While many of today’s digital age storytellers appear to fancy themselves as artists, how many of these “artists” truly understand the impact of a properly told story? This was the question I was forced to confront as I traveled to Núñez to interview the enchanting Colombian artist, Cali’s own, Katherine Dossmann Casallas. It was there, in her eccentric studio/home, that Kat – better known to the public as k2man* – took the time to remind a self-proclaimed storyteller of the oft-forgotten purpose of participating in the visual arts:
To give a voice to the story of the voiceless.
From helping call our attention to the plight of female muralists in greater Buenos Aires, to powerfully manifesting her migrant journey in both her street and studio art, Kat succeeds in seamlessly weaving her many identities into a single, poignant story of belonging and acceptance. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Kat’s imagination – one filled with creatures of all shapes, colors, and sizes – appears to be simultaneously grounded in today’s grim political, social, and economic realities. That is to say, Kat understands, better than most, that the journey of the world’s forgotten and forsaken truly is one of monkeys, rats, and shrews.
Migrant, empowered woman, artist of the misunderstood… welcome to the world of k2man*.
Kat, let’s start with a brief introduction for those unfamiliar with your work. Can you tell me a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, what type of art that you practice, etc.?
Sure. My name is Katherine Dossmann Casallas. I grew up in Colombia, in the city of Cali. As an artist, I see myself as an illustrator… Perhaps an artist who also happens to illustrate. From my very first memories, I was always drawing. I always had my drawing materials with me, my pencils and some paper, and I was always creating something. My parents encouraged me to do this and allowed me to draw wherever I went.
I never decided to be an artist or an illustrator, it was just a natural part of my life. I used drawing and creativity as a tool to tell the stories of my childhood, from the things that were happening to me at school, to what I was eating at home. Even today, I continue to use art in this way.
Did you formally study illustration?
When I was older, I made the decision – I’m not sure why – to study graphic design instead of fine arts. Even though I studied graphic design, my classes and meetings were held in the institute of fine arts in Cali. This was a great advantage as it allowed me to attend many classes that weren’t a part of my curriculum – art history, technical impressions, engraving, etc. Even though there is somewhat of a rivalry between graphic designers and traditional plastic artists [laughs], I was able to learn, study, and develop my artistic skill-set with the best of both worlds.
How did you end up in Argentina?
Upon graduating with a degree in graphic design, I started working in public advertising. At the time, this was one of the few professional paths I had available as a graphic designer in Colombia. After a few years working as an art director, I was offered a scholarship to study animation here in Argentina. I moved to Buenos Aires in 2006 and began studying, but didn’t graduate because I decided I liked drawing more [laughs]. As studio illustration was the one part of graphic design that I always felt most comfortable with, I became determined to fully dedicate myself to it.
How/when did you transition from studio illustration to painting murals in the street?
It was during this same period of time, as I was rededicating myself to my studio art, that I had the opportunity to paint in the street for the first time. I had become friends with a few local muralists through a weekly drawing group, and they invited me to paint with them. I now move between the street community and this [points to her studio walls]. Both are beautiful, and both have unique processes. Here, in my studio, I’m relaxed, I take my time, I try to focus on the fine details of the work at hand. In the street, it’s another rhythm, another form… a little bit more chaotic. And yet, in either setting, I’m always aiming to communicate something personal.
I’ve noticed that in some of your recent paintings and illustrations you have included fruits from Colombia. To what extent does Colombian culture influence your art?
Colombian culture? I would say not very much. What has influenced me, and what you see manifest in my art, is the experience of having left my country behind, of having migrated to a new place, of having made that transitory journey into the unknown.
How do you communicate that theme in your art? Through your creatures?
Exactly. Although many people look at my work and see rodents, bugs, and other unpleasant things, what I’m trying to do is demonstrate the fragility we experience when we arrive at a place that is not our own. A new language, new customs, a new culture. The creatures that I create – the shrews, the ravens, the bugs – they live in a hostile world in which they will never belong. They will always be small, fragile, and living in a place that wasn’t made for their size. If they lived in an ideal world, one made specifically for them, they would be the strongest, smartest, and most loved animals around. But that’s not the reality. The reality is that they are simply traveling through our world, trying their best to survive. They are foreigners in the world that they call home.
It’s the constant fight and the never-ending journey that I identify with most. Today, even having been in Argentina for 13 years, I believe I will always be a foreigner. Just like any migrant in the world, I have felt underestimated and looked down upon by society. I have been that bicho.
