‘There are no innocent encounters in Mexico City. All these coincidences are just rendez-vous, arranged for later.
I met Alma in Mexico City in February 2022, during the Mexico City art week. I already knew her work through social networks and had found it smart and witty, precise and playful. Alma embodies it perfectly. During this first meeting, I asked - imposed - that she makes me a bathroom one day. I've always dreamed of taking baths in a big ceramic ashtray, like a little apocalypse. Turns out she's working on it these days but not for me, despite my jealous eyes.
Alma currently has an exhibition at El cuarto de máquinas, a space for collaboration and exploration initiated by Hilario Galguera in Berlin in 2008 and presented by Galería Hilario Galguera in Mexico City. The exhibition titled For dust we are, and to dust we shall return, showcases nine of her newest hand sculptures alongside four of her well known ashtrays, but this time in an extra large scale. As an artist, Alma has developed her practice of trompe-l'oeil through ceramics, sailing between light and shadow, in a cloud of extinguished cigarettes. However, very different aspects of her creativity are revealed, including an underlying poetry that invited me to walk with Alma in the development of her creative thought.
I always have the fantasy of the moment when creativity bursts forth, when the place we had tried to relegate it to becomes too small and though without a specific medium, requires dedication. For some, it appears as fatality or destiny, for others it takes other shapes. It is always interesting to observe to what extent creativity can take a low voice, give way to family or societal conventions, crush under the weight of obligations but never, never flinches. It knows that one day it will be the breeding ground for a revolt, a rebirth in suspense, a day when everything becomes obvious, by dint of sowing meaning over the years.
The question is also: what should our creativity be used for? And how can we meet its essence so that it becomes art?
Alma, after a few months in art school, decided to stop - how can you put grades on the expression of creativity? She then moved into hospitality, becoming the right hand of a member's club manager. The creative call became more insidious: a whole range of creative people passed before her, conversing, debating, creating together.
It was a members club, which was based all around music. And it was so fun. There were events, live music and a lot of creative people in and out. I realised: I don't want to be passing them drinks, I want to be sitting at their table having these conversations with them.
Do you know Paulo Coelho? He did this interview with Oprah. She asked him: “tell me about you as a writer”. He said: well, for so many years of his life, I would meet people and say: I'm a writer, I'm a writer, I'm a writer. They would ask me: what have you written? And I would say: Oh, I haven’t written.” I guess for me, it was probably a very similar thing, where I would be like, I'm an artist, I'm creative. And then I looked at myself, and I was working in this job. And it was creative, but not creative in the way that I knew I could and wanted to be. I knew it needed to change. I needed to follow the route I think I should be on. I needed to take action.
And so one day the call became too strong. Although she had not yet met her medium, Alma decided to change her life, between professional part-time and the search for a creative time-space.
Alma found herself in Dorset, at her mother's, a professional ceramicist. One day, she came to her mother's workshop with a desire to make buttons and fell in love with ceramics. It wasn't obvious, though. Everyone in Alma's family is involved in creation: her mother a ceramicist, her father is in music and movies, one sister is a photographer, the other is a chef. So she had to find her voice, her own voice. And it took a ceramic form.
Thanks to her experience and her interest in other creative fields, Alma has a very spontaneous approach to ceramics, but above all, it is extremely technical and fine. Beyond the idea, the technique imposes itself, whether it is in the colours or the golden settings - heirs of the Japanese Kintsugi - but above all through work and repetition. Cigarettes follow one another like ... cigarettes to lead to a more and more precise practice and to new risks. In particular by the conception of the hand - making a hand of your hand and assembling your skills to reach perfection. Alma observes and acts, learns and asks, refines and excels. The relationship with her mother, is a gift for both of them, who exchange advice and remarks. But Alma's curiosity and finesse does not stop there: whether it's plumbing for the bathroom she is preparing or glass blowing courses to reach new ambitions, the research never stops, it is the companion of Alma's enthusiasm and desires.
