Interview by Katya Yakubov

Figurative painter Rossina Bossio takes on her first major video series, The Holy Beauty Project, the third film of which will be screened at the 2013 Video Art and Experimental Film Festival. In our interview, Bossio reveals her idea of bringing paintings to life through the multiple layers of filmmaking, from the decadent costumes, cinematography and appropriated choreography in the piece. Her work, which is deeply rooted in her Colombian culture and subversive ideas of femininity, evokes an unusual vision of the empowered “holy beauty.”

Rossina, you are first and foremost a painter, and this work seems to very much be an influence in The Holy Beauty Project, Vol. 3. Did any of the paintings directly “make it” into the film, in terms of images, costumes and concepts?

Pretty much all of them made it into the film, in a sense. There are a few specific characters like the Virgin, the Pope, the woman with the dress made out of heads; those characters specifically appear in the video. Other characters in the video are not in the paintings physically, but I think conceptually they are. I wanted to convey this idea that the characters in the paintings would come alive in the video, would acquire movement, and life, and would be stronger, communicating even more what I wanted to express through a film. When you take a static image and give it movement, sound, atmosphere — all of that adds meaning. I wanted the video to complete the paintings.

Would you say that in a sense, the characters you were painting were the first conception of the ideas that created the film? Are they where you started the work?

I wouldn’t say that. It was a parallel process. When I was painting, I was thinking of the video, and after I did the video, I painted other characters.

It’s interesting that you call them ‘characters’ because you play all the roles.

In the video, yes.


Painting from Bossio’s Holy Beauty Project installation at Saint Claire’s Church Museum in Bogotá, Colombia.

But when you conceived of them, they were very much unique individuals, very distinct images of certain archetypes of women?

Yes, but I wanted to represent them all myself. I was motivated to make this project for very personal reasons, because religion and issues around femininity have been a very deep part of my life. So I saw the performance in the video as a kind of liberation for myself. I don’t need everyone to know that the whole project is based on autobiographical themes, but that is the reason why I needed to play all the roles myself.

Because all of these archetypes exist within each of us.

Yes, this conflict between the chaste woman and the overly sexualized woman, and all these voices within society telling us what we should do and how we should be. In the future I would be interested in working with other dancers and actors as well, but in this case I felt it necessary to do it myself.

And it’s a very strong theme throughout all of your work, but sometimes it takes time to find the ideas and bring them to a focus; I’m curious if with your very early painting there was a natural progression that led you up these ideas.

My earliest work was a lot of portraiture. My first serious exhibition was a series of portraits, though not all of women. What I’ve kept from that time was my love of painting faces. It’s my favorite part in the painting process, like when you eat and have dessert. Faces are my dessert.

The subjects have evolved a little bit and I think that evolution is very closely attached to the evolution of my thoughts and my beliefs and my self-discovery. I think at the beginning I was approaching painting in a very, I wouldn’t say superficial, but on a very surface level, aesthetically and visually pleasing. Then I would start going into more intricate subjects like female sexuality and the boundaries between the things that are natural behaviors and the things that we learn; nature versus nurture.

The actual exhibit was at Saint Claire’s Church Museum in Bogotá, Colombia, for about a month in early 2012. This is of course ironic, that it’s exhibited in a church, as the film and paintings have so much sexual iconography with religious themes. How did you actually book a space like that, and was this a radical act? Was the reception of this piece hostile?

First I have to say that it’s not an active church. It was built around the time the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in South America. In the 80s it became a museum of colonial arts, where occasionally they invite contemporary artists to exhibit. So they don’t celebrate mass there; I don’t think in a regular church I would have been able to display this work (laughs).

Nevertheless, the idea is still there, that the building was once a functioning church, and the weight of that history. I’m sure it made the exhibit much stronger.

Yes, and also there are a lot of religious people that still go to this place, not for the art, but for their beliefs. So it was still delicate. The process was rather complicated. It was a dream of mine to exhibit in that church for several years, and I pitched the project several times over the course of two years. It was also complicated because the employees in this museum come and go all the time, so I had to start the selection process over several times. To get to exhibit in that museum you go through a very rigorous selection process, until finally the director approves it.

I think she approved the project first because she is a woman and identified with the subject of the project, but also because I think she appreciated that I wasn’t using the museum as a backdrop for my work, which is something that a lot of artists do. But rather, I was thinking very deeply about each of the pieces of art that were already there in the church.

Still from Holy Beauty Project, Vol 3.

