Life’s migrations transform an artist
For years, Beatriz Mejia-Krumbein’s figurative expressionist paintings and drawings, unsettling, poignant, deep and beautiful, have depicted her strident concern for human rights and justice.
Over the past year, however, the La Sierra University art professor and department chair has found herself heading down a different track, producing artwork that is foreign to her view of herself as an artist and that explores from a broader, holistic vantage point her migration between Colombia, Germany, Mexico and the United States.
Mejia-Krumbein has become part of a movement of interaction between artists and anthropologists by immersing herself in the world of anthropological research on serial migration.
Just before Thanksgiving, at the Le Pavillon Vendôme - Centre d’Art Contemporain in Clichy, a suburban community in Paris, France, Mejia-Krumbein presented an artistic performance as a collaborator with other artists and anthropologists in a workshop directed by Susan Ossman, a University of California, Riverside anthropology professor, author and artist. The workshop, held Nov. 14 – 16 and titled “Moving Matters/A Traveling Workshop,” aimed to explore the experience of serial migration through the performing, visual and literary arts in connection with Ossman’s book, “Moving Matters: Paths of Serial Migration” published this year by Stanford University Press.
The workshop of performance art, poetry readings, videos and other works addresses such questions as whether specific paths of migration create commonalities among people regardless of their place of origination or settling locations, whether serial migrants differ from immigrants and those who travel but never put down roots.
Mejia-Krumbein will participate again in Ossman’s workshop and an additional art exhibit at Amsterdam University in May 2014, and with the workshop will give a presentation at the Image Conference in Berlin, Germany next October. A documentary film about the workshop is in process and a web site about the project and participating artists is available at movingmattersworkshops.com.
“Sometimes I am scared, sometimes I don’t recognize me,” Mejia-Krumbein said. “My style and conceptualizing is changing. I don’t know where it is taking me, but I want to be open to explore.”
George Marcus, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, established the UCI Center for Ethnography in 2005, in part to explore the interfaces between performance/installation artists and anthropologists who work through ethnography (the study and systematic recording of human cultures), and the questions that arise from such collaboration. He is listed as a participant in Ossman’s traveling workshop and attended an art and anthropology seminar in March at La Sierra University’s Brandstater Gallery organized by Mejia-Krumbein and Ossman.
“There is a long-standing tradition of such collaborative work,” Marcus said. “It’s not a strong tradition in the field, but I would like to think it is more prominent than it has been just because of the difficulty of constituting traditional scenes of fieldwork in which anthropologists do their research. And what artists are great at is transforming places into scenes of cultural interest and importance through what they make and their expression.”
“Artists tend to have a very keen observational eye and insight into the conditions of actual social life,” he continued. “Ethnography is based on this kind of keen, participant observational sense of things. So there’s a lot of crossover.”
“Some artists have embraced ethnography even as many anthropologists have adopted a greater diversity to enhance their fieldwork and the presentation of their findings,” says Ossman. “Many artists interested in dealing with social issues are inspired by ethnographic methods because they involve real people along with their stories [and] concerns.”
Ossman’s mobile workshop is a case in point. It involves artists, actors, composers and creative writers who have experienced the upheaval of living in several countries and who can respond artistically to, and expand upon, topics in Ossman’s book. The publication, which Ossman describes as an essay in ethnography, results from 10 years of research by the author who has lived in four countries.
The book and interaction with Ossman had a transformational impact on Mejia-Krumbein.
Previously she felt somewhat fragmented by her experiences living in different nations. In all, she has moved 12 times, back and forth between Germany and Colombia, then to Mexico and the United States where she move from Michigan and Texas, to Florida, Virginia, and to California. “But through the book I began to focus on wholeness,” she said. “I found wholeness in recalling the memories of all the people I’ve met throughout my entire life.”
Mejia-Krumbein’s workshop performance titled “Mi Tiempo, Mein Raum, My Map,” reflects her moves between nations, cultures, and Spanish, German and English languages.
In the performance, she wears a white dress with a red ribbon around the waist and in which she transitions from childhood to adulthood, while moving back and forth barefooted across a giant canvas of circles of names she wrote in charcoal, depicting the four countries in which she has lived and the people she knew in each place. Over the circle of names from Colombia she plays hopscotch, reciting family names from her childhood, then calls out her husband’s name, Peter. She then moves to the circle of names from Germany, where she immigrated after marrying her husband, recites more names, then repeats the process for each move she made between countries. “The name of my husband Peter brings the migratory element into my life,” said Mejia-Krumbein. “I also learned that emigration for love is an academic case study. I can define myself not only as a serial migrant, but also a migrant by love.”
Mejia-Krumbein’s art works are now comprised of various sorts of maps --- the large canvass map of her life in four countries depicted with multi-layered circles of names, as well as forays into a representative mapping of the paths of life, creating imaginary maps using photography of branches and use of positive and negative space.
Her artistic metamorphosis began when a La Sierra colleague emailed her a quote from Ossman’s book earlier this year. The words had such an impact that Mejia-Krumbein Googled the author to find out more about her. Then she called her. “We met for breakfast a couple of days later and have been collaborating ever since,” Mejia-Krumbein said.
Ossman and Mejia-Krumbein organized the art and anthropology seminar at La Sierra’s Brandstater Gallery in March, in connection with Ossman’s exhibit of paintings in the gallery. They next presented the model for the traveling workshop in an artistic seminar in May at UCR’s Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside.
“It’s opened a new world for me,” Mejia-Krumbein said of her foray into anthropology. “When I’m talking to anthropologists about my work, they say, ‘oh, you are doing an ethnography.’ With my art I speak the same language -- human stories, and culture. My art has changed a lot.”
This summer, Mejia-Krumbein retraced the major immigration routes of her previous life, traveling to Hamburg, Germany where she lived eight years. She revisited familiar places like The Alsterhouse where she held her first job in advertising design, the site of a former music school where she was a music educator from 1973 to 1975, and visited other places that reminded her of special experiences of her youth, far away from her original home. She also traveled to Switzerland to work with geographer Yvonee Riano at the University of Bern.
She conceptualized the data into the map of names, a work in progress that will continue as she adds names of individuals she met in Clichy, those she meets later in Amsterdam, and new people she meets in the United States. “I will keep developing more maps dealing with borders, and I am working on a series of monologues talking with myself in different stages of my life as I look into my image in a projection,” she said.
It all deals with crossing borders and breaking boundaries of the literal and figurative sort, a result of her expanded insights into her own various migration experiences that transcended not only national boundaries but religious and cultural walls. For example, to cross a cultural border and legally marry her German, Seventh-day Adventist husband, Mejia-Krumbein, who was raised Catholic, had to seek ex-communication from the Catholic Church. “The process was very difficult and painful, a rejection of traditions of generations, and a cultural shame,” Mejia-Krumbein said. “It took six months.”