by Iman Sultan
"If there’s one incredible project that captivates and inspires other people, that’s when things truly start happening and changing."
Hugo Huerta Marin was in upstate New York with legendary performance artist Marina Abramović when the germinal idea for his book, Portrait of an Artist, struck. “I remember having this big desire to take her portrait in a very candid way, the most candid way possible. So I took a polaroid, I interviewed her, and it was just a way to depict her mind, her self, and her essence,” Marin recalls.
Initially an art exhibition, Marin’s seven-year-long project blossomed into a hardback book featuring 25 interviews and polaroid photographs of trailblazing creative women, who pushed the boundaries in the cultural realms of art, film, fashion and music.
Marin speaks to Radical Art Review about his conversations with these larger-than-life women, the importance of resistance in art, and how culture can be used to create and inspire social change.
How did you go about choosing the different artists, actresses, and fashion designers featured in the book?
These artists broke the mould and changed the game and culture in a way, so that was a good starting point. But it was also very straight-forward to me because their work speaks to me on many levels, and artists like Cate Blanchett, for instance, don’t only work in film, she’s done a lot of things within art and photography. And I can go on and on about [actress] Anjelica Huston and her impact on fashion, everything she did was [photographed by] Helmut Newton. And with fashion designers, it’s the same, like Miucca Prada is such a big name in the fashion industry, and yet, she’s always provoking and implementing these themes of resistance within her work. That’s what connects all of these interviews and portraits: these female artists are pioneers.
Why do you think pushing boundaries is important, especially social and political boundaries? How is that important, not just for art, but for the society in which that art is being made?
I think using art as a tool for social change is crucial, because that’s when the culture is shifted. If we stick to the conceptions of the system as it is, then minorities wouldn’t have any exposition or be highlighted, because [oppression and exclusion] are already so structural. And when somebody who is not a cis, straight, white man comes up with an idea, and defies the status quo, it’s incredible. I think that’s what art should do, it should raise questions, and push the limits. That’s how things get normalized over time too, but someone first has to start this revolution or resistance.
I just remembered, Cate Blanchett said the same thing in your book, that ‘art is a provocation to have dangerous conversations’.
You spoke about the role of politics in art with artists who have also been activists, such as Yoko Ono and Annie Lennox, or people who have used art as activism like Shirin Neshat and Tania Bruguera. What exactly were you thinking when you approached them about the role of politics in art?
I’m very interested in these concepts because I think art has space for everything, every sort of expression. And when activism and art join, the result is groundbreaking. I was trying to understand where the mindset of a political artist is situated. What are their influences? What is the drive behind making a project that can talk to 10,000 people in the street, and not only a small group of people in a gallery circuit?
Jenny Holzer is one of my favorite artists. She uses language as art, which I find fascinating. I remember reading Truisms and being blown away. It’s a text that anyone can read on a piece of paper. But then what happens if you have a projection of this text in a mountain, or in a government building somewhere advocating for justice?
And then with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, she’s changed the collective view on art in general. She’s shown a way to make art mainstream while still effecting social change, which I believe is key for political art.
Activism has started to become popular in the mainstream, and many of the people you interviewed, such as Yoko Ono, have been engaging in art and activism for a very long time. So when you interviewed these artists, what kind of sensibility did they have about activism?
Yoko’s response was very interesting when I asked her about activism. She said she’s been doing that even before the word ‘activism’ was on the map. It’s natural for them, and they’ve been advocating for these causes before they were actually named or tweeted. It’s implicit within them. And you can see that in Yoko’s songs or videos. She was not provoking for the sake of provoking, there was an intention behind it. And it’s just evolved with time.
What distinguishes political art from what people might dismiss as ‘propaganda’? How do we keep political art natural and organic, and prevent it from coming exclusively from a place of dogma?
If an effort of resistance, or the artwork itself, is superficial, it will show. And if it’s copying other concepts, it will show. An original channel of resistance, when done from an authentic place, makes a big statement. Tania Bruguera speaks with her art to young men in Cuba and people who are not allowed to express themselves in front of the public, and she’ll do the same in a big biennale or a cultural event. That’s political and it’s a really strong statement.
It’s similar with Shirin Neshat, who makes this beautiful work with Farsi poetry, and she uses a lot of verses and references about the way women are treated in Iran. The political intention of her work is very clear. But even if you think about someone like Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Comme des Garçons, she chooses not to show herself, she isn’t exposed, but she has this huge corporate brand that’s worn by fashionable people all over the world. She’s still this cult figure because of how private she is; she’s repulsed by the idea of fame. And I think maintaining this position is a very strong statement to send out.
Many artists who achieve fame, especially women, become icons or end up having a larger-than-life public persona. What do you think is the relationship of this persona to their own humanity, or who they are as individuals? When meeting these women, how did you approach and speak to them?
Well, I have a problem with the concept of the ‘idol’ or the ‘icon’. It just doesn’t speak to me in many different layers. I wanted these women to speak to me as other artists, as a peer, more than a goddess or an icon. Because we’ve seen and read about that already. I can tell you that these women are human, and they love as we all love, they suffer, as we all suffer, and that’s why I wanted to ask them about pain.
How do you deal with pain? How do you deal with suffering? Pain is important for an artist, but I also asked them about their personal idea of beauty. I wanted to break these walls. That was my intention. And, of course, I see the grandeur, because they’re legends. But I truly see them as humans and artists, and that’s why I wanted to sit down with them and just have a conversation between two artists. For me, that was important.
When you spoke to photographer Carrie Mae Weems, she discussed how art museums and galleries want to include Black and Brown people as tokens, but they don’t necessarily want to change the system itself. What are your thoughts about that?
In the art world, it’s less about what your work [as a person of color] is contributing to our show or our project, rather it’s just to fulfill a requirement to get more Brown, Asian, women or Black artists involved within the funding, and I think that’s a problem.
And I feel it shouldn’t only be about employing Black or Brown artists, but also about including Black or Brown curators, who can understand the context of where a certain work or exhibition is coming from, and why it is important.
And how do you think the art world can improve in its treatment of artists of color?
Resisting is key. It doesn’t matter if you are a very established artist, or an emerging artist from South Africa or Latin America. Because when you resist, [other] artists are going to raise their voices. And if there’s collectiveness in the act, or even if there’s one incredible project that captivates and inspires other people, that’s when things truly start happening and changing. For me, resistance and inclusiveness are key.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Portrait of an Artist: Conversations with Trailblazing Creative Women is available to purchase at Daunt Books.