Moved by the exodus and suffering of Indian migrant workers, especially women, Spanish artist Isabela Lleo started making sculptures of this tragic migration, now an international art project. In conversation with Amit Sengupta of Hardnews.

Isabella Lleo lives and works in Mallorca, a quiet island in Spain. She has dedicated her life to the arts in different ways. She is trying to develop skills in stone sculpture, painting, graphic arts and experimental video. She has been working on educational workshops in the exhibition, ‘Sculpture by the Sea’, in Bondi and Cottesloe, Australia, and has experience as a high school teacher. Isabela has developed skills in the artistic, scientific/technological and human disciplines, demonstrating her creativity and capacity for innovation and research in new media and undeveloped fields, working alone and as a member of a group. She is a pioneer in the introduction of digital technologies in art. She has demonstrated great interest and ability in learning and introducing new methods and tools of work. In her artistic work, she does not forget the past and establishes a temporal bridge between past civilizations and ours, as for example in her first video-sculpture installation, ‘The Etrucian Smile’ (1987), at Abriss Galerie, Hamburg. She has followed the first intervention of Van Gogh TV on Piazza Virtuale, Ars Electronica, Linz, with Mike Henz (1990), using DeskTop Publishing Programs for designing large-scale drawings which were exhibited in Germany and Poland under the title ‘Digital Love’.

As president of the Kaifu Art Centere, she built and established one of EU’s first international centres for the exchange and residence of artists with the support of various institutions in Hansestadt, Hamburg, under the direction of Christina Weiss in Kulturberhrde. Her interest in arts, science and technology has guided her in the visualization of algebraic formulas developed at the University of California and she materializes them into paintings. Much of this artistic output is based on mathematical or physical research. (Paintings in the series: Synchronicity and Frequency, for example). She has also participated in the first programme for the Mediterranean development of new computer technologies (Minotaurus) organised in Park Bit, Mallorca with the support of European programmes. As an artist, she has worked with stone carving in recent years.  She began introducing 3D scanning into her sculptures and is interested in the development of sculptures using robotics and 3D modeling. She has established a printing-graphics studio in Majorca ‘Taller Fuera de Registro’, where she produced her own print editions and organized workshops for the transmission of printing techniques. Today, she runs a small international artists’ residence (arteditionsfueraderegistro) with participation in national and international art fairs. Her interest in the human soul, the deep belief that the arts are one of the best tools to help humans prevent or heal in case of illness, led her to study clinical psychology.  She has used a method of approaching nature based on images of electronically transformed trees in her video that reflects her deep and uncomfortable feeling of abandonment. Excerpts from an interview.

You were living quietly in an island in Spain far away from India imagining your aesthetic projects. What is it that suddenly drew you to the migrant workers of India post-lockdown? 

India was never away from us. I got to know Mahatma Gandhi’s life and philosophy as a child, through my father’s deep devotion to his peaceful movement against colonisation. Gandhiji was and is a big example and children still learn about him at school. We also had the complete works of Rabindranath Tagore, which gave me great pleasure reading them and also learning a way of going through life with important values. Many other things from India’s culture accompanied my spiritual and aesthetic formation. The first book about stone sculpture I had in my hands as a child was India’s stone sculpture, which was full of beautiful bodies carved in stone in loving approach to each other. The temple carvings influenced me deeply. India’s spirituality has deeply inspired millions of people through different civilizations. 

Since some time I have been following historian and curator Amrit Gangar’s facebook postings. His comments on literature, philosophy, cinema, poetry, etc, are so incredibly interesting and spirited. When he started his posts about the migrant workers, it touched me as the pandemic is worldwide and a global opportunity for reflection. In one post he specifically said that artists shouldn’t look away from the pandemic situation. I realised that I was painting my surroundings and not expressing suffering, which I could perceive, far away, and nearby.

They keep on speaking about implementing more programmes of digitalisation, 5G, cars, etc. They should think and speak about a change in our society for making our world more humane, helping the people to go back to their beautiful but abandoned villages, settling down far from the big cities and thinking about new (maybe old) agriculture models, though they can see so clearly that the existing models are causing disasters. 

Gangar posted about the workingwomen in India that were forced to leave their houses in the city because of the Coronavirus and rejected at the border of their region after walking 200 or 300 km with their babies and baggage on their head. I was pushed somehow (by him also) by that vision to start working on this image. This is a work slowly coming out — different expressions about women’s identity, and Coronavirus. I left everything behind this summer to understand what is going on globally by immersing myself in the eternal life of imagination, everyday feeling more connected to the spirit of the Earth, the trees, the simplicity, of lives in the countryside, in the stillness near the stars. Hearing the sounds from little birds, from the cosmos.

