When I walk into Caffarena 86, Margarita Romero is painting, smoking and listening to music. The work is in preparation for an exhibition on December 2nd, she explains. The exhibition, she tells me, will be about being homeless. It will not only about the negative parts, but also about a celebration of people. I notice a staircase in one of the paintings she is working on is inscribed with the word ‘Amor’, among other words.
Margarita bustles back and forth, leaving her work and preparing coffee, whilst two young artists – Eni Emelia, from Switzerland, and Mateo Pinto from Ecuador arrive with a coffee pot and settle down with me on the patio. As Margarita moves around she answers my first question – ‘what does a typical day here look like?’ – with a friendly laugh. ‘There are no typical days here’, she tells me, ‘I like to live each day in a different manner’. Living in the present, as she does, Margarita has nevertheless created and maintained Caffarena 86 as a space in which artists live and work since 2013. And the space continues to evolve.
‘What is the story behind Caffarena 86?’ I ask her, and she smiles. In a way the story of Caffarena 86 is the story of La Boca and goes right back to earlier days in mid-20th century La Boca, when artists and industry both thrived here. Eni Emelia even mentions the influx of Italian immigration into La Boca in the 1830s, but the artists do not delve further into the place’s past.
Having grown to know La Boca through working and teaching in the area Margarita bought a beautiful but ruined house just near the river in 2012. In the humid air, with the river so close, the house was ‘green’ with damp, and its outdoor patio was often soaked with water. With a lot of work, and community spirit, she repaired the house’s interior and its façade, and made it livable.
She then describes the very first exhibition here in Caffarena 86, in which 35 artists went into the building and chose a space on an internal or external wall, where they made or displayed their work. Over 600 people visited this exhibition, which was ‘full’ of art. And it still is. Almost every surface is painted or mosaiced with a whole host of beautiful, various artworks. Both this space and La Boca are like a ‘Church of Art,’ Mateo Pinto tells me.
I wonder aloud whether there are more spaces like this in the area. Margarita tells me that before Caffarena 86, there were artists on practically ‘every corner’, but there there were few opportunities for displaying their work. In letting students and different social groups exhibit their works there, Margarita and Caffarena 86 were often crucial in providing visibility for such artists. But now? More spaces like Caffarena 86 are ‘popping up’. And, Margarita tells me with a smiling sigh, like somebody who has discussed this too many times, money is becoming an obstacle.
Caffarena 86 and places of the kind have no formal funding. At first, Margarita did not charge people for the use of the space. But a number of factors, including the humidity of the area – which means that this building is hard to maintain – have led to changes. Margarita has begun selling beer at events, and charging a fee to cover the costs of hosting exhibitions. But even in this context, of financial and maintenance issues, Caffarena 86 finds creative, collaborative solutions. The resident artists, who live upstairs, work on the upkeep of the building. And in exchange for hosting solar engineering classes, Margarita received both payment and solar panels. so there is hot water upstairs all the time.
Eni Emelia tells me that not being able to afford everything inspires art; increasing wealth in an area – as seen in some of the infrastructure in Palermo – can put a stop to creativity. for ‘me too, she says, when I have money, I go to the shop, I can buy anything’. She shakes her head, and tells me that she is more creative when she has ‘almost nothing’. This attitude doesn’t seem to come from the clichéd idea of the starving artist in the garret, but is instead deeply practical and is felt intensely by all three artists at the table.
Margarita goes even further, describing how not having everything available has given a sense of community to the area. She tells an anecdote about her next door neighbor, who earns money cooking asados. But at first he didn’t have a parrilla, ‘so I gave him mine to use’, she tells me. She laughs, miming moving the heavy barbecue out of the building. Indeed the space of Caffarena 86 itself could be seen as a case-study in creativity and community in the face of any situation.
I ask the artists what advice they would give to people who want to be artists. Margarita tells me that she ‘doesn’t like to give advice’, but Mateo chips in that he would just suggest that you have to ‘work hard’. It’s difficult, the others agree. As Margarita talks her hands make easy, breezy gestures; ‘people imagine it’s easy for artists’ because they ‘do what they want’. But the reality is much tougher.
Nevertheless, Caffarena 86 provides a base for the collaboration and community which inspire creativity. As Eni Emelia says, in other situations there is a need to work on projects maybe two years ahead of time, and creativity can be stifled by this rigidity. Instead, in this house of art, where there is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ these artists are working on something which may be felt well into the future. Margarita Romero’s ‘desire’, her ‘dream’ is one that is always being at once realized and reached for: to continue the creativity, community and collaboration of Caffarena 86.
Caffarena 86 is hosting two jazz evenings on Sunday 19th and Monday 20th November, and an exhibition on December 2nd. You can find the space at Agustín R. Caffarena 86, Buenos Aires.