I love working with ceramics and I definitely think it's something that I will continue throughout my practice. You know, I used to be a pastry chef, I've done loads of embroidery, I made clothes, I’ve played around with jewellery making, I like to see my creative skills continuously evolving. For instance, at the moment, I would love more than anything to do a glassblowing course. It would add to my ceramics practice, by being able to work with height and transparency. I always want to add more and more skills to my knowledge. Plumbing is the example of the moment!
Ceramic cigarette butts paved the way for compositions, ashtrays that invited cigarettes into their bosom, but also other traces and remnants of the evening: drugs or tea bags, condoms, tangerine peels. All these elements which, in the heart of the party, take on a meaning that they lose when the smoke descends.
These ceramics seem to embody modern still lives, but in its French designation natures mortes, "dead natures". There is this part of death, this part of after that the English version does not translate. There is nothing still about Alma's natures. They still bear the jolts of a party that is over and missed, the cigarettes are certainly extinguished but still full of the lips they once possessed. Apart from their extremely realistic appearance, these ceramics have something unapproachable, untouchable, because they belong to reality as much as they do not. They give a sufficiently close appearance for the link to be made, but take us into a lacquered, trompe-l'oeil blur, due to their palette and the simplicity of some of the creations. The ultimate proof is in the cigarettes: they are as close as they are far from our cigarettes, they have a precious side that we wish for them, varnished and delicate but are proudly displaying this significant orange, which titillates our memories.
My work is trompe l'oeil in the way that it's touching enough on reality, almost like a cartoon. If I draw a cartoon car, even though it looks nothing like a car, your brain knows that it's a car. So like my cigarettes, even though they don't have this speckled edge, they have enough reality that your brain automatically knows what it is. And the way that sort of disguised, it's with the glaze that I use, it's almost like candy: you want to touch it, and you want it to be delicious. It is sort of cute, and fun, playful, but then the subject matter when you actually look back and you take a proper look at what it is, is something very ugly and dark and a say on our society, particularly a group of society in which this kind of party is sort of normalised and it is quite scary.
How to tackle this double approach? This paradox of the trompe-l'oeil, which is so realistic and almost too close to a reality that is rarely addressed?
The answer is: the party
Through her experience in the nightlife, whether through her work or her great sense of celebration, Alma has been able to experiment with its different variations. Her works are therefore partly an extension of her memories.
The party is very obviously working its way out of my system. My work is like a purging of it - maybe? At a certain point, I got disgusted by nightlife. I got to a point where it wasn’t fun anymore. The sense of fun and play, which I think I capture in my work, no longer exists there for me. I always joke that my work is my love letter to my youth. It's this sort of way of appreciating and letting go and hopefully growing up and growing out.
They are also an embodiment of the fantasies of the party, like totems. Indeed, Alma began to create and present her works during the pandemic, the anti-party moment par excellence. What better time to present these relics of a bygone era? Of a time of untouched freedom and debauchery?
Her works have thus become totems for the shut-ins, embodying a penetrating nostalgia and thus calling for new collectors. Alma's accuracy lies in the naivety of her works and thus enchants the memories of festive, pungent smells and difficult tomorrows of those who follow her. She adds lightness to these too heavy mornings and allows to caress with softness the memories of too hard parties.
The question then arises: what is the party?
The party has many definitions, is multi-faceted and inherently paradoxical. One of the dictionary definitions is as follows: a set of festivities organised occasionally.
The party is therefore part of an occasional temporality, impossible continuity, because it would thus lose its festive character. This definition, however, quickly seems to set limits to circumstances that should and must be uncontrollable. Its occasional nature tends to counter the anarchic aspect essential to the party: it is a moment when one allows oneself to leave the usual boxes, it often takes place at night to become a spacetime of transgression. Dance also invites itself into the party, and the working bodies of the day become dancing bodies, with spontaneous movements, far from the logic of performance. These dancing bodies also call for sex, the carnal pleasures belonging to the night.
For me, dance has probably been the biggest allure of 'the party' and moments that never fail to bring a huge smile across my face. It's almost like a form of meditation, it silences and stills my mind while the body can take part in a universal language - playing with environment, people, beat, energy.