As for the reactions, it was funny, I thought there was going to be more controversy. But I didn’t want to mock the Catholic iconography in the first place. I have an ambiguous relationship with religious iconography; on the one hand it is visually pleasing to me, yet on the other hand it appalls me the way it is served for very awful things in human history. So I think you can feel that duality in the works: you can see a sort of admiration in the way I replicate the visual language of Catholic iconography, and at the same time, there’s this constant irony in the imagery. I think because of this duality people didn’t react aggressively. They were rather curious and they wanted to understand why such works were being displayed in a Church. I also think the people that went to the exhibition were most likely not hardcore Catholics (laughs).

Yes, that definitely helps. People are much more open-minded when they are going to see artworks. You have said that part of the reason you were approved was that you were also thinking of the space, not just using the church as a backdrop to the work. Can you explain how the installation was set up, how you incorporated the church into the project?

Bossio’s Holy Beauty Project installation at Saint Claire’s Church Museum in Bogotá, Colombia.

To create all the paintings and the video, I looked up a lot of references from this museum and then either directly or indirectly referenced them in my work. I also didn’t use traditional whiteboard panels because that would conceal what was part of the church. So from the beginning, I was thinking of how to display my paintings so that you could still see what was behind them. There was a dialogue between the two. In collaboration with the museum staff, we decided to have these hollow individual structures that would let my paintings hang with the background still visible. They were painted dark brown so that they could camouflage with the existing wall. I wanted my paintings to look like they were floating, like they were coming out of the walls of the church, and I think we achieved that effect.

Absolutely. So much of the art found in churches has that effect: a golden, celestial look that seems to overwhelm and dwarf the person who comes into its structure to worship god. I think the way you lit the paintings creates this quality: a celestial, floating figure, something that evokes a sense of holiness and awe amidst a dark place.

Yes, that was the idea. So many of the images that I made are directly inspired by the paintings and sculptures in the church, that you could see a relationship in style and visual language. So the idea was that the paintings from the church would come out from the walls and become more contemporary.

Bossio’s Holy Beauty Project installation at Saint Claire’s Church Museum in Bogotá, Colombia.

You described it really well, that’s what it looks like. If you could mention the layout; you have the paintings in these hollow frames floating on the sides, and there’s of course the video, which seems to be the centerpiece, as if your eye is led to the video. Was this your intention?

I thought a lot about how you walk in a church, how you approach the main altar, the experience becomes more sacred the closer you get to the altar. I wanted it to be like that; you go through the paintings and you arrive to the climax of the exhibition, the most sacred place in every church.

Bossio’s Holy Beauty Project installation at Saint Claire’s Church Museum in Bogotá, Colombia.

The film screened as the centerpiece is the Holy Beauty Project Volume 3, but could you briefly explain whatHBP Volumes 1 and 2 were, and if you had the intention to present the works together in an installation? Why did you choose to exhibit Volume 3 here?

The entire project lasted about 2.5 years. During that time I made an estimate of 35 paintings and three videos. We chose the best for the exhibition; the best 17 paintings and the third video. Why the third video? It wasn’t intended to be like that from the beginning, but I think Volume 1 and were the preparation I needed to arrive at Volume 3.Going from one video to another, not only did my ideas become clearer and stronger, but also more people got involved. Also, in the final video we had access to a professional camera, a Red One MX, which I didn’t have in the first two, and that changed a lot of things, (laughs). So you can see there is a technical progression, and musically, visually, conceptually, I think there is an evident progression. However, I feel that I should show the three of them because it’s interesting to see the arc. There is a raw quality that I like from the first one, and I love the choreography and music from the second one. Yeah, I don’t mind showing the three of them. I think it’s interesting to see the process.

Still from Holy Beauty Project, Vol 1.

You mentioned the choreography; I think the way I saw the piece, it starts out with these static but iconic female archetypes that are embedded in our heads, but then these seemingly unchanging figures start to not only move, but to dance. The characters come to life, at which point it is the dance itself that becomes the focus of the piece. Could you talk about the ideas behind some of the choreography?

Well, I guess that was my favorite part, (laughs), making the choreography. To create the dances in the film, I watched a lot of pop music videos, from contemporary singers, the most famous female pop singers right now. And it was very funny, because you quickly realize that they all move exactly the same (laughs). There’s this kind of trend that I would call, “stripper-chic.” Every singer moves like an exotic dancer. I directly took many movements from their choreography. But when you take them out of context, and put them into these weird costumes and mix them with the other movements, like the animalistic movements, and movements from ballet, modern jazz and Latin American dancing, when you mix them all up, each one takes on a completely different story. It becomes harder to dissect it and find the exact pop movements, but they are there.


