It started with a blessing.
Before beginning the installation of “Look Up! Look In” at the Kimmel Center, Mexican-American, Philly-based visual artist Karina Puente asked her ceremonial strategist to perform a blessing inside the venue.
“We paused all of the union crew activity just to ground the space before we got started, because that’s really important to me,” Puente told PW. “It’s how I begin each work.”
“Look Up!” is one of two free art installations at the Kimmel Center as part of the venue’s exhibition from multiple Mexican artists. In addition to Puente’s “Look Up!”, which showcases the Mexican folk art of papel picado — or perforated paper — the Kimmel Center is also inviting Philadelphians into “Los Trompos,” the interactive work of designers Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena.
“Los Trompos,” which translates to “The Spinning Tops,” are three-dimensional sculptures created using a traditional fabric weave in various shapes and colors.
“I’m always thinking about how the arts help tell our stories,” said Jay Wahl, the Kimmel Center’s producing artistic director. “So it’s not just giving people something to do in that space. It’s actually trying to find a meaningful connection between the arts and our culture.”
For Puente, this connection between art and culture runs deep. Her tías, or her “aunties” who were her grandmother’s sisters, both guide and color the work that she does in crafting her papel picado. Originating with the Aztecs, papel picado is created by cutting shapes and patterns into paper — a process that Puente equates with the work involved in caring for a household.
“It’s almost like women’s work. There’s folding, cutting, hand-sewing — it’s a full-body experience,” she said. “The way that I’m using those techniques of sewing and cutting and what’s considered ‘domestic’ is elevating that practice. I’m putting it in a public sphere, putting it in the public eye, and reclaiming it as a source of power, and one of my sources of inner strength and productivity.”
The craftsmanship and personalized nature of the handmade “Los Trompos” and “Look Up!” is something that Wahl hopes will help visitors find something to relate to within their own culture and personal experiences.
“I’ve had different people play on ‘Los Trompos’ and look up at ‘Look Up! Look In’ and have comments about what it reminds them of,” Wahl said, mentioning that the artistic team behind “Los Trompos” felt an instant connection to their Mexican culture after seeing Puente’s installation. “That was really exciting because Look Up! is an extrapolation from a traditional craft that is very contemporary and very Philadelphia, and yet the artistic team felt at home walking in for the very first time.”
“Look Up!” is comprised of 53 hand-cut, white panels, five-feet wide and ranging from six to 12-feet long. Set above “Los Trompos” in the Kimmel Center plaza, these panels billow and shift in the space with the movement of the air, each one suspended from the Kimmel’s barrel vaulted glass ceiling — a purposeful placement in an attempt to catch a viewer’s eye and capture the title of Puente’s installation, Wahl said.
“She uses a traditional art form and has blown it up into a really unusual, contemporary proportion as a way to ask bigger and bolder questions that relate to a traditional craft,” he said.
For Puente, this kind of introspection and reflection is rooted in the symbolism of the butterfly, which serves as a representation of migration in many traditional stories. The papel picado itself is often used for ceremony or celebration, such as during the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, the “Day of the Dead.”
When Puente first learned that a group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope, the shapes and patterns of “Look Up!” clicked in her artistic mind. Additionally, Puente emphasized the importance of the placement of “Look Up!” To fully take in the installation, a viewer must tilt his or her head up in order to experience a literal shift in perspective — one that she hopes will spark figurative shifts in perspective, too.
“What I’m carving is an articulation of a new idea, of that moment when an idea is sparked,” Puente said. “In the same way that a kaleidoscope can shift the view, that’s what I aim to do in my work. I feel like, politically, we’re learning a lot about what we don’t want, and that is a very clarifying energy. What this work is doing is celebrating this moment of great clarity.”
But the title of the work is a call to action for a reason, Puente said. More than simply amplifying this moment of clarity, Puente sees “Look Up!” as the path to “solution-oriented thinking.”
“Solution-oriented thinking happens when we’re nourished, and when we’re confident enough to look up, relax, take in this moment and be willing to receive new ideas,” she explained. “These pieces are kaleidoscopic in their meaning. They’re the entryway into conversation about the political moment or about what’s important to an individual, because if we reverse-engineer a social justice movement, it begins with the heart — that individual perspective and an individual willingness to be receptive to solutions.”
Wahl expressed a similar sentiment when talking about his impetus for bringing “Los Trompos” and “Look Up!” to the Kimmel Center. He noted the ways in which the arts “have the ability to help us recognize each other” and allow us to cherish the value that each small piece of the community adds to the whole.
“I think it’s an opportunity for us to recognize the contributions of Mexico artistically— both from Mexico itself and locally, the immigrant community who live in Philadelphia — how exciting and important and valuable those contributions are, the heartbeat that community brings to our city,” he said. “It was so important to me to recognize that in our space, particularly at a time when I feel like people are not celebrating those gifts.”
On Oct. 3, Philadelphians will have the opportunity to be a part of this celebration with “Songs We Left Behind.” At this event, Puente said that she will be sharing more about the process behind “Look Up!”, including the specific songs that were “meaningful” in crafting the work. The event will also invite members of the Philly Latinx community to share their stories, she added. “Songs We Left Behind” starts at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
For Puente, this sharing of stories in one of the most prominent centers for arts and culture in the city is an echo of the message that she hopes to impart with “Look Up!”
“I think it’s important for artists, for women of color and for Latinx artists, to claim their agency. And we already do,” Puente said. “I think the importance of being in a public space like this is to share with an audience that this agency is claimed. I would say that ‘Look Up! Look In’ is a reminder that there is agency and power and strength within each of us already.”
Look Up! Look In and Los Trompos | Now through Nov. 17, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 S. Broad St. kimmelcenter.org/