An Interview with Carolina Arévalo Karl
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
Carolina Arévalo Karl is an independent curator, educator, organizer, and artist based in Santiago, Chile. In Fall 2020, Althea Hurwitz interviewed Carolina in the context of an investigation of craft, gender, and art. Here is their dialogue:
Thea Hurwitz: How does craft or women's work connect to your personal story and background? That can also encompass your professional experience as well, whatever you'd like to talk about.
Carolina Arevalo: Well, my background... I have a master's in Parsons and the Cooper Hewitt Museum in the history of design and curatorial studies. But before that, I did my first degree in design. And somehow I started creating projects, but for me, it wasn’t obvious, the categorization in between the techniques I would use to create visual culture. It's not that I would say that I was always bouncing in between art and design; I was doing cloth for performances and kind of doing interventions in public space; in a way, it was done collectively, with a lot of people that were performing together. So, for me, it wasn’t obvious, the categorization between work and design and craft, it was just a means to communicate something, not only something like the culture or the, or the crystallization of visual discourse. And then when I was doing my graduate studies, I started to deepen this notion of trying to understand when, where, and why art was separated from craft and what were the historical reasons why this happened. Because art and artifacts, in general, have been forever with us, since, I don't know, 17,000 years ago, so to start thinking or researching about craft from the Renaissance, or the Middle Ages or, the Byzantine for me, or even Industrial Revolution, it wasn't super obvious. But definitely from a Western historical point of view, the categorization started in the Renaissance, in separating the high arts from the low arts. And in some way, the visual (craft) arts were relegated to the home, and to women’s work. And we keep (them) in different conditions of labor and of payment and of schedules...sorry, I missed the point.
TH: No, it was great. I just wanted to pick up on something you said that really related to what Victoria and I have been talking about. You mentioned how you came across craft and textiles through discovering performances. And I think that just relates so much to the overarching story of things like textiles and women's work, just because in so many instances, throughout our history, people have used craft objects for ritual performances and to do something (functional) with them. And you're absolutely right, only with the onset of these categorizations has there been this concept of a textile work on a wall, or in a museum, whereas before they were always used for something else, as you said: they are used for body movements, are used for something I don't know, having a cover to put over bread, something very practical and also integral to people's lives. And I loved what you said about creating visual culture. That was a really powerful phrase for me. It relates a lot to the bigger themes of what I was looking at.
CA: I would say for me it was natural. And I think for many people that are into textiles, it's something you have to experience the world through your body on the first layer of identity that we construct. It's textiles, it's something familiar for anybody because you have always been in touch with cotton or with wool...it becomes synesthetic, with the color and the structure and the weight and the multiple senses that textile art appealed to, and I would say, also, coming back to this historical point, until the Renaissance, all the artwork, the main artwork that identified a patron or an important person was tapestry, because you could just roll it and bring it to your other castle and other courts...there is a lot to to to revise in those practices, I would say.
TH: I love the concept of textile as being something that is bodily first before you even start thinking about art and how you fit into the art world. From childhood to infancy, textiles are one of the first things you experience. Like in many cultures, when you have a baby, you immediately wrap them up in some sort of cloth. And I love the idea that all the different categorizations are important and fascinating, but also maybe sometimes we lose the plot when it comes to the fact that this (textile) is a very natural thing that unites everybody.
CA: And I would say that also the relation between craft and maybe low art, and to even to think of the concept of community arts or popular art, I would say that it's very much related also to community in the sense that it's made by the community, or it's made for the community. And in those little words, there is space for both, and maybe projects moving between those two lines are to be made for the people and by the people, I would say.
TH: I think that's where the transition to the museum can get kind of interesting and difficult, in some cases, because you are taking it (craft artwork) out of its community. But you’re also, I'm sure, still trying to incorporate the community, which I could definitely see in your work and your projects. I saw specifically what you're talking about in the description for the Sheila Hicks show (link), which looked beautiful, by the way, and congratulations. You were mentioning her influences and the communities of people in the Andes who inspired her and how she used those influences in a very particular way. And I think that sort of acknowledgment is essential for still looping in communities of people, even in a more institutional contemporary setting.
