lektra KB is a Colombian artist living in Brooklyn. Through video, photography, sound, textiles, and performance, she addresses issues such as immigration, gender, mobility, and global power dynamics. Her work has been a fixture of the popular SPRING/BREAK art show here in New York City—for which we printed the stateless passports in 2018—and can also be found in Turkey, Germany, Croatia, and China.
I spoke to Elektra about her forthcoming show, “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow,” opening on May 3, 2019 at the Brooklyn Museum, and the role of politics in contemporary art.
For those who don’t know you, introduce yourself and your work.
My name is Elektra KB, I am an artist. I grew up in a rural hospital in Colombia with an army of nurses, doctors and cooks—a result of a Cold War-era Soviet-Colombian union. I live in Brooklyn, and I am currently preoccupied with becoming a cyborg to actualize my body.
What was your childhood like in Colombia and how does that influence the art you make today?
I don’t feel like I ever had the opportunity to be a child. The flowers shriveled in my hands, as poet Alejandra Pizarnik said. I had a lot of responsibilities as a child and was a very existentialist child, too. Colombia was a theocracy until 1991. The culture is fervently Catholic, so I grew up thinking that the devil would possess me, for which I blame on my chronic insomnia. At age 14 I started reading books on extraterrestrial life, to prepare myself to leave Earth and travel to another planet. I really believed this. The religious culture manifests in many forms.
I grew up only being able to access colonial art. So I use that in my work. A “Latin-American Futurism” of sorts, incorporating pre- and post-colonial aesthetics.
My childhood in Colombia made me very aware of life’s priorities, of appreciating every meal I ate and every opportunity I had. Of being kind and polite to everybody and despising the social class structure. Being a child in Colombia made me become vegan from an early age, because I had to watch my family kill my kin, my animal friends, and serve them on my plate, which made me suffer a great deal.
The civil war, or so called “armed conflict,” made me very aware of structural violence and it made me hate war, poverty, and inequality. I bring too many biographical things to my work to count here.
My mother instilled in me some feminist values, so I used to clash a lot with the cultural tradition of patriarchal “machismo” and misogyny growing up. Being underestimated, constantly judged, not respected intellectually, and enduring the dynamics of abuse and gender violence are examples of early childhood and teenage preoccupations that informed part of my feminist fury growing up, and influenced my work too. (Apart from the obvious dynamics of war, and abuse of power.)
When I speak about “machismo” and patriarchy, of course I refer to how it manifests in our culture in every gender expression—men and women—and how important it is to deconstruct and unlearn it. That, and when my mother told me as a child that women don’t need men to exist and can reproduce without them. That made my mind fly to all these sci-fi worlds and possibilities. This was, of course, symbolic—because it is such an essentialist and outdated view of gender—but those were just small things I didn’t question as a small child, and I brought them to my work. On the alternative universes that I use as a platform, they fed my utopias. I assumed in the future everybody would adopt, something I could only describe as “monster gender,” which Donna Haraway speaks about in the Cyborg Manifesto.
“The civil war, or so called ‘armed conflict,’ made me very aware of structural violence and it made me hate war, poverty, and inequality.”
Your work spans many mediums, including video, sound, and textiles. What is your process like to go from concept to finished piece?
The concept is normally an urgency I feel. But I think long and hard to make a concept more concrete, and start a process of experimentation. Sometimes it just comes to me, but I normally trap myself in my thoughts. Then, I look for the medium, and I usually use this same concept to create a body of work, in multiple mediums. I expect the work to be a surprise from a series of experiments, failures and successes since I am not an illustrator. If the result is exactly what I pictured, then I think it is not art, but illustration. The work should never be a photocopy of an idea in your brain. So I feel that the work reveals itself to you.
Tell us about your forthcoming show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall.”
I feel that this show has healing powers! This show has great significance and I feel deeply honored to be a part of it. It will include a number of LGBTQ+ contemporary artists, to commemorate the 50 years since the Stonewall riots. This commemoration will happen in a lot of museums with more historical material. But the Brooklyn Museum’s show is so exciting because it will exhibit the work of artists who are alive now and responding to our very recent history. The show opens May 3rd.
What role do you think radical politics can play in contemporary art?
I think artists speak about their time and what they are experiencing. Historically, radical politics have always been engaged with art. And art has always been engaged with radical politics, as a part of the materialization of a person’s creative force. For example, CADA in Chile, Bertolt Brecht in poetry and plays or Shostakovich with antifascism. The occupation of the MoMa by Black Mask, in New York is another example. However, art is not immediate, it takes time for you to unwrap it. It requires a great deal of sensibility or training. It really requires spending the time for you to access it. For this reason, art doesn’t speak to everybody. You have to devote time to it. I think we need it, for our sanity. People are rushing so much today, that we have lost the desire to stop and be alone with our thoughts and reflections, we want everything so immediate and fast, especially in New York.
Ben Morea said: “We are neither artists nor anti-artists, we are creative people, revolutionaries…” It is a statement that resonates with me.
“Art is not immediate, it takes time for you to unwrap it. It requires a great deal of sensibility or training. It really requires spending the time for you to access it.”
In an increasingly digital world, what is the value of physical objects like zines and protest signs, and how does something like performance art fit into that?
I think these are many different questions. The value of physical objects will remain as long as we live in a three-dimensional world. I am not sure if we will ever live completely virtually, and perhaps lose all tactile and sensorial life.
But a lot of people live partially in a digital world, and we are naïve if we think that that it is not a “world,” per se. Because it very much is a world unto itself, but it is not tactile or corporeal.
A protest sign can be screaming, rioting, laying down, or performing. It is just a sign, it doesn’t have to be material.
I see zines as a way to give cheaply or for free, access to an artist’s work, a poet’s work or any creative individual’s work. I make them as artworks and zines at the same time. So people who can’t afford to buy a piece can have something for their collection. You mostly donate your labor and do it with the intention of sharing a piece of yourself with lots of people. I think artists, or anybody in any profession, should make some free or inexpensive-accessible work.
Performance art can encompass the convergence of all of these systems.
How can people stay up to date on your projects?
All work featured in this post by Elektra KB. Artist photograph by Valeria Castro.
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