Photo by Neil Strebig
Vilma Vargas, who was part of the Artists in Exile program at City of Asylum, working on one of her political cartoons.
By Neil Strebig
Vilma Vargas is one of many artists Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum has taken under their wings via their ‘Artists in Exile’ program. It is a program which helps aid various artists from across the globe in their pursuit of creative freedom – a liberty often denied to them in their native countries. Vargas has been a cartoonist and activist for over 20 years and has been nominated twice for “World Press Cartoon” in Portugal. During this interview, she was working out of her Radiant Hall studio in Nova Place where she expressed her thoughts towards her art, society and the current political states in both her native Ecuador and her adopted home here in the states. Vargas returned to Ecuador on January 18.
**Note the interview has been edited for space and fluency**
Northside Chronicle: What is the biggest difference working in the United States compared to your native Ecuador? Has working with City of Asylum made the perusing your work and accomplishing your goals easier?
Vilma Vargas: Having a scholarship is definitely important and helps to do my job. In my country, I cannot draw every day; I cannot live only with my cartoons and paintings – there are newspaper, magazine and web pages [in my country], but nobody dares to publish me. From here, I am posting on social networks every day about politics in Ecuador. I should not worry about anything else.
NC: What drew you to be a cartoonist and how would you describe your style? And how did such an interest in politics come about?
VV: The caricaturist profession starts basically when you realize that you are pretty useless for just about everything, except for drawing and painting. From a very young age, I had my first job as a cartoonist in a newspaper in a small city in Ecuador. And then I had no alternative, but to draw on politics because politician have that bad taste of influencing society and therefore in our lives. It is not possible to remain indifferent.
NC: Who inspired you as an artist?
VV: Many artist and masterpieces have been my inspiration, but mainly I am interested to personal and community stories. Abuse of power and injustice are themes that are always in my mind and ‘if the inspiration comes, I hope that it find me working’ like Picasso said.
NC: You have a wide variety of focal points in your art ranging from Aleppo and atheism to the Brexit and rape culture; is it challenging covering such a wide range of topics? Or is it the topical diversity something inherent to both your views as an individual and as an artist?
VV: Any topic can be treated from art. I do not separate what I think about the society or the politics of my activity as an artista or a citizen. I believe that is the artist’s responsibility to use any means to give his or her opinion about any topic.
NC: The works of the ‘Atheist,’ ‘Escape of Jesus, Joseph and Mary,’ ‘H.Rights Day,’ ‘A Kiss,’ and ‘Gender Violence in Latin America’ all have very strong messages. Can you elaborate on your need to draw attention to civil rights for the LBGT community and the need to educate on gender inequality in South America?
VV: In Ecuador, statistics such as six out of ten women suffer some type of violence or that in Brazil every 11 minutes a woman is raped or that in Argentina every 30 hours a woman dies via gender violence, are enough to make thousands of drawings about that. I think that one image does not solve the problem, but can be used as a message to wake up the society.
NC: What do you believe makes a particular cartoon more ‘successful’ than another?
VV: I think there are images that reach more people and depend a lot on the emotional and experiential moment. For me the most successful images are the ones that people use in the street to protest because it means that this image can summarize their discomfort. One image can say something, but people on the street definitely express more.
NC: You’re a political and social activist and as a U.S. immigrant you must have some emotions and thoughts towards President Donald Trump. His view towards immigration and activism is negative to say the least. Has his election and the recent political climate in the United States changed your perception of America?
VV: Undoubtedly the choice of Trump uncovered how many people think and feel about certain issues. And I understand that many people, including immigrants feel defenseless because the discourse of rejection towards the other comes very quickly to the population. In my country, we have lived for 10 years with a threatening and violent political discourse towards minorities, indigenous people and anyone who openly criticizes. And we now live in a fragmented society where the other – the different – is an enemy. The power made us believe that enemy is people of our own country.
The politicians of the Ecuadorian revolution say that the US is the empire, Trump says that the Latin people do not belong to the United States. All politicians have a very short view of the world. And my perception about USA has not changed because I have never had a fixed idea of what this country is. Only after several months living here I have learned to know it a little. Populist politicians are populist politicians in all the world, but I stay with the wonderful people I have met here. A country is not made by politicians – people do it – and it does not matter where [those] people come from.
NC: How different is the use and influence of social media here in the states compared to Ecuador and Latin America? How is ‘free speech’ perceived and implemented in Latin America compared to the United States?
VV: Art needs an essential condition that is freedom and social networks or the interest are democratic means and should be in any country to help whomever wants to express any opinion. In Ecuador, many Twitter and Facebook users have been persecuted for giving their opinion. There is censorship but also self-censorship. Last year the CCE [Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana] accepted my exhibition of political caricature, but one day before the opening it was censored because they said my drawings had a ‘political opinion and criticism.’ Even a few weeks ago, I was asked to prepare a drawing for a website and when it was ready I was told it would not be published because my cartoon was ‘a mockery.’
NC: What is your advice for aspiring artist both abroad and here in the United States?
VV: I would not give any advice because I do not consider myself prepared wise enough. Every day I am learning something new. Maybe I would just say that for me, art is a compromise. A way of life that doesn’t admit shyness.
NC: As an artist, what do you believe is your greatest tool?
VV: Any tool is valid if it helps me to express myself. At the moment, my tools are the images, the color pencils, the oil paintings and the animated GIFs. This is for now, but maybe tomorrow I will find others.