Create More Space Than You Take Up

Maria del Carmen Montoya is an exuberant, warm and concise artist whose desire to create meaningful connections with people is contagious. I was lucky enough to talk with her about her creative passions and to learn what motivates her work as a collaborator in Ghana Think Tank and educator at George Washington University Corcoran School of Art and Design.

Within the world of Social Practice, Ghana Think Tank is a renowned international collective that flips the script on traditional international development by setting up think tanks in “third world” countries and asking them to solve the problems of people living in the “first world.” Carmen joined Ghana Think Tank founders Christopher Robbins and John Ewing in 2009 and since then they have founded think tanks all over the globe and at home in the US, always challenging the common assumptions of who is in need and inverting the typical hierarchy of expertise. For example, in the Mexican Border Project, Ghana Think Tank collected problems on the theme of immigration from civilian “Minutemen” and “Patriot” groups and brought them to be solved by undocumented workers in San Diego and recently deported immigrants in Tijuana. When Ghana Think Tank looks to undocumented workers, deported immigrants, Moroccans or Iranians for solutions, they elevate their knowledge, a wisdom often dismissed by systems of power in the name of “progress”. Ghana Think Tank’s act of listening is radical, deeply affecting both the interviewee and those who are seeking solutions to their problems.

At the start of our interview Carmen told me about a very important aspect of her identity: where she is “from.”  Having grown up on the northern outskirts of Houston, TX in a neighborhood she called the barrio, gave her rich and complicated experiences of both belonging and exclusion, often being seen as the indigent other.  She draws upon these experiences when doing her work. She has returned to Houston, a number of times creating work there with Ghana Think Tank.  

Mobile mosque, Houston, TX April, 2016


Currently, Carmen loves living in Washington, DC, a city that is “ostensibly, the seat of political power in United States.” Here she holds a post as Assistant Professor in Sculpture and Spatial Practices at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of Art and Design. Carmen is married to a supportive artist and has two young children who can often be seen helping with her art projects.    

TK: I would love for you to begin by talking a little bit about what you mean when you say that you are “interested in the communal process of meaning making?”

CM: Yeah. It’s kinda meta right? As far back as I can remember in my life, my experiences have felt most real when they have been shared with other people. For me, participation is critical to understanding the world I live in. I learn by doing. But I’m not naive about this idea of participation, especially in the context of socially engaged art. We’re all at different places in our lives. Sometimes we can’t come to the same place, emotionally, physically, conceptually for so many reasons like our access to resources, our age, our daily routines. I believe artists must work to create opportunities for people to be present and to bear witness even when participation is not an option. Sharing an experience makes it possible to refer to it with other people. If you did it alone, then you have yourself. But if you did it together, there are all these other eyes and minds on this thing that happened. When we share a moment, whether as participants or as witnesses, we can try to understand it together. For me it is the most honest and effective way to know things. This shared knowing sets the stage for collective action.

TK: Yes. That resonates deeply with me. And given this experience it makes sense that your work is based in conversation with individuals and groups. Can you share with me a particular conversation in your life that was catalytic for you?

CM: Oh yes. So we [Ghana Think Tank] were working in Corona, Queens as part of the Open Door Commission at the Queens Museum. John [Ewing] and I had gone to a community teach-in for young men about how to act when approached by police on the street. Police harassment of young Black and Latino males in Corona continues to be a huge problem. We were still in the research phase of the project and we wanted to learn about how community members were coming together to help each other address this issue. The room was full, interestingly enough, of grandmothers. John and I didn’t look like anybody else in that room. We were definitely the outsiders, a position we often find ourselves in when implementing the Ghana ThinkTank process.

After the presentation one of the women, came up to me and she introduced herself. She was very proper and well spoken and she said, “Good evening, my name is Violet. I’m an octogenarian. Do you know what that is?” I thought to myself (Thank god I know what that is!) I said, “Yes, Are you 80? Or 81? Or 84?” She smiled and she said, “What are you doing here?”  It was such an open, honest, but pretty aggressive question. And she was looking at me; usually people look at John but she was interested in what I was doing there. I responded, “Well, I’m an artist and I’m here to listen and to learn about the concerns of your community.”

And she said, “Oh, an artist! So are you a painter?” And I said, “No”. And then she said, “Oh then you draw really well?” And I said, “Well, not really, I mean I draw ok but not great.” That seemed to peak her interest. “So what kind of an artist are you?, “ she asked.  It was such an intense, existential question to have in that very moment. I don’t know where it came from – but I said, “Well, think about what a painter is doing when they render a landscape, it’s never exactly like the thing that’s out there in the world. The artist is asking you to look at the fields, the sky, the horizon in another way. And, that’s what I’m asking you to do, only we’re talking about people and relationships.”

