Artists Art Issues Exhibitions About Us Search

featured artist
Jhafis Quintero

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jul 17, 2008
Location: Costa Rica
Topic: Interview with Jhafis Quintero
Interviewer: Virginia Pérez-Ratton

LatinArt:  Jahfis and I agreed to do this interview by email, and began some exchanges in May that are included in this text that we co-wrote.
- What is art to you?

Jhafis Quintero:  Art is aesthetically organizing a thought in order to transmit ideas and issues, to resignify. It is the perfect substitute for crime, because it lets me aesthetize transgression which forms part of my nature. I can then shape my ideas and instincts in another way.

LatinArt:  I once stated that art is a subliminal form of delinquency, so I see we think along similar lines.

Jhafis Quintero:  Art and crime are closer to each other than people think. Both stem from an appetite for transgression. I know a lot of artists who could easily be criminals, and I've met many criminals who could be artists. One of the things I resort to the most on carrying out a project is my experience in previous lines of work, what I used to call complicity I now refer to as "collaboration".

LatinArt:  Don't you think transgression also has its pitfalls? The allure that transgression can exert, not just in artistic terms, can have a bearing on the interpretation or the approach to a work or a fact and distort its true meaning, don't you think?

Jhafis Quintero:  One way or another transgression is taken on by the institution of art, which absorbs and trivializes both what you want to say and your own nature; the institution then transforms it and turns you into an object for consumption. It's also possible that you could be living up to other people's stereotypes of transgression and prostituting yourself by prostituting the transgression. The ideal is really to be a natural transgressor. As soon as someone consecrates transgression, it ceases to exist as such.

LatinArt:  What is literature to you?

Jhafis Quintero:  Another tool for art. It's something that has appeared in the process of my maturing as an artist; after a lot of empirical research, one fine day I stumbled across literature through books that my friend and psychoanalyst Alexis Vindas brought me in prison, ranging from existential philosophy to university newspapers. You have a lot of time to read in prison and it's a great way of escaping from the boredom, the weight of time in there... it's using someone else's imagination as a means of escape. After being freed, I started developing a taste for literature, good literature, and now I know what kind of books stimulate me. After coming out I had a baby boy with a writer and I'm currently in a relationship with a woman who also devotes herself to writing, so literature inevitably forms part of my life in many ways. Working in a contemporary-art foundation and specifically in the TEOR/éTica library gives me daily access to a lot of literary information. I like authors who indulge in fine irony, in intelligent humor.

LatinArt:  When you say you "stumbled across" literature was it with literature itself or just with reading in general? What do you mean by "a lot of empirical research"? When you realize you can make use of literary language, isn't that a sign of a change from reading in general to selecting specific works of literature?

Jhafis Quintero:  Reading has been with me all my life, and has now given me resources for writing. I'm still trying to find out how and when this happened, when I began using the language of literature in my work. There are still many aspects of my personality that I can't control. If this is a symptom of anything, it's of a constant quest for knowledge, be it through tabloid newspapers or through select works of culture. My "empirical research" as I call it, is experience gleaned without manuals, so as to survive at home, in the neighborhood, the street, prison, on the road, my studies, my work, all the different ecosystems in which I dwell. I think I have a chameleon-like nature that allows me to shift between different realities: I've now gathered enough knowledge and experience to refer to my past with far greater insight, and even to invent it.

I later discovered that I could resort to the language of literature to transmit my own experiences. What I seek to do through literature is to demystify the image of a convict, who is not a monster, it's someone who also has a sense of humor, who laughs, whose life stories are valuable, without having to feed the morbidity that people expect. At the moment I'm experimenting with short stories of people in jail, which are published in the Costa Rican version of Revista Soho, a man's magazine. They are largely based on fact, but are tinged with humor, which is one of the most important considerations for me, in anything I do. It forms part of the culture of Panamanians, who laugh even at burials. Taking advantage of the experience I gained as a waiter, I could say that humor in any discipline is like a digestive liqueur after a good meal. I've had some experience with book projects, like in dubia tempora, which I did with Mar’a Montero and José Dí­az. Máximas de seguridad, which dates from 2007, is a blend of literature and illustration, since basically it's a manual on how to survive if you're in jail.

LatinArt:  It seems then that your work blends images and writing almost organically.

Jhafis Quintero:  Each nourishes the other to make a well-rounded work. Sometimes words emphasize the images, sometimes it's the other way around. One of the biggest influences on my work is Hector Burke, because he conjugates, combines, interweaves words and images as part of a whole. Marí­a Montero is another, because she's a writer who doesn't just use words, she also delves into other forms of art, as in the collaborative work I mentioned previously. That's where I started establishing relationships between texts and images. The same goes for Sila Chanto, she's an artist who dips into different disciplines and is always blending, investigating different ways of creating. I'm also attracted to the work of Rolando Castellón and his little books, which he writes, edits and binds, as a model multimedia arranger and artist.