Amrit wrote: ‘Even after four months of total or semi-total lockdown in the country, the predicament of the migrant worker still hangs in a precarious balance. By the time, the Indian State decided to provide railways and buses, almost two months had passed and by that time millions of them had started walking — it was not a pleasure walk but most painful and risky. Many might have fatally collapsed on the way. We don’t know but we do know that as many as 16 young walkers were killed on the railway tracks, all in their sleep, when the sun was yet to rise! We still don’t know their names! The Indian migrant workers’ stories are heart-wrenching, the images that you see won’t let you sleep, these are stories not something you should be proud of — no matter someone would prefer to brush them aside branding them as ‘fake’ or ‘engineered’, but all such claims sound so hollow and insensitive before these gruesome images.’  

This crisis is an eye-opener.

What is it specifically that you felt instantly and in the course of  your work as you started making  portraits and sculptures of migrant workers, especially women with children, carrying sacks on their heads, amidst a deathly pandemic? What is it about poverty and the desperation that struck a chord in your artist’s heart?

My work develops usually in a very intuitive way and I don’t know from the beginning what it will express or where it is going. I had the aim to use clay for showing specifically the situation of the migration of women. I found a lot of things in that process, about myself, about ancient cultures, about the weight on the head of the women.

I would like to tell you a very personal story. I was experiencing the migration of a pregnant woman in an advanced state in my own flesh when I was 20. During my young years I had to move more than 2,000 km several times. It’s a hardship to migrate with little children, no money, little property, or just nothing. It’s something that touches me when women suffer. Society can be very cruel. I think in India it can be very cruel to women also. Women are sensitive and they need protection. The situation in their lives is not always like what one expects from one’s culture.  The global pandemic is showing once more how it affects people, especially with low income. They have no means to protect themselves.

Then I used some drawings from the Archeological Museum in Madrid, which I did in the summer before as an inspiration for the migrant workers. I was not so much thinking about workers but about women. These little terracotta pieces from Iberic art dated 3 centuries BC show women carrying something heavy on their heads. I could use these drawings to express the ‘Idea of Migrants and Migration’. 

Observing nature and getting inspiration from it is a big challenge for an artist. Nature is always changing, light is always changing, clouds move, flowers flourish and lose their petals. It is this essential impermanence in nature which fascinates me. It is not possible to catch it. 

The figures came out like this: Torso with big bag. Woman with no head, only rings (African culture) and very big tension in hands – Mudras. Woman with no head, pregnant, seven open chakras in her column. Pregnant woman with birds on the head (in Spain, the expression of being crazy is ‘to have birds in the head’). Goddess of nature with fig leaves on the back and a pandemic mask on. And then came the figures with Coronavirus somewhere, head, torso, pregnant with virus. I could manage to make a series of more or less the same size and significance after working out the trauma.

Do you plan to take your work on migrant workers in India to international art shows?  

Yes. I would like to present it. In fact, it is being shown at this moment in a church in Germany. The project is called W.I.R. — organised by the German sculptor, Herbert Hundrich. The intervened photos from the process are hanging over the banks for praying. Other artists are also participating. I am also writing a project to bring it to the Archeological Museum in Madrid, if possible. On November 7, it will be shown in Palma de Mallorca in the ‘Finis Africae’ library, which is a cultural space.

You have been deeply involved with nature and ecology. You are also worried about global warming and the brazen and relentless destruction of nature. Is it a worry coming from a Western perspective, or is it deeply universal and human?  

I think Global Warming signifies a bad present and future for our whole planet, for the Earth and Universe. If we remember the situation before the pandemic, there was a high rate of forest burning; the whole Australian continent and the Amazons were burning.  Children were coming out in different places in the planet seeking to stop this highly destructive life we are leading. There was a very preoccupying situation and I don’t think it has passed away.

As humanity, we have to programme deep changes involving our planet’s health so that humanity can survive. This civilization can survive if we make big changes. The problem is that changes in habits is the most difficult thing to do. Western perspective means that we are industrialized capitalist countries who are destroying far more than anybody else. After filling our countries with polluted air, highways, big cities, pollution, stressful and unhappy inhabitants take an airplane to ‘make tourism’ in poor countries with the belief they are helping those people and bringing them ‘their’ civilizations. Nothing is further from the truth. I always thought that when my friends from Germany travel to India, Tibet or South America, I would go to those places where the inhabitants of those places can also travel to our part of the world.  I mean, everybody. This exchange is not equal, so it’s better to first balance inequalities. 

