Casa Wabi

This feature appeared in Dutch translation in the summer issue of Metropolis M magazine:

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Set up in 2014 by the Mexican, Brooklyn-based artist Bosco Sodi, Casa Wabi Foundation has since outgrown the original Tadao Ando-designed exhibition and residency complex on the Pacific Ocean coast in Oaxaca, Mexico. Directed by the artist’s sister Carla Sodi, the foundation’s offices are located in Santa María la Ribera, Mexico City, in a beautifully refurbished town house, which is also used to showcase furniture designed by Lucia Corredor, his wife. An adjoining exhibition space is aimed specifically at emerging local artists who are not represented by a commercial gallery and as a result have fewer opportunities to show their work.

Fellow Mexican artists now also have the possibility to stay at Casa NaNo, Sodi’s foothold in the Sendagi area of Tokyo, not far from his gallery Scai the Bathhouse. Three years ago, following a successful show with the gallery, Sodi seized the chance to buy a small house in one of the city’s more traditional neighbourhoods. What became Casa Wabi’s sister residency space is intended to give Mexican mid-career artists exposure to the Japanese aesthetics and artisanal know-how, in the hopes that they would pass this knowledge on upon their return to Mexico. Sodi’s own love affair with Japan began with a three-month residency at Tokyo Wonder Site, after a gallery in Kobe that showed his work recommended him for it. ‘There’s an interesting connection between Mexico and Japan,’ he says. ‘Every Mexican that goes there falls in love with the place.’

Long before he ever went to Japan, Sodi had been an admirer of Tadao Ando. In Sodi’s eyes, the architect’s practice in general and Casa Wabi in particular embody the Japanese wabi-sabi spirit reflected in the foundation’s name. Rooted in Zen Buddhism, the dual aesthetic concept allies rustic simplicity and understated elegance (wabi) with impermanence and the patina gained with age (sabi). Sodi’s choice of architect for the main complex out in Oaxaca was dictated by strategic as much as aesthetic considerations; he reckoned Tadao Ando’s name and reputation would lure people over to this part of Mexico. It took some perseverance to get the sought-after, Pritzker Prize-winning starchitect on board. ‘I asked him five times and five times he said no,’ Sodi recalls. But as the Mexican artist himself became better known, not least in Japan, one day Ando turned up in his studio and liked his work and the sound of the project enough to take it on.

Growing recognition brought with it financial rewards that enabled Sodi to realize his ambitions. Following a critically-acclaimed first solo show at the Bronx Museum in 2010, the artist signed with the Pace Gallery (which no longer represents him) and started making what he regards as indecent amounts of money. ‘I thought it was not moral to keep all that money for myself,’ says Sodi, explaining what motivated him to set up an art foundation. According to the artist, who has clearly assimilated the values of his adopted country, ‘for people who have done well, it should be an obligation to give back’.

Mexico has its own tradition of philanthropy and artist-endowed charitable initiatives, nowhere more so perhaps than in the state of Oaxaca. Following in the footsteps of painter Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), who hailed from Oaxaca de Juárez, artist Francisco Toledo (b. 1940) has financed a spate of cultural and educational institutions – ranging from specialized libraries and ethnobotanical gardens to a photography centre, graphic art museum and handmade paper factory – located mostly in and around Oaxaca City, where he is based. Toledo’s generosity has in turn inspired a younger generation of artists, Sodi chief amongst them, who either reside or have family ties in the region. As it happens, Casa Wabi and its extensive gardens are built on land that once belonged to Sodi’s grandfather and the artist often stayed there when he was growing up.

The artist’s personal contribution amounts to about half of its annual budget, a relatively modest 300,000 dollars. The government of Oaxaca foots 20 per cent of the bill. The rest comes from donations. When the artist and his spouse were considering what form the foundation could take, they knew they did not want it to be dedicated to Sodi’s art, as is the case with a lot of artist-endowed foundations. That said, aside from the Sodi family living quarters, Casa Wabi proper houses Bosco Sodi’s open-air studio where sundry clay pieces, awaiting to be fired in a nearby wood oven, were on view when I visited.

