Art Equals Life in a Haima

Pilili Narbona and her group performing a concert of Sahrawi haul music titled ‘Resonating the Bodhicitta’ inside Tuiza. Madrid, May 2nd, 2015 / JOAQUÍN CORTÉS

With a mission to spread the message of peace and hope from the Sahrawi people to as many people as possible, the artist Federico Guzmán summons us below the melhfas to his artwork Tuiza at the Reina Sofia National Museum and center for art in Madrid.
“WHEN YOU ENTER A HAIMA everything is clean and feminine. The little kids, always well-educated, play and do their homework. The woman prepares a delicious dinner. Tragedy does not affect the dignity of the family. In a haima you don’t feel the devastation or the sadness, only the intense culture full of hope and passion for life.” Federico Guzmán recalls this from his first moments in a haima, the type of improvised home that has housed dozens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees for forty years, since the Moroccan invasion of the Western Sahara during the Green March organized by King Hassan II. Federico vividly remembers his friend Zeina Husein’s family, with whom he lived in that very haima: her father Husein Moulud, her mother Aziza and her six siblings. “Alhadj, one of Zeina’s brothers, has named his son Fico after me, for which I am so grateful and filled with pride,” beams Federico with a wide smile.

It is the 16 of April of 2015, and the aroma of incense fills the air of the Park of Retiro in Madrid. The sun reflects off the Crystal Palace, an expository space for the Reina Sofia National Center for Art Museum. In its interior, an impressive work of art constructed by women using fine pieces of transparent cloth that billow in the breeze is on display. Intricate designs represent the entire spectrum of color. An awe-inspiring tent, peaceful and beautiful, it is built entirely of melhfas, the traditional dress made for and by Sahrawi women. Melhfas designed and dyed by refugee women for a haima called Tuiza.

Federico Guzmán, a Sevillian born in 1964, addresses the journalist smiling and prepared: he wears a brown polo shirt and has wrinkles in his forehead from deep reflection, as well as in the corners of his eyes. The creases are not so much due to age or all the sadness they have seen, but from smiling too much. The personality of this artist, known internationally for more than 30 years, is blindingly bright. When he speaks, it seems as though he paints the white walls with his words, as if he were a child again. “I spent hours drawing in notebooks; my parents encouraged me a lot. I had a natural talent. They left me in my playroom to paint on the walls.” Surrounded by his own designs, Federico began to con- sider studying Fine Arts, his future as an activist for human rights not clear to him then. “While I was in college, I became interested in creating public art projects. Not for the galleries – for the ordinary people one can find in the streets.”

Fico en Erkeyez
Federico Guzmán at the site of the rupestrian paintings of Erkeyez, Western Sahara./ COURTESY OF FEDERICO GUZMÁN

In 1997, Federico traveled to Bogota, Colombia with a Fulbright grant, where he continued as a professor until 2000. Inspired by his participation in the “Time Capsule” project during the Universal Exposition of Seville in ’92, Federico decided to perform his first exploration of human rights and public art in 1998, with his students in Bogota. This project reflected all that he had seen in Columbia: “War, drug trafficking, those experiencing homelessness, the suffering of others…” Imagine a street in Bogota filled with trash and occupied by those without homes: the poor, the drug addicts, the unemployed, people ignored by the public and by a government who had proposed a project to destroy the street.

Federico and his students from the University of the Andes and of the University Jorge Tadeo Lozano decided to pursue a collective project in the street of Cartucho where all this was occurring. They set up a barbershop where they cut hair for the people of the street, in addition to helping them with general health and hygiene needs, in exchange for the many stories recounted by the inhabitants. “The most important thing was to sincerely celebrate a people who normally were marginalized,” recalls Federico. After six months, toward the end of the semester, the students decided to continue with the project themselves, creating “The Museum of the Street.” There they began exchanging books and toys – anything that could be of use to the residents. Not because the students needed any of these things, but as a way to continue meeting with the kind people of Cartucho Street.

In November of 2008, Federico was invited to participate in the second edition of the art festival Artifariti, celebrated in the Sahrawi refugee camps. The kind people of that Colombian street would return to his memory, reflected in the exiled Sahrawi people. “One day I was attending a protest in front of the Wall of Shame, when, in an instant, one of the young men who joined us ran towards the wall and stepped on a landmine that blew up his foot. Everybody ran away screaming, scared. I haven’t been able to forget that image,” explains Federico. The Wall of Shame is an enormous barrier of sand, constructed by the Moroccan army in order to divide the Western Sahara from north to south – the territories occupied by Morocco on one side, those liberated by the Polisario Front on the other. The result is a geographic scar more than 2,700 kilometers long, full of painful memories for the Sahrawi people.

But Federico did not want to devote himself only to the pain of these people; he wanted to find the beauty of the Sahrawi culture, exposing to the whole world what it means to be Sahrawi. “I am interested in art that has the ability to transform reality and oneself: art as happiness, luminosity, and refuge,” elaborates Federico. “Art equals life. Art isn’t an object, it’s a way of making, a form of acting, a different way of doing politics.” According to the artist from Seville, art is a collective process where an author does not exist. What do exist are ideas, feelings, philosophies and, above all, peace. He captures the pain and the brilliance of life in the same stroke of the paintbrush.

Tuiza is his most recent artwork, and is dedicated to the Sahrawi people. In 2015, from the 16 of April to the 30 of August, this incredible haima made of melhfas was planted inside the Crystal Palace in the Park of Retiro, a part of Ma- drid’s Reina Sofia National Center for Art Museum. “Tuiza” comes from Hassaniya Arabic, the dialect spoken by the Sahrawi people. It refers to the act of women working together to help the community, as when sewing a haima, helping the sick or preparing for a wedding. When the Moroccan invasion began in 1975, children fled on the backs of goats, elders walked hundreds of kilometers without shoes, everybody scattered in the desert. “The women, to protect their families, tied their dresses to the tree branches to create shade, and that is how the first haimas came into being,” Federico continues. “This image is powerful for me. The feminine as a form of refuge and protection. This is one of the narratives that inspired me.”

According to Federico, there is an absolute and almost mystical silence in the desert. In that silence lives a people with mixed culture: African, Arab and Spanish. A noble people, friendly and fun, the Sahrawi have an incredible philosophy of life. At the same time, they live in a harsh reality. There is a dignified, humble and creative spirit, in spite of the fact that these families are marginalized and their rights as human beings are violated daily.

Manifestación ante ONU SO 4 Fotografía de Paula Álvarez (ARTifariti)
Protest held by participants of the 2010 Artifariti Festival outside the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

The technical process of building Tuiza began in Anna Lindh’s workshop in the Bojador camp. “There they dyed the clothes and we made the designs together,” remembers Federico. “I brought the perspective of a European artist, with the intention of exposing the injustices, the tragedy. I wanted for example to include drawings of the wall, with the mines, with the victims, but the women that worked with us – Fatima, Jadgatu, Monina, Dahba, Rafia, Warda, Mahmuda and Hasina – told me no, they didn’t want to do that. They didn’t want to represent more violent im- ages, and much less wear them as their clothing.” The desired result of these eight women can be seen today in Tuiza, reflected in the seventy two melhfas with beautiful traditional drawings that tell the story of Sahrawi culture: the haima, henna designs, elements of their nomadic lifestyle, camels, rosaries and, again, peace.

Although Tuiza itself and as a piece of art evokes the profoundness and beauty of the Sahrawi culture, it is what occurs inside that truly completes the experience: “People came and rested, the children played. It was an incredible experience because I have done many projects, and never has there been such an enormous, profound, and beautiful communication with the public, in an environment of countless encounters.”

There were four months of activities in the space. One day, hundreds of people participated in a Buddhist meditation. The next day, a woman proposed a yoga session, the next a different woman proposed a dance class. There were traditional tea ceremonies, storytelling under the haima, poetry and concerts, conferences and dialogues, projections of movies.

On the website for Artifariti, there is a Pablo Picasso quote: “Painting was not created to deco- rate walls. It is an instrument of war, defensive and offensive, employed against the enemy.” This quote perfectly describes his artwork “Guernica,” which commemorates the horror suffered by the inhabitants of the Basque village during the Spanish Civil War; perhaps it is also a description of Tuiza. Both artworks symbolize historic conflicts and both have shared space and time in the Reina Sofia. Both represent a political fight full of pain, but there is a key difference: “Tuiza doesn’t represent the act of violence,” Federico explains with a smile, considering the comparison. “Tuiza celebrates the act of living”. •