The Really Good Citizen Artist

Luis Camnitzer

Humberto Vélez was born in Panama in 1965, where he studied Law and Political Sciences. In a surprising shift, after he was installed in a barrister’s office, he decided to study filmmaking in the prestigious International School of Cinema of San Antonio de Los Baños, Cuba. From then on he has focused on what can be called “constructed documentaries”: films that pertain to the cultural expression of particular communities, and even more, to the cultural borderlines that separate them. Filmmaking as documentation remains important to his work, but what has consistently taken prominence are the events – the situations – he creates.

The focus of Vélez’ aesthetic is the crossing of borderlines, the undermining of separations. Geography and nationality have influenced his sensibility, and show up in works such as a spectacle he orchestrated in Liverpool, where a boatload of Afghan asylum seekers are welcomed at the dock by indigenous whites and African, Caribbean, Irish and Asian immigrants. 1

Vélez’ work, however, moves beyond issues related to national identities. Isolations and cultural disenfranchisement based on class and race are consistently addressed. He punctures class divisions when he brings boxing schools from Southwark in London into the atrium of the Tate Modern and then has the administrators of the institution climb through the ropes into the ring to give the awards. 2 He breaches class lines in Cuenca, Ecuador, when Indian families owning llamas display them for a beauty conquest he organized in the Museum of Modern Art 3, or in Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, when he arranges a bodybuilding contest at the CAAM. 4 He crosses ethnic borderlines in the prologue to the boxing match at the Tate, when he crosshatches Ghanaian drummers and Scottish bagpipers under and over the Millennium Bridge. Segregations in social memory are crossed in The Awakening at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a ceremony of music, dance, and gymnastics on the occasion of the current exhibition of his work in the Art Gallery of York University.

These unexpected and surprising mixtures of imagery and venue challenge segregation and social prejudice, not didactically, but by exuberant indirection. Deeply conscious of political reality, Vélez uses his medium not to illustrate or denounce injustice, but to orchestrate the potential of communities to express themselves in the most creative and persuasive manner. Vélez does not approach creation to state himself. In fact, he rarely appears in these events, and if so it is only functionally. Instead he painstakingly sets up conditions that facilitate the expression of others and, save for his editing, allows the groups he includes to develop their own aesthetics.

Vélez therefore reaffirms one of the primordial but neglected functions of the artist, that of a mediator. An artist who shies away from the traditional branding of art works, Vélez ensures that the outcome of his projects is as unpredictable as are the wishes of the individual or group he chooses.

Inevitably, Vélez has to learn the “language” of the groups he works with, in order to merge with them, and slowly earn trust in his role of minimized and quasi-invisible leadership. For his boxing piece at the Tate he learned how to box. The first person he approached with the idea for this project was Mark, a semi-retired boxer, who immediately told him: “I don’t know anything about art, but I know I could be an artist. Do you know how to box?” The following week Vélez started taking classes. Similarly, he temporarily engaged in bodybuilding for his piece in Las Palmas, an experience that had less to do with muscle building than with what really interested him: “the physical construction of a fictional image,” the words he uses to describe the essence of that particular work. It is here where the transition into art took place, and accordingly, the bodybuilding competition was performed not for a group of fans but in front of an art audience.

Increasingly today, the role of the artist has been associated and confused with that of a producer who belongs to the manufacturing sector of society. The locus of art has been confined to the object and the artist has shifted from being a critical outsider –a jester in the court– to being one more worker, albeit an elitist one. Interestingly enough, this absorption was not only the product of commercial cooption. It also addressed demands expressed by the artists. Progressive ideologies asked that the artist be seen as a normal member of society, one who operates inside as a “cultural worker.” Hopefully, this new image is not that of the artist working in a state of relatively benign derangement.

Neither the definition of the artist as a manufacturer nor the conception of the artist as a capricious outsider is constructive (or real). Both imply that the importance of a work of art is embedded at the act of creation rather than built up over time by a collective process of encounter and reception. The “newness” of a work, the originality that allows for establishment in the market, comes from its contribution to a body of knowledge, the way it enlivens something hitherto stultified. This doesn’t happen with pristine clarity and immediacy, but over time. And even then the collective process that determines the placement of the work of art may not be definitive.

However, more important and fairly clear if one thinks about it, is that the artist should be a good citizen. The “good” here implies a value judgment and is contingent upon who is applying the label. For this purpose, probably, the evaluator can only be the artist. The parameters for evaluation then become personal ethics and self-criticism, a constructive critical view of society, the proper placement of the role of authorship and the application of its power, and the analysis of what the destination and function the work of art is to have in this context. The awareness of these parameters requires that the artist not be an insider. The quality of outsider, a critical outsider, has to be kept. Vélez seems to have developed the perfect touch for these things and epitomizes the good-citizen artist.

The exercise of outsider criticism is not an easy task. It runs the risk of deteriorating into paternalism and self-righteousness, and thus achieving the opposite result of that intended. The danger is even greater when dealing with localities other than ones own. Vélez, remarkably, is a good-citizen artist wherever he goes.

Unlike most artists with an ideological bend, Vélez avoids typically tourist judgments directed to cultural situations to which he is foreign. He approaches any situation equipped with a basic set of ethical concepts: opposition to xenophobia, racism, oppression and repression on one hand, and the sympathy and endorsement for popular expression and culture on the other. With that very basic platform he negotiates the terrain and seeks compromises between the parties. That allows him to place himself as a facilitator. His hand as an author remains largely hidden. Even his tangible objects, like the banners used in processions and parades, are designed lightly. Vélez suggests some ideas, representative and evocative of the event. Those who manufacture the banners then make the final formal decisions and keep the results, actually posing difficulties when the making of exhibitions is required.