Will your creatures ever find peace? Will they ever find a home?
I’m not sure. Personally, I know that no matter how long I live in Argentina, I will never be from here. My creatures reflect that. They too are moving, traveling, and searching for their own place to settle. It’s a life-long journey – one that never truly ends. And yet, what I also try to show in my art is the fact that we aren’t “from” anywhere, rather, we “come” from somewhere. That somewhere is where we currently are. Maybe it’s Cali, maybe it’s Argentina, maybe it’s somewhere else in the world, but you come from where you are, and it will always be a fight to belong.
How has the public reacted to these themes and ideas in your work?
The public reaction has generally been positive. I don’t think my art is for everyone, but pleasing everyone is something that doesn’t interest me very much.
Are you worried that the public will misinterpret your message?
I don’t paint solely for the sake of painting. So yes, I do want to communicate a message, and I’m always thinking of the best way to do so. This is especially true if I’m painting in a location where the public has no other option but to consume my art. At the same time, how one interprets a work of art is somewhat of an abstract concept. I think it’s important to accurately communicate what I want, and to make sure that the message is clear to the public. And yet, I will be happy as long as my art generates something. I want you to see what you see. Whether you understand my message or not, I know my art is going to leave something within you… a sensation of rage, indignation, pleasure, fun. The point is to generate something.
Is it a problem if art fails to generate an emotion?
On the topic of “fighting to belong,” I know that you are a member of AMMurA, the art collective fighting for gender equality and the fair representation of female artists in Buenos Aires. The gender statistics for publicly commissioned murals are rather alarming. Is this solely a city government issue? Does it reflect deeper social/equality issues in the art community?
What we are referring to in our statements and videos, above all else, is the responsibility of the government of the City of Buenos Aires. Private commissions are private commissions, and typically you can’t dispute the male-to-female ratio with the commissioning party. Now, when it comes to the government? We can and should demand fair representation. It simply can’t be that all of these events and government-sponsored commissions are won by male artists, especially when there are countless female artists producing the exact same quality of work.
For a long time now, women have been performing the same work, under the same conditions, and with the same quality as their male counterparts. And yet, the baseline assumption is that only men paint. One bridge? Sure. Two bridges? Ok. But all of the bridges? When the majority of the publicly commissioned murals go to men, that’s a problem. The history of the world is one written by men. When you start to realize that, you can see the world – specially art – from another perspective, from another view. It changes how you interpret a lot of these things. The government has the responsibility to facilitate this change in perspective, as they are uniquely positioned to do so.
Do you think that your male peers share in the blame? Have they participated in helping raise awareness? If not, should they?
I’m not sure that it’s fair to apportion fault to them. The power directly responsible for the selection process – that is, for who paints and what – is the government. As such, the government bears the burden of correcting the problem. Maybe there is a certain degree of shared responsibility, especially if the same male muralists are commissioned over and over again. And yet, I have many male friends who are very open to sharing contacts and sharing commissions. In that sense, they are quite equitable. However, one would hope to not have to depend on his/her friends for work.
A reasonable expectation is that commissions will be awarded fairly by those in the position to do so. We all share responsibility, but it doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of our male counterparts. In the end, the credibility of this movement is rooted in the statistics. You can’t argue with them.
As an artist, where do you turn for inspiration?
Like most artists, there’s not one specific thing that inspires me [laughs]. There are days when I’m sad, and it reflects in my work. There are days when I’m happy, and it reflects in my work. Sometimes I talk to my family from Colombia, and I paint it. Other times, I’m hungry for a specific food, and I paint it [laughs]. Movies, music, my cats – everything inspires me. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but that’s how I like it.
What about other artists?
There are too many! Right now, the artist that inspires me most in an artist from the United States named Teagan White. Although our styles are different, she also paints animals, and with a similar color palette. She produces a mixture of tenderness and darkness, a duality of sorts. I love it. I also have many artist friends who I love and admire them very much… It’s one of the benefits of being an artist [laughs].
I’m thinking about making a number of massive elephant shrew sculptures and displaying them in an urban environment for the public to enjoy – maybe a park. I want the public to tan with them, to eat with them, to interact with the sculptures as if they were a part of this world, as if they belonged.
What’s the best place to find your work?
Lastly, I know you’ve said before that people tend to focus on where you’re from, but that they never seem to ask you where you’re going. So, I would like to know, where are you going?
I wish I knew. I know where I am. I know I will move forward. Hopefully, it’s to a good place, wherever it may be.