Exhibition review of "Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting" at the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian
Jennifer S. Musawwir 11 October 2021
min Read18 September 2021
“Art” and “activism” surely are not enough words to describe what CHEAP is. CHEAP is an innovative Italian street poster art project and association born in Bologna’s streets and public spaces. It uses art to fight against sexism, racism, classism, and any form of oppression rooted in our society. It became a real community and institution for those who believe that culture and art can effect change.
CHEAP was created by six women: we talked with Sara Manfredi, one of its co-founders, to get to know the reality of CHEAP and to understand its importance in the contemporary art scene.
Sara Manfredi is an Italian art director, independent curator, intersectional feminist, and an activist. In 2017 she moved to Germany, where she keeps exploring public art and contemporary languages.
How did you come up with the idea of CHEAP and why?
We came up with CHEAP in 2012 and set up the first edition with the festival format in 2013. We were six women from different backgrounds in the artistic and cultural fields and also from self-management experiences. It was natural to have a desire to do something and then fulfill it because many social and cultural self-managed spaces are incredible training grounds to learn how to create something that doesn’t exist yet. We wanted to investigate the dimension of the city, the urban landscape, and our city in particular, and we wanted to do it with the tool that in broad terms is called street art. In our case, this was a peculiar segment of street art, the paste-up: the use of paper pasted to the urban landscape with glues. Our work ranges from posters to big walls: paper is a very versatile material, and for us, it represents one of the most interesting characteristics of street art, that is its ephemerality. Paper melts, besides the fact that anything can happen to it in the street; even if it isn’t ruined or ripped, even if it stays there, it melts at some point, between the sun and the rain. It seemed to us that it was, and still is, a very interesting anti-monumental way to be in the street because it’s a milder way to intervene on the urban landscape. You are not imposing a wall that will last at least 30 or 50 years with the paints that we have today.
When you first started, did you find some obstacles or a fertile ground to work on?
When you work on the streets you have to gain credibility; you have to know how to be there and you can learn it only by being there. We have always taken responsibility for the mistakes we made and we think that we made enough mistakes to say that we learned something. Moreover, we were six women in a still pretty much male environment, so we experienced what all women experience at work. We took care of everything, from the materials to the dealings, so those who worked with us watched us doing very little feminine things. We earned the respect of many of the people we worked with, and that’s very important for us because it’s one of the indicators of the project’s wellness. We also had to get respect for the project from the outside: I still remember administrator and regional assessors’ faces when we were showing them sample images of our street poster art and they were like “What do you mean? That thing is paper?” We struggled to explain what we did and why: our projects take us time and work but they don’t last, as posters are made of paper, so it was hard for them to understand why we worked so much for something that is not permanent. So, it hasn’t been easy and has taken us a lot of self-determination, energy, investments, and time. But we believed in what we were doing.
How was the festival structured?
We worked on the festival format for five editions. On one side this format involved an invite to international artists chosen by us: we asked them to work for a very specific part of the city, like a neighborhood, a facade, a school, or an abandoned building. Those artists were invited by us months in advance, and before they came we worked together so that we could give them keys to understanding the space they would have intervened on. We tried to explain what kind of town Bologna is, the social, cultural, and political dynamics, how was the neighborhood they would have worked in, and who lived there. After that, the artists carried out a project whose installation part was scheduled for early May. On the other side, the festival also brought a series of posters selected through an international and thematic call for artists in the streets. This is the core of the project, and it’s the only part that lasted from the festival format.
How does the call for artists work?
The call has this dynamic: we find a theme, we deepen it with a written text where we explain why we chose it and what it means for us, but we also let everyone be free to think about it in any other way, and the artists can send us from one to three posters in digital form within six months. After the deadline, we selected the posters which would have been pasted on Bologna’s walls.
Why did you decide to maintain the call for artists?
The posters come from all over the world; this implicates that, through individual narratives, we create collective narratives in a public space, and that we act as a form of re-appropriation of the urban space, but also that we found a de-colonial system. We are white and BIPOC women with the privilege of being occidental, and we define a theme that we see through the hermeneutic frame of our culture, but the people who answer to our call come from different places and cultures. Bringing these narratives in the spaces of a European city means that we are breaking the colonial gaze that a country like Italy still has. That’s why when we decided that after five years the festival experience was completed and that we wanted to be something else, we kept the call for artists.
Why did you decide to “kill” the festival?
It happened for many reasons: festival paces are terrible, and you don’t always have the clarity to give the best or the time to follow all the projects, and sometimes we just wanted to have another timing or do things differently. So we decided to reach out to our need. On the other side, in Italy, especially in Bologna, a situation had developed that made us take a firm position. We think that in Italy the what is called street art is instrumentally used to support gentrification dynamics or is more often brought up in a rhetorical discussion that involves decency on one side and the ghost of urban decay on the other. It seems to us that public authorities are causing great damages in that way. Facing that kind of approach we decided that we needed to state that we were something else. At the same time, a street art exhibition sponsored by a private institution in Bologna had meant that some street artworks were torn away from the streets to be put in a museum, without the artists even knowing about it. This is stealing because the artists still have intellectual property, even if their works were made illegally. That’s why Blu, one of the greatest street artists, who lived and worked in Bologna, decided to make a grand gesture: he painted in grey all of his walls, to declare that public art belongs to the city and its streets and not to a private entity, and we thank him for that.
How did your work change since then?
We learned from Blu’s gesture: we decided that the festival was over, that we didn’t want to provide 10 days of street art to the city. We wanted to work more fluidly, unannounced, also gaining control of our time. We could choose whether to do last-minute projects, working on current topics, or take two years for one project. This revolutionized CHEAP, and the presence of the people who work for it – we are now four people – gave us new energy. I think that it was the very best thing to do for us and our project.
How did people react when you ended the festival format?
When we chose to publicly “kill” the festival with a letter, most people didn’t understand us, also because we had reached a very high point: we had finally become a national reference, and just then we decided to break the formula. I understand why a lot of people who followed CHEAP got upset, but also we received a lot of sympathy from people who had worked with us. Our message had been sent loud and clear and we had a lot of solidarity around us.
Too many people prick up their ears at the sound of hooves, expecting horses to arrive. We will end up incapable of imagining anything but horses. What about zebras? Who imagines zebras? Well, dedicating ourselves to the unlikely seems to be the most sensible move so, as of today, CHEAP is in charge of zebras.
I think that your decision is very much in line with what CHEAP is: something that doesn’t stay still but evolves.
Exactly, we think that nothing lasts forever, let alone a festival. Guerrilla Spam, a collective of artists with whom we have been working for some years, described CHEAP as a virus: something that keeps mutating adapting to the new circumstances. I think that it’s a wonderful definition, even if right now might not have much appeal.
So, what is CHEAP today?
Today we are something else: we work much more with the poster format, but we also do walls and installations if we want. We relocated ourselves in the public art scene more than the street art one. We also started to put into practice a sort of curatorial activism: we put distinctly political and transfeminist content within the public space, which is more and more an area of citizenship for us. The intersectional approach taught us to develop a re-appropriation of the public spaces, to introduce in the urban fabric narrations that go against the whiteness, male, heteronormativity, ableism canons, to talk about bodies and desire in a different way, to represent counter-hegemony imagery, different from what we are used to seeing. Our cities are not neutral spaces, but they clearly reflect the gender, race, and class inequalities that we see every day: since 2018 the public space has been both the container and the content of our work.
With CHEAP you debate uncomfortable topics very explicitly, also showing that women don’t have to be pleasant and quiet, but that they can and have to use their voices. Have you ever had problems because of that?
There is a lot of respect and esteem for our work from the local administration, especially from those who work in the cultural field and represent the hardware of the administrative machine. The assessors had faith in what we were doing, too; when we had to discuss we did it, but we are all very glad that we could earn an area of freedom like that. Also, the projects worked well, so there wasn’t a reason why they would have had any problem with that. We did receive countless attacks from political parties, but we never gave them space because many times they don’t even want to attack us but the assessor who’s in charge at that moment. I find it demeaning because they don’t really want to talk about our contents: we are very willing to talk about that, but on the receiving end there is superficiality, ignorance, and various phobias. What bothers me is that right now politics mean to find a reason to be outraged, a scapegoat used to lynch someone on social networks. The problem is that the kind of polarization that we find on social networks has also affected the way we debate in real life: in this way, it’s impossible to deal with the complexity and the depth of the topics, because there is the need to recreate some rifts. We often had to handle this kind of communication; we got threats, insults, also on posters. The best insult we ever got was “emancipated sl*ts” written on a poster. I wanted to make a t-shirt with that.
What about the people who cherish your work?
On the other side, there is a great number of people who support our project. The support of this virtual and physical community is the engine of our work; receiving solidarity and appreciation for our work is gratifying, it gives you meaning and downsizes the presence of haters and attacks. Over time we had more and more girls asking us to put up the posters with us, and we dedicated a part of our association to that. When there is the need we include the so-called Local Gang and you can see women with the CHEAP jumpsuit all over Bologna. It’s a performative act because it changes the public space giving it a new gender perspective. The fact that women can go all around the city at night putting up posters is a statement itself.