Most of Vélez’s pieces comprise parades that act like an introduction or prologue and then culminate in a performance. They become mega-shows and one is tempted to put his pieces in the same category of Trinidadian Mas artist Peter Minshall. Both Vélez and Minshall feed their work with the collective energy of masses of people who enthusiastically participate in their artistic “schemes,” and both excel in what one might see as constructive crowd manipulation.

In normal usage and thanks to political and religious history and agendas, the concept of manipulation of crowds has acquired very negative connotations. The crowd acts like a new entity with its own dynamics, like a new individual whose aims and movements are at odds with the decisions of the units that compose it. In a society where individualist competitiveness is seen as a primordial value, the awareness of this collective persona doesn’t sit well even if it continues to be pervasive in quotidian life.

Minshall uses crowd dynamics by carefully designing grand spectacles for Carnival. They are Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerke or totally interdisciplinary and comprehensive shows. They affirm and continue the Carnival tradition but within a contemporary artistic formal language instead of the older Las Vegas aesthetics. Minshall makes a point to conserve the critical and subversive aspects that, since its origins, defined Carnival in Trinidad. In that sense he plays within the margins that define a collective culture, but he also aims for the “perfect work of art” in terms of what constitutes traditional authorship.

Vélez, on the other hand, uses a different kind of manipulation. He moves back one step in order to avoid control, or at least the appearance of control. His manipulation is that of a social worker. The goals are still clear, but the formal result is relatively unpredictable because, unlike the traditional artist, Vélez yields control into the hands of the participating crowds. In fact that is precisely one of the aims and difficulties in most of his pieces. Relinquishing control is risky and can lead to a dead end when there emerges another single individual who wants to take over. Vélez therefore also breaks down the boundaries of egos.

In creating situations where collaboration becomes the glue that makes his work possible, Vélez forces the examination and questioning of divisions and conflicts. Participants who normally operate at odds and in tension are brought together to create what can be termed “new rituals.” The “new ritual” is inclusionary and allows both museum-alien performers and audiences to enter the space while keeping their own dignity. In an act of restitution they come as the unjustly excluded and not as specimens for observation. The institutional reaction shifts from fear and skepticism to “why didn’t we think of this.” Education and outreach departments often are behind the organization of Vélez’s pieces. Then, when considered successful, the curatorial areas claim the credit.

One may consider what the works by Vélez represent and how they place him as an artist who functions as an awakening call. It is therefore not surprising that his attention got caught by Louis Riel’s 1885 statement: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Consequently, the piece designed for this show at the AGYU became The Awakening. Riel, a leader of the Métis (the Canadian mestizos) was executed the same year of the quote for treason against the Canadian Government. Yet, he carried (and seems to continue carrying) the voice of a marginalized segment of the population, and tried to break down the racist and political barriers that prevented that voice from being heard.

Mestizaje is a huge component of Latin American tradition and culture, and therefore an issue very close to Vélez. In the broadest and metaphorical sense of the word, this is the unification aim that probably best describes his mission as an artist. He tries to achieve more than just a meeting of the minds. It is the awakening to an understanding of commonality.

The Awakening took three years of preparations. During several residencies, Vélez identified the groups he wanted to involve: the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, original inhabitants of the Toronto area, and the Monkey Vault Parkour Artists, a group of youths interested in street gymnastics. He persuaded them to work together and to develop a new ritual for this occasion. The challenge was not to remain in the past but rather, without breaking with tradition, to “update” a ritual to encompass a new situation. It included a new and open interest, and a new group that to some extent could be seen organized as a contemporary form of tribe, but hitherto considered incompatible for cultural and ethnic reasons. Given the format, the piece could also have been called The Welcome, only that then the very important reference to Riel would have been lost.

In his work, Vélez not only negotiates with people but also confronts what insurance companies refer to as “acts of God.” An earlier piece, La carrera (The Race, 2005) had to be directed and refined over the phone because the U.S. wouldn’t give him a visa to meet his connecting flight between Europe and Panama. A devastating earthquake in Chile required him to postpone the date and change the format of El Contrapunto (del arte), 2010. La más bella (The Most Beautiful, 2009) encountered a deluging rain, confining the llama beauty pageant to the museum. Rain also forced the parade planned to lead the The Awakening into the atrium of the AGO in Toronto to be limited and compressed into an interior performance, thus increasing the density of the event.

Three years of work resolved themselves in a one-hour event. If one were to consider the work in traditional terms as an object or as spectacle-oriented art, one would be puzzling over this disproportion. No matter how well documented—and photographers and cameramen appeared seamlessly integrated in the ritual—no way can the document substitute the experience. But Vélez’ work –no matter how moving and engaging– is not in the end about what one sees. It is about what remains in the imagination of the participants, including the public, and the paths of understanding it opens. Everybody here became Métis.

Riel’s vision of the artists as those best equipped to return the spirit to his people — rather than, as one might presume, soldiers or enlightened politicians– was prescient. His quote describes Vélez as one of these artists in terms of his mission. But it also announced and proclaimed his work in terms of its effect.

Edited by Selby Hickey


  1. The Welcoming, 2007 Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool
  2. The Fight, 2007, Tate Modern, London
  3. La más bella (The Most Beautiful), Municipal Museum of Modern Art in Cuenca, Ecuador
  4. Body Dream (Mr. Regenta), 2008, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria