Where the Plants Have Eyes: Art About Venezuela in Crisis

Originally published on White Noise

July 2018

Lately, we’ve been taking trips just north of White City to ArtWest, a loose collective of studios scattered across Harlesden and Park Royal. This time, Arnelle Paterson paid a visit to Renata Fernandez.

I bump into a petite, raven-haired woman in the corridor of ArtWest’s ACAVA building, holding a kettle in one hand and a coffee mug in the other. Renata Fernandez is pretty chirpy for someone who’s yet to start her creative morning regimen of coffee and Radio 4. “The first hour has to be mechanical, not thinking too much, and then later on, I do something more free-flowing,” she says as the kettle whistles, vying for attention. “I wish I had a personal DJ that would put the music on for me, because I can’t be bothered to change the music.”

Fernandez was born along Venezuela’s Caribbean coastline in the city of Caracas into a deeply religious Spanish family. She says, “I was one of those really annoying kids who always knew what they wanted to be.” Coming from a family of professional musicians, she instead studied art at university, and specialised in painting and sculpture. “I always did or thought in 3D,” she explains.

In her own words, Fernandez is a “methodological and rational” artist who uses charcoal, pencil, oil paint, and the socio-political context as a canvas for creation. The deep impact of the political situation in Venezuela infiltrates all of her work. “My country’s been completely destroyed. I don’t recognise the neighbourhood where I grew up. I don’t have a place to show my kids because of state war,” she says in a matter-of-fact manner. “I mean, Syria wins because it’s worse, but it’s very similar in a way. We don’t have bomb strikes, but we have gangs with Russian weapons just killing people for food.”

Back in the 90s, she had what she describes as a premonition. “I had to leave my country. My intuition was right. I could never imagine it’d be so bad, because at the moment my country is in the middle of the worst humanitarian crisis ever. In the 21st century, people are dying because they don’t have antibiotics and no food. It’s horrendous.” Her foresight wasn’t wrong. Last year, it was estimated that prices in the Latin American country would increase by more than 700%, while 75% of the country’s population lost an average of 19 pounds in weight between 2015 and 2016 because of food shortages.

Undoubtedly, Fernandez’s work is deeply rooted in culture. She explains, “You’re influenced by where you come from, where you go, and even where your grandparents are from.” She gives me a snippet of her childhood influences: “Galicia, north of Spain, medieval, Roman-esque. I went to many churches, far too many. The Catholic imagery – you take a child there and it could be considered child abuse because it’s too visual. There’s blood and raaaaah!” She imitates a dragon’s roar. “If you’re an Anglican, a Church of England kind of person and you go there, it’s like, ‘Oh, God!’ But that’s how we grew up. So that has an influence on the way you see. The way you confront reality is different.” Eventually, she moved to England to learn English where she “fell in love with the country.” Her eyes light up with enthusiasm. “I fell in love with the English. I got stuck in this way of life. Whilst I was learning a language, I was learning a culture.”

Fernandez’s solo exhibition at Museo Alejandro Otero in Caracas in 2013 was a landmark show for the artist. The works on display were 14 charcoal drawings measuring two metres high and based on the urban jungle. She gesticulates to illustrate just how big the plants are. “Where I come from, the plants were always monster-like, beautiful and menacing. Leaves as big as me – and I’m not very big,” she smiles. Her decision to draw in charcoal was a conscious one. “When you take a photo and translate that into black and white, you start seeing the engineering. It’s fascinating.”

It took a moment of intuition before Fernandez realised exactly what she had created. “People would say, ‘Ooh, I can see a face here! I can see a face there!’ and it’s like: ‘Do you?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, somebody’s hiding there.’ The soldiers. They became a metaphor for the menace of someone that’s lurking behind and might jump at you. There’s a contradiction between beauty and the menace, and I realised that I hid something subconsciously.” As her works make their way across the globe, she’s aware that the interpretation may differ. “I think I was thinking about what was going on in my country, the militarisation of society. A dictatorship supported by the military – puppets. People who see my drawings in Madrid? They don’t think of that.”

Her decision to tell the museum about the content of her exhibition was a bold one, as it subtly referenced the nature of authoritarian regime that has left over 8,000 people dead. “It was a controversial thing to say because the museum was still being controlled by the regime, but I did what I had to do. If they didn’t accept it, so be it.”

And for the first time in her life, she started taking her own photos to draw from. With only 10 months to produce this mass of work, she managed to do it in just eight. With a nursery-age child as well, she was left exhausted. “But by being exhausted, something connects. A revelation happens, because you’re not rationalising the process. So the first two drawings I didn’t like too much, but the ones that followed, they were better and better and better!” The creation process also took a toll in other areas. “Because you’re so exhausted, you’re drinking condensed milk and you get really fat,” she laughs. “I mean coffee and condensed milk with digestives? Hello!”

She makes her stance clear: she’s not an emotional person. Fernandez says, “I can be intense, but you’ll never see me wailing,” she wails dramatically. “That’s why I’m quite good here, because in my country, everybody was like raaaaaah! And it’s like: oh come on, control yourself! It’s something very un-Caribbean about me.” But she does feel like a “masqueraded emotion” has seeped through her work. “I happen to be doing stuff that’s linked to my country, because of the tropical plants. And it didn’t start like that. I guess it’s an element of nostalgia, lost memories, and the unattainable, things that are long gone.”

She recently had a commission in Fulham working alongside eight kids from a local school passing on block-printing skills. “When you teach someone a technique, they have to start solving problems and it has an impact on their life. There’s something that art teaches you, the ability to solve problems.” Her eyes are fixated on me as they intensify: “Your brain becomes malleable and more open to adapt, and that’s something that permeates all areas of your life and that’s why teaching art is so bloody important.”

But she admits that having an impact was something she never used to think about. Not, at least, until her work started having a positive effect on the people that worked at Museo Alejandro Otero, as well as those from the shanty town across the road in Caracas. “My parents used to go to the prayer group that happened to be in that shanty town. My dad was very proud and he told me what people were saying, that it was having an impact in the community.”

Art has a special role to play within society, she argues. “It makes you more sensitive to your surroundings, and you know what? It might make you change the way things look. It’s a valuable thing to say, ‘I’m going to improve the way things look around me.’ It makes me feel better. Sometimes, Banksy puts up stuff that criticises things other people don’t notice. That’s very important. It’s not just about the nice paintings.”

She’s philosophical about her legacy. “The planet’s going to disappear eventually. I think about that a lot. What’s going to happen to all the master works? They’re going to disappear. There’s artists from 200 years ago that nobody remembers, but they were bloody happy and they had an impact on the people around them. That’s the legacy. In this world of Instagram, who’s famous and what for? Because they do make-up tutorials? How many bases are you gonna put on your face woman? And those eyelashes? They’re obviously fake! They look like a broom!” Ultimately, the artist’s motives wind down to one thing. “It’s not that I have Catholic guilt. Someone taught me how to paint as a child, and it had an impact on me. I want other people to have that chance.”