Interview by: Denise Dao
In the midst of the Twenty First Century, many consider themselves artists merely by posting a picture on social media, and there is a constant urge to be “different.” Yet this is seldom achieved and results mostly in a growing mass of imitators producing variations of the same “art” (if we can even define it as such). Hence, it is a discovery and a treasure to find the work of an artist with the depth, signature, and sense of innovation, plus as well educated as Venezuelan contemporary artist Elizabeth Cemborain (1959). Ayn Rand stated: “The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life — by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past — and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort.” That is the case with Elizabeth Cemborain. It became evident when I had the opportunity to interview her. One of the many aspects that make her stand out is not only her education but what she has built upon it and accomplished with it. Being a woman in this polemic era, being a wife, a mother, living in Venezuela’s socialist regime, working and paving her way in the art world are the main points of this research. Her story began since she was a little girl in middle school where she started to show her passion for drawing. She made cartoons and had the chance to have painting classes where she learned different techniques such as pencil, pastel, pastel-oil and oil. The artistic side did not leave her; she chose Architecture as her career. In 1982 Cemborain graduated first of her class in Central University of Venezuela. She worked in her profession for nine years. First, in the public sector for the Ministry of Urban Development. Subsequently, she also directed various remodeling projects for private clients. Notwithstanding, after almost a decade, she followed her true calling and enrolled at the School of Visual Arts Cristobal Rojas, where in 1994 she obtained her degree in Pure Art, Drawing and Painting. While still an Art student, Elizabeth Cemborain got married and gave birth to her first child. She managed to merge her personal life experiences with her other responsibilities. In that sense, as her Art thesis under the wing of her tutor Pedro Terán, she conducted a study on motherhood, body changes and how this topic has been portrayed by men throughout Art History. Going through that process herself, she acquired an insight that led her to a keener introspection on the subject, evaluating the techniques, materials, the use of color, among other factors that were implemented by artists and their perspective as outsiders of such a feminine experience. Combining everything is no easy task, but nowadays juggling between a career, having a sustainable relationship and being a mother are some of the challenges any successful woman battles with. She continued to paint mainly for her own amusement, producing various modern pieces for her home. She participated in various collective exhibits and remained active in the Painting Circle from 1998 until 2002. In addition, in 2001 and 2002 she attended Antonio Lazo’s courses. But routine can turn into a dagger to creativity, and so she took a break. From December 2002 until February 2003 there was an oil lockout or general strike in Venezuela against former President Hugo Chávez to force a presidential election. It paralyzed the oil industry, causing thousands to be left unemployed, and never reached its final goal. During this dark chapter in Venezuelan History, many fled the country temporarily for security reasons. Cemborain was no exception, and left with her two children. They say the most interesting things come out from times of crisis and so it went. She established in Upper Black Eddy close to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There, inspiration bloomed again. She started to experiment with Photography and Photoshop. Reflecting about her previous classes with Lazo. Little by little Cemborain began to incorporate technology into her work. Her laptop and camera became her only art tools and her biggest allies. Her first approximation to glitch was a mistake. She opened many programs at the same time and this caused her computer to collapse or “freeze” as she calls it. Later on, she introduced glitch on purpose to create mediation between images, light and color. Her first series was entitled Winter Series. It was a compilation of photos of windows with warm colors. The artist explains that, coming from a tropical country, in her view windows represent a natural connection with the exterior, a link to the sun, wind and rain. Contrariwise, spending her days in the hard winter of Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, she felt that the closed window stopped that communication and became a confinement witness instead. It symbolizes not seeing and not feeling, until the being is isolated. Later, she continued this observation during her summer in Bethlehem, where she states that the situation does not differ much from the winter, since abrupt changes in temperature force individuals to confine to the cloister with air conditioner. But not everything was reduced to staying in. Exploring the town of Bethlehem, she encountered chairs sitting in front of the houses, to keep the space clear once the snow had been shoveled. She photographed this practice and named it “Guardians, North Series”. The diversity of chairs and styles make them interesting to look at, they portray the personalities of their owners, they tell a story. In contrast, when she returned home, she found in Venezuela another set of chairs left out on the sidewalks. Yet, in this case they were not only