LatinArt:  Apart from these artists' influence, what are you reading nowadays? Have any authors left their mark on you?

Jhafis Quintero:  My reading oscillates between Dr. Corazón's "Sentimientos en conflicto" [Conflicting feelings] column in a Costa Rican tabloid and authors like Mario Lobo Antunes, due to his humor and the cynical way he constructs his "Sonetos a Cristo" [Sonnets to Christ], for example. Horacio Castellanos for his decidedly provocative approach and Luis Rogelio Noguera for his brutal poetry, along with many other authors that nourish me and confirm to me that we're not a product of our circumstances, but spend every second of our lives shaping them.

LatinArt:  Do you remember how or when your first conscious attraction to art took place?

Jhafis Quintero:  Like most children, I always used to doodle on the walls at home. Ever since I can remember I've had a need to communicate, and as a teenager in Panama I started having an uncontrollable need to get things off my chest or communicate them, and was seduced by the power of images at the cinema, in literature, the plastic arts. Once I entered prison on my own merits, I invested the time I had towards introspection, since I had so much time to myself.
I began looking for ways and means of creating, and the concerns that were naturally part of me were magnified. I was about 19 at the time, and this coincided with the arrival of a petite woman of Japanese origin and Argentine nationality, Haru Wells, who was bringing a non-formal art project to one of the largest and most dangerous jails in Costa Rica, where I happened to be lodged. The group I was in at that time was called "Al Margen" [On the Margins].

LatinArt:  What made you decide to take part in that workshop? Did you view it as an opportunity for change, entertainment or learning, or from an awareness of being an artist? What prompted you to sign up for an art workshop rather than something else, a sport, for instance?

Jhafis Quintero:  Initially I was drawn to it out of curiosity, then by a feeling of staying alive that art gave me. In other words, when you're in prison you're contained, you miss the feelings that put you there in the first place then you suddenly discover that art, that thing that aroused your curiosity, gives you exactly the same feelings but at no additional cost.

As for believing I'm an artist, I still don't believe I am, because the word itself sounds so pretentious. I think it's a title that has in some way become prostituted by the ease with which people adorn themselves with it. An artist is someone who sustains his work through a process of investigation that never finishes. I don't believe in redemption either. I think I'm the same as ever, but now I have other tools.

LatinArt:  The definition of an artist as someone who substantiates their work with unending research can be applied to other disciplines, not just art, no?

Jhafis Quintero:  Of course I think any serious project involves research, although it may seem trivial from the point of view of other disciplines it implies delimiting the field of study, an exercise in making specific questions and a quest, perhaps never-ending, for possible answers.

LatinArt:  What influence can forced confinement have on art work?

Jhafis Quintero:  Confinement lets you see, from another standpoint, the social dynamics that are imposed, subtly or brutally, on the masses. Other than concerning myself with survival, I had all the time in the world to stare at my bellybutton, to focus on anything I wanted to, and I concentrated on this thing they call art. I think the distance between forced confinement and the outside world lets you observe things that could remain unnoticed when one is immersed in the outside world.

LatinArt:  How is this experience perceived in your art?

Jhafis Quintero:  It runs through all my work.

LatinArt:  What difference do you see between forced and voluntary confinement, isolating yourself in a workshop, for example, or in a workspace?

Jhafis Quintero:  As someone said, the word freedom is rubbed out long before it's written. The difference is that when you're working from prison, it has that quality of all or nothing, there are no options or happy mediums. The outside is full of hues that you can inhabit.

LatinArt:  But as Luis Camnitzer says, everything can be a prison, in the final analysis we wear prison like a suit. When I first met you in 1996, you were mainly focusing on painting, and your subject-matter centered on the body, altered to reflect a traumatic experience... What were the changes you went through later and how do you view your initial work now?

Jhafis Quintero:  I guess I reached art through painting, perhaps because I was in a place with a lot of restrictions on the use of dangerous materials, which prevented the development of other disciplines. The direct relationship between hand, brush and a stand, without any modern technology, made self-reference inevitable. I didn't abandon the body as a subject, and my work is no less self-referential now, but it is not as biographical or intimate, as it could have been. I think the change that took place after that initial work has to do with the distance I set from my object of study. It's no longer me in a condition of confinement; rather, I increasingly incorporate the gaze of others, their experiences. Even in the work I'm doing now, the focus is on the judicial system itself, and I think that there art serves as a means of transforming institutional structures, of slipping in like an aesthetic Trojan horse to generate changes from within. Art that generates or promotes things, utilitarian art, is what interests me. Now I see those changes as part of my own development... ultimately art is also useful to me as a means of self-diagnosis.

back to artists