God's Reptilian Finger, 2015. Commissioned by Gasworks. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.

One day in the mid-80s, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa woke up in tears. He knew straightaway that something bad was going to happen. He was six years old. Later that day, his uncle, a 19 year-old student activist, would be assassinated.

Within days, the family left their home in Guatemala to seek asylum, first in Mexico, and ultimately on the west coast of Canada. “It was kind of weird,” he reflects now, some three decades later, “I just remember this sensation of waking up and already knowing what was going on.”

At that time, Guatemala was in the midst of a 36 year civil war that wasn’t even officially acknowledged to exist. In June 1954, a CIA-backed coup had toppled the democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz, installing the first in a long series of repressive military dictatorships. Six years later, a small group of young leftist army officers founded an insurgency movement to try and wrest power back from the autocratic regime.

By the time the peace accords were signed in 1996, the Historical Clarification Commission would estimate some 200,000 people had been killed, with many more disappeared, incarcerated, and tortured. The Commission found the government responsible for 93% of human rights violations during the course of its long American-backed campaign against ‘communism’.

Left wing and politically engaged, Ramírez-Figueroa’s family were deeply affected by the civil war. It is the red thread that has run through his art since his college days. But the war never quite appears directly. Instead, it is made, as he says, “abstract”, filtered through layers of fantasy, poetry, and formal ingenuity. Not to mention a certain mordant, madcap sense of humour.

His forthcoming performance for the Tate’s live-streamed Performance Room series is a case in point. Taking its inspiration from his memory of that morning, 30 years ago, when his uncle was killed, the show promises children in grotesque masks wielding prosthetic arms, and Figueroa himself in some sort of “doll-like” costume. “I’m trying to capture the sensation,” he tells me. “In my art, that’s mostly what I’ve been interested in. Sensations. It always starts with a very specific thing, but then I abstract it.”

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Fantasma Amigable / Friendly Ghost, 2012. Photograph.

Sitting opposite him over cups of tea in the kitchen of south London’s Gasworks Gallery in a break from preparing his show there, it is impossible not to be charmed by Ramírez-Figueroa. He admits to having been nervous about the interview, but is almost disarmingly sweet, with his unruly tuft of black hair and big purple t-shirt. On his left arm is a tattoo of his uncle, the vestige of another artist’s performance that he took part in as an undergrad and seems almost embarrassed about now. His statements are often prefaced by self-effacing qualifiers and tend to trail off into an um, a yeah, an I don’t know, or an anyway.

“At first I wanted to do something really epic,” he says of his artistic responses to the Guatemalan civil war. “At the end of the day, I don’t think anybody else cares what my memories are, but I think the images I can create looking through that will probably be more interesting than trying to make some kind of epic war thing. It’s too generic. In the nineteenth century, war paintings became very standardised. Somebody falling from a horse and such.”

Ramírez-Figueroa’s artworks are anything but generic. He has danced the history of Guatemalan architecture, naked except for a white cardboard ziggurat. He has built vast, corridor-spanning sculptures of palm trees, coiled back like a snare, with a taxidermied dog perched on top bearing the face of Lynndie England, the ex-military police officer court-martialled after posing for photographs with abused Abu Ghraib prisoners. He has built elaborate polystyrene stage sets for plays that do not exist. He paints trauma in bright colours and conjures the horror of war and displacement through an often surreal child’s eye view.

Graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008, Ramírez-Figueroa took up a residency at Despacio, an artist-run gallery in Costa Rica. There he began to experiment making sculptures, “but they didn’t work out. I bought a large amount of this plaster, but the plaster was contaminated so it never dried.” But the residency would nevertheless prove fruitful for his burgeoning performance practice.

One performance in particular was inspired by a trip to Bananera, a vast banana plantation in Guatemala’s northern province of Izabal. Originally built by the American United Fruit Company, a private corporation with close ties to the CIA (through UFCO board member and CIA director, Allen Dulles), Bananera was a critical flashpoint in the tension between unionised workers and the interests of foreign capital in the run-up to the Guatemalan coup of 1954.

“When I was leaving the farm,” Ramírez-Figueroa says, “I saw this green banana bunch and I asked if I could take it. My mother said it won’t ripen by itself. But I took it anyway. She made a joke about how maybe I could wrap it around myself in my sleep and then maybe it would ripen.”