Still from Holy Beauty Project, Vol 2.

Yes, and because the iconography itself is moving through time very quickly, from the saintly Virgin figure to the ballerina and more contemporary figures in wacky costumes, the mix up of the different styles of dance are also moving us through time. And yet in all of these movements and images of women that have existed throughout history, in each version, the woman is always put on display, fetishized and watched, even when she is the graceful ballerina or the empowered pop star. 

Did you work with a choreographer to create these dances?

No, it was all me. I took ballet and modern dance when I was a teenager, and also because I’m Latin American, my culture is very dance-oriented, it’s part of who I am.

Do you think that you can be empowered in a way that isn’t also putting you in a place of being fetishized? Is there a balance that can be struck between being proud of your body but not exploiting it? Because some feel that the idea of empowerment through exposing one’s body is feeding into the same culture that weakens the female in the first place, that it’s just an illusion of emancipation, whereas others would argue that the ‘stripper-dance’ is in fact a dance of liberation and an embracing of the body.

I don’t find the stripper-dance offensive or demeaning in itself. I think the problem is when something is the only model that is accepted by others, when one idea of a woman becomes the sole model for happiness, success, and being accepted. You asked in your email how contemporary media could better address and display female empowerment. I think the way to do that is by showing the variety of women that is out there in the real world. Because there are several ways to be a happy individual. When you try to put everyone in one box, then the stripper-chic becomes the sole desired idol.

Still from Holy Beauty Project, Vol 3.

Right, when we aren’t free to move between different ideas, and only one definition is put on a pedestal.

That’s oppressive, exactly.

The costumes in the film are incredibly detailed and fabulous, but they also are playful, such as the lavish dress of the Virgin Mary, which cuts off very high like a mini-skirt and reveals the legs, or the mock Pope’s hat that you wear towards the end of the film. Can you talk about your collaboration on these pieces?

Yes, I collaborated with three people, and the fact that they all come from different backgrounds, I think made the results very interesting. The first person was Jonna Bergelin, who is from Sweden. I met her in art school and wanted to collaborate with her not only because I love her work, but because she was from Sweden, and I wanted the outlook of someone who is completely different and far from my Latin American origin. So I gave her all these references from Latin American colonial art, pre-Colombian arts, my paintings and indigenous crafts, and then she came up with fantastic ideas, completely outside-the-box, and I think that was closely related to her not being from Latin America. She designed most of the costumes, though I did a few of them, and I later gave them to Laurean Tirado and Clara Garrido. Laurean, he designs and crafts costumes for the ballet and opera and theater here in Colombia. And Clara, she studied fashion and is from my home town.

By bouncing the ideas for the costumes from one to the other, the costumes evolved and I think became even better. You mentioned earlier the differences between the characters, some are playful, some are a little tacky; the Virgin, there’s one that is dressed in indigenous attire, there’s the Pope, and another one who looks like a sumo fighter (that was an idea from Jonna, who completely surprised me and I really loved it, so I decided to include it).

Still from Holy Beauty Project, Vol 3.

For the creation of the videos Vols. 1, 2 and 3, you collaborated with musicians Nicolás Díaz Durana and Leonardo de Neymet. Can you talk about the music in the project, whether you were involved in creating the feeling and direction of the music?

I love music, I think it’s the most perfect art form, and I envy what musicians are able to do, the way they bring people together and make them lose their minds in an emotion, which is something I think painting is not able to do.

I collaborated with two musicians that I really admire and who have no background in the field of fine arts. Their genre is experimental electronic with some rock influences. Composing the music was a very different process for each video, but I was always deeply involved in, like you say, creating the feeling and direction of the music. I’m not a musician so I had to use a lot of visual metaphors to describe the sound I was looking for. I also had a list of references that helped me communicate what I wanted.

In the first video I asked Nico and Leo to create a song based on a video that was already made. The second time around, the soundtrack was composed before the video was made. And in the final one, the music was also composed before filming, but it was different because we were thinking of the acoustics of the Church and the fact that it was going to be heard, not on a computer, but in this massive, spectacular space, so it was very important to live up to the majesty of it.

You mentioned earlier that Vol. 3 is in some sense a progression of Vol. 1 and 2, technically, and it really does look visually beautiful. The cinematography in this last piece is stunning, if you could mention the director of photography that you worked with, and his input in the project.