She took a moment to think and she said, “Oh! Well, then I see you are an artist.” I felt so entirely validated in that moment. This brilliant, engaged woman understood the value of work like this and that it is art. I am so grateful to Violet for asking her questions in an such an exacting way. She wasn’t trying to make me feel good or give me an opportunity, she wanted to know for herself what on Earth I was doing there. That exchange gave me the understanding and language to express what I’m doing in a way that nobody had ever done before.  

TK :  You mentioned your work in Queens, but you also have spent a lot of time in conversations with your think tank teams in so called “developing” or “third world” countries. Can you share an example from a specific team that you have worked with closely?

CM: Sure, in 2013 the US State Department and the Bronx Museum selected Ghana Think Tank to do work as cultural ambassadors in Morocco. The idea was to activate a full range of diplomatic tools, in this case the visual arts. American artists were sent abroad to collaborate with local artists on a variety of community based projects in hopes of fostering greater intercultural understanding.

We arrived in a small Moroccan village, just about 45 minutes outside of Marrakech. And there we were working with the really lovely folks, at Dar al-Ma’mûn, an international residency that focuses on artists and literary translators. They have one of the most active translation centers in all of that region focusing on French, English, Arabic, and Spanish. And they connected us with a group of artists and teachers that were working in the area. This group melded magically.  

As part of the project we transformed a donkey cart into a solar powered mobile tea lounge. We used to travel around the more rural areas asking Moroccans for help.

One of the problems that we brought with us to Morocco was that even in cities people find ways to isolate themselves from each other, the doors of home are hidden by shrubbery, they tend to face away from the street if possible. The Moroccans were really interested in this issue of social isolation. They said, your culture is totally obsessed with single family homes and maybe it’s really your architecture that’s your problem. You should have architecture that’s more like ours. In the Moroccan riad doors all face a shared central courtyard and you can’t help but see each other when coming and going.

This suggestion became one of our most ambitious and far reaching projects ever, The American Riad.  We’ve teamed up with Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, the North End Woodward Community Organization, Central Detroit Christian CDC, and Affirming Love Ministries Church, to build a Moroccan style riad in the North end of Detroit. This art and architecture collaboration will transform abandoned buildings and empty lots into affordable housing around a shared courtyard filled with edible gardens. The site will be deeded as a land trust and an equity coop to ensure that the homes remain affordable in perpetuity. One of our main goals is to create an art based model for introducing art into a community while simultaneously resisting gentrification. As you can imagine taking on this complex solution really intensified our relationship with the Moroccan Think Tank.

TK:  How does this team and other people you know in that region of the world perceive and understand Ghana Think Tank’s work?

The Moroccan Think Tank was really interested in why outsiders were there, in their rural communities, asking for assistance. Some found the process novel and an opportunity to take a stab at American culture, most were truly interested in trying to help. They also found it very interesting to consider the heterogeneity of the United States.

For example, during another session in the mobile tea lounge, we found ourselves once again analysing this problem of social isolation. One woman brought forward a beautiful quote that said that a neighbor is your responsibility and that includes anyone living up to 40 doors in any direction. Many people that day suggested we look to the Qur’an and the Hadiths to find our answers. This project was the first time that we had been able to discuss the solutions with a think tank face to face in real time and ask immediate follow up questions, “How can we bring the Qur’an as a recommendation to people living in America?” I asked. “ People follow so many faiths and belief systems it will be difficult for them to accept.” To which she replied aggressively, “You, in America, don’t even know our book. Americans don’t read the Qur’an, they burn it!” The conversation suddenly became very intense with people yelling angrily in many languages. I remember Sarah, my translator, putting her arm across me and yelling, “Don’t blame her, she’s not even really American, she’s Mexican.” Some people seemed confused. “No, no, I am American, well, sort of, Mexican-American. It’s complicated.” I interjected. Abid, the donkey cart driver, whistled loudly and we all quieted down. Then the woman asked me if I had ever read the Qur’an. “No,” I admitted. This was a real wake up moment for me because I had studied philosophy and theology as an undergraduate and had read many cultures’ holy books. “Well, why don’t you start there,” said the woman. What a beautiful, gentle and potentially enlightening intervention. This solution resulted in a series of Qur’an readings all over the country in libraries, schools, and homes (starting with my own) and on one windy roof-top at Portland State University as part of Open Engagement 2013.

Another exchange that might help answer this question took place in a rural olive grove on a warm afternoon. The project was being funded in part by the US State Department and there was significant oversight by that office. Several of the problems that we proposed taking to Morocco were considered “inappropriate,” problems like childhood obesity, lack of political freedom in the US and PowerPoint as a brain-numbing presentation tool. The reasons varied with the most common being that “The Moroccans just won’t understand. They don’t have the context for this.” This type of paternalism is a big part of what Ghana ThinkTank is responding to and we were determined to bring the problems that Americans had submitted– all of them.