At Despacio, he slept for twenty days wrapped around his banana bunch as it slowly ripened in his arms. Meanwhile, he filled the gallery with books of poetry and leftist history for visitors to read, and painted watercolours of the imagery from his dreams. It became a performance about “the internalisation of this plant” as his dreams became increasingly permeated by images of bananas.

After three months of what was supposed to be a six month residency, however, Ramírez-Figueroa ended up broke and was forced to return to Guatemala City, only to be packed off to a residency of quite a different kind. “My mother thought I had become a bit bourgeois. So she sent me to this farm that refugees had formed after the war. Supposedly I was going to milk cows or something in exchange for food. But instead they asked me to paint.”

He found himself living in a farmhouse, with a cat, painting aspirational pictures of “cows on the horizon”, surrounded by friends of his parents. In desperation he applied for a fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. It was a sculpture residency, so after the fiasco with the plaster in Costa Rica, he didn’t hold out much hope of getting it. But in the event he was selected (by none other than the American conceptual artist Dan Graham), so in 2011 he left for Germany. “My ticket out of there!”

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Breve Historia de la Arquitectura en Guatemala / A Brief History of Architecture in Guatemala, 2010-13, Created for Castello di Rivoli

If he arrived nervous and unsure of himself, Ramírez-Figueroa’s time in Stuttgart turned out to be pivotal in his development as a sculptor. After an old mentor from Canada told him that he didn’t know “how to do anything”, he started making things out of polystyrene, since “anybody can make things out of that.” Taking inspiration from poems by Mao Tse-Tung and the Mexican romantic modernist, Carlos Pellicer, he started using bright, brash colours. For a solo show in Madrid, he made cartoonish over-sized heads in vivid orange, blue, yellow, and pink, of Latin American poets who had been influential on revolutionary movements: people like José Marti, Corky Gonzalez, Pablo Neruda, and Otto René Castillo.

At the same show he performed a piece called Rainbow Action, involving painting the stripes of the rainbow upon his naked body and forming an arch on the gallery floor. The work appropriates and re-contextualises a 1995 work by the Polish absurdist Cezary Bodzianowski, entitled Rainbow, Bathroom, Łodz. Bodzianowski had photographed himself, similarly daubed, making a human bridge from his bath tub diving into the toilet bowl.

If his Polish predecessor was making a cynical point about the failures of utopian socialism, Ramírez-Figueroa’s action is more nostalgic. “I wanted to try to explore this naïve positivity which I sensed as a child listening to people talk about change,” he says. “Although people couldn’t get away from it being a rainbow and gayness. For me, it was more about general optimism.”

If the civil war constitutes something like the background radiation of Ramírez-Figueroa’s work over the past few years, he seems increasingly reluctant to let it define him. “I’m going to just dedicate a few performances to it this year and then maybe I can move on,” he says. “I sort of want to get it out of my system, in a way.”

When I ask how it feels, given his own past refugee status, reading media representations of refugees today, it’s clearly a subject he’s reluctant to be drawn into. “My experience as a refugee was very lucky,” he says simply, “because I was officially one, and I probably could have received asylum from any country at that time. I know that’s not the case for many people now.”

But as we speak about his various residencies and solo presentations around Europe and North America, I grow curious how his often irreverent work is received at home in Guatemala. “I didn’t exhibit there until 2010,” he says. On the whole, he thinks people seemed “to get it and accept what I was doing. But then, I’ve noticed that some upper class folk, they seem to be offended that I was making so light of it. I think they wanted me to make it more… official or something.”

“In my life experience,” he says, “if somebody makes a joke about something that happened to them, it’s probably true. But then if somebody is really adamant about something happening, I sort of become suspicious. Since I spent time in Canada, and everybody in my neighbourhood was refugees from different parts of the world, [I remember] sharing conversations with a friend from Rwanda. He was there, that famous night of the massacres. But there was also humour to his story. I think it’s just the way, maybe in that moment, that’s the way it is.

“I think when I started making work, it seemed like, when people talked about war or testimony, the aesthetic of art which talked about this was mostly black and white and very sombre. So then I wanted to try and inject humour and absurdity into these conversations. Because I also felt that the alternative was kind of false.”

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s performance for BMW Tate Live will take place at 8pm on Thursday 3 December. His exhibition, God's Reptilian Finger, is at Gasworks Gallery until 7 February 2016