This post is written by Raul Ayala and Fernanda Espinosa.
We are both from Ecuador and met many years ago back home, and though we had found each other as partners in life, we had not actually worked together as creative collaborators. Last year, a good time finally arrived to put all the complementary ideas we shared and work through an art and oral history collective, Cooperativa Cultural 19 de enero (CC 1/19). As CC 1/19, we’ve worked on a few projects highlighted in the previous post; now, with this FABLES project, we bring to life La siembra del hogar//Sowing Homes – a mural based on the oral histories of squatters conducted for the book “Ours to Lose: When Squatters Became Homeowners in NYC” by Amy Starecheski, an oral historian, anthropologist, and former squatter whose research focuses on the use of oral history in social movements and the politics of urban property.
For La siembra del hogar//Sowing Homes, we wanted to highlight and create conversations around the housing struggle and resistance in New York City — a perfect opportunity to continue our work of bringing history to the streets. In this instance, based on the words we read and the voices we listened to from those in the squatter movement in New York City, we worked on creating a visual interpretation that reflects upon the past but also speaks to current struggles. The interviews conducted, part of Starecheski’s oral history project, sought to document this very movement:
In the 1970s and 80s, several forces combined to devastate New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. Land in the inner city remained valuable, but not with hundred-year-old tenements on it. Landlords who could not realize the value of their investments through collecting rents from low-income people stopped taking care of their buildings, thereby “milking” them for every last bit of capital before eventually discarding them. Some even went so far as burning them for the insurance money. At the same time, cuts to government spending on antipoverty programs and infrastructure weakened the physical and social fabric of these neighborhoods. Owners abandoned housing as homelessness exploded. This type of co-existence of vacant housing and homeless people in urban areas spawned creative responses (Squatters’ Collective Oral History Archive; emphasis added).
These creative responses in the search for a home in a place like New York included collective strategies outside of the formal housing system such as those used by the squatters in the Lower East Side. Those voices are what we wanted to highlight in La siembra del hogar//Sowing Homes as a starting point from both the personal experience of each squatter, and as a part of a larger history of movements that have always found a way to creatively sow autonomous spaces.
This does not mean we seek to idealize them. Rather, we find it important to listen to people’s personal accounts and in doing so, get a fuller idea of the larger context surrounding their historical position and what we understand as “history.” Perhaps just as importantly, we find that personal accounts are, in themselves, transformative. When trying to make visible actual life experience told through a personal and often beautifully eloquent voice, knowing that that’s part of a larger movement can be eye-opening and inspiring in terms of the images that can emanate to accompany those voices.
The following is just a small example of one of those very eloquent voices that arouse from the process of listening to the different accounts Starecheski collected. Here, Frank Morales, speaks of the idea of “Home.” Morales grew up in the Jacob Riis public housing projects of the Lower East Side. He got involved with squatting while working at a church in the South Bronx. In the mid-1980s he returned to his Lower East Side and has been a vocal and public squatting activist ever since:
These and other clips of the interviews will be accompanying the mural in the following months.
Additionally, though the piece can be seen as historical, it also lives as an homage to women in the squatter movement. Many of the squatters gave birth in the squats, and their work and presence is felt throughout the interviews. Women were leaders in the squats and often mastered heavy construction work, gaining skills and power through their labor — yet patriarchal behavior was still present, and perhaps even became more visible than in spaces where it was normalized. This environment often led to unsafe spaces for women despite the anchoring role they inhabited in a community. Women were often silenced and their work in the community made invisible. The mural makes visible the construction of not just a house, but also, the construction of a home – through community and with the body. Represented boldly in the mural by the pregnant woman — creating life and homes on earth — the restorative power and will of community is often embodied, enacted, and manifested by women. New space (through new presence) creates an opportunity to think critically about the future and move forward with our struggles.
With this piece, as a visual artist, Raul is interested in presenting allegories based on these struggles, but also, to identify the institutions and forces oppressing us. To be clear, this is not an anti-institutional piece but an anti-oppression piece — because people can also police and oppress themselves and others around them once they’ve deeply internalized oppressive structures that once lived only outside At any given time we are simultaneously battling with things inside and outside of our homes/bodies.
We should not forget the mural is also a living object. The moment of installing the mural could become a very active center of discussion, but eventually, it will also take its own life and, hopefully, become pertinent to different times and conversations that residents, community members, and passersby on the streets see. This intersection of moments and perspectives are what we hope allows for a community and society at large to keep growing and reshape their politics and actions.
This is Part 2 of a 3-part series surrounding the latest FABLES mural by Raul Ayala in collaboration with Fernanda Espinosa. The final post will be a visual look back and wrap up of the mural currently on view at Extra Place!