Remembering photographer and video artist Leonor Caraballo: How she turned illness into a creative experiment and changed our lives 16/9/2015
Remembering photographer and video artist Leonor Caraballo: How she turned illness into a creative experiment and changed our lives
By Deborah Ostrovsky
BCA-Qc would like to honour and celebrate the life of Leonor Caraballo, whose work not only left an important legacy in the art world—she has also inspired activists, medical researchers, and women living with breast cancer. Caraballo shared a creative partnership with her husband, Abou Farman, until her untimely death on January 24, 2015.
Together, caraballo-farman exhibited photography, video art, and installations at prestigious galleries such as the Tate Modern, the Whitney, and PS1/MOMA. They also received numerous awards including a Guggenheim fellowship for Latin America as well as Canada Council and New York Art Foundation grants, among others. Despite accolades and recognition both here and abroad, it was Leonor's generous interview with BCA-Qc about her own breast cancer diagnosis, and caraballo-farman's Object Breast Cancer project, that touched me deeply and for which I continue to be grateful. I only wish there had been more opportunities to discuss her thoughts and reflections about a disease that has been marketed for corporate gain with such excess and unchecked avarice. Using innovative technology, her artwork inherently challenged the current breast cancer culture, fostering much-needed debate about women's health.
Object Breast Cancer explored the physical nature of breast cancer tumours using digital images obtained from patients’ MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging). These 2D, MRI images were then transformed into sculptures using a 3D printer, which gave them volume and shape, and unparalleled detail. The results were stunning¬—and jarring—models of tumours that served to expose their asymmetrical formations and their proliferation of tentacle-like appendages, and revealed their profound uniqueness only rivalled by the singularity of the women's bodies in which they started to grow. Indeed, no two cancerous masses look the same.
The project was driven by the artistic duo's curiosity about Leonor's own diagnosis in 2008. "I kept on wanting to see [the tumour]," she explained in a 2012 interview on the "Studio 360" radio program. "I wanted to see it as an object...what the surgeon did with a double mastectomy—I wanted to do that artistically." Object Breast Cancer succeeded in demonstrating that art, and arts funding (which came from the Guggenheim Foundation, Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, New York Foundation for the Arts and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council), could also be used to advance medical knowledge. Despite the millions of research dollars that are designated each year for treatment and cures, many women confronted with breast cancer often find themselves grasping at meaningless depictions of how the disease manifests itself within their own bodies (that is, perhaps, with the exception of the "pea-sized lump," often used to describe the mass itself or the way it feels on the breast's exterior surface).
The 3D models developed by caraballo-farman succeeded in showing the voluminous and unwieldy tumour formations growing within the breast. Consequently, they inspired members of the medical community to re-think the ways in which flat, 2D images or cross-sections of tumours were used as a basis for determining chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.
Both Leonor's surgeon and radiologist, Drs. Alexander Swistel and Michele B. Drotman from the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, were inspired by her sculptures to reexamine tumour characteristics in terms of this newly-depicted volume, rather than length. Their research may lead to rexamining the way in which decisions are made about treatment for women with breast cancer—all thanks to caraballo-farman's artistic renderings.
Another aspect of their work and artistic mission was to draw attention to the many carcinogens found within our lived environment. Object Breast Cancer also broached important questions about public perceptions and the medical profession’s understanding of the disease. "To enter breast cancerland," the artists say in their statement, "is to enter a hall of mirrors, with images and identities appearing everywhere." In essence, Object Breast Cancer functioned as a critique of these narratives and of the softening of a deadly and complex disease that is rarely portrayed or depicted as it actually looks.
While living with metastatic breast cancer, Leonor, along with her co-director Matteo Norzi, began shooting a film entitled Icaros: a vision. According to their artistic statement, the film is "a story of fear and the release from fear," and describes the life of an American woman with breast cancer, Angelina, who travels to Peru to take part in shamanic retreats to confront her own fears of life and death. Part of the film's goal is to ignite interest in the work and traditional knowledge of the Shipibo-Conibo people of Peru whose mode of living, and their traditional uses of plant-based medicines, is increasingly endangered due to the environmental destruction of the Amazon. Sadly, Leonor did not live to see the film's completion, although her artistic legacy will continue, but so will her concerns about the environment. The film is being edited and distributed by her fellow filmmakers; details and updates about the movie can be found on the Icaros: a vision website.
Artists are wise to keep their distance from politics—even if their vocation compels them to openly criticize the economic, cultural, and political forces that serve to both endanger and poison the truth. "I am not sure I qualify as an activist," Leonor stated in her interview with BCA-Qc, "though I am vocal where I can be and the project itself has been a tool for discussion." It could be argued that artists don't always make good activists, although they participate in the monumental changes so badly needed within society. "I've always hated the color pink—I don't like the association between the infantilization of pink and women," Leonor explained in her "Studio 360" interview. Leonor was an artist first and foremost; but sentiments like these are ones with which we activists can feel unabashedly aligned.
It's rare to find an artist whose creative inquiries venture forth into the same embattled and contested territory of women's health and environmental concerns as those of BCA-Qc. And so, we remain truly thankful for her courage and unbridled curiosity about her own illness, which broadened our horizons about the power of art to question perceived ideas, and to heal bodies and our world.