Interview by T.K. Mills - Images by Anomie Digital
I have had the privilege of attending the first two years of the Akumal Arts Festival, an annual event launched in 2018, wherein some of the most talented artists from around the world fly down to Mexico to paint in the small seaside pueblo. The Akumal Arts Festival is unique in that beyond simply painting, the team would organize a series of community workshops, aimed at building up the town and involving local leaders.
Third Rail Art sponsors The Akumal Arts Festival, working on several projects with them including the T-Project, in which shirts designed by artists are sold and a percentage of the proceeds were donated to the community, as well as #Walls4Good in which artists would paint both in Akumal and at The Great Wall of Savas in Queens for charity.
This year, unfortunately with a global pandemic ensuing, the festival’s organizers had to make some adjustments. Initially, the festival was cancelled. However, the team had some clever and creative solutions, such as working with local artists to carry on the festival’s painting traditions, even if it was impossible to host all of the regular events.
I spoke with Founder and Director of the Akumal Arts Festival, Jennifer Smith, to learn more about how the team adapted to these uncertain times.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
T.K. Mills: Could you tell me about how you adapted this year’s Akumal Arts Festival, given the COVID pandemic?
Jennifer Smith: So, of course, we were not able to do everything as we would normally, due to COVID. Originally, we were going to cancel completely because so many of our artists traveled from all around the world.
We have a great representation of local artists. So, we decided in September that we would move forward, but just working with local artists that lived Akumal, Tulum, and along the Riviera Maya. We had a couple of people coming from Merida, but we really tried to keep it close, you know, Cozumel, Cancun. In total, we had about 30 artists, did about 50 murals, and really just kept it to that. Just kind of keep the flavor of the new art moving.
We didn’t do any community participation as far as like with the kids, or the art classes, or any events just to be COVID respectful. I mean this whole year has been a mess and a half. It’s been a hot nightmare. COVID ruins everything.
T.K. Mills: On that note, how has the COVID situation been in Akumal, and Mexico in general?
Jennifer Smith: Overall, we don't have a large population that lives here. The unfortunate thing is we are completely reliant on tourism. So, our state has suffered greatly due to the lockdowns. I mean, even my restaurant, the Turtle Bay cafe, was closed for 3 months.
And we don't have the social support as far as unemployment or government support. But, we had the community really come together in Akumal. Instead of doing the projects with kids and stuff like that that are normally done, we had a community kitchen. We hosted the soup kitchen out of the community center.
We were feeding the people. And that was all sponsored through the Akumal Arts Festival. The Taekwondo program has still been going, they’ve been doing it via Zoom classes. The children's library became a food bank. And a lot of the funds were raised through the Akumal Arts Foundation. So, we repurposed our funds that we had allocated for the festival; using it instead to keep the community together and provide basic needs, such as food security. We had an amazing group of volunteers that were working and ready to cook.
T.K. Mills: It sounds like you guys found a great way to continue bringing the community together – albeit in a different way, adapting to these trying times.
Jennifer Smith: Exactly. So now that we've been moving through the pandemic, they've opened up our state again. We’re on a stoplight system here. Red was shutdown, and orange was partial shutdown. Now, we’ve moved to yellow, moving towards green. Mexico's one of the few countries that has their opened borders to everyone again.
T.K. Mills: When I saw you and the team were bringing in local artists, I thought that was such a cool way to adapt and keep the legacy of the Akumal Arts Festival going, in a way that also incorporates the community. What was the decision-making process for bringing in local artists and what was the reception from the community?
Jennifer Smith: What it was, we were all just heartbroken on making the decision to cancel this year, even though that was the socially responsible thing to do.
And then when September rolled around, I mean everybody was calling us. They just wanted to come and paint, you know, because everyone had been home, and everything have been closed up. And everyone missed the camaraderie. They just want to paint, you know? Since we used all of our money for the food bank and stuff like that, we didn’t have money to buy paint. So, we used leftover paint.
The local artists, actually, a lot of them brought their own material to paint because they just wanted to be out there, creating art and being in Akumal. It was actually really, really amazing. It’s about 30 artists. And that's always been the focus of the festival. And one of the greatest things was Lluvia, who is our little superstar artist that grew up from a pueblo, she just graduated high school last year. And she’s the only female artist that has painted every 3 years in the festival.
She actually received a scholarship and she's going to university to art school, design school through somebody who met her while she was painting last year. She's one of our amazing success stories of what the Akumal Arts Festival can really provide for the community.
