The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Fine Arts
The first time Carlos Motta picked up a camera he was 15 years old, curious about his place in the world, seeking to understand how he might belong. Because of his inward-facing questioning, instead of the typical photographer’s strategy of turning the camera out to map and aesthetically organize his surroundings, he turned the camera on himself, performing for the camera and taking on characters in what he describes as a “personal process of self-discovery and gaining self-awareness.” Motta, who was born in Bogota, Colombia, has continued to make art from that initial impulse to use tools—like the photographic camera, and now a variety of media—to explore and inspect questions of identity, sexuality, and politics. Since moving to the United States in 1996, Motta has used his education at prominent arts institutions—the School of Visual Arts, Bard College, and the Whitney Independent Study Program—to become more intellectually sophisticated in his theorizing. Eventually he grew interested in the relation between himself and the culture that formed him. “Things that happen on a large scale are very much constituting your subjectivity, and the way you exist as a citizen in a country,” he says. Motta’s interest in what shapes and molds individual consciousness is at the center of his practice, and in the last 10 years has generated three distinct and important periods of his artwork.
The first is characterized by an interest in questions of representation and the experience of democracy, particularly in Latin America. In his exemplary project, The Good Life, which Motta started in 2005 and completed in 2008, he sought to democratically map out perceptions and public opinion around the masking of the United States’ economic and political interests in the region by conducting almost 500 interviews on the street. In a moment of talking with someone on the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the respondent told Motta that he thought a key prerequisite for democracy is love. This was a revelation to Motta, to realize that the motivating force behind politics, what makes the political personal is often love—love of one’s family, one’s cultural and religious institutions, customs, and habits, and perhaps even love of oneself.
This led Motta to a second body of work through which he began to fully investigate the emotional underpinnings of political awareness. This work was informed by his own experience of coming out as gay and reading queer theory. So, as he says, “there was an opening to a whole new field of theoretical inquiry that was very productive.” Seeing that individual and collective civil liberties were at times repressed by governing institutions on the basis of sexuality and gender led him to his third body of work: questioning dominant accounts of history that, on examination, seemed to him “incredibly biased and always told from perspectives that seemed to omit specific constituencies.” Motta has taken on the writing of alternative histories as a counter measure, while also creating archives and publications and bringing people together for talking events where their own perspectives can be shared with a community that affirms everyone’s right to representation. This is a true state of democracy, according to Motta.
Motta has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Future Generation Art Prize from the PinchukArtCentre, and grants from Creative Capital and New York State Council on the Arts, but he believes the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise is a crucial recognition of his “sustained engagement with issues of community and reflecting upon the ways in which politics of marginalization and inclusion have affected communities.” He wants to continue asking these crucial questions about how each of us relates to society at large.
Vilcek Prizes Gala
Browse photos from the Vilcek Foundation Awards Gala, honoring the recipients of the 2017 Vilcek Prizes.