CA: Definitely, I think the work of Sheila very much magnifies these little gestures that are in textile art, and somehow, the crafting practices, in the end, are very delicate, and very, very small. So she kind of amplifies and magnifies that very hidden poetry in a very respectful way, which I think is very valuable.
TH: And there are so many ways that that can be accomplished, respectfully within the concepts of the museum, but then there are also so many ways that that can kind of fall short. And I think it's an exciting transition, but it's also a difficult one, and I imagine in your work there's a lot of delicacies incorporated into your practice.
CA: I mean, I would not consider myself as a weaver. But somehow I weave, and I use many outside sources with every medium, but specifically in textile art, there is something about the technique, the technique that is related to a process. And in a way, many textile artists or artisans have done some tricks or gestures, or little secrets in the technique. And that it's like an aesthetic experience to people that know how it works somehow. That's something very fascinating about textiles, I would say,
TH: I love how those gestures could potentially be unifying. Like on a global scale, you have people from all walks of life, but they know how to do this physical thing that echoes what other people are doing across the world. That's, that's very powerful to me.
CA: And I would say that I don't know, for me, one of the rules I think that the museum should have relating to craft also to give a sense of different ways that different people live and experience life through artifacts: in different times, in different cultures, in different forms of community. And in viewing that (those differences), we may see forgotten ways that may end up working in this time of so much uncertainty and confusion.
TH: I feel like what we've covered so far has gone over so many of my questions. I feel like you have such a rich way of speaking that has covered a lot of what I wanted to talk about already.
TH: I just wanted to ask, so what does the phrase ‘women's work’ mean to you in your life and in your work? What associations does it inspire?
CA: I think that it’s like recognizing that you were born and raised in patriarchy and, and somehow deconstructing it theoretically, but then to start applying it (women’s work) to your life. Sometimes it's so complicated, and it's something that is always shifting, my approach. I would say that, first of all, I'm very grateful to all the women artists that precede us, and that did very important work into race, women's art, to the level of art in general, I would say that, in the second wave of feminism, there is a great number of artists that work with craft, and really get to the point that really materialized in artwork that's still super powerful, aesthetically, that blurs the lines in between craft, and art. There's a wonderful book that you can take if you are in New York. It's called Modern Women. It's a catalog from the Museum of Modern Art. I don't know. Have you seen it?
TH: I haven't. I'm going to write that down, though.
CA: Definitely check it out, it's amazing. It's a great complete compilation of women artists, from the late 19th century through the 20th century. And then you really get an account of the work of so many women that work through. Again, in the lower art, there's a big section of women from the Bauhaus that was in textile weaving workshops, even if they didn't want to, even if they wanted to be in the glass workshop, or in the metal works. And if there was one artist that achieved great things, it was the exception,, so after the takeover of Nazis, they got to America and started getting classes and raising new women artists, using design and using schools, as a way to professionalize the work of women. And I think, even if, nowadays, and even in the pandemic era that we are living, and we're working from home, there are many discussions and questions, to think how it is to really get domestic and professional both together and how ‘this is a lack of that’ and ‘we can discuss that longer.’ I would say that, at that point in history, it was a very important way to equal, all the barriers not only in art, in society in general. It was very important to give the chance to women to professionalize their artwork that was done at home.
TH: I was just gonna mention, I think it's a fascinating dynamic, historically, how women have capitalized on and expanded within roles they were essentially forced into. It's interesting because, historically, this was what women did, but also it required talent and required creativity, it gave them the opportunity to use their voices. And so I don't think it's necessarily just a matter of saying ‘I'm going to reject textile, I'm going to do what men are doing,’ it's a matter of sitting within the constructed context of creating textiles, and, as you said, using it to empower other women and professionalizing. That, and just making that art accessible for everybody and elevating that art as far as anybody would want it to go.