T.K. Mills: For my next question, Third Rail Art and the Akumal Arts Festival worked together on the collaborative T-Project series, as well as Walls4Good. Can you tell me a little bit about how the collaboration came together and how the experience has been?
Jennifer Smith: It’s been amazing. All the money that was raised went to the food bank. We needed to do some actual structural repairs on some things with the library like the bathrooms and actually some of the buildings and stuff like that. But then once it came to—we were in shutdown and people needed to eat, we asked permission to repurpose the donation to go towards the food bank. From March until August, we were supporting about 500 families a month.
We were cooking 500 meals a day 3 times a week, so 6,000 meals a month were being provided. Our pueblo only has about 3,500 people that live in it, but almost everybody was out of work and everything was shutdown.
T.K. Mills: That feeds into my next question. I know the entire coastline lives off tourism. Beyond Akumal, how have Tulum, Cancun, and the rest of the coast been adapting to a year in which no one can really travel?
Jennifer Smith: Once things opened up a little bit, we did see a huge influx of Mexican nationals that were coming from Mexico City and other parts of Mexico. So, in August and September, we had this pickup of Mexican nationals that we normally wouldn't have seen, because they would have traveled to other countries. We've also seen a huge influx of Americans because it’s the only country they can go. We haven't seen the Canadians that we usually do because the Canadians strongly show up about this time of year. We have a lot of them who do 6 months here and 6 months out but Canada is still closed down.
Tulum, on the other hand, has been crazy busy with a lot of parties and beach clubs. So, they haven’t been the most respectful, but I think it’s that younger mentality of wanting to go party and it's the only place they can do it. Akumal, on the other hand, I have to say has been very impressive of how respectful everyone is being. At my restaurant, my staff, we take the temperature of everybody who comes in, hand sanitizer. Everyone's in masks. For me, Akumal is much safer than really anywhere else. So, it's going to be interesting to see what this holiday season brings us, as they’re shutting back down in the States.
T.K. Mills: Amongst the artists that did come paint this year, were they painting the bridge and the usual spots? I had noticed between the first year and the second year, the walls that being painted had expanded into the pueblo. Were locals still open to having their homes painted?
Jennifer Smith: When you enter into the Akumal beachside, we have 10 spots on that bridge. The first 3 murals, those stayed. And then from that point on, we had artists painting new murals, on that side. Klonism, our Art Director, had 10 artists working with him on that one side and then we didn’t touch the rest of the bridge. I curated the rest of the artists that we had in the pueblo. We really focused on painting people’s houses, some new areas.
Emma Ruben did an amazing piece at the park. Emma told me it's her best mural that she’s ever done. She wanted to paint the iconic local women of Akumal. And so, I found her a couple of the original women who came here about 40 years ago. And this lovely lady, her name is Doña Maxima, she has been in Akumal for 40 years, has raised her whole family. All of her grandkids, great grandkids, they all live in Akumal. She lives right around the corner from the park. And so, Emma Rubens did this beautiful portrait of her.
This year, there were some stunning pieces that were done. We has some of the biggest murals that we’ve done in the pueblo, like one that Dan Q painted on the backside of one of the churches. There’s a great jaguar and it’s at the very back corner of the pueblo. So, the jaguar looks like it’s going to go out and leave the building and go right back into the jungle.
Dierk from Cancun did an amazing piece of the new pueblo. It’s a big beautiful one, very Mexican with lots of color. There were just some really great murals. A lot of collaboration. We did a lot, where we clustered a couple of artists who would paint on a couple of houses right next to each other. We did 50 murals this year, which is crazy for quarantine.
T.K. Mills: Looking forward, what do you anticipate for 2021? Are you planning on, having international artists? What are your future ambition for the Akumal Arts Festival?
Jennifer Smith: Our future ambition is to keep moving forward, and to continue our community projects involving the kids and the transformation of the pueblo. I'm still on my mission to make the Akumal pueblo the most painted pueblo in the world. As of right now, we have over 350 murals that have been done. We're still going to do the festival next year.
The only thing we might change is the when, because November was still raining this year and we might push it back a few weeks into December for better weather. We also plan to maintain & continue our tradition of gender-parity. Since the beginning, we’ve made sure to have an even ratio of 50% woman artists & 50% men. Even this year, with the local artists, we maintained that ratio. This is important to me, particularly in a more male-dominated art form like street art.
Our plan is to go back up to full speed, COVID contingent, and open it back up with international artists, national artists, and all the kids’ program. Our plan is to keep moving forward.
All text and images usage rights reserved - copyright @ThirdRailArt and credited artists.