Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Erika Iserhoff Dreams Big

Erika Iserhoff as Mary Richards Lipan

Tonight is opening night for Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way. Hours before, Erika Iserhoff, Dora Award-winning co-set designer weighs in on her experiences as part of the artistic team. Playing until Feb 3rd. Advanced tickets:
Tell me about the amazing development involved with this project?
Please note that I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg in regards to the artistic research and development process of the collective’s work on Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milkway by Monique Mojica.

Going to Panama was certainly an amazing experience, one that will continue to influence my work as an artist & designer. I am thankful for having been included in this research phase of the theatre project. We covered so much ground while in Panama City & Guna Yala.
Guna Yala is comprised of large rainforest areas and little coral reef islands. This was also a time when Monique was meeting family members for the first time and retuning to Guna Yala, her Mother’s family place of origin.
I met Monique and Achu in Panama City, who where there a week before me and had travelled to Guna Yala and back. Everywhere we went the Guna people were so welcoming and willing to share their culture with us.

We travelled to the islands via the rainforest road, the only road that goes to Guna Yala from Panama City. We stayed in a cultural retreat with a group of Guna artists from various artistic disciplines. We stayed at the camp for 3 days and much of our conversations were centered on the exchange of artistic processes, Guna art, cultural stories, and history. The artist retreat is located on controlled borders between Guna Yala and Panama by the forest rangers. The Kuna people control there own borders and monitor who goes in and out of their homelands. The Kuna people are known to be fierce warriors and have always stood up for their beliefs, rights and lands. It was during the early 20th century where the Guna people led a revolution  against the Panamanian government, and as a result Guna territory was re-established and cultural practices maintained.

After our stay in the rainforest we continued on the journey to the islands. We travelled around many of the islands in traditional boats. As we moved from island to island, we took every opportunity to learn from cultural keepers, mola artists, and community members. The Guna people continue to live extremely connected to the land and sea. Being there you feel a sense of timelessness, disconnection from the hyper-modern world, and connection to the land. One also feels a sense of vulnerability to the elements because the islands are at sea level.

Has your research on textiles changed the way you view your own craftmanship?

Mola’s are created by the women and two-spirit people in the community. Not just any person can take up the art of mola making. It would take a lifetime to learn and perfect. This is the kind of practice is inherited from the family, and passed down from generation to generation beginning at a young age.  This is what makes it Traditional Guna Art.

Molas are quite complex; images found on them are a reflection of Guna life and beliefs presented in abstract forms. Molas are still worn by women and continue to be used in ceremony. More recently they are created for tourism and the collectors market. The process of making a Mola involves a lot of time and expertise. It combines many layers of trade cloth, and a cut away process is used to form the designs, then the layers are sewn into place revealing layers of cloth with contrasting colours and forms. In the western quilting community, this process is referred to as a reverse appliqué technique.

Now when I see a Mola, I see the people and culture behind it. Mola makers are true artist and are responsible for the transmission and continuation of the art form within their community. The mola artists we met have shown me that artistic work involves a commitment to your community, to your practice, and perseverance no matter how long it will take to complete. And continually creating work eventually leads to the development of good craftsmanship.
What is involved with making a show like this? What is your process as designer?
The development of Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky has been a long process. The project has involved many artists and people from diverse backgrounds. For this piece, Monique has taken the process of creating a mola to create a Kuna theatrical framework, and this is used as the foundation to develop this work. The stories being told are presented in layers like a mola, and the stories are then abstracted, this process of abstraction is also used in mola making and is for the purpose of cultural protection. The process of mola making is also closely related to story weaving; the process of combining many stories and then weaving/assembling together to create a form. Monique grew up with the story weaving process, since she is from the Spiderwoman Theatre family. They gave name and birthed this form of indigenous theatre that breaks the western theatre paradigm.
It was a difficult project to process at certain times in the development stages. In the play, Monique and Gloria play a combination of different characters. The challenge was how does the designer represent all these characters in one costume. There was little time for quick changes for both actors since they never leave the stage. One also needs to work with the set and lighting designers so that all the design elements work together and that the designs are aligned with the process put in place and with Kuna beliefs and cosmology.


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