CA: Absolutely. And I think that's something nowadays, as women, in this time, we have had to do. Even though I'm talking about that generation, they would still have been able to do art in public spaces, or in big stages, it was part of it too, except that you were going to do things for home, even though that kind of art was going to be in the daily life of many. But still in the domestic space and or in small galleries or in exhibitions only in the medium. I think we still have the question to get involved with filling the public sphere, you know?
TH: And it's interesting how historically women's artwork was so ubiquitous, right? It was everywhere. And isn't that what any artist would want? As you said, the amount of, theoretically, what we would consider contemporary success, they did achieve, you're right, in creating art for the public, having collective art-making experiences, having your work everywhere. I think that's a really fascinating idea. And then there come all these standards and rules that can be applied to women’s work later on. It's very interesting.
TH: So I was wondering if you could speak a little more about your experience as an independent curator who focuses on craft art. I didn't know much about the job of an independent curator, to begin with. So I was wondering if you could just speak to what your work is like when it comes to advocating for craft art and creating craft art exhibitions? It's a big question, you can focus on any aspect.
CA: First of all, I'm still trying to figure out how to do it. And I would say that I think there are three lines that I've been trying to articulate: one is contemporary art, with craft within it somehow, and also archaeology. The Spanish for the three words has the same prefix, arts. It's from Latin. Craft would be artesanía. Contemporary Art is arte contemporáneo, the badania and archaeology, arqueología. And, and I would say that, this, I've been articulating this in the sense that I think that contemporary art has a lot to do with worrying about multiple times, multiple communities, multiple experiences. And in that sense, craft and popular arts have a lot to say because, again, it's done for a community impact or by the community. And in that sense, shedding light on what area someone should be thinking about. And also this concern in contemporary art about multiple times, that allows me to kind of understand art from other times and universal ways of expression or very particular ways of expression, but kind of trying to understand culture, you know?
TH: Absolutely. Do you think you could speak a little bit more about how and you mentioned this before, but I'm really interested in your, your emphasis on community? So are there strategies you use to incorporate the concept of community into your work? Because as I stated before, I feel like sometimes there's a little bit of separateness between the community of origin for craft art, and then taking that into the museum, do you have any thoughts on that?
CA: I would say that lately, I've been working with artists that in their practices are very much related to the communities. Since the art that I like to work with, it's defined not as artists being super up in the clouds with ideas, but more in the activity of observing the world that they are living in, and really observing (their work) in a language that, has to do with their experience with the world, with creating a material expression. So in that sense, there have been enough obvious ways of relating the work, even if it's performances in public spaces, or the work with other artisans or maybe the observations of a technique, or a concept in itself, and, and really deepen in other artists that, that have thought about this before: other artists meaning artists, artisans, craftswomen and men, people that create, finally. And if that hasn't been the situation, like in our tutorial projects where maybe I would work not with living artists and directly share ideas, I would say that I have always had a concern with who the person is that it's (the artifact is) expressing so interestingly, beautifully or in a provocative way..
TH: I think that makes a lot of sense. I feel like when I first asked you, I was imagining perhaps methods of display that emphasize community, but it just makes so much sense to go straight to the artist and pick people who have those values already, and who are integrated into their community and whose practices are integrated into the community. I feel like then the exhibition can unfold from there with that emphasis on community.
CA: I would say that sometimes you don't have that person who you can contact with; when it happens, like it has happened to me with archaeological artworks. There was somebody that might keep working in a way of creating, with the process that maybe is present 500 years later, but that somehow still has parts of that identity, of that community, that kind of understanding of other languages that are inherent in the process of making in terms of color, iconography. Sizes. Sizes are very important because it gives you many many clues about functions. There are so many archaeological textiles, for example, that are around the same size and nobody ever knew where they were from, and they're made to cover your waist. And I don't know it's funny when you approach visual art within the cultural bias, how sizes can give you some clues. Or, what is what was that made for,, what are the ideas in the art?