However, this expression of necessary freedom, this space of madness and demands, very quickly reveals its share of darkness: social inequalities around the party, physical, verbal and sexual violence: the party is always at the expense of someone, whether it is your employer, your family or the people who work for you during the party.
There is nothing more unequal than partying and Alma's ceramics thus represent a certain type of party, approachable by certain circles for whom the darkness of the night seems more golden. Alcohol, cigarettes and drug pouches raise social questions of accessibility to forms of celebration, from access to nightclubs to certain types of drugs. There is always someone working for someone else's party, whether directly (bartender, bouncer, taxi driver, cleaner, toilet attendant) or indirectly (coca leaf grower) and choosing a certain party has far greater social implications and consequences than a few hours of our night. At the end of the chain, the partygoer thus justifies a whole organisation around excesses by its decision to party. At what price is the freedom we offer ourselves by partying? Who do we lock up for our freedom?
The party itself has thus become a space of performance with its rules and its injustices, deepened by the glamorisation of certain practices and in particular the consumption of certain drugs. Sex, drugs and alcohol that invite a double standard - Reddit would ask "What is cool if you're rich, but trashy if you're poor..?"
However, the party liberates as much as it confines. It liberates through its transgression and permissiveness. Many minorities can express themselves more freely through the party, seizing this opportunity to make their message known to wider spheres while protecting a space of respect and understanding for their cause within these party venues. Provided that they are safe.
I recently became very curious about the work of G.B. Jones, a Canadian artist, known for her Tom Girls drawings and for having greatly contributed to the development of the LGBTQ+ space in Canada. I learned that in her early days, when she couldn't find a place to gather safely with her lesbian and queer friends, she would suggest meeting at concerts or in places that were completely hostile and inhospitable to them, places where the chances of being assaulted were very high. People would come, get beaten up and yet come back, but in greater numbers. The strategy was to be more, to impose themselves in large numbers to create a safe space in a hostile environment.
The party allows for this, allows for the adaptation or creation of new places so that it becomes a pretext for day-real social changes. But these changes are imposed in a violence or in a fear of violence, inherent to the night and its actions.
The party is thus the most paradoxical of institutions, being the most faithful reflection of inequalities as well as a space for their liberation. I wonder then about the temporality of the party: to be a true revolt, does it really have to be so occasional? At what point does the party become debauchery?
Excess, over-compensation invites debauchery. The pandemic has become a pretext for compensating for a lack of freedom by excessive consumption of the forbidden. Despite the enchantment and nostalgia that her works have created, Alma deplores the normalisation of post-lockdown debauchery, particularly through the use of drugs. Indeed, in the ceramic ashtrays, small pouches of different drugs sometimes stand out. Alma chooses to place them in her works in a spirit of almost nonchalant banality and yet sanctify them by making them works of art. Alma's works become evidence of these excesses, which we admire while fearing them. They are the hints of our death drive.
The amount of cocaine that has taken across London, Paris, Berlin anywhere post lockdown is crazy. It has become so wildly normalised, at dinners, lunches, parties. Everyone is there, smoking cigarettes. Even though someone's made this delicious feast, everyone's ashing in it and taking so much coke they can't eat. And yet, somehow, if you can put that in ceramics, it's a way of maybe expressing it in a very palatable way where people sort of find it amusing and beautiful. Yeah. Sort of like putting it straight there.
For me, the most important aspect of the party remains the secret. The secret of the party is not the search for secret places for exclusive parties. The secret is what the party carries in its spontaneity: the encounters, the jolts, the dances, the discovery. Secrecy therefore represents the unknown, the elusiveness and the true transgression that the party must protect. Anyone can be whatever they want to be during a party and only the party has the secret to carry this decision and protect it. Debauchery prevents secrecy, prevents the encounter with the unknown because it is part of a continuity without surprise. It breaks the unknown.
As the party is often caught up in its own shortcomings, there is an institution which, for me, constitutes the ultimate hope, the ultimate truly free spacetime: the after party. The party is over, it has taken with it energies and certainties, rules and obligations. The transitional time of the after party is invited, where the paradoxical blur no longer exists and a clear opposition between the living and the dead is imposed. Some sleep on sofas, vomit in toilets and suddenly a continuum of the unknown and the secret is created where people meet to discuss, remake the world, create an unexpected friendship.