Yes, the D.P., Luis Otero, and the director, Rafael Martínez, were very important. They’re both from Colombia, but we met through the Internet and we started to collaborate mostly by email. They both work professionally in Colombia making films and commercials. I invited them to collaborate I admire their work very much. When it came to filming, I gave them the storyline, and I stood in front of the camera and let them do their work. Their input enriched the project so much! I felt they interpreted my ideas exactly the way that I wanted, yet I wasn’t too specific when communicating with them. I had the location, I had the characters, I had the mood for each one of the characters, and a long list of references. So I gave them all that, and I think they grasped the idea perfectly and did the job without me intervening all the time. Really amazing! Sometimes I would give suggestions on set, but the main reason why I called them in the third video was because I wanted to be completely focused on the performance and have someone help me with the camera. On the first two films I had to be on top of the camera as well, and it was almost impossible to do both (laughs).

Still from Holy Beauty Project, Vol 3.

Right, it always sounds like a good idea, that you could do both, but you quickly realize how distracting all the micro-decisions become.

Yes, and I decided to collaborate with them because from all our conversations and exchanges, I realized that they grasped my idea without me having to tell them what to do all the time. I’m not used to working with groups and I was very scared at the beginning because as a painter you’re so used to doing what you do without directing anyone(laughs). But I was really surprised that it was such a perfect chemistry between us.

That’s great because considering HBP Vol. 1, 2, 3 together, this is your first venture into video. Do you consider working with video in the future, combining painting and video, using one medium to mirror and reflect back ideas of another?

Well I did a lot of video in University, but those were school projects, nothing widely screened. At the end of art school and after graduating I focused mainly on painting. Right now people know me mostly as a painter, but I really want to continue exploring the medium of video, continue this idea of giving life to paintings. Right now I’m painting, not working on video, but I constantly have in mind the idea of video and stage and stage lighting. I do want them to mirror each other, visually and conceptually.

How do you feel about submitting Volume 3, as its own, standalone piece at this film festival? Are you apprehensive that it won’t speak as fully as the installation did, which included the idea of the church, the layout of the space and the paintings themselves?

I’ve already shown the third video in a theater. I think it’s a very appropriate venue because you can appreciate the images and sounds very well. I tried the piece with museums and galleries, and I don’t think that worked as appropriately. The experience is completely lost. There are so many things happening in those kind of spaces that I don’t think people can focus very well.

As for the Festival, I don’t mind showing it in a place that’s slightly out of context. I still think it’s great to show it to people who know nothing about this church or about my culture, that makes it even more interesting to see their reactions. I recently had the opportunity to show it in China and I was very happy to see the reactions. Nothing is more opposite from my culture than China; it’s like going to Mars, (laughs). So I was fascinated to see that these people reacted to the piece in a completely different way, but they still reacted, which is the most important thing to me.

Talking about costumes again, I thought your Comme des Filles project was very interesting. Can you talk about this collaborative photo-series based on the book Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady, who was a wife of one of the beat generation writers, Neal Cassady? Why and how did you want to bring this woman’s particular voice through a combination of fashion and photography?

The initial idea was Jonna Bergelin’s, the costume designer on The Holy Beauty Project. She was designing the costumes for this series, and she invited me to collaborate with her on the photographs. She is not a photographer, and she wanted me to come up for ideas for a series of images, and for me to be the model. Like you said before, you never hear about Carolyn’s story, you only hear about the boys, the Beats, the adventurous heroes of all these stories. You don’t see the dark side. So it was an attempt to unbury her story and bring her out of anonymity. Our thoughts about her were reflected in this project. We took Jonna’s clothes; I know she wanted to speak Carolyn’s story through the clothes and I wanted to replicate that when choosing the location and posing for the camera and editing the photos. I don’t see them as fashion pictures, but they talk about Carolyn’s story in a very modest way.

Bossio’s collaborative project with costume designer Jonna Bergelin, Comme des Filles is a series of photographs based on writer Carolyn Cassady’s book Off The Road.

Yes, you wouldn’t say that they are fashion photographs, and yet the clothes accentuate certain ideas around femininity. For example, the photo where you look like you’re pregnant, but it’s just a shirt that you’ve pulled out. Subtle things like that, and that it’s in a domestic space, and how you present yourself in this space, posing in a different way than how a woman would be expected to pose in the 40s in the same space. The photos evoke a feeling of taking back a domesticity that usually overpowers the woman.

Yes. Carolyn Cassady was left alone with the kids several times, and in the 40s you couldn’t do much as a woman outside the house. I like the project and even though it was a smaller side project, I still like to present it on the website.

Well, thank you so much, Rossina. I know that our audience will be happy to hear you speak at our festival on Friday night. 

Yes, thank you, I’m looking forward to it myself!

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