TH: So I guess what I'm hearing is you have a method of using research. And this maybe relate back to what you were saying about using research to trace communities or even create these cultures and communities, or at least create evidence of them. Does that make sense?
CA: I don't know if I should be saying this. This is very much about ethnography, but archaeologists and some academics don't agree with this when you're trying to understand art or artifacts. But I think that a community after 1000 years can have an identity and a visual language and an aesthetic language, it can go in between the formal, like sounds, food or ways of interacting between each other. That can all give you clues of understanding why that image is created in that way now.
TH: Have you ever encountered any difficulties trying to incorporate this more anthropological perspective into the contemporary art box?
CA: I play always in between both because, with art, I think it's similar. Like if you, don't have any background, maybe in modern contemporary art, and you stand in front of work, there is always that confusion in between the aesthetic experience, but also how your cultural background informs you in what you're seeing, and how it makes sense to you. And I think part of my word has a lot to do with trying to give clues to different people with different cultural backgrounds to experience art at different levels. So research is a big part of curating experiences in the sense that your voice and your audience are always so multiple. And in terms of age, in terms of cultural background, again, in terms of personal experiences, you give them different information, so they can appreciate art with context or no context, or isolation, in order to enrich and to think, after that experience.
TH: I wholeheartedly agree with that. Because with what I study, I think a lot about accessibility and the museum space and how certain spaces can alienate certain people. I try to think critically about museum spaces, and I resonate with the idea that curatorial practice can be a tool for teaching and inviting people in, rather than something that divides and sets standards and keeps people out. In many cases, I think a lot of a lot of curatorial practices, at least when you look at big museums and institutions, are geared towards adhering to a standard and adhering to a canon. But I absolutely agree with you, I think the very essence of it can be used to draw everybody in.
CA: Once I read a book that was about asking, why make an exhibition? Is it to push the world in a certain direction? One that, in a very biased way, as a curator, you think is right?
TH: So I guess on that subject, I was wondering, what are some overarching themes that you want to convey in your curatorial work? Is there anything you're always thinking about when it comes to what you want to express to people about craft?
CA: I'm trying to think and I would say that I will, I mostly tried to put in evidence of the actual making, in one way using some devices or followers or geography terms, to highlight the making of the art, like what I was saying about layering messaging, using different mediums or not. It really depends on the topic and the subject of the exhibition, but I'm always open to incorporating different mediums, or painting in contemporary art, as I would say video, or big scale installations, or activations with the audience, with the maker, or performances. The practice gives the way of how to find an aesthetic, poetic, and intelligent way to give a message or arrange a story.
TH: I think that relates back a lot to what we were talking about earlier about craft lending itself really well to movement and the body and people and their cultures. And you're absolutely right. I think often the objects come with their own story. So it's just a matter of highlighting it and emphasizing different aspects of that story.
CA: And in all the making processes all the senses are involved, not only the visual senses. I love contemporary art in which different senses are appealed and we're blurring the categorizations of those expressions.
TH: I think that's really essential. So I was reading some of your stuff, and it seems like you definitely have a social justice slant and a focus bringing in different dialogue. So to you, what are some of the most radical aspects of contemporary craft practice? Where do you find the value in how that creates dialogue?
CA: Well, I think there are different aspects. But I think it's very radical in one sense to keep that in the spirit of making, of material expressions. Nowadays that we live in such a digital world, to really get in the studio, and give an expression, an emotion, a gesture, from your hands into practice. I think you really have to live it, to take time and do it, and think that somebody is going to appreciate it. And this year it’s even more because it's going to be able to be experienced not through a screen. And in doing it I know that it's important. I think that's something for everybody. And you can find the radical differences, I would say, but the time that we're living with the amount of interaction and dialogues and thinking through social media and collective performances also, I think that's something very radical about mobs in general, digital mobs. I remember I was in New York when Trump was elected president and there was the women's march, and 90% of women there that day, though was only a couple of weeks after he was in the house, everybody got their pink hats, that were so privately and intimately done, and just how powerful was that? The visual image of everybody with them; I think that's how social media or globalization allows collective art or collective craft. I think it's something that we should take more seriously. Because it's the very bottom right, more about that because it's something very, very powerful.
