Claudia Fontes: 'The magical force of culture does not appear upon demand'

April 2008 -

Art can trigger fantastic social changes, but not when this is planned in advance. That is the conclusion drawn by Claudia Fontes based on the evaluation study she performed on projects supported by the Hivos Cultural Fund in Central America. Development organisations that support artists or cultural institutions with the objective of combating poverty, corruption, violation of human rights or other wrongs generate, Fontes fears, "an entire generation of artists who are indifferent to social problems but highly skilled in formulating requests for subsidy." This, the Argentinean believes, is even more serious than the fact that in turn, their art does not stimulate social changes. She explained this during the conference Unlimited curiosity held in Rotterdam on 31 March 2008.

The visual artist, curator and cultural consultant Fontes (1964) started in 1996 with an exchange programme hosted by the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam. It was an interesting experience, she says, although she was startled by the extent to which she was labelled. "Suddenly I was a non-Western Artist. I was also expected to prove that the exchange I was participating in would contribute to my country's development. But that had nothing to do with what I was doing. It got me thinking; it inspired, for example, my exam piece: a wooden dog with which I would occupy the Netherlands."

During her study, Fontes interviewed a wide range of individuals, including film makers from Nicaragua who were pressured for years by development organisations to create documentaries about specific social themes. "They felt they had been imprisoned. It was not until criteria no longer applied that they felt free to pursue their own ideas and things got going. Their films were about homosexuality, for example, and triggered more social discussions than any documentary ever made to order."

Cultural projects prove to have more far-reaching effects than ecology projects, for example, Fontes discovered, "because they pertain to identity and self-esteem." Claudia Fontes was deeply impressed by the cooperation between Hivos and music company Stonetree Records, which produced the music made by Garífunas, a closed cultural minority in Belize. "Those records were such a huge international success that the nearly forgotten Garífunas culture was rejuvenated. What is more: it achieved a breakthrough in the traditionally inferior position of women in that community: they suddenly left their pots and pans and started singing on a large stage."