We often try to work with groups that already have a relationship with each other because it tends to create a comfortable scene and fuels conversation. That afternoon we had been invited to meet with a philosophy study group. As we sat among the trees, the participants slowly passed the problems around the circle, really pondering the issues. After some time one young man stood up and said, “I see! For Sartre, the other is hell but for Ghana ThinkTank, the other is the solution!” What a moment! This was the most succinct and accurate statement ever made about our project.

TK: Your Mexican Border Project differed from many other Ghana Think Tank projects because many of the people you were working with were in precarious legal situations and much of the work had to remain anonymous. One aspect of this project included collaborating with Torolab, and award-winning Mexican art and design group to “create a border cart designed to help people cross the US/Mexican border. Outfitted with interactive screens, the cart allowed people to present problems and give solutions pertaining to immigration and the border, creating a public think tank about the border, at the border.”  

What surprised you most about working on the Mexican Border Project?

CM: It was so surprising. It was really, really surprising what happened when we went to the border. We were on the Mexican side of the border and we wanted to cross with the cart into the US, so we were traveling against the power dynamic. We had worked on the border cart for months and not just us, all the wonderful people at La Granja, Torolab’s community base. Through all this work, the object had become quite precious. All the times I’ve crossed into Mexico, it’s no big deal. The lines are short and move fast. But getting in to the US is a lot harder. We were concerned that the cart would get confiscated and we wouldn’t be able to complete the think tank session. Add to that that every single time I cross into the US from Mexico, I am “randomly selected for additional screening,” every single time. What if they confiscate the cart? What if one of us, probably me because I’m the Chicana, gets arrested? We made copies of passports, had important numbers set in our phones.  We had this idea in our minds that the border patrol were going to make things really hard for us.

So there we are with the cart and we’re pushing it along the pedestrian lane. It’s brightly colored and we’re talking to people, inviting them to sit and chat, to have a drink– creating quite a ruckus.  Of course the Border Patrol stop us and ask us what we are doing. They are armed, in riot gear, because I guess that is what they wear all the time now and not smiling. I took the most honest route I could and I just said, “Well, we’re here on the border, we’re artists, we’re trying to open a critical dialogic space about immigration. And we want it to be in conversation with the people who are living their daily lives on either side of these issues. And so we thought the best place to do that would be here on the border itself.”  

It was amazing. The Border Patrol guys looked at each other and they were like, “Wow, yeah. We really need that. We REALLY need that. Nobody is asking us about that.” One guy got on his walkie-talkie and called up ahead to ask for help. “Where do you want the cart?” he asked me. “Uhmm.. up there?” I said. Just then two other border patrol showed up and the four of them hoisted the cart up and over the barrier and we were on our way. It was AWESOME. I was completely set to be detained, to have my passport confiscated, to have the cart impounded and to have to call my husband from a border town jail. None of that happened. All we did was talk to real people in real language. For me, it was one of the most enlightening moments of this project and there have been many.

TK: Did, that cause any shift in the project? Was there any action that changed because of that experience?

CM: I don’t think it shifted the project at all because we were set to do this one way or another. Our plan was the same as always– be respectful, try really hard and deal with the consequences of whatever happens. What I do think it did in that moment, when people saw the border patrol agents carrying the cart, is that it lifted some of the fear of interacting with us. I think on some level it might have even given us a little bit of legitimacy. A lot of people were really suspicious. It’s a scary topic, immigration and one’s status.

TK: Based on your diverse experiences, what advice you would give to young social practice artists?

CM: Pose your own questions. There is something very different at stake for participants, for community liaisons, for institutions, and for the artist. And I think it’s really important to do as much as you can to bring those concerns into conversation with each other. I always try to be honest about what is at stake for me personally in any project. So when we worked on the issue of climate change, when we worked with the immigration conundrum on the border, when we addressed police abuse of power in NYC, I look for my own story in that. And I am prepared to be the first to share. What is at stake for a participant is real. What is at stake for you is real. What’s at stake for the institution is real. It is essential that everyone is bringing what’s at stake for them to the table in an open, honest way.
The other thing is that I think it is important to create more space than you take up. As socially engaged practitioners, working in communities, we are taking up space. People have things to do and they are taking time out of their lives to speak to us, to participate, to contribute to our projects, they help us build them, to implement them. And so it is important to not be in denial about that, about the space that we’re taking up in people’s lives. I think one of the ways that we create space is when we pass the mic. By that I mean when we create a context for people to talk about what’s really important to them. This is what allows the work to become their work too.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

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