Alma's pieces carry this beauty of the aftermath, carry these moments where tea bags and cigarettes mingle, where a tangerine seems the greatest delicacy and where the debate is created as a matter of course. It is good form not to be too serious during the party time, serious subjects are to be banned but nothing is more serious than the after party. The masks have fallen off, the energy of the appearance has gone, only a raw and tired me remains, determined to have strong opinions. Tongues are loosened, friendships are made, nothing is more obvious than the bond. Time no longer exists, hours are stolen from society and the working day, there is no place, there is no frame in this ruleless frame.
I like to have a narrative within my work. The party is fun, but the party is there to happen and then there is almost no trace of it left or right. For instance, you go to a nightclub, you have all of the fun then the following morning by 7am someone comes in and cleans the whole thing, it looks shiny and new and it's ready to go again. Whereas the after party is the moment when you are sitting around an ashtray and writing the wrongs of the world. It is the time of the endless chatter, of the beer you don't need. I indeed created a sort of leftover narrative, the ashtrays being the best example. They are the starting points as they tell a story with clips, tangerines and all the leftovers of the party. And I think that was it for me. Like the reason I loved partying when I was younger was because of the play. And I think so much more of that comes out during the after party. You know, those are the moments that you're lying on the floor giggling and when you're having huge conversations and taking someone to the side and talking for two hours about something that you'll never remember the next day but by the end you've decided that you are soul sisters and you love each other. (...) I don't think it was a conscious decision to settle on that. The narrative came from these scenes that nobody's tidied away.
What is more important than secrecy now? What is more important than this irretrievable time? Before the industrial revolution, sleep was biphasic: you went to bed around 9 or 10 pm, woke up after midnight for an hour or so and then went back to bed. This two-phase sleep therefore offered a little time within the night itself. A time of secrecy? Often this time was used for creative activities, prayer or sexual intercourse. It was a time out of time, because it was stuck in the night. It did not belong to yesterday nor tomorrow, it was secret and personal. The dreams were still fresh and these moments were used for meditation and seen as a path to self-knowledge. It was also a pretext for checking that everything was all right, a form of vigilance to check on the family, the house and the cattle.
The invention and popularisation of electricity have reorganised sleep. Our current sleep block has thus been imposed with electricity in a spirit of performative use of time and punctuality, less on the lookout due to the professionalising of the police and psychoanalysis has even entered to analyse dreams in the morning.
I think the more we talk about this, the more I realise I've not been partying or going out and I have just been concentrating on myself, looking after myself and my work, really grounding myself. But when you talk about these moments, I can’t help but smile and think about these pockets of time, which don't exist in reality. There is no concept of an hour or a minute. You never want this to end and you are flowing with everyone around you. And you know, it's great.
There is another institution, another infamy giving us unattainable time: the cigarette.
I'll try not to be an apologist for cigarettes because they are a highly problematic product from many points of view, especially in terms of health and ecology, but smoking is a habit that is absolutely anarchic. It reduces productivity and working time, it is fought, crushed, dismantled. The USA, the cradle of its mass consumption, has pilloried it. It is judged, hated, and campaigns against it are numerous, even though it brings in juicy money for the state (in France, 82% of the price of a pack of cigarettes goes to the state). What a strange institution cigarettes are. Cigarettes share the most secret intimacy of many people, they share unique moments of existence in order to soothe or intensify them, they allow us to enter a new time and space, almost poetic, like a symbolic access to the sacred. It stands between the anarchic act and the creation of a moment. It embodies the party and its aftermath, leaving a pungent and significant smell like a night of excess.
Cigarettes have a large place in Alma's work, a sacred place in contrast to Claes Oldenburg's large cigarette butts, which have been enlarged to make them as monstrous as they are familiar, even more real. Alma, for her part, magnifies it, although she is well aware of the weight it represents, both in society and in her life. The cigarette becomes beautiful and cruel, embodying the party and its aftermath.
