Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, USF professor and Jesuit priest Arturo Araujo is an internationally-exhibited artist who explores the concepts of fragility, earthiness, ecology, and forgiveness through community-based artistic practice. Arturo combines ceramics, etching, relief and digital media, enticing the viewer to join exploratory, atoning rituals that return to and center upon sources for his own personal and cultural histories. Last week, I had the pleasure of spending time with him in his newest exhibition, Vessels of Memory, which is on view at Manresa Gallery in St. Ignatius Church on the USF Campus through January 29, 2017.
Through video, sculpture, sound, interactive installation and labels written by James Blaettler, S.J., Vessels of Memory prompts a multi-faceted contemplation of culturally-specific death rituals, nostalgia, and global environmental crises. Connecting closely to Pope Francis’ second encyclical Laudato si’, Araujo expands upon the spirit of an earthly tradition, pointing to contemporary religious, political, and cultural practices.
The exhibition’s first gallery is titled “Mapping the Human.” Inspired by Australian aboriginal death urns, the works are highly personal and express Arturo’s experiences with death, loss and mourning in wartime Colombia. Unfired and highly-fragile clay totems (below) are etched with young faces and faceless dots symbolizing and memorializing children whose fates remain unknown.
The theme of the next gallery, titled An Angel Has Passed is fragility and absence. The vessels here are inspired by birds’ nests. They float above us in the gallery as we listen to the sounds of singing birds: the last known recordings of these birds’ fearless chirping before they became extinct.
For the third gallery, Arturo worked with his students to create The Seed, an interactive installation that draws on North American Indian traditions. Seed pots preserve the best seeds from the harvest so they can be planted again. The pots keep the seeds safe and dry. In this gallery, visitors are invited to plant metaphorical seeds: a communal seed bank of knowledge that has been passed on by a loved one. Each day the vessels in this gallery are filled with thoughts and hopes.
Finally, Arturo invites visitors to Befriend Fragility and embrace the idea that nothing is permanent but impermanence itself. A video in the gallery (shot and edited by Arturo’s niece and nephew) depicts a wandering procession and a centering ceremony at the Instituto Hispano at Santa Clara University, allusions to the process of shaping clays into vessels. The central vessel in the gallery will be used by the St. Ignatius parish community in late January for a renewal of baptismal vows. Then it will be shattered, again reminding us that humans are fragile but also have the power to renew ourselves and move through life with humbleness toward each other and our surroundings.
“I envision this exhibition as a place for people to meditate, pray and come together,” says Father Arturo, “for we all have much work to do in order to heal the world and go forward.”
For more information on University of San Francisco’s Museum Studies program, click here.