Giant white leaves float beneath the glass atrium of New York’s Brookfield Place Winter Garden in a loose net. This fantastic jungle-like creation is Bajo el manto de la selva (Under cover of the jungle), an installation by the New York-born Colombian artist Tatiana Arocha (b. 1974). The installation, a creative interpretation of a rainforest canopy, is made of organic materials. The lthe undulating eaves of the installation are made from fibers of fique, pineapple, vetiver and plantains. Branches collected from the Hudson River Valley hang from the interior twists of the leaves. The artist completed the work for Brookfield Place, Lower Manhattan’s dining and shipping destination, as part of the Brookfield Arts program that unites communities around creativity by animating Brookfield Properties’ public spaces through artwork of art. Arocha was recently named the 2022 recipient of the Brookfield Place New York Annual Arts Commission Prize. For over 35 years, Arts Brookfield has invited artists to create new work for public spaces to engage communities in meaningful conversations.
We recently spoke with the artist, who shared her perspective on the importance of materials in her practice and what she hopes viewers will take into account when they see Bajo el manto de la selva.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to art.
I have a background as a graphic designer and illustrator. I chose it because I wanted to be in a creative field; I love art and wanted to eventually become an artist, but I had heard so many conversations about the difficulty of surviving, so I chose a career that was more about being able to earn a living. Although I was raised in Colombia, I was born in New York and had an American passport. After years of working for the entertainment and television industries in Colombia, I arrived in New York with my list of companies I wanted to interview. I dreamed of working with MTV and VH1.
But when I started working here, I noticed that I was a bit more rebellious and constantly trying to do something artistic for very commercial or business ventures. I started doing my own work and worked for many years in different design studios. It was the 1990s; I opened my own design studio in Williamsburg with a friend and started an online gallery. I held monthly exhibitions online, then we decided to bring them to life, so I started doing exhibitions in the studio space. I was very inspired and started to explore more and more my own language as an artist. When I finally decided to focus on my art, I had a client come into my studio and say, “It’s about time.
You have a practice that is really grounded in materials and issues of ethics and sustainability related to Colombia. Can you tell me more?
In the United States, I found myself in conversations where people asked me where they could get cocaine while traveling in Colombia. It was crazy to me that for many Americans there was no connection between being a cocaine user here and the environmental impact of illegal cocaine plantations the, and all the political problems and displacements that go with it. We have lived through 60 years of war centered on drug trafficking – the impact has been enormous. I couldn’t believe people’s only knowledge of Colombia was about cocaine, and without a real understanding of the country’s incredible biodiversity and the critical role it plays in the climate crisis. I decided to engage these conversations through my works.
Most of your works have been two-dimensional so far, but Bajo el manto de la selva is a three-dimensional installation that occupies a large public space. Can you tell me about this transition, how it went for you as an artist and what you learned?
My husband makes fun of me because I just don’t say no. Why not make a rainforest canopy? I could have continued working the same way I was, but somehow I was excited to have a different challenge.
I decided I wanted to make a canopy out of branches I found. I had originally wanted to work with this material called thereAnchamaWhich one is made from the bark of a tree by indigenous communities. The material is a bit like papyrus; it’s very textured. My father was an anthropologist and we always had pieces of material in our house. It is a totally sustainable material in small quantities, but while planning this installation I realized that with large quantities things change. Because it is made from the bark of a tree, the tree eventually dies. Considering the amount I needed for the installation, this repercussion could actually be quite substantial. The dynamics got too complicated, so I started looking into handmade paper. I got in touch with a woman who runs a foundation that produces a journal called fique, which I ended up using.
But of course, when I came to sign the installation contract with Brookfield Place, the documents said that everything I used had to be fireproof. Here I only work with natural materials, so I started a fireproofing process. It has been a learning process, to say the least.
When it comes to ethics and sustainability, I usually work digitally and only produce the artwork when I know it’s going to be installed, so when it comes to producing artwork I’m very aware how it will be made and the materials I use. It’s the first time I haven’t worked with canvas. Fique has proven to be an amazing material that has traditionally been used to create bags containing onions, potatoes and coffee. Over time, plastic bags became more popular in Colombia, so using this material was a great way to bring this process back to the communities that had this craftsmanship.
What do you hope people feel when they enter the installation?
One of the main challenges in Colombia is the availability and cost of water. In this environment, you become very aware of your consumption. Water was inherent in the process of creating the fique paper used in the installation, but it was made with recycled water.
Of course, I don’t know if I can make someone passing by aware of water consumption, but what I hope is that I can arouse a little curiosity to learn more about Colombia and dig more deeply. I don’t want to create a feeling of judgment but of connection. Hopefully the work invites people to envision a new idea of the country and engage with the realities of the environment from a new and different place.
“Bajo el manto de la selva” (Under cover of the jungle) is on view at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place in New York City through September 12, 2022.
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