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Artists at Toi Auaha – Meet Janneth Gil

Visual Arts

Janneth Gil is a Colombian-born New Zealander photographer and Engineer who recently finished a Master of Fine Arts, majoring in photography, at the University of Canterbury. Gil uses a broad range of artistic processes as a tool for social change and wellbeing, including photography, collaborative practices, and community engagement.

Gil’s aim is to encourage the community towards considering dialogue, tolerance, and  inclusivity in the face of adversity and hardship. She believes in helping others with her skills and her photography as a tool for social change, and as a mechanism through which to empower, teach, and help people to better understand others. Her social photography-based projects include Our Voices (www.ourvoices.co.nz) depicting the life stories of a group of people living with disability in Ōtautahi/Christchurch and Void. Void is largely drawn from Janneth’s autobiographical narratives exploring themes and ideas about identity construction and trans culturalism in the context of immigration.

The Darkness into Light Project is a major body of work in which Janneth sought to find ways to sustain the support shown towards the people affected by the tragic events of March 15th, 2019. She aimed to maintain positive dialogue within our public consciousness, and to challenge certain negative perspectives that inevitably linger. Under the umbrella of Darkness into Light Project she has created Finding peace – Raising Sakinah, where survivors from the March 15th attacks were invited to participate in a series of free workshops designed specifically for them.  Here she speaks with Zara Potts.

Tell us what is it you do?

I work as a community engaged artist and photographer. I use photography mainly as a tool for positive social change. For example, I have been working in the last few years with the Muslim community, with the survivors of March 15 attacks. Working with them to help them have their voices heard and tell their stories. I created workshops for healing and well being where we were taking into account survivors’ cultural and spiritual needs transforming tragedy through creative community. Additionally, I created collaborations and various exhibitions to open conversations with the broader audiences to remind us of the loss of innocent lives and the with the hope of strengthening unity in the context of diversity

Is this through photography or a range of different mediums?

I use mainly photography but I use a variety of different arts. I might take a photograph of something and then I might turn it into a painting. But my main focus is photography as a basis for all other art works. I also photograph artists and their work, exhibitions and events at the Physics Room and in other spaces such as the various libraries around New Zealand. I am often a key speaker for national and international conferences promoting social cohesion and wellbeing using art including the latest Ethnic Advantage conference from The Ministry for Ethnic Communities.

What sort of things are you doing in your studio? How does your studio inform your art?

My ambition is to continue with the workshops I’ve been doing and to do them here in Toi Auaha. My workshops have a focus on wellbeing and actually anything I can do to engage the community in art,  that’s my craft. My actual studio though has studio lighting so I finally have a place I can do still life photography and more formal portraits. I have my easels here too. I use the studio for a wide variety of things.

Is it good to have to that space in Toi Auaha as an artist?

It’s a dream come true.  Studios are very expensive. If I had a space that was very expensive it wouldn’t allow me to give so much to the community because then I would have to be focusing on commercial art, which is great, but the community will suffer. This community in the house means I can collaborate with other artists – for example the writers. The other thing that is important for me personally is that I am currently disabled and I am ill, so the fact that having a studio in this location means I can go to the hospital every week, sometimes every day, and in between hospital appointments I can actually work and I think that’s really helping for my healing process. We have a resting space adjacent to my studio with a sofa which means I can just crash if I get fatigued.

I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope this will be a place of healing for you.

It’s been challenging. But the studio means I can close the doors and rest if I need to. The thing about being in your home as an artist is that it can be very isolating. Here I can work more with the community. Toi Auaha being so central means I can get around to galleries easier and it also means people can come in here and see my work and collaborate with me in various projects, so this really helps me. It’s a safe space for me and for the people I photograph. I’m shooting a series, for example, of children who have rare disorders and it means they have a safe space to be photographed.

That sounds like the studio came at the right time and is in the right place. Have you always been a photographer, Janneth?

No! I was an electrical engineer.

That’s quite a shift.

I was an electrical engineer in here in New Zealand for many years. Once I brought my family here and they started working and became independent  – I decided to study arts. Before this I worked in a multi national corporation and was in charge of all Latin America support for our products. It was amazing work, but what I’m doing now is very fulfilling. It gives me a purpose.

And your particular style? How would you characterise your own work?

The key thing is about positive social change and it can take many forms. Do you know Gabriel Garcia Marquez? A nobel prize writer from Colombia and his style is known as magical realism.

Like Isabelle Allende?

Exactly. So my work is like that – magical realism. I have a little bit of fiction in there. It’s a mixture.

It’s quite a feature of Latin American art isn’t it? Magical realism. Everything from Kahlo to Neruda.

Yeah. We have such harsh realities in Latin America that we need a spoon of sugar! That way we can say safe things and engage our audiences and also not get killed.

And the community engagement you talk about – there will be some social activism with that – and art is an extremely effective way of creating change?

That’s precisely the juice of my work. Sometimes you don’t even notice you’re doing something positive for society because you’re having fun creating it. All the work I do is focused on positive social change for the community using health and even taking nudes. I do some nude photography and that helps with self esteem –even that has a positive effect.

Looking forward to this year – what will we see from you?

I’m planning to activate this space and produce work here so I can show it publicly. I also have a book launch and continuing my community workshops. I also want to explore ways of monetising my work because we need to eat and being a full time artist is hard sometimes, so finding ways to monetise what I do will help me work better in the community.


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