At the other end of the high 312-metres long polished concrete wall, which spans the entire property and divides the mountains and the gardens from the seaside and the dwelling places, lie the six self-contained cottages designed to accommodate as many resident artists. Two closed and several semi-open studios located on the mountain side can be accessed directly through one of the rare openings in the wall Ando conceived for Casa Wabi. In practice, few artists avail themselves of the dedicated work spaces. Former residents and the artists I spoke to during my stay at Casa Wabi complained of not being able to splatter paint on the floor or nail anything to the walls in what are, after all, artist studios. The main wall is untouchable, in line with strict directives emanating from Ando’s studio. In this tug of war between the architectural practice, intent on preserving the purity of the original design, and the resident artists for whom the place was intended, the latter are losing the battle for now. And yet – for all its unfortunate associations, especially in the Mexican context – the wall does have its virtues; for one thing, walking alongside it from one part of this multi-functional building to another effectively slows one down and fosters a meditative state of mind.

A residency at Casa Wabi typically lasts between one and three months. For Salvatore Arancio, an Italian London-based sculptor and video artist, his prolonged stay there meant ‘time to switch off, concentrate and work on things’. Making work is by no means expected of those who are invited to do a residency at Casa Wabi, whether they be artists, writers, curators, chefs, filmmakers, dancers. At most they are encouraged to contribute something, not necessarily an artwork, to the collective

bitácora, a cabin log or diary of sorts, acting as a memento of their stay. Historian Gustavo Parra, who unravelled for me some of the log pieces displayed in different areas of the house, insisted that this is ‘not a production residency but rather a community project residency’. His role, in fact, is to facilitate exchanges between residents, who often come from outside of Mexico, have little or no Spanish and even less of an understanding of the local customs, and the 12 or so neighbouring communities that Casa Wabi works with.

A visit to some of these communities – in what is one of the most deprived states of Mexico – feels like a step back in time. El Venado, where horses can be seen going round and round a pole stuck in a vat filled with clay used to make bricks with. With no electricity, never mind Internet access, the village seems lightyears away from the stylish design and modern amenities of Casa Wabi. Arancio, who often works with clay, engaged two local communities in an activity of totem building that drew on their respective skills and materials each produces – namely bricks in El Venado and coconuts at Agua Zarca. This symbolic act was intended to bring closer together two communities who live next to each other but seldom interact, despite sharing their primary and secondary schools, which is in fact where the results of their joint efforts ended up.

While Casa Wabi’s various cultural and educational programs are not aimed at children and teenagers alone (the American artist Jens Siena, for instance, had designed labels for a women’s cooperative to help them sell their produce), school visits certainly keep them busy. That’s where Álvaro Siza’s clay pavilion comes into its own. Sheltered by another, this time semi-circular brick wall, more in keeping with the local building traditions, the open-air kiln and work area receive up to three school groups each week. ‘It’s a whole cultural day for them,’ says Sodi. When the children arrive they are first show a movie in a purpose-built projection room next to the exhibition space in the main complex; then they head over to the clay pavilion and, as the teacher shows them what to do with it, they listen to classical music often for the first time. ‘A kid has a totally open mind and we’re trying to show them that there’s another way to see, to understand life,’ Sodi explains. The school outing ends with lunch and a visit to the newly opened Guayakan Pavilion, a sort of plant nursery.

The artist sees Casa Wabi as very much a long-term project, one which he hopes will outlast him. The effects of the foundation’s work on the fragmented communities of this wild and remote part of Oaxaca, especially their youngest members, are just starting to be felt. ‘It’s going to take a long time because they’re just kids for now,’ says Sodi. ‘The beautiful thing will be in 30 to 40 years’ time – to see it’s a better community.’