Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada is making an artwork featuring a Belfast girl of such large scale that it could be viewed from space. The first artist in residence at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s tells JOANNE SAVAGE why he wants to give the city an image of hope and happiness
Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, a Cuban American artist of international standing, will be the first artist in residence at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
The central moment of this residency will be his creation of a massive artwork on a two-hectare site opposite the entrance to Titanic Belfast - a huge arrangement of grass, topsoil, hay and other natural materials to realise a photographic image of a young girl in what the artist hopes will represent the “purity of hope and hope for the future”.
To produce this piece Rodriguez-Gerada, who hails from New Jersey, studied art in New York and now lives in Barcelona, hopes to enlist community groups to help him arrange the materials that will add a final top layer to his photographic image plotted on the ground using vector computer technology. Entitled Wish, the work will depict the face of an anonymous six-year-old girl from Belfast, with “such happiness in her eyes” to create a redemptive symbol the artist describes as “future-looking”.
So large-scale is the work that it will be visible from space.
“I saw this six-year-old girl on the street in Belfast and I asked her and her parents if they would allow me to use her image in my work,” says Jorge.
“I asked this little girl to make a wish and while she made that wish I took her picture. She had so much joy in her eyes when I first saw her, she was happy like she had more than enough love in her life and immediately I knew she was the girl I needed for my picture.
“I felt this little girl’s happiness would wonderfully represent Belfast’s hopes for the future.
“If someone were to get a satellite image of the whole city of Belfast then this piece would be visible too because of its scale.”
Rodriguez-Gerada describes his work as being about encouraging the contemplation of ideas or a reality. For Wish, and in the context of a Belfast recovering from the fractious legacy of the Troubles, the artist believes it’s important not to reveal the name and background of his subject.
“I just want to celebrate the idea of life, I don’t want to reveal details of where this little girl is from, whether she’s from a Protestant or Catholic or mixed background shouldn’t matter; I just don’t want people to think about this in the context of the Troubles or to try to place this little girl in terms of her upbringing.
“This is about the power of an anonymous image and how it can uplift us and help us look forwards by simply showing the simple purity of happiness.”
Rodriguez-Gerada, who has a background in street art and formed the culture jamming movement in New York, a guerilla art group which was most prominent between 1989 and 1992 writing over ad billboards to point out the damaging effects of products or subversively altering street signs - moved on to what he calls his ‘terrestrial series’ where he creates large scale images of people on the ground and sometimes on the walls of 60-foot high buildings. One of the most famous of these is an image he made of Barack Obama - made of 650 tons of gravel and sand - which was displayed in Barcelona during the 2008 American elections that ultimately saw him arrive at the White House as President. Rodriguez is particularly famous for vast works displayed across Europe, the US and Latin America, often done in charcoal on open land or in an urban setting. He has a recurring interest in depicting anonymous, unknown people, allowing them to be the central focus of his practice.
“I often choose anonymous people on purpose as a way of giving them this honour and homage for just being them, and for displaying this sense of belonging to the place where they live; I like to do this because I don’t think politicians or film stars or models or other famous people deserve to always be the overriding focus of our attention.”
Hence his focus on an anonymous Belfast child.
While researching for his Belfast piece, he visited the city and was struck by the uniqueness of the street art here.
“I come from street art and street art has as its message, as I see it, a concern or care for the people, making dialogues about the people and their future,” he says. “The street art of Belfast is unique because it’s so highly politicised, unmovable, untouchable - like the trenches or the frontline of a political battle on a visual level.
“Those famous murals are an important part of history and of art history. In the context of when many of these murals were completed, during times of conflict and difficulty, I feel the creativity involved and the ingenuity of the execution is just staggering.”
While here he began to feel how limiting and reductive the focus on the Troubles here can be, in terms of how people see Belfast from an international perspective.
“Last year I was asked to come and talk about my work and explore the city. Belfast is internationally famous because everyone knows the history, the Troubles, all the stories about the conflict. But when I visited I did a bus tour - one of the most unique I’ve ever been on - and I began to see that there is so much more history to this city.
“I began to see beyond the Troubles narrative; there was the Titanic, the history of the buildings, the moments of influx, the impact of emigration to other parts of the world like America.
“I think the importance of Belfast to the rest of the world is probably understated.”
Rodriguez will be the first artist in residence at the long-running Belfast Festival at Queen’s and helping to give the city an artwork embodying, as he sees it, optimism about the future - a piece which will be unveiled here on October 17 - can only be a positive, enriching contribution to our culture.
“I want this piece to be a catalyst for reflection,” the artist adds, finally. “For Wish I’m hoping we can get as many volunteers as possible to come along and have fun helping us put hay on top of the piece - I want people to enjoy it. I want people to work together to help me create this big image, what I hope is an image of joy that everyone, in Belfast and beyond it, can relate to.”
Wish by Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada will be revealed on October 17 and can be viewed until October 27 on its site near Titanic Belfast. For more information on events taking place as part of the 51st Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, visit www.belfastfestival.com.