Guillermo Vitale (1907-1992) found art late in life, or perhaps it was art that found him.
He dropped a bathroom tile whilst doing repairs in his house and in the pieces scattered on the floor, he discovered his vocation. It is perhaps a fortuitous paradox that a pensioner with impoverished eyesight was destined to create the most exquisite visual representation of community life in Cerro - a spirited neighbourhood of the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. Until his death - aged 85 - he created over 100 mosaics commemorating community heroes of international and local fame. He built playgrounds with recycled materials, collected signatures to petition the authorities to grant his neighbourhood independent status as a city, gardened the roadside entries to Cerro and was known to everybody as an expert in local history, forever pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with the materials of his art.
This project seeks to preserve and reinvigorate Vitale’s legacy as emblematic of Cerro, through a conceptual community art project that will bring together a significant cross- section of the community with artists, researchers, and cultural institutions. Through collaborative and participatory processes, this “Vitale Crew” will:
- Devise and implement a collective strategy for the preservation of Vitale’s legacy and its deployment as a radical tool for grassroots-led regeneration.
- Work to reconstitute the public image of the neighborhood, contesting media and mainstream stigmatising of the area as marginal and dangerous.
- Implicate a younger generation of Cerrences in the cultural life of their neighbourhood, both as custodians of its heritage and as active creators of new community narratives of generosity and civic service.
This project is part of my practice-based Doctoral research entitled Living together: The artist as a neighbour. This research documents, describes and analyses the political efficacy and effects of community-based art practice, where the artist has a long-term relationship based on a biographical link with the communities that the work addresses and engages.
Cuadrilla Vitale is the third and last art project of this research, and signals my permanent relocation to my hometown after 20 years of exile.
The project will follow a work process developed over more than 10 years of working with people from all walks of life in community-based art projects. My methodology is informed by permaculture ethics and principles, feminist theory and human geography research, and uses the skills and techniques of community organizing and grassroots cultural activism. At the heart of my practice is a belief in the political importance of self-organised cultural production situated at a local level. I work from the position that the overlapping and sometimes conflicting communities attached to a particular place are the central core from where the ideas and outcomes of any project emerge and should be of primary benefit to.
The creation of networks and the highlighting of existing ones is an element that
characterises all of my work. For this project, the following have already been established as a preliminary matrix of social and cultural actors wishing to take part:
Individuals and community groups. Those who hold the community memory of Vitale’s life and work include his family, Cerrences who grew up watching him work in the street, and those currently living or working in the buildings that he graced with his mosaics. These natural “custodians” will also be well positioned to make informed proposals towards the establishment of more permanent cultural memories of Vitale’s legacy.
Local cultural and educational institutions, such as the Centro Cultural Florencio Sánchez, secondary and primary schools, artists collectives and activist groups. They will contribute their insider knowledge of the community, its needs and capabilities, and will facilitate the participation of larger numbers of people, especially young people who will be central to the conception of the project, its implementation and after-care of the results.
Researchers, critics and professional artists. There are some precedents of individuals who had carried out investigative and documentary efforts with Vitale’s work. They have confirmed their readiness to contribute their knowledge, skills and resources to the project, and to create outputs that bring to conclusion their specialist interest in Vitale.
Municipal authorities. Elder Silva, Director of the Centro Cultural Florencio Sanchez is fully committed to the project. He responds directly to the Director of Culture of Montevideo Municipality. Elder has been advocating for local government support for what he believes is a timely intervention to save Vitale’s work for the future.
Like Vitale, I was born in Montevideo in a family of economic migrants. Aged 19, I moved to Europe escaping my parents’ expectations of marriage and University. After training as a woodcarver and working in a religious sculpture workshop in Madrid during the 1990s, I gradually transited towards conceptual art, seeking to find a happier encounter between artistic vocation and political activism. In 1997 I graduated with an MA from Central St Martins College of Art & Design.
Largely by chance, I stumbled upon a network of artists who were practicing beyond the institutions of art. Most of the time, what we did was barely recognizable as art, but it involved all sorts of people and that felt important. Complain!, a street work made for my neighbours in Brixton, signaled the beginning of a long-term commitment to working locally.
With growing interest in socially-oriented work, came commissions from public institutions: Whitechapel Gallery, Gasworks, Arts & Business, La Casa Encendida (Madrid), Tate Modern and Tate Britain. Alongside, I sustained an independent and long-term body of work in South London, that achieved wider recognition with the international reach of the project
Do you remember Olive Morris?.
I am currently doing a practice-based PhD at Chelsea College of Art & Design. I regularly contribute to courses, events and publications in the field of socially-oriented art practice.