Europe should be a work of art

Europe and Me Magazine n°05, 01.07.2009
Interview with Jota Castro, by Marta Martinez. (

Born in Peru but educated in Europe, Jota Castro is the embodiment of integration – and its contradictions. He knows the European Union much better than the majority of its citizens, since he worked within the institution for over 10 years. One day, he decided that art was his true passion and a better way to reach people. In this interview, he shares with us some of his opinions about what should change in our continent, how difficult integration is and the role art can play in mobilising hearts.

E&M: After many years in politics in the European Community, you decided to quit and dedicate yourself exclusively to art. Nevertheless, your art shows a strong intention to promote social commitment. Is art more useful than politics when it comes to reaching people?

Jota Castro: Yes, I think so. But the work of art that changes the course of world history still doesn’t exist. All we've achieved is that some works have become symbols, like Picasso's Guernica –but why don’t we use art to talk about social issues? Art can be a good tool to communicate certain ideas.

E&M: You have been living in Europe for 25 years. This must have influenced your own identity. Do you feel European?

Jota Castro: Yes, I am European in the end. I have the face of the Europe that bothers many people, the mixed-race Europe, the one that doesn’t resemble the Europe of 50 years ago at all. I feel European but in a very open sense; I have a European cultural base, I don’t deny it, but also a deep immigrant feeling ingrained in me. And that’s probably the great problem of the Union, how to make it so that people don't feel bad about their origins.

E&M: Do you think art can somehow help in this integration process?

Jota Castro: My first work as an artist was a naked man, Mediterranean but from a country outside the EU, with an erection covered with a European flag. I hung it everywhere in Europe with the message "Desire for integration." I think it did work, it was useful to treat the topic polemically, to talk about it. Actually, the first political party who talked about my work was the French National Front, in the European Parliament. So yes, I think art can help, but it would help more if our politicians considered immigrants to be first-class citizens.

E&M: How is life in Brussels? It certainly is the political capital of Europe, but is it also its artistic heart?

Jota Castro: No, I think it is a city in which many artists love to work because conceptually it is a no man’s land. It’s a city which doesn’t demand integration. I lived in Paris, where you're obliged to learn the language, to respect some traditions. Belgium doesn’t demand anything. Many people find Brussels boring, but I think it’s an interesting city, impersonal, it represents perfectly what cities are nowadays. Surprisingly, considering it's a symbolic city, it's very much mistreated by the authorities, by the system, and yet it’s a place in which people from very diverse nationalities live together in a more or less natural way. It's very similar to the future as I imagine it.

"Art can help, but it would help more if politicians considered immigrants to be first-class citizens."

E&M: In some of your works you have reflected on the concept of "transculturalisation". Could you explain this concept?

Jota Castro: It is the phenomenon whereby one culture dominates another and it becomes the culture which drives an individual. I decided to show it in a very brutal way, for instance the works in which symbols of cultures with a colonialist past are penetrating men from behind.

The idea came during a session with my therapist. It took me a long time to overcome my complexes, which is generally the first step towards adapting to the situation of coming from another country. I was drawn towards a form of integration which wasn't positive at all, because at the beginning my wish was to integrate myself so fast that I nearly started to forget where I came from. I overcame this and – partly as a justification for my past life – I told my therapist that the problem was as if they had raped me.

E&M: You came to Europe to study with a scholarship. In fact, you were the first Latin-American who enrolled at College of Europe in Bruges. How was your experience there?

Jota Castro: Very bad... I remember arriving there and the first thing anyone asked me was why I was there. I didn’t fit in at all, a long-haired Latino... At the beginning it was very hard. I remember that at the opening ceremony for my year, the King of Spain was going to make a speech to us and they asked me, as a Latino, to prepare an introduction because it was October the 12th, Spanish Day [the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas – ed.]. I refused to do it because I had nothing to celebrate – on the contrary! – and it was a big scandal. In the 80’s, people were obsessed with traditional things. For instance, I wanted to work on the digital TV laws and the future of cable. They told me I was stupid, that those weren't important things, and they made me study the foreign policy of the Union towards Latin America. It is a very good administrative school, it trains you well, but it's very conservative.

"I'm not even talking about improving the image of Europe, but about creating this image, because it doesn't exist."

E&M: So did that change your preconceptions about Europe?

Jota Castro: Absolutely not. I still have a very positive opinion about Europe. I feel very sad every time I see young people who don’t feel like "neighbours" of the European cities. But this horrible medieval reaction we're experiencing now, with everybody obsessed with their own region, their own language, is partly provoked by the Union becoming dysfunctional. That’s something all convinced Europeans should work on: what can be done? I’m not even talking about improving the image of Europe, but about creating this image, because it doesn't exist. You cannot tell young Europeans to identify themselves with Europe through José Barroso. It’s impossible.

E&M: And do you think artists are developing interesting projects which call for action against Europe's problems?

Jota Castro: Actually very few. In the art world there is usually an "anti-"feeling, against everything. I’ve seen very few works that boost the possibility of being one instead of about 30 countries. I was talking to Michelangelo Pistoletto, another artist who is 40 years older than me and who in the end thought we should go this way, trying to create big works of art which incorporate what is happening. For instance, like what happened with painting in the 15th and 16th centuries, the reinterpretation of religious themes. Some things were modified through aesthetics. Why not? But for the moment it's very difficult. I don’t see [Miquel] Barceló doing paintings about Europe, he continues painting bulls.

"In the art world there's usually an "anti"-feeling, against everything."

It’s a strange moment… How many people do you know who are not in the pro-Europe sphere and who are able to express a positive opinion about Europe in front of many people? It’s nearly impossible. Expressing a positive opinion about it means that people will think you’re not progressive.

E&M: An example of a European work of art could be your "A mi tiempo"…

Jota Castro: You asked me if I felt European, and this work is a good answer. These are the languages in which I live, the ones with which I feel comfortable, the ones I love. It’s a very European project. It’s a poem and every line is written in a different language. I’m now working on a book with the same concept, all written in different languages. I’m going to call it "Brussels," "Europe," or something like that.