This past weekend, just as surprising cool breezes swept into the final third of a sweltering New York City summer, I went to see the documentary Wasteland presented by Rooftop Films at Museo del Barrio. Rooftop Films is an organization that screens underground films on rooftops around New York City in the summer.
Wasteland focuses on Brooklyn-based Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s two-year project with men and women who work at Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill in the world. These men and women, called catadores pick through garbage to collect recyclable material for resale and reuse. Vik Muniz’s trademark is the use of unconventional material to create striking portraits. He has made portraits from diamonds, string, chocolate syrup, peanut butter, and dust. One series that moved him deeply was portraits he made of children from the island of St. Kitts. He said he had a hard time reconciling the beautiful, spirited, vibrant children he saw on the island with the tired, limp adults who were their parents and grandparents. He wondered about the drastic transformation between childhood and adulthood. He identified work on the sugar plantations as the cause of the negative transformations. Those children become adults who work countless hours in sugarcane fields and have life basically squeezed out of them by this backbreaking work. So he made the children’s portraits from sugar.
For the Wasteland project, Vik met and connected with a number of workers at Jardim Gramacho. He took portraits of them, some of the photos were more staged than others. Then he bought a number of bags of the particular recyclable materials he needed for the project (the workers pay U.S. $30 for the bags they use to carry the recyclable materials they collect). He projected the portraits—large-scale—on the floor of his studio and taught the landfill workers to follow the lines of the projected photograph to lay out the materials in such a way that the image in the photograph becomes apparent. He paid them the same amount of money they were accustomed to earning so that they wouldn’t lose money while working in his art studio.
He didn’t need to hire them, he could have hired anyone. However he envisioned this project as a social project, in which he would connect with people who are invisible to the rest of the world, make them highly visible through his art, involve them in the artmaking process and give them money from the sale of the artworks they helped create. It was—if you will—a social experiment.
There’s a moment in the film after the first portrait is complete that the artist and his studio manager are looking at the large-scale portrait made from artfully placed recyclable items. And one of them says: “Look at all that garbage.” And one of the landfill workers says: “That’s not garbage, that’s recyclable materials. That’s money!”
This twist of understanding, tweaking of thought, plays out on every level of the film and is one of the most powerful tools we have in life. On one side of the mirror, there’s garbage, a ton of stuff that people have no use for and have thrown away. (There’s another moment in the film when they go through a few bags and classify the person who threw out the trash. We’re educated about middle class garbage versus poor people’s garbage with humor and wit.) On the other side of the mirror, these items are not garbage at all. They are valuable resources, not only to the impoverished landfill workers for whom sifting through garbage is a job, but also to the companies who buy these materials from them to recycle and resell.
What if everything you disdain in life has another value? What if all you disregard and bemoan as not working in life, is actually the key to transformation or riches? And all you need to do to discover these riches is flip the mirror? We—as human beings—are very invested in labels and qualifications. We can break down our qualities and categorize them as good or bad. We can disregard talents, creative output, and people as trash without fully utilizing them to the best of our ability. When we put out our mental/emotional/creative trash, how much of it is recyclable goods? How much of it is gold?
I’ve really been using this idea of flipping the mirror in relationship to self-love and self regard. When you think about your flaws or your issues, I’m sure you could write a thesis on which parts of your personality are problems, how aspects of your personality hold you back, why you block yourself from achieving. And you could get so caught up proving your own “wrongness” that you miss some of your greatest value. During a workshop on self-love I asked the question: Why is it easier to blame ourselves as the cause of failure, rather than accept the ebb and flow of life. One of the participants responded that it’s not that it’s easier, it’s that when you do blame yourself, you feel a sense of control. You feel that there is something that you can “do” to improve life, you’re just not “doing” it yet. Control.
I have been learning that it takes quite a bit of control to surrender. It takes quite a bit of control to flip the mirror on negative thoughts and embrace yourself as whole and complete and 100% good. It’s actually simpler to encourage yourself through life’s storms than to nurture a bevy of shortcomings and self-complaints. Think of it this way, your shortcomings are all different and varied, how do you keep them straight? How do you choose which one to blame for any given failure? How do you remember which negative thoughts each shortcoming needs to blossom? Whereas, “You are great”; “You’re doing wonderful”; “You’re perfect and whole the way you are”; “God loves you” are steady, consistent thought patterns that can continue no matter what’s happening externally. They can take you higher in times of success, and soothe you in times of failure.
Through the Wasteland series of art, Vik flipped the mirror in so many ways: he made invisible people highly visible; he used discarded items as the materials for high-concept, expensive art (the scene after one of the landfill workers watches his portrait being auctioned off for $50,000 is priceless); he used landfill workers as artmakers; he took people who defined work as scrambling over huge heaps of trash, competing for the best grabs of recyclable materials, and showed them a new type of work that gave them the space and time to mentally reflect on themselves and on life; and the film itself flips the viewers expectations for what art is and what art can do.
There is a very important scene in which Vik, his wife, and his studio manager are arguing about how to proceed with the project. The studio manager had found the landfill workers to be surprisingly joyous and vibrant people, he took this to mean that they were happy working in the landfill. So one year into the project, when they are communicating to him that they don’t want to go back to the landfill, they want to stay and work in the studio, he becomes concerned. Vik’s wife is equally concerned at Vik’s plan to take some of the landfill workers to London. “Their minds are fragile,” she argued, “You can’t do that to people, you can’t show them the whole world and then put them back in the slums.” Vik disagreed. Having grown up poor himself, he was not afraid that his artmaking experience would have a negative impact on their lives. “If nothing else happened from this project,” he argued, “how could spending two weeks away from the landfill in an artist’s studio be a bad thing?”
The status quo is a difficult system to buck. Whether its our own personal status quo or societal status quos, they all seem so real and so important to maintain. What Vik basically offered the landfill workers was a vacation from their status quo. No one argues that an average office worker should forgo vacations because s/he will just have to return to the drudgery when the vacation is over. Mental breaks are rich oases in which we can reflect, release, and renew. Flipping the mirror works the same way. It is a vacation from self-imposed suffering, from self-critical manias—it’s a rich opportunity to sidestep negative mind loops and use your brain for something positive. Life is what it is, but our experience of it is in our hands. We always have a choice. We can insist on burrowing into negative and/or limited thought patters, or we can flip the mirror.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
SELF PROMOTION LOG
My bookstore transactions have slowed down considerably. The slower selling places do not seem interested in getting new books. I am still selling relatively well at Bluestockings Bookstore. The one national distributor I submitted the book to did not accept it for distribution, but they did recommend a more independent distributor to me.
Single Woman’s Manifesto
Bookstore acceptances: 5
Note: the book is also in the exittheapple store in Baltimore, MD (they are the lovely publishers of the book), and at a bookstore in Detroit
Bookstore rejections: 3
Book Distributor rejections: 1