What is your relationship to smoking?
It is weird, I've been smoking since I was like 14 and I think I started smoking because I thought it was cool. I felt part of a club, a gang with whom I will go for cigarettes at school. More than that now, it gives me moments of respite. When I'm in the studio for instance, I love sitting on my windows, taking the time to think: what am I going to do next? It is also very social, you meet people and you chat and you go to a smoking area in a club, get into these huge discussions with people that you never would have spoken to otherwise. However, I definitely don't condone it. I don't think I would actively encourage anybody to smoke.
Should we stop?
I tried to stop smoking during Covid. I got hypnotised in lockdown by somebody on the phone. After our session, she looked at my work as we were talking about it and she said: “it's gonna be so funny to see how your work changes after this”. It freaked me out so much that 15 minutes after she finished, I went and had a cigarette.
My work is a love letter to smoking and it is something that I am going to stop. And I would like to stop. I do notice that it gives me anxiety. Even though I think it helps me think I do notice that when I have fun, it makes my brain sort of monitor and I find that I'm actually far more focused before I've had a cigarette. It's all a journey. That I am not going to rush.
All these ashes
Alma's current exhibition in Mexico City, at El cuarto de maquinas of the galería Hilario Galguera, is called Porque polvo eres, y al polvo volverás, in English: 'For dust you are, to dust you shall return’, referring to the oldest transgression, that of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Alma presents pieces created for the occasion, playing with the shadow of her hands, enthroned in her signature ashtrays, on the walls of this dusty old Mexican cantina.
This title expresses everything that needs to be expressed. It invites the exploration of this original sin to address the dust of our current society, in its continuous party, debauchery, while exhorting poetry and finesse in the shadow of the hand. Like a grip on destiny. To be the body that thrones in the ashes of the world.
Polvo carries many symbols in Spanish. The religious meaning of original sin, the technique of ceramic powder, past dust and cigarette ash, the festive powder, cocaine but also its sexual character. Echar un polvo means to get laid and is an expression that comes from tobacco, consumed in powdered form in the 18th and 19th centuries, in a secluded room, conducive to fleeting romps. This title thus carries all these powders and all the secrets evoked by Alma's works.
The exhibition space is also noteworthy for its history: former cantina, it was until the 90s a meeting place and drinking venue where women were not allowed. Hilario Galguera made it to be a place of exploration for artists from the gallery as well as for external curators and artists.
When the gallery showed me the space, I thought it was incredible. In fact, it used to be an old Cantina. With my hands, it is almost like the people who were in the space sort of reoccupied it. Also, someone said, which I thought was really poignant, that women were not welcome in this space at that time. So to be a female artist showing in there and to have a female presence within my work, to make these hands based on my hand was a way to finally invite women in this old cantina.
Alma's hands appeal to the very use of this space: a place of discussion, daily debauchery and exclusion, thus dialoguing with the dust and souvenirs of the old cantina. The shadow is part of the work, as a more obscure approach to the discussions and scenes experienced, always in this idea of opposition between day and night, innocence and vice. These hands and their shadows referring to children’s games became the symbol of the darkness and light within us all.
In the intimacy of an ashtray, Alma creates works that take us into our secrets, our memories and our desires for freedom to be rediscovered, giving poetry to ashes and cruelty to the party.
Alma Berrow (b. 1992) is an artist working with ceramics, recreating familiar objects of the everyday. Berrow has exhibited in In Real Life at Timothy Taylor (2021) and Miami Nada, Nino Meir (2021). In 2021, the artist was part of Sotheby’s (Women) Artists auction, her work presented alongside works by Lavinia Fontana, Dorothea Tanning, Cindy Sherman and Helen Frankenthaler. She currently lives and works in London.
Galería Hilario Galguera is located in both Mexico City and Madrid. As a parallel programme and platform for specific and independent projects with artists, curators and writers, in 2016 Galería Hilario Galguera also opened El cuarto de máquinas, a space for inclusion, collaboration and experimentation in Mexico City.