May 23, 2011  |  Events & Programs
Exotic Novela: MoMA’s Community Partnership with Project Luz

Fernand Dcute and Daniel as Joan Collins. Photo by Sol Aramendi

For the past few months, Rebecca Goyette, one of three educators running the Museum’s Community Partnership Programs, has been working with the photographers at Project Luz to combine their own practice as artists with images and themes from MoMA’s collection. Here is her account of the process, and images of their amazing results:

Founded by photographer and educator Sol Aramendi in 2004, Project Luz invites its participants, who are all immigrants from Hispanic countries, to make connections between their everyday life experiences and their own practice of learning photography. Sol’s class uses photography as a way to get to know the city and to form vital interpersonal connections within the group. In addition to teaching the basics of photography, Sol also trains her class members in event photography so they can generate income from their passion.

In my own work as an artist, I enjoy creating costumes for performative work. Throughout our partnership, I saw that Sol and the group frequently worked on studio photography using a proper setup of lighting, backdrops and furniture props. I wanted to find a way to contribute to this process as an educator and artist, while connecting the project to images from MoMA’s collection. I got a chance to facilitate a process with the class that was in total alignment with my own passion. We decided the theme of the project would be “Exotic Novela,” and set out to make headdresses, masks, and full-body costumes that were all exaggerations of novela (soap opera) characters.

From left: Luz Campos, photographed by Margarita Flores; Doris as Parrot Woman, and Mireya as Evil Eva, both photographed by Sol Aramendi

On the first day of class, I shared images of performative photography involving unique costumes and character development. We talked about how Cindy Sherman recreates herself through costume and props, each time taking on a different persona that reflects different emotional qualities. We also looked at costuming in photographs by Marina Abramović, Mika Rottenberg, and Leigh Bowery to see the variety of narratives they conveyed. Our visits to MoMA involved comparing the stylization of performative photography by Ana Mendieta and Matthew Barney with the raw realism of Nan Goldin.

To get people started, I asked each member of the class to come up with a persona that represented a dramatic archetype found in novelas. Questions posed included: Are you a vixen? A jilted lover? A melancholic? A drama queen? A villain? Are you representing your true self, or a fantasy?

From left: Paula as Colombiana Elektra; Leonardo as Emo; and Daniel as Joan Collins outside of Project Luz. Photos by Sol Aramendi

Armed with bags and bags of feathers, rhinestones, vinyl, satin, caution tape, trims, velvets, and glitter, the group was overtaken with an explosive burst of creative energy. With Sol as D.J., playing her huge collection of records from mariachi to disco, we started to cut, tear, sew, glue, and form alternate personalities.

Doris, who by day makes and sells the most delicious empanadas, became “Parrot Woman,” a silvery, feathered court jester, something between Lucille Ball and Susan Lucci. Leonardo, who each week travels in from New Jersey to spark his creativity, covered his head with a gigantic hat made of melted records; face painted, lily in hand, he became “Emo,” finding a creative space somewhere between The Cure and Edward Scissorhands. Paula transformed herself into the vixen, “Colombiana Elektra,” as she meticulously cut an intricately shaped leather fetish mask and hand-sewed a glamorous two-toned vinyl mini-dress.

And then Joan Collins was born. Each week, Daniel would come to class and say, “I want to be Joan Collins,” in a very serious low tone. He began to create a gigantic wide-brimmed diva hat out of caution tape. Then, unfortunately, he went missing from the next class.

From left: Parrot Woman strikes a pose; Project Luz artists in character. Photos by Sol Aramendi

Daniel was tracked down and called back in. But he didn’t come alone. He brought three of his friends (one a former professional drag queen by the name of Fernan Dcute) to style him. He stood, a proud diva, in the middle of the room as his friends dressed him, put on his makeup, and tied on his strappy stripper shoes. We all streamed out onto the night streets, multiple flashbulb holders, camera people, stylists, onlookers, and revelers. In that moment, Daniel was Joan Collins. He owned it. It felt like we were characters from the Warhol Factory days—only maybe we were in Argentina or Colombia—that night, as we stepped outside of ourselves for a moment into the pure drama of an “Exotic Novela.”

Now Sol Aramendi and Project Luz have a vibrant costume closet for use in future photo shoots… and we all have our photographs and memories of a magical time of transformation.