India was never away from us. I got to know Mahatma Gandhi’s life and philosophy as a child, through my father’s deep devotion to his peaceful movement against colonisation. Gandhiji was and is a big example and children still learn about him at school. We also had the complete works of Rabindranath Tagore which gave me great pleasure reading them and also learning a way of going through life with important values.

Gandhiji was giving us a great example with his wheel. Each of us is responsible for the development of our common future and all of us have to contribute. If I have the possibility to plant 400 trees, I have to do that, and if I can plant one, I have to plant one. The future depends on the consciousness of everyone. We cannot wait until the governments make laws and gives us solutions. It will be too late. After all, the conventions in Kyoto, Sao Paolo, Madrid etc, are trying to lower down CO2 emissions and find common ways to solve it; we have not really appreciated real changes.

Even now, our government is blind and not speaking about ecology, global warming and climate disasters. Has the pandemic removed all the problems we were confronting? Is anything solved? Our government has no vision of the future and keeps on maintaining the same prejudiced kind of economy. They keep on speaking about tourism and not trying to give people other tasks that could benefit our environment — like planting forests, acquiring knowledge, practicing arts or going back to abandoned little villages, like in the Spain mainland, or in the case of other countries, like in South America, going back to non-intensive agriculture. Traditional agriculture, not using genetically manipulated seeds, not using pesticides, which are causing high rates of cancer, as in Argentina. Our whole planet is involved and through the use of technology we can share our problems and see how we can help each other. We, as a family, took the decision eight years ago to live a life with sun energy, moving as little as possible, use the bike and develop ecological, familiar means of surviving by planting trees that can cope (hopefully) with drought. There is political planning but the reality is that rich countries are buying emission rights from poor countries!

You use ecological material in your work. You touch and feel them, internalise their being and beauty, their fragility, imperfections, non-permanance. Tell us how you became so deeply involved with the aesthetics of nature? Was it since childhood? Did something trigger it?

Observing nature and getting inspiration from it is a big challenge for an artist. Nature is always changing, light is always changing, clouds move, flowers flourish and lose their petals. It is this essential impermanence in nature which fascinates me. It is not possible to catch it. We, artists, are always little than nature. I was impressed by the Tao and the Taoist paintings where the human being is very little amidst big landscapes showing their beauty — the impermanence of clouds. And I decided to try understanding this path. As a child I could sit for hours on a rock looking at something, little or big, in a sort of meditation or peaceful state. The beauty and fragility of nature is and has been always a source of creation. I always use natural materials like stone, clay, linen, wood, wax, pigments. I investigate a lot in old techniques of paintings like encaustica, which is a wax-based technique used widely in old Egyptian wall paintings, also in Pompeii. I try to do something everlasting, something which can stand as an expression for our times, give a sense of what could be done in this moment. (Which is far less than in ancient times, regarding artworks.) I prefer to imagine art as lasting for a longer period of time, over centuries¸ and also that the artist is not so important, only the artwork remains, telling something about the beliefs of that special moment. 

You have done artistic creations in different fields and disciplines. Tell us about ‘Hivern Ametller’, a special work about the abandoned almond trees in the area you live in Mallorca, due to tourism.

Hivern means winter. Ametller is the almond tree. The most beautiful traditional picture from the Mallorquin landscape is the flourishing almond trees.  In January and February, they flourish. It is said that the almond trees were brought to Mallorca by an Arabic prince when his beloved had the nostalgia to see the snowy mountains of his country. The landscape becomes white with a pale rose colour. In the area where we settled down, the almond trees have been abandoned due to tourism. Tourism brings much more money than almonds. People in the villages want to get rich and they forget to take care about the beauty of their surroundings. Almonds used to be a main form of survival of this island at one time. 

I was developing this theme in different techniques, big shaped woodcuts, trying to show the colours in winter and the starving almond trees. Also, an experimental video about the abandonment of the landscape and an experiment with the dead branches submerged with liquen (lichen) in porcelain. Little, very special fragile sculptures from porcelain. They look like corals and I could present my first sculpture installation in Australia due to that similarity, the problem of dying almond trees and vanishing coral reefs.

‘Winter Almond Trees’, a graphic work consisting woodcuts in large format has been developed in 2017 as a part of a cycle that includes artworks related to the trees, in this case, almond trees, which have been photographed, drawn, carved in wood plates, printed on paper, converted to porcelain and experimental video.

This is ‘Art in the Natural World’. The care of the abandoned and new planted trees inspires me and gives meaning to the future, determined under the temporal sign of contrast to the precise relation of woman and universe. The transfiguration is made by taking forms from nature into the artist’s consciousness. Reality is an aesthetic perception, an experience for the whole being.

