Chemi Rosado-Seijo: Art and Skateboarding

The art of skater/painter Chemi Rosado-Seijo is founded in community activism.

The Puerto Rican painter and conceptual artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo believes that when driven and executed from within, conceptual art can strengthen a community. For the 2017 Whitney biannual, he instigated a swap between an exhibition space and high school classroom. Students attended class at the museum and their classroom in turn became a gallery. This was based on a similar exchange he coordinated in 2014. In both projects, redirecting the visitors and the students paths of travel was itself the experiment and the artwork.

Chemi Rosado-Seijo: And the exchange was constant, you know, like, the students would be in the museum everyday, people from the museum would be in the school everyday, too. And this version in the Whitney is different because of conditions, so we negotiated all that. So, it depends on the people that I work with.

Rosado-Seijo continues to orchestrate these community based interventions, which began back in 2001 when he first approached the villagers of a rural mountain community in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, called El Cerro. He proposed a project that would visually reintegrate the town into its natural surroundings. More than 15 years later, it's still going strong under the leadership of community organizer, Yvette Serrano. And all this despite early misgivings about making the village seem even more rural than it actually is.

Rosado-Seijo: What is cool is to be modern and contemporary, you know, "city-like". So, there's, like, that thing I grew up with in the countryside, so I knew that. When I went to El Cerro, I knew that green was gonna be like, oh. So, when we were proposing like "no, this is a mountain," they used to tell us, like, "this is a mountain already, why you wanna paint it as a mountain?" And it's like, yeah, that's why.

AJC: When you started and you went to them and said, we wanna almost reintegrate the village into the mountain, we want it to become part of the mountain, what did you think that it would do for the community if they agreed to do this? And how was the reality different?

Rosado-Seijo: The very beginning was a little bit a little more conceptual in my head, I would say. But once we started, and I got like Yvette telling me, "I think this is going to be good for the youngsters of the community, let's do it." And she became the leader of the project basically. And I just left it, leave on its own. I was just another painter going there just letting her be a leader, and that's something that kind of, like, lasts longer than painting or the ideas of most artists, you know, like it was a community empowered.

Away from the bucolic serenity of El Cerro, Rosado-Seijo indulges his other passion.

Rosado-Seijo: Skateboarding could be another medium—another art medium. It is a performance, there's many ways of performing it. Perform in the city, as architects will say. It's probably the one that I more admire. Like, the cities were invented to do certain stuff and designed to do certain stuff. And we skateboarders do different stuff with that, and that's basically one of the things that I learn the most about art when I was starting out, the thing the I liked more is like that other view of things, how you can see a urinal as a fountain. So, how can you see steps as a jumping ground or as a ledge to grind on it. And the fixation that we have with surface and all this ontality in skateboarding also, I'm really attracted to that. 'Cause the cities are vertical driven, and we don't look up, mostly. Being skateboarders, you can ask a skateboarder about a sculpture and he would know about the base, but he won't even know that it's a sculpture up there.

Chemi Rosado-Seijo first had the chance to merge art and skateboarding in 2004 with this La Perla's Bowl.

Rosado-Seijo: I see it as a formal sculpture. It is a two dimensional object with aesthetics on its outside, and on its inside, and with content in both ways. And since we begin to do the bowl, we knew it was gonna be an art object, like on a sculpture. And that was part of the fun of making it, actually. So, we were developing the outside first, 'cause the community told us that. And we were having fun. This is an artwork, we cannot do like a really nice flat wall. We need to make it, like, really organic. It need to reflects the community, too. It needs to reflect that it was handmade, hand-built.

The dual function skate ramp and swimming pool is a throwback to modern skateboarding's DIY beginnings in the dried out pools of 1970s southern California.

Rosado-Seijo: But for the people in the barrio skateboarding has been there since the '50s and '60s, too, because there's two surfing spots just in front of the bowl, on each side of the bowl, so that culture is there. That's why, in the beginning, we decided to make it, 'cause there was a space for that...for the community.

La Perla began life as a 19th century shanty town created for freed slaves in the shadow of the more affluent old city. Today it's one of San Juan's poorest neighborhoods, but it's run by a well defined set of community values.

Rosado-Seijo: First things that happen to me in La Perla, we were talking to the guys there, you know, how police were so for that, and this and that, and some of them will go like, "Yeah they are, but I don't wanna live in a place without police." I'm like, "What?" Like yeah, I want that if someone makes something that is not good to my grandma, I don't want to go and like kill that guy, I don't wanna do justice myself. I want that guy to go to jail, and learn his lesson. So, when I got the first time, the first day seeing La Perla, it was like the opposite that I was supposed to go—like crazy anarchist, nothing should happen. So, for me it's been a place of learning definitely, and I was studying art right there. And La Perla was there, so it was like a part of my university. I mean, I think I got awesome teachers at the university, and then La Perla there, too. So, it was for me the first university on the community, so our own backyards in Puerto Rico.

And this continues to be at the very heart of Chemi Rosado-Seijo's artistic practice, engaging communities artfully and artistically.