Las Nietas de Nonó: Day-to-Day Utopias

[Many thanks to David Auerbach (UPR) for bringing this item to our attention.] Inés Katzenstein (MoMA magazine) writes: “mulowayi iyaye nonó and mapenzi chibale nonó find healing and liberation in creating art—and finding food—beyond the limits of traditional institutions.”

Foodtopia, después de todo territorio (Foodtopia, After Every Territory), a film by Las Nietas de Nonó, documents mulowayi iyaye nonó and mapenzi chibale nonó during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they subsisted for a period of time exclusively on hunting and gathering. The film, which is screening as part of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York 2021 and was made with the museum’s support, is an example of the duo’s feminist, decolonial work, which focuses on the history of the oppression of Afro-diasporic communities in the Caribbean and the survival of their knowledge.

In this conversation, the artists discuss their work’s relationship to territory, understood in its spatial as well as historical meanings. They also provide insight into their practice and mode of working, which emphasize a self-organized approach independent from the support of institutions.

[Translated from Spanish by Christopher Winks.]

Inés Katzenstein: Your lives and work have crossed in a very productive way. Living and working together seem part of the same experience. So I’d like you to talk about the Barrio San Antón, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, where you live, and whether you work in something like a “studio.”

mulowayi iyaye nonó: Barrio San Antón is a place with an abundance of natural resources: there are springs, fruit trees, a gully that traverses the barrio and connects to the San Juan Estuary, an infinite ancestral wisdom about curatives and the power of plants, and a large population of iguanas. I remember that when Hurricane Hugo happened, I was 10 years old and the first thing I did when the cyclone had ended was to collect all the fallen fruit. That was all we had to eat until we ate the last cedar fruit and parboiled the last breadfruit. The barrio is split by a highway that deprives us of the possibility of walking safely; add to this the problem of displacement, which is affecting people’s quality of life. Since the 1990s, the people of the barrio have been fighting for the spaces that have been affected by the different industries that have been stationed in our community. This has led to a deterioration and abandonment of spaces; it seems as if we’ll never stop fighting this. In 2017 they closed the three schools in the community and this has also touched off another avalanche of displacement.

I’m interested in working in studio and collaborative spaces. But really, I don’t think what we do can be contained in any single space or in a studio as such. We move around a lot; I’m also a community organizer. Our practice is dedicated to having conversations with people, exploring places, walking, sharing knowledge with the elders. Studio space offers us more of a limitation than a possibility. In the barrio we have a house we inherited from our paternal grandparents. The space of the house functions like a kind of archive which has part of the family history. We invite people there; several theatrical and performance pieces have been presented there. At the same time, it’s the place where we store some of the objects of our work. Now the house is in transition because we’re collaborating on organizing a community space in the school that the government closed.

Inés: Could you talk about the creation of the so-called “Patio Taller” in your grandparents’ house?

mulowayi: At that time my children were eight and 10 years old, and this was a motivation to create a meeting space, a safe space, on the property that belonged to our grandparents. We created an arts workshop space during the summers, and then we opened an artist residency and created Manual de bestiario doméstico (Manual of Domestic Bestiary). Patio Taller was the seed of the part of our practice that’s based on organizing safe spaces within the community. It was a space where art was understood as a space for healing and an exchange of knowledge: to connect to the ancestral, to make handicrafts, whatever would give us a collective feeling of being at home, like everybody cooking together in the cooking class. Patio Taller was a project that operated between 2011 and 2019; things there happened organically and spontaneously. I can say that Patio Taller was a seed because that’s how it’s viewed in my barrio. It evolved to an unimaginable extent, and we put together an ambitious and inclusive project with a community of women that we are a part of.

mapenzi chibale nonó: In Patio Taller we could imagine the possibility of La Conde, which is a project of Parceleras Afrocaribeñas, the community-based organization we founded in 2019 in collaboration with neighbors in the Barrio San Antón. La Conde was the school we, as well our father’s and neighbors, attended as children. In 2017 it was closed by the Department of Education due to the austerity policies of the Fiscal Control Board. Since then, we have channeled resources to stop the privatization of these lands and recover them for the benefit of the community using the participatory-design methodology. Now La Conde has antiracist art, health, and environment programming.

Patio Taller, in the early days of Parceleras Afrocaribeñas, was one of the places for developing the proposal for La Conde. We got together to organize, coordinate, design, imagine, make our collective check-ins, meet up with allied organizations, hold planning breakfasts, create strategies of recovery and advocacy. It was our principal base when we began developing the Project. Once La Conde was rehabilitated in 2020, we saw Patio Taller differently. Presently we’re rethinking the next stage of the space because the need, in terms of education and cultural and artistic creation, has been developing since La Conde. Now we are in a moment of reflection on what we’ve learned from this process and the opportunities it has granted not only to us as artists but to the community and our colleagues. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/716

[Photo above by Juan Carlos Malavé.]

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