The Mexican landscape is—physically, socially, and culturally—a challenging arena for any cultural or artistic project with utopian visions. Mexican artist Bosco Sodi as founder, and contemporary art curator Patricia Martín as director, have embarked on a fascinating project with hopeful ambitions: Casa Wabi, an architectural gem sunk in the rural coast of Southeast Mexico, built by Japanese master architect Tadao Ando.
Located on the outskirts of Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Casa Wabi is a non-profit organization offering residencies and opportunities for long-term projects for international and local artists. A fundamental goal of the organization is the collaborative involvement of artists and the local residents. This important social commitment might be the catalyst that will allow fresh ideas to develop, creating a dynamic process in which aesthetic and educational practices meet. The aim of Casa Wabi is to merge different realities to create a nurturing entity, in which art is used as a vehicle for the advancement of local communities through educational stimulation. Artists in residence are encouraged to develop projects that welcome locals to take part in workshops spanning several art genres—an approach that is intended to nurture both the communities’ interests as well as the artists’ approach to elements foreign to their practice. The educational aspect of the projects also serves as an alternative means of learning within the serious educational crisis faced by students throughout Mexico.
Bosco Sodi, based in Red Hook, Brooklyn, is mostly known for his sculpture-like, large-scale paintings, and the intricate process through which he makes them. Using natural pigments, he delicately crafts unstructured, abstract figures that resemble the formation of rocks or organic landscapes. His interest in the Wabi Sabi philosophy is revealed through the use of raw materials: a conceptual exploration that surpasses the technical elements involved in his practice. Sodi’s work aims to recreate the ambiguities and imperfections of nature though his artistic goals extend beyond his awareness of the beautiful and his interest
Driving north from Puerto Escondido along the rural coastline and veering off the federal road onto a dirt path, there awaits Casa Wabi in the middle of a magnificent, almost untouched piece of land. A few miles ahead, a gray concrete wall blocks an otherwise pristine view of a virginal beach and a rattled, gleaming ocean. Just past the concrete wall, Ando’s masterpiece reveals itself. Designed in the tradition of the Wabi Sabi philosophy, the building might seem lush at first. However, when contemplating the space, it reflects Ando’s philosophy of nothing being finished, nothing being everlasting, and above all, nothing being perfect. Divided in two wings, Casa Wabi has private accommodation for artists in residence; vast outdoor communal space; studios; a gallery space (with an installation by French artist Daniel Buren); a swimming pool overlooking the ocean; and a botanical garden, every aspect of which is determined by a shared characteristic of simplicity, minimalism, and the integration of natural objects in the unique surrounding ecosystem.
Perhaps Ando’s and Sodi’s intention behind the simplistic Wabi Sabi-inspired design of the building is to let the artists in residence and communities involved bring the complexities to Casa Wabi, complexities that should be borne of the interaction between artists and communities, to fill the intentional—and meaningful—voids of the architectural space.
In order to truly understand the responsibility and challenge of creating such an organization, and such a space, one must dig deep into the horrid present of Mexican culture—a complicated manifestation of numerous power structures fighting against each other. Perhaps, the origin of this conflict is the claim for—and the lack of—identity. Through symptomatic reiterations, an evident pursuit for identity surfaces over cultural and political problems.
In a country deep inside the hellish hole created by the drug war, people are face to face with the possibility of losing family members to organized crime while low-income communities regularly lose children to criminal organizations that rule the country by way of force, extortion, and impunity. Non-profits like Casa Wabi are facing this tragedy with bravery, and a firm conviction that the power of education and art can pull people away from these grim realities.
Casa Wabi also meets a more complex obstacle: the struggles posed by the confrontation regarding educational reform. For years, the Federal Teachers’ Union has forgone the universal rights of public education by creating and perpetuating a scheme in which affiliated teachers received a lifelong salary and the power to hand over their positions to anyone, whether or not the person has the formal preparation to teach and whether or not they possess a teaching certificate. Consequently, students nationwide, and especially in the state of Oaxaca—where the Teachers’ Union has its core—have been receiving their basic education from people without professional training. In 2014, an educational reform was voted into law, stating that teachers, even if they are part of the union, must pass a proficiency test to be able to hold their position and their salary. This has led to massive violent uprisings by the Teachers’ Union, leaving classrooms unattended. Oaxaca has been especially struck, and children throughout the state have now missed over a year of basic education. Casa Wabi’s geographical location and its mission of engagement with local communities will meet this struggle firsthand. As Sodi remarked, “art can help educate people in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to.” Art can be a path to critical thinking, especially in communities that desperately need it, and have no immediate access to public education.
People in Mexico live amidst an overwhelming state of crisis, trying to push through daily lives of scarcities, education, and security concerns among other immediate pressures. Gradually, the country is isolating itself from the world. The international community is turning away, but Casa Wabi is a unique oasis attracting foreign eyes and the global contemporary art community. The organization is not a grand microclimatic institution detaching itself from Mexico’s gruesome social and political struggles, but a conciliating project that can cultivate artistic values and international insight. Casa Wabi faces a demanding future, in which the impact of its outcomes will be measured through the creative collaboration of the artists in residence with the people living in the surrounding areas.
Casa Wabi’s inaugural event, which took place in late October, hosted artists from Mexico and the world, and featured a performance piece in the swimming pool by the Mexican theater company Ciertos Habitantes. It marked the date for the first residential projects, in which Corban Walker, Claudia Fernandez, Benjamin Torres, Amy Feldman, and Michael Joo are set to weave their artistic practice with Southeast Mexican realities. They will live within the complexities of an idyllic setting, and the grim truths of a shaken country that are impossible to ignore.