TH: I agree. And I like those two statements together, because you're talking about an emphasis on the physicality of creating, which could be seen as in opposition to the digital form, when in fact, there are many ways that the digital world can help elevate and spread the message of craft, which can then further help people to figure out how to immerse themselves in the physicality of it. People are teaching each other how to knit on YouTube, and maybe somebody didn't have that in their cultural practice, but they're learning and they're immersing themselves in a new skill that they can achieve in their own space, wherever they are. I think that that makes a lot of sense. And that was really well said. And that was also a great example, about the Women's March, I think for years to come, people are going to be talking about the kind of images that were created with that when it comes to craft.
CA: Exactly, and it’s happening all over the world. Like in Latin America, there's a lot with the green scarf or other regional needs. It's very powerful and there is so much graphic design and craft more related to graphic medium, and textile in relation to images that you’re constructing and the fact that maybe you're registering through social media and in the audience or your collection together. The fact that you're still much in terms of materiality and creating something in a very intimate sphere, in your home, maybe in your bed, in your personal spaces, moments, mementos... I think it's and and and that you get conscious of how slow the technique is. It's actually very mind-blowing. You're not going to the store buying it and taking it in 10 minutes, you're actually creating it. And you're getting conscious of it, of the labor involved in it. And that gets into sustainability but I think that’s a different topic.
TH: There's something inherently radical about so many people across the world sharing information about mindfulness, about slowness in practice, about creating things with your hands. I would hope that that's kind of the future of how we make stuff, sharing information on how to make stuff. I think you alluded to concepts of sustainability and how to cut down on consumption. That seems like one of the ways to do it, by sharing information and how to make your own things, and then also the aspect of care and creating in an intimate space, that's really powerful as well.
TH: So I'd love to ask you a couple more questions, if that's okay, these ones are a little bit lighter, but I appreciate you really going in-depth with me. I hope you can tell that I really love this topic and I love hearing your thoughts.
TH: This is a pretty broad question so take this any way you want: Where is one of your favorite places to find craft art? This could be a museum, gallery, stall, person, the internet, anything.
CA: I would say that, definitely, I dive into museums’ collections. Nowadays I go on the internet and the publications associated with that. And when we were in regular life, I used to go to museums and kind of get amused with the things that I can get to know and explore. And nowadays, I would say that the internet is where I love to go. I love to go to, not secondhand markets, but traditional markets. Because again, you’re able to connect with the actual object, something that completely gives you different senses and, and emotions and aesthetic experiences about something, and sometimes you find a treasure in a traditional market. But after some time that you spend with the object you realize another idea, that it's an object from the same culture but for different uses, or for different techniques or with different iconography again. I think that is the moment that you will discover an object, an article, a whole universe, and a million questions.
TH: I love that. That's really beautiful. Is there any particular market you'd like to go to?
CA: I don't know. I always go when I travel. I like to go to traditional markets now or second-hand markets. I love them.
TH: It's just more of the idea that that place speaks to you. That makes a lot of sense.
CA: Also I think public markets, in general, are the stage of craft. I mean, you go to interact with another person for an object.
TH: I totally agree and you get that one on one with the artist that you wouldn't get through the barrier of a museum or gallery.
Althea Hurwitz is a fourth-year student at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. There, she combines a blend of disciplines, including fine arts, art history, and museum studies, to create a concentration entitled Art in Real Life: Considering Access and Meaningful Participation in Art Education and Practice. Althea is originally from Arlington, VA, but now calls NYC home. In her spare time she enjoys playing ultimate frisbee, thrift shopping, and exploring new art mediums.