From Oaxaca to Bronte: interview with a self-isolating curator


View from a window, Oaxaca

Together In Art catches up with Lisa Catt, the Gallery’s assistant curator of international art, about her excellent (but unexpectedly brief) art adventure in Mexico.

Together In Art: So Lisa, there you were not long ago settling in to a curatorial residency in beautiful Oaxaca, and now you’re home in Sydney, in Bronte, in self-isolation.

Lisa Catt: Yes, it has been quite the rapid change of scene! There I was taking in sweeping views of mountains, jacarandas and bright facades. And now, here I am on day 12 of quarantine, looking out to my apartment block’s car park… I say that with deep gratitude and relief for being home.

TIA: What took you to Oaxaca?

LC: I went to Oaxaca for a three-week residency supported by the Gallery’s Edmund Capon Fellowship. It wasn’t only the magic location that appealed to me. The Pocoapoco residency (the name means ‘bit by bit’) brings together artists and arts workers from across the world to collaborate and converse. I was in such great company, with two writers, two artists, a musician, a dancer and a social housing activist.

Lisa Catt (left) and author CJ Hauser

Lisa Catt (left) and author CJ Hauser (right) at the Pocoapoco residency

TIA: COVID-19 concerns were simmering at the time you left but soon loomed large. How did they register in Mexico and at Pocoapoco?

LC: To be honest, we were in a bubble. And at first this felt comforting. It was life as usual in sunny Oaxaca. And while each of us on residence was mindful of who we met and where we went, around us there was nothing (yet) to suggest the chaos unfolding in other corners of the world. Markets were buzzing, restaurants were open, parades were still filling the streets. But the more we tuned into the rest of the world, the more the ordinariness around us felt unsettling. Not that people in Oaxaca were being irresponsible. The Mexican government was demonstrating what was, in my opinion, a startling degree of inaction.

TIA: But you had to get moving…

LC: Things changed so fast! My initial impulse to ‘stay put and give it another week’ within 48 hours had changed to ‘I need to be home asap’. It was interesting to observe the different responses within our group, depending on where ‘home’ was. My Canadian peers and I decided to leave first, while the American residents chose to stay on. They had direct flights home, so that gave them extra time. But mostly, they were reluctant to return to an escalating situation amid political chaos and a seriously stressed – and, for some, largely inaccessible – healthcare system. Everyone is safely back home now with their loved ones, I am happy to report!

View from a window, Oaxaca

View from a window, Oaxaca

Street scene, Oaxaca

Street scene, Oaxaca

TIA: We’re happy to have you back too. It was nerve-racking following your progress. But happily, you did have time on the ground with art and with artists. Who did you meet and what spun you round?

LC: Before going to Oaxaca I had three days in Mexico City, which were incredible. One inspiring visit was with the commercial gallery Kurimanzutto which is so important for contemporary art in Mexico City. It started in the 1990s and, for the first ten years, it didn’t have a fixed exhibition space. Instead, the gallery worked with artists on projects across different sites and contexts, including a local street market.

TIA: It’s a rare example of a ‘big’ gallery that’s remained true to its poetic roots.

LC: Totally. Currently they have no set annual program. Their space will change according to the rhythms and needs of their artists. This is their response to an increasingly exhausting schedule of art fairs. They wanted to reset and slow down and try to reclaim some agency from the relentless global market. How prescient!

Pedro Reyes’ studio

Lisa Catt and other participants in Alicia Jimenez’s workshop. Image courtesy Alicia Jimenez

Pedro Reyes’ studio

Image courtesy Pedro Reyes

TIA: Were there studio visits that resonated similarly?

LC: Well, talking of what spun me around… I visited the studio of Pedro Reyes and saw his famous staircase! Pedro is such an impressive artist. He speaks passionately and intelligently about politics and social issues of now and, simultaneously, he’s an incredible maker. One minute we were talking about his recent project Amnesia Atomica, a public intervention in Mexico City that raised awareness around nuclear disarmament. And the next minute, he was showing me his stone carving workshop where a monumental figurative sculpture was coming into being.

TIA: The photos look amazing. We all want to go and self-isolate in Pedro’s studio. Who else did you meet?

Lisa Catt and other participants in Alicia Jimenez’s workshop. Image courtesy Alicia Jimenez

Lisa Catt and other participants in Alicia Jimenez’s workshop. Image courtesy Alicia Jimenez

LC: Another really special experience was a visit to the ceramic artist Alicia Jimenez’s ‘studio’. She recently inherited a plot of land that belonged to her grandmother in a small town about 45 minutes outside Oaxaca. She spoke about her grandmother, about learning to make clay from the earth on which she stood, about Zapotec identity and histories, about rituals and beliefs around death, and how she is grappling with ways to carry this all forward. Amongst eucalyptus trees and spindly walls of cactus, I got to make my own clay amulet with Alicia – an offering to a passed loved one.

TIA: We’re all thinking differently about travel now but curators do love to get out of the house! What’s your takeaway on the joys of travel versus those of staying home, from your current position as an ‘iso’ curator?

LC: The rush of travel is unbeatable – that feeling of openness and curiosity, the constant possibility of learning. But once we are on the other side of this pandemic, how do we as museum professionals reach out to the world? How do we extend invitations that do not perpetuate the systems and attitudes that have contributed to the current state of the world? There’s no doubt we need to rethink. Living smaller, living slower, being with those we love, demonstrating collective care. Understanding that we must all act together and for each other. Maybe, hopefully, from this, we will be set upon a long path of repairing social bonds… That’s the optimist in me. She’s still alive!