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For the first time in history, a beauty pageant and its candidates are performing actively in the creation of an artwork. Miss Education began as an artistic intervention in the "Miss Panama" contest, conceived specifically for Luis Camnitzer — renowned artist, pedagogue, and critic — during the international forum titled "VISITING MINDS. Radical Pedagogy: Art as Education," held in Panama City in May 2013.
With Miss Education, Humberto Vélez intended to confront artistic and intellectual prejudices by exploring elitist and common stereotypes of art, education, and beauty through the lens of mass media events and popular culture. Vélez wanted to challenge, in a playful (though not sarcastic) way, the concepts of art and education by mingling situations and attitudes of the sophisticated art world with a beauty pageant of great popular and media impact. For this purpose, Luis Camnitzer served as jury president of "Miss Panama" and personally chose a new "Miss" with the title of Miss Education.
However, the performance began to take another shape... and then another. At this point, Miss Education has become a work-in-progress. Vélez has been invited to participate with Miss Education in several venues, such as the Montevideo, Havana, and Venice biennials — not as mere documentation of what happened in Panama, but as a delegated performance, i.e., as a "living work of art". In each venue the work acquires new modalities. For example, Jeniffer Brown, Miss Education 2013, performed in the II Montevideo Biennial.
Yomatzy Hazlewood, elected Miss Education 2014 by curator Gerardo Mosquera, is participating in the Latin American pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale. She was also crowned Miss Panama and therefore ran for the title of Miss Universe. A medal-winning track meet runner and an English major in college, Hazlewood comes from a humble working-class family.
Miss Education has become a permanent title in the "Miss Panama" contest and one of the most coveted by the participants, who now lay more emphasis on the importance of education and activism.
Humberto Vélez, talks about this peculiar turn of events:
"In the past, after my performances ended, these remained alive for those whom I worked with, thanks to the empowerment of artistic experience…. However, with Miss Education this system — of collaboration, empowerment, and subsequent participation in social, political, and artistic arenas — has exploded. The forms and results it delivers are unknown to me. The work lives and takes on new meanings every day through others, who are not under my direction but independent of me."
The project wanted to activate relations, complexities, strengths, and contradictions of Luis Camnitzer’s innovative pedagogical ideas, which equate art to education. Working with a beauty pageant this way can also be read as a poignant comment on art competitions — which perpetuate the control of power in certain hands and divide the artists — and about the art world itself, with its strategies of legitimation, especially by those who control the media and the market. Furthermore, this situation is applicable to everything else: sports, electoral politics, private education. They are all "contests" that manage huge amounts of capital and symbolic winners.
In fact, contests are a constant in Vélez’s work. "What really interests me is the ceremony through its different manifestations: parades, contests, sports competitions, etc. I have used them extensively as artistic strategies. At the ceremony, members of a community look directly at each other and intertwine ancestral and current moments and emotions that speak about human nature".
What does Luis Camnitzer think about Miss Education? "A subversive act of the best kind…. I think it’s not so much a matter of bringing a cultural field within another, but of stressing the arbitrariness of the division. Mixing cultural castes and forcing them to work together to create a work that serves as a common denominator actually redefines our notions and cultural patterns, helping to create a real community."
© Text: Adrienne Samos & Humberto Vélez
* 1965 Panama City. Lives there and in Manchester, United Kingdom.
Latin American Pavilion - IILA
Istituto Italo-Latinoamericano (IILA)
Arsenale - Isolotto
9 May - 22 November 2015
Title: Indigenous Voices
Curator: Alfons Hug
Co-curator: Alberto Saraiva
Commissioner: Sylvia Irrazábal
Participants: See the list