October 16, 1997
La Paz, Bolivia
By Antonio Aruquipa
Xavier Cortada is a great believer in the healing powers of communal art. Last week, young paceno drug addicts and alcoholics contributed to a mural-painting session Cortada organized outside La Paz’s Centro Boliviano Americano (CBA). With the help of some 200 high school students, the team effort produced a vast mural portraying the harsh realities of drug addiction and alcoholism in Bolivia.
“I am glad to have the opportunity to warn young people like me about getting hooked on drugs,” said 34-year-old Balto, between brush strokes. “Once you start taking drugs you are trapped in a vicious hell. I don’t want that to happen to others, so that’s why I am painting these messages today.”
The murals have now joined an exhibit of 20 other paintings by Cortada at the Tambo Quirquincho Museum. The exhibition and the communal painting sessions are all part of a project called “Sharing with Bolivia”, sponsored by the United States Information Service (USIS) and the Bank of Santa Cruz.
“Through art, which is the purest form of expression and a universal language, we are communicating a message of hope,” said Cortada. “And by ‘we’ I mean all the kids I collaborate with. The issue this time is substance abuse and alcoholism.”
The “Sharing with Bolivia” murals are the latest in a series of communal painting projects Cortada has been overseeing for the past three years.
Fighting drug abuse
The son of exiled Cubans, Cortada is a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Miami. He has been working on drug-abuse prevention programs for the last ten years. “One way or the other, I have always been at the forefront of the fight against substance abuse,” he said.
He first participated in an international conference on drug addiction in Santa Cruz five years ago, and now he is back in the country he says has inspired most of his artistic work. This time, he is trying a different approach towards drug addicts.
“It is not a professor who is talking to practitioners as I did in 1992,” he said, “but it is one human being talking through a paint brush, which is intimately more powerful.
“The beauty of this work is the fact that the message is being led, is being driven by those who are most affected, by those touched and those who are recuperating from the problem: the addict.”
Cortada, who also holds a Law degree, believes group painting sessions can help individuals overcome personal problems.
“These ‘communal murals’ are public acts that allow me to use my experiences in order to fight, in a very direct way, against drug addiction and other social problems.” he said.
Last Wednesday Cortada spent ten hours working with teenagers from various rehabilitation centers on the second of the “Sharing with Bolivia” murals. A number of local artist came along to watch, including Gaston Ugalde. He defined Cortada’s work as “very rich in spontaneity and very powerful in expression.”
“We should encourage this kind of work in the country,” Ugalde added, “because it is a good way to warn children and the public in general about the dangers of drug addiction.”
Ugalde believes the communal murals are a useful tool for making authorities more aware of the problem. “Cortada is honest in his commitment and his work reflects that intention,” he said. “The written and painted testimonies of the drug addicts and other participants reveal that substance abuse is a cruel reality in the country.”
Ugalde describes Cortada’s techniques and style as “extraordinary, because children’s impromptu language comes freely through their written messages and spontaneous drawings.” He added that by using the colors of the Bolivian flag (red, yellow, and green) as a backdrop, Cortada is sending a nationalistic message as well.
The artist describes his style as difficult to define in a formal language.
“I would say that my style is a mixture of expressionism and cubism, with some surrealistic touches,” Cortada said.
Getting the Message
Cortada’s communal painting projects developed from the need to communicate with the young people he is involved with.
In 1994 he flew to South Africa to speak to homeless youth who were part of a drug addiction program and advise them on how they could organize positive social activities.
“But although I used a very simple language to help them understand my message, they couldn’t get it,” said Cortada. “So I had to think of some other way of helping them understand.”
The next day Cortada went to the auditorium carrying a picture he had drawn the night before. “I outlined a door being opened by a young child and a light from that door showing a drug addict engaged in painful conclusions, and I showed it to the kids. They immediately connected with the drawing, because they saw themselves opening the door and entering into that world.”
In last week’s mural painting session, Cortada was joined by his friend Juan Carlos Espinoza, another Cuban-American professional committed to helping communities through art.
“Among the many social problem-solving projects Xavier has worked on,” said Espinoza, “I was privileged to work with him in a mural painted by blind youth in cooperation with teens involved in youth gangs.” The artists used a surface of play dough that was molded by the blind using textured items like buttons, seashells and small stones that could be easily manipulated. “It was a wonderful success for all of us because we felt we could help the blind and these street children work together and say what their lives were really about,” said Espinoza.
USIS spokesperson Cecilia Cordoba says the La Paz murals will be donated to the institutions that hosted the communal painting sessions, the Tambo Quirquincho Museum and the CBA. “We wish to thank the institutions that made this effort possible,” she said.
Tambo Quirquincho Museum director Gonzalo Iniguez said he was glad the mural painted by Xavier Cortada will be staying in the museum. “This is proof that art is not intended to be enjoyed by the elite and expensive art exhibits only,” he said. “Art has to be useful to integrate society, and by working hand in hand with the children and youth who are involved in drug addiction, Cortada accomplishes a magnificent result.”
One of the messages on the murals reads “Count on me, do not feel lonely, here I am to get you out of your problems, you only have to call me, I am Jesus Christ.” Another says “I am free! I finally made the escape from drug addiction hell! You can also do it my friend, never give up. This is an everyday battle, but in the end victory will be yours!”
While he recognizes the power of such messages, Cortada believes there is an even more important aspect to his work: “This is a legacy, something permanent that both the people who participated and I will like to see again in the future.”
Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long before Cortada is back in Bolivia, bringing his healing art to another group of troubled souls.