exterior chairs, but also old car seats, office chairs, plastic chairs, broken chairs and countless types, their origin and destiny remaining a mystery to pedestrians. She called this “Guardians, South Series”. She concludes the chair becomes a protagonist from parallel events in two realities. They were not designed originally for the use to which they were being subjected. Moreover, as she walked down the streets of Hellertown, Pennsylvania, she noticed yellow ribbons tied to trees, lamplights, statues, signs and doors. At first, she did not know what the meaning was, but after doing some research and listening to Tony Orlando & Dawn’s folk song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” she understood it represented waiting for the return of an American soldier. With that in mind, she collected a photographic documentation of the ribbons. A selection of these images was later presented at the Arturo Michelena, Biennale in Valencia, Venezuela (2006). Something similar happened with the ribbons as with the chairs. Elizabeth discovered another ribbon tradition in Margarita Island, Venezuela, with a few differences. The first distinction was they were not only yellow but multicolored ribbons made out of supermarket plastic bags. The second, they did not signify waiting, but a Catholic tradition of thankfulness to the Virgin of the Valley. Nevertheless, this photographic series was featured in the 29th Aragua Art Salon at the Mario Abreu Contemporary Art Museum of Maracay. The same type of comparison between the United States and Venezuela arose with a third object: mailboxes. From highway 212, Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, USA, to highway Henri Pittier, Maracay, Venezuela. In two different settings, mailboxes appeared in the form of small little houses. They had names, numbers and decorations. They were elaborated out of construction materials and were similar in size. Both groups where made to leave messages but did not have the same objective. Furthermore, like any great artist, Elizabeth headed to New York City. She took a bus on the Transbridge line with one thing in mind: to photograph the Big Apple. For her discouragement, it was a rainy day. The windows from the bus where full of tiny drops and the fog made it almost impossible to see the skyline. After a brief disappointment, she made the most out of the situation and realized there was another kind of scenery. It was at this moment that Cemborain’s art took a turn and shifted from concentrating merely on an object to integrating the surrounding and making a complex intervention of the image. She started implementing this same technique from a taxi window in Times Square, to avenues in Caracas, Venezuela, during rush hour while driving a car. This set was also shown on the 29th Aragua Art Salon at the Mario Abreu Contemporary Art Museum of Maracay (2006). In 2008, she participated again at the Arturo Michelena Biennale in Valencia, Venezuela. The work she presented consisted of a series of photographs with an ideological approximation to Cubism. She chose Caracas and Manhattan as her setting. Elizabeth explains that visiting, traveling and passing by constantly displace our sight, trying to capture every image, every light, every sensation. Photography captures those instants. This series does the contrary, it assumes the image in movement. They were randomly taken, moving the camera intentionally while walking or riding a car. Continuing her experimental journey, she was invited to the renowned Santa Lucia Art Evening (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Two proposals stand out: a video art entitled “Neon” and “Containers”. “Neon” (2010) had as a main idea to move from exuberant images that portrayed New York’s energy to the austere reality Venezuela was facing. She projected the video on the walls of an abandoned house at 9 pm. At that same hour there was a power restriction in various regions of the country. These two realities (abundance and scarcity) were put in contrast. Movement and wealth in comparison to darkness and crisis “Containers” (2011) was an installation in which she covered up a house with container images and people were able to write messages with markers, answering questions such as: “What would you abandon in your life?”; “What do you think should be abandoned and forgotten?” It is necessary to mention that during that year thousands of containers were found in Venezuelan territory full of rotten food or expired medicines due to government negligence while millions where starving and sick. As a follow-up to the aforementioned, she created her proposal for the collective exhibition Color en Tres (Three in Color). Santa Lucia 2 consisted of medium density fiberboards and laminated vinyl printed boards with eco-solvent ink. With them, she created a synthetic landscape that depicts Alejandro Otero’s “Colorhythms”. The boards were accompanied by a video she took during her stay in Maracaibo showing the colorful streets, slowly zooming in, being less referential and more abstract until achieving pure color. In this context she opened “Luminescence” (2011) an exhibit at GBG Art Gallery in Caracas. We do not tend to see reality in a panoramic view and we rarely stop to see its most hidden details, whether due to lack of time and constant distractions or because of optical limitations we have as human beings. Either way, art amplifies our capacity and our senses. This is what Elizabeth Cemborain does. The representation of urban landscape is a recurrent theme in her work. By filming and taking pictures in Times Square she captured publicity and lights. What we see is a