Layla Bispo (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist and educator. Born in Recife, Brazil, they immigrated to the USA with their family at the age of three. As a child, they found comfort in taking apart and reassembling everyday objects (clocks, toys, clothes) as a way to help navigate unfamiliar societal structures within two very different cultures. This obsessive pastime helped the artist process and communicate their inner state nonverbally. Bispo has continued this process of creation and destruction in their art practice, creating works almost exclusively from found/discarded objects.
Crying and the idea of tears is a central theme through Bispo’s work: Psychosomatic tears and Generational Tears. During our studio visit, the artist described their current body of pieces as “A system of Artworks”; stand-alone works acting as a succession of hypothesis after hypothesis. The system begins with a wall-mounted sculpture created from the remains of a deconstructed cello, its pieces reconfigured on a wire grid.
“How do you silence an artist or creative child?” Bispo asks. “You try to institutionalize them and get them to fit into unnatural parameters.” The sculpture, entitled “Cello, Silenced”, has a sort of cubist quality to it, forcing the viewer to see the instrument differently in its newly conceived form. In many ways, the work is both beautiful and melancholic; Beautiful in its form and the aesthetic quality of its structure in its imposed visual symmetry. Yet this very form also conveys a nostalgic truth: this cello will never again make music.
The next work in the system uses a found auto muffler as its base. Bispo said the discarded object captured her inner state at the time: “something shiny, covered in mud.” Entitled “The Ferralization of Uncried Tears”, (a term the artist created drawing from the Portuguese word enferrujado, meaning “rusted”)the work speaks to an idea of emotional muffling, both personal and generational. Parts of the work are adorned with dark, amber-colored crystals that, to the artist, represent uncried tears that have become heavy, and rusted.
This work connects to other sculptural components in “the system” by what to the viewer could appear to be tissues or perhaps tied bed sheets. The artist is simultaneously mapping and conceptualizing a purification process for these uncried tears. The symbolic crystal tears at the end of this cycle hang from amongst metal wire, gradually shifting from amber (rusted) to clear (purified).
The system ends with an intriguing stand-alone sculpture “Rocky’s Cage”, a metal bird cage atop an iron table base. The cage appears mangled and warped, its wires twisting outwards, sections bent and jutting upwards. For Bispo, the work is symbolic of exaltation: once the tears have been cried and self-care occurs, the individual is freed from their cage. I was puzzled when the artist proclaimed “it’s actually an instrument.” With a smile, she rattled the cage and space filled with a wonderful cacophony of sounds. What was once a prison is now an instrument.
Bispo’s work always comes back to self-care. In it, I see commentary on systems that create very conditions requiring one to need said self-care. We spoke a bit about how hard it is to access mental health services in the USA, particularly for those who are low-income and/or part of marginalized communities. We also spoke about how both self-care and queerness have recently become heavily commodified concepts, often reduced to products to buy. In this regard, I found Bispo’s assemblage method particularly striking. Much of their works are fashioned from objects, once commodities, purchased, used, and then discarded. Just like those objects, viewers consider the ways they are situated within a system, not unlike Bispo’s system of artworks, subject to use, reuse, and the state of being discarded, and ultimately looking for a way of cathartic release.
This post is part of a series in collaboration with the 2023 UH MFA Exhibition at the Blaffer Museum of Art, and written in partnership with the London-based Curator Maribelle Bierens, founder of the online platform where's the frame?