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O Magazine
2015-2017

Portrait of a Portraitist:
Andrea Btoy,
Art against Ruins

By Ingrid Guardiola

Portrait of a Portraitist: Andrea Btoy, Art against Ruins – O Production Company

Andrea Btoy, spray and brush (Photo by Aline Deschamps)

It isn’t a coincidence that the song opening the mockumentary about Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” by Richard Hawley. Street-artists are a sort of gatekeepers or trackers of the city’s topography. And, yes, the streets are theirs.

Street-artist Andrea Btoy has been leaving her mark on Barcelona walls since 2002. She started in a Raval full of abandoned sites, without a specific legal mark to regulate these specific public spaces, still very un-gentrified. There she met people who back then referred to themselves as “graffiti artists”, but whom, after a while, turned towards urban and street art. In the beginning, Btoy only took photographs of the works, until she discovered stencil, which she’s used ever since.

In those years, Barcelona started some great urban transformations that would have their peak at the Fòrum Universal de les Cultures 2004 and the Ordinance of Measures to Foster and Guarantee Citizen Cohabitation in Barcelona’s Public Space, passed on January 2006 by parties PSC, ERC and CIU. In January 2015, the documentary BCN Rise & Fall,

by Aleix Gordo and Gustavo López, which portrays the rise and fall of street art due to the implementation of such ordinance, was premiered. Ten years after its approval, the result is a public space the use of which is served on a tray to private companies, where all logic of cohabitation is deleted together with benches that look like isolation cells and where three are way too many people, a multitude or a demonstration or a meeting of subversive elements susceptible to be dissuaded of their doings for “intensively occupying the streets”.

“This ordinance was a repellent for street artists: it was forbidden to paint in the streets”, says Btoy, “and any paintings were covered with grey by the authorities”, like obedient and relentless Oompa Loompas; this made artists look for other spaces in the peripheries, ruined buildings, abandoned factories… “The city radically changed”, Btoy announces without any sign of either wrath or nostalgia. Terms such as “visual pollution” (and they called it “cohabitation”…) started being used, and meanwhile they started building Fòrums, Agbar towers and similar dinosaurs, works of architects who think they’re gods and who emptied the city’s safe deposit. Street-art, says Btoy, “became more of a vindication. Painting had something similar to ‘squatting’. We spent hours painting at the same place, surrounded by lots of people, like a party, but illegal”. A party that the organizers hadn’t christened, but galleries would soon appear to give a name to what institutions had cornered and marginalised.

Btoy’s work is managed by the Itinerrance Galerie in Paríslocated at the 13th arrondissement (one of the urban areas that have made street art their symbol). She feels equally at ease with galleries and assignments from festivals, painting freely on the streets or with educational programmes. For her, they’re simply “different ways to work”. Btoy got in touch with the international movement through Banksy, who introduced her to the British faction. But “street art is a global movement and all big cities, like New York, London, Paris or Berlin are aware of what happens inside them”.

From festivals to artists, and also galleries, the world of street art is, as Btoy says, “very competitive”, like any other sector with economic interests and symbolic-cultural values behind it. That’s why Btoy looks for a personal, rather than artistic, harmony with her colleagues and prefers collaborating with not-so-well-known figures or young people, because that way, in the tranquillity of anonymity, with the positive energy of painting for the sake of it, she can improve her work.

Andrea is back from street art festival Memorie Urbanne in GaetaItaly, where she’s met several street artists and photographers such as Martha Cooper, the visual chronicler of the New York graffiti scene in the seventies and eighties. She also participated at the project Gare du Nord by collective Quai 36in which, with other artists, she painted the legendary train station of the same name, the most important one in France. There she painted a series of portraits of African women, because “basically all the people that I saw walking by there were African; there weren’t many Caucasians”; it’s the central nervous system of the migratory apparatus. She took part as well in the Street Art Festival in Mostara city massacred during the Bosnian war. When a place has such historical relevance, Btoy works in dialogue with the space, with the memory of the place. That’s why that assignment was particularly complicated, not to say almost impossible to accomplish: the walls didn’t want to be painted, older folks didn’t want to forget. How to reconcile the past with the city’s new narratives?

Btoy has some references that she rarely abandons: her recurrent homages to women, above all portraits of actresses, singers and activists. Btoy paints actresses that, in her opinion, broke canons and stereotypes, such as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davies or flappers like Clara Bow or Joan Crawford, who started as a flapper too. But she also draws women who were victims of their own characters and of show business, like Judy Garland, innocent and precious Dorothy who a few years later turned into an anorexic and alcoholic, or singers like Amy Winehouse, whom, like Btoy says, “despite her huge talent ended up becoming a caricature of herself until the caricature ate her up”. The second time I worked with Andrea Btoy (*) was for a project we did with Marta Sureda, La dimensió poc coneguda: Pioneres del Cinema. Andrea painted four portraits, two of actresses Lillian Gish and Clara Bow, one of director Alice Guy, and one of scriptwriter Anita Loos.

But Andrea’s female icons are not restricted to the world of cinema. She also paints politically engaged singers such as Nina Simone, artists like Ana Mendieta or Frida Kahlo, activists like Simone de Beauvoir, Pussy Riot, Angela Davis or Petra Kelly, and aviators or visionaries like Madame Blavatsky, queen of occultism, so hip nowadays. She’s also painted portraits of Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, which show the other side of “stardom” through images of social depression and the asphyxiating working conditions during the industrialization process of the beginning of the 20th century in the United States. The world of street art, like ours, “is an eminently masculine world”, and Btoy doesn’t hesitate to affirm it; any occasion is a good one to take these women back to a public space they had to permanently conquer and re-conquer all through history (nevertheless, she’s also painted male icons such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King or Nikola Tesla).

Between galleries and festivals, Btoy still has time to devote to educational projects: she started in places such as Pati Llimona, continued in art schools like the Escuela de Arte de Tarragona and Elisava and ended up teaching in free education public school in villages of Andalucia. Now, in fact, she’s working on an initiative by the Andalusian government that seeks to retrieve villages that are becoming abandoned with the objective of decentralising culture and use it from a social, or socialising, perspective. Btoy works/plays with ninety twelve-year-old students from a suburban working class school in Malaga; they’ve created a mural as a homage to two pedagogues and a judge to talk about the rights of children and gender equality. This proves that art (be it street or not) isn’t always to the service of gentrification: it can also be used as a bridge towards places that have been abandoned by memory or economy.

(*):

I met Andrea Btoy in 2008 at the Festival SURPAS (Free and Popular Culture) that we organised in Portbou until 2011. While she painted the walls and did a workshop with kids to teach them the stencil technique by mapping the streets of their village, Raquel Sakristan worked on an African mural made with scraps of fabric with the women of Portbou, sitting al fresco while men were at the bar. Children and women from the village joined forces with more ghosts from other places, maybe present because Portbou’s condition of border town; Portbou is not only overflown by Walter Benjamin’s spectre, but also by those of the Republicans who had to flee from Franco and his men, still present in today’s blue tinted power spheres.

Portrait of a Portraitist: Andrea Btoy, Art against Ruins – O Production Company
Portrait of a Portraitist: Andrea Btoy, Art against Ruins – O Production Company

Meanwhile, the local political party in the opposition, CiU, used us as propaganda fodder during election times, like a counter-example of what local culture should be. What a time when we were on the spotlight, there were subventions for unorthodox projects and minister Sinde proudly announced her most shameful laws! The major of Portbou is now a CiU member, and our festival a corpse with no bones left, but Btoy’s paintings still shine among the ruins of a Portbou that serves as a border between old and new hordes of tourists.