result of her digital intervention by amplifying, magnifying and digitally altering the videos and images. With this process many images even reach abstraction. A significant piece was a video entitled El Puente (The Bridge), screened at her third time at the 68th Arturo Michelena Biennial (Valencia, Venezuela). “Cemborain records the landscape as she crosses the bridge over Lake of Maracaibo. Those images are later processed to generate interlaced patterns that, in her own words, establish “a dialogue with the abstract-geometric tradition … it is a landscape of a gray, disoriented, and transitional Venezuela.” The gray-blue landscape suddenly becomes a series of broken lines of color, and the underlying image reappears and dissolves over and over during the journey. (…) In Cemborain’s perception of Venezuela as a “disoriented” country, the camera’s horizontal movement might be a metaphor for a journey towards confronting the flaws and challenges that characterize this landscape/country –the conflicts and breaks that become visible in the glitches that interrupt her view on Lake Maracaibo.” The artist has participated in countless art fairs and events. In Caracas at: Genesis (1994); Stratum (1997); Latin American Art Fair (FIA) (2012-2014); Towards the green plan project (2012); Pro vita Auction (2014); Auction for a smile (2015); Photographic Support (2015); Out loud Auction (2016); Abstraction/Attraction (2017); Language of Color (2018); Miami Tables (2018); Cellular Landscapes (2018); L’Atelier Des Amis (2018); Micro stories (2018); Liquid life (2018). In Maracaibo: X International Art and Antiquities Fair (2013-2015); Abstraction-Creation (2016); Art 17 (2017). In Margarita: Graphic Terra (2015). In Valencia: Free Turn (2016). She has also participated in art events abroad. In Japan: Tribute to Daisaku Ikeda at the Museum of Modern Art (1994, Tokyo). In the US: South Bethlehem photography exhibition (2003, Pennsylvania); Art Takes Times Square (2011, New York); I Love Venezuela Foundation Auction (2016, Miami); Imago Art in Action (2017, Miami). In the UK: Artists Open Houses (2017, Brighton). In Spain: From Door to Door (2011, Toledo). And in Aruba at the Aruba Art Fair (2018). On another note, distancing herself from her signature glitch/abstract style, Elizabeth Cemborain created a series adopting characters from great masters’ paintings such as: Hans Eworth, Francesco del Cosa, Diego Velásquez, Johannes Vermeer, Giambattista Piazzetta, Jean Baptiste Greuze, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Vincent Van Gogh, Émile Bernard, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse and Armando Reverón. What all of these pieces have in common is that the women portrayed in them are alone. In the original works, they face their loneliness in a passive manner. On the contrary, Cemborain includes technological elements in an amusing way (iPods, laptops, cellphones), as if to pose the following questions to the public: What would have been the attitude of these women had they lived in the 21st Century? Would they have texted their lovers? Would they have defied social conventionalisms? A peculiar approach to femininity. She used acrylic paint and metallic pigment encapsulating the painting for its protection. Her inspiration for this was born after a scandalous art theft that took place in Caracas. Henri Matisse’s “Odalisque in Red Pants” was stolen from the Contemporary Art Museum and replaced with a copy. It happened at the beginning of Chavez’ presidency and was finally found in an auction in Miami in 2012 by an undercover FBI agent. No one has yet been charged with the crime. Cemborain’s Odalisque has a laptop next to her. The artist imagines what would have happened if she had a GPS. Would it have been easier to find her? she asks in humorously. Cemborain’s most recent participation in an exhibit is a demonstration of her constancy. Last October she was invited to participate at the Carré Latin Festival held at the Palais Royal in Paris. She was asked to present a video mapping. She studied several possibilities of where to project the images. She thought about trees, ceilings, floors, columns and hallways. But before she could decide, Leonor Parra, the festival director, gave her a call. Parra offered Cemborain the front patio to screen her video. This meant a real challenge, but the artist accepted at once. Long nights, emails, phone calls and work followed up. Cemborain would play three videos on three rear projection screens. She wanted to show three axes: nature, urban and rural landscape and a place of transition. In order to achieve this, she chose to combine her previous videos “Santa Lucia” and “El Puente” along with “Ávila” which she would make for this occasion. Ávila Mountain is an iconic element in Venezuelan culture and specially to people from Caracas. It symbolizes nature and our idiosyncrasy. It seemed natural to select it as a main theme. Photographer Ana Cristina Febres lent Cemborain high resolution Ávila images, and with them she deconstructed the mountain in a poetic way on the five-minute video. The night of October 9th was a success for Elizabeth Cemborain, when she exceeded the public’s expectations. Elizabeth Cemborain is one of the most interesting contemporary Venezuelan artists today. Her transition from modern figuration to her contemporary Geometric Abstraction and unique manipulation of images make her a true artist. Cemborain’s fascinating perspective of landscape by incorporating digital media and her usage of color are extraordinary. Her vast creation does not end here and without a doubt she will continue to innovate in the future.