The woodcuts ‘Ametllers’ comes from a quiet look around. Around oneself, the place where I am living. Ten wood plates worked over and over again, until they become so thin, so fragile, the storm, the lichen eating up the branches, the abandoned trees, the light in February.

Tell us about your project ‘Hijos de las Nubes’ (Sons of the Clouds) which is the name Saharaui people give to themselves because they used to follow the clouds which bring rain — so important to their traditional, nomadic culture. They have been in refugee camps. Who are they? How did you engage yourself with them?

Saharauis used to live in Western Sahara. Their territory was a Spanish colony until 1975. In the process of decolonization, this territory was taken by Morocco. It was the moment when Spain was facing the change to democracy after 40 years of the dictatorship of Franco. Saharauis had Spanish nationality. Nowadays, they are ‘apátridas’; this means that they have no nationality, although some of them still keep their Spanish passports.

Western Sahara was taken from the Saharauis in the so-called ‘Marcha Verde’ which could be translated as green path. It was an apparently peaceful movement of thousands of inhabitants of Morocco to the territories of Western Sahara. Western Sahara was given by Spanish King Juan Carlos I to the king of Morocco who soon after started persecution, killings and putting Saharauis in jail. Most of them ran away into the dessert.

After months of walking with nothing to survive upon, many people were dying. Algeria gave them some territory in the south where they could settle down. This place is one of the driest places on our planet and they have been surviving there for 40 years. Morocco built an enormous wall, ‘The Wall of Shame’, 2000 km long. Saharavis are leading an international peaceful movement since then to be recognised as a sovereign folk and to get back their land which is very rich in minerals, sand and fish. International and Spanish companies have been profiting since then. Spain is unable at this moment to start a war against its neighbor, Morocco, as they want to peacefully live together; so they are doing nothing to change this situation. 

There are associations everywhere in Spain to help the Saharauis with whatever possible. One of the programmes in which I am involved is about having a child in our homes during the summer. The temperature in the refugee camps go up to 50 degrees in summer. The children suffer from bad nutrition because they are still living without humanitarian help. We can take a child between 10-12 years old. In Spain they get two months medical care if necessary and good food, diversion and whatever we can do for them. Afterwards, we usually keep in contact with the family. Some of these children come back to study at the universities. We had Sheima with us some years ago, and this year, after visiting them in January, Saleh, a 10-year-old boy should come this summer to us. It was not possible due to the pandemic. Through the associations we share information and help. We organise trips to visit them but the situation over there is not easy and some of the Saharauis don’t want to see Spanish people around. It is not without danger and visitors have to be accompanied by the military at the airport of Tindouf and the camps.

How do you look at the world post-pandemic, including the technological affluent societies of the West and America, now suffering great economic, mental and social crisis? What is the situation in Spain, with its complex history, and its robust culture?

The post-pandemic situation, like every deep crisis, is an opportunity for reflection at all levels: social, economical, mental, personal. Until now, the industrialized societies have not been touched by the suffering like other populations of our planet. Industrialized countries are provoking poverty and natural catastrophes through their lifestyle since decades. Maybe it is time now to change. Changes are necessary and sometimes it’s beyond our understanding how they happen. This is a lesson for all of us to understand, to be more humble, and become more humane. 

Spain, from my point of view, is a more collective society than societies from the north, who are far more individualistic. So, big problems are solved through help and people start immediately to make programmes for help in private initiatives. In Madrid, for instance, there are lots of neighbours in poor areas who are starting to create ‘social eating rooms’ to give food to 300 persons every day, in totally private initiatives. 

If you ask me about our government, I think they are facing a very difficult situation, but they are not behaving in a good manner. They don’t show any future perspective of changes that can usher in a better life and better conditions, especially regarding global warming and natural catastrophes triggered by Western lifestyle. This could be a precious opportunity to implement profound changes but their projects are still about industry and not about nature. They could give work to persons by planting forests and working against desertification, but it is sad that nobody (among politicians) is thinking about that. They keep on speaking about implementing more programmes of digitalisation, 5G, cars, etc. They should think and speak about a change in our society for making our world more humane, helping the people to go back to their beautiful but abandoned villages, settling down far from the big cities and thinking about new (maybe old) agriculture models, though they can see so clearly that the existing models are causing disasters. 

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The exodus and suffering of Indian migrant workers during pandemic. especially women, moved Spanish artist Isabelo Lleo to start making sculptures of this tragic migration
“Society can be very cruel”