In Italy there is still a big bias about fundraising and crowdfunding: have you always used these financing methods for your project?
The perception about fundraising has finally been changing lately in Italy, also in the great cultural institutions. They are starting to understand that it is an important tool, and also a community tool because you are not just getting money, but you are also sharing your vision, values, and responsibility to cultural heritage. I’m happy that they are trying to cover Italy’s delay in fundraising. We haven’t used these systems from the beginning, but we have always adopted self-financing methods: we organized events and parties, promoted financing campaigns with our associates or with those who wanted to donate, but not in a structured way. Then we established a structure and from an economic point of view, we tried to do a very simple thing: to diversify the resources of the organization. We get a small public contribution every year, we participate in funding bids, we opened an online shop, we crowdfunded a new project for Liberation Day, and we invested in IT for that as we wanted to be independent and have our platforms. Moreover, CHEAP also works for third parties: for example, for the last four years, we have been commissioned the campaign for the opera season by the municipal theater of Bologna. We work for institutions, like the university, but also independent cultural projects: we take care of communication, planning, artistic direction for other festivals, or we realize artistic interventions in other cities. The differentiation strategy gives you some peace, but not too much, and independence.
How was your crowdfunding experience for Liberation Day?
It was extraordinary: our initial goal was 4000 euros, but that money is for less than three days. In the end, we got 16000 euros, so we could afford to print more posters and have more spaces in the city. Our crowdfunding focused on antifascist posters, and it was incredible to raise such a response. We got 600 messages of love, esteem, and gratitude, too: when people who are giving you money feel the need to thank you, you ask yourself what that means. It was intense to see a community mobilize for our project.
What’s the best thing about working at CHEAP?
I think the best thing is the relationship you build with the people you work with: sometimes you find out that an artist you had invited to a festival is also a wonderful person. It happened with Vinz Feel Free, a Spanish artist who is a sister to me, Madame, French artist, Stikki Peaches, from Canada, 2501, Hyuro, an Argentinian artist who passed away a few months ago, and that was a role model woman for me. She made the difference for us working in the streets, she gained her space and her credibility and helped every woman who came next.
You share an experience and a project, and that’s when friendship and respect start. There were moments of growth of the project when we felt a click because something had happened, for example when we brought the Guerrilla Girls in the Italian streets for the first time. The girls in the USA were very excited: they said we were their Italian branch, started sending photos and videos to the TV shows they were invited to and to the press, and when they published their book we were in it; we were speechless.
The following year it happened with MissMe, the Canadian artist we worked with for the wall in Masini Avenue, suggestively called F*ck Your Judgment. That was a breakthrough because of the way we planned the project and the kind of artistic direction we expressed. We involved a group of very young girls who lived the project as an empowerment process because the topic we brought up was very difficult. MissMe started doing paced-up street art and created her artistic path from her rape. After she was raped she used art to express herself regarding this devastating experience, to reclaim her anger, a feeling that women seem not to have a right to, her body, experiencing her nudity in a non-erotic way as an empowerment element and as political nude. The eroticizing gaze on women’s bodies doesn’t belong to women, but it comes from men: it’s the male gaze. She questioned the rape culture of our society, where a woman is raped by a man and she is asked what she was wearing, if she was drunk, where she is blamed and not him. Her art sent a powerful message. She recalled Carla Lonzi’s book title “Shut up. Or rather, speak” and other quotes and slogans like “I didn’t come from your rib. You came from my vagina,” “We decide on our bodies” or “Don’t blame women for the misbehavior of men.” Together with those quotes, there were photographs of MissMe naked with a balaclava and with writings on her body. For example one of those writings recalled Medusa’s story.
Then last year we realized the project The Fight Is Fica, which was a great moment of liberation for us and for the women who crossed Bologna streets. It was an intense collective project with 25 female artists, and had an important effect on the city and on our curatorial practice, too.
We learned that CHEAP is something that always evolves: how do you see it in the future?
We are starting to branch out of Bologna; if it wasn’t for the pandemic we would have finished some projects in Berlin and Rome. Right now there is a selection of posters from last year call for artists in Padua, we are considering a project in Milan, we’ll work on projects in Modena and Rome. So, I hope that we will work outside Italy too, to get out of our comfort zone and to challenge ourselves. We can’t wait.
DailyArt Magazine needs your support. Every contribution, however big or small, is very valuable for our future. Thanks to it, we will be able to sustain and grow the Magazine. Thank you for your help!