Lucia Cuba on Gender, Strength and Politics

Can fashion be used as a medium for social change? If fashion is an artform and one of art's inherent powers is to change people minds then the answer is yes.  From 1990 to late 2000 the former president of Peru Alberto Fujimori was engaged in an alarming series of human rights abuses including the forced sterilizations of men and women as part of a family planning campaign called Contraceptive Voluntary Surgery.  As a result nearly 300,000, mostly indigenous, women were coercively or forcefully sterilized during these years. Medical procedures where executed without consent, using fake signatures and untranslated "agreements", and under unsanitary conditions. In most cases no post-operatory information and treatments were provided. This caused secondary effects related to the surgery, terrible complications that in some cases lead to the death of patients. Fujimori is currently serving a 25 year prison term for his involvement in the kidnappings and mass killings carried out by an established paramilitary group called the Grupo Colina death squad which was supported by Fujimori and former head of Peru's intelligence service Vladimiro Montesinos. But will justice be served for the victims of the forced sterilizations? In 2001, a brave group of 12 women from the town of Anta, in Cusco, Peru denounced the violation of their rights and after 15 years of protest the public prosecutor's office has reopened the case, but there is a risk it may be dismissed.  Peruvian social activist and designer Lucia Cuba, who recently graduated from Parson's in New York, has started Articulo 6, named after the statute in Peru's general health law that all persons should have the right to choose their own contraceptive method, as a way to give greater visibility to the case and to open a dialogue about issues of human rights, gender and justice. I got in touch with Cuba to learn more about the Articulo 6 and how she is using fashion design to broaden awareness.  

PAS UN AUTRE: You are both a social scientist and a fashion designer – what brought you to these two seemingly disparate paths?

LUCIA CUBA: I was brought up in a household that is very concerned with social issues, and highly motivated by the arts and sciences. As a child, this environment nurtured all sorts of creative impulses, and I remember making some of my own clothes from an early age. While in college I became interested in the social sciences and decided to study psychology. To my surprise in 2004 a group of people who knew I sometimes created clothes invited me to participate in an experimental runway show. At this time, I was beginning to focus on my practice as a social psychologist in human development and public health, however this re-encounter with design opened a parallel world I finally decided to fully explore. During this time, independent fashion and design in Peru were growing exponentially and the context was also very stimulating.

In 2005 I created an independent brand called LUCCO, while I kept on working as a consultant and coordinator in different projects related to the social sciences. I had the need to explore how both practices could connect, and how they could grow together, as one; I started to realize that if I could not find clear connections between them, I needed to develop my own. Everything that came after, took place in a very natural way.

Today I feel that both “sides” of my work have merged in a symbiotic, dialectical and very productive relationship. I can’t think of another way of approaching my practice, but from the understanding of social sciences as a foundation for fashion and design.

AUTRE: You just graduated from Parsons for fashion design – what are some of the differences between the world of fashion in the US versus Peru?

CUBA: Aside from the fact that fashion systems in the US are more internationally established and recognized, I would dare to say both worlds behave in similar ways: They are both fundamentally powered by the idea of fashion as a commercial project, object and experience, one that basically responds to in-depth research on consumer trends. Their foundation does not grow through critical thinking and social analysis, for example. They both urgently need a strong educational reform in the field so as to develop local understandings of fashion, advance theoretical research, and broaden the way we understand and accept different fashion systems.

AUTRE: You had an internship at Kenzo in Paris - can you talk a little bit about what kind of impact that made?

CUBA: My experience in Paris came right after I won a local “young designers” contest and when I had just started a PhD in Public Health. Until that point I was totally attracted to my new practice as a designer, but I was also very involved in my practice as a social scientist. With the award came Paris, and with Paris came experiencing the reality of something that had been, until then, an ideal of what I had heard fashion “was supposed to be”. This experience included a short stage at Kenzo and classes in a local fashion school. This was my first experience in a “formal” environment of the fashion industry. Until then I had been working as an emerging independent fashion designer in Peru.

Two special things happened to me during this time. I started my practice as an active speaker and researcher on fashion—analyzing emergent fashion systems in Peru—and I confirmed that, whatever I was looking for as a designer, I wasn’t going to find it in a formal, traditional or conventional fashion environment.

AUTRE: It seems like the first big socio-political project that bridged the world of art and design was Project Gamarra - what was the project about and what is the Gamarra Commercial Emporium?

CUBA: The Gamarra Commercial Emporium is one of the main clusters of micro and small firms in the country, a key regional actor in trade, production and development of the Latin American textile and garment industry. Gamarra is located in the district of La Victoria, in Lima, and is also a conglomerate of histories of entrepreneurship marked by important migratory processes that began in the 1960s, due to increasing economic and social crises that forced people to migrate to the capital city. Today, over 20,000 firms are located in Gamarra, spreading through 34 city blocks and employing 70,000 people. It receives over 60,000 daily visitors and reaches 800 million dollars in annual sales.

Project Gamarrais an activist-design project that aims to raise awareness about the importance of understanding the Gamarra Commercial Emporium not only as an industrial cluster, but also as an urban ecology—a site of creativity and a space of confluence of diverse peoples and cultural identities. This project also aims to promote open dialogues among designers, students, business owners, neighbors, politicians and consumers in an attempt to promote self-reflection, the strengthening of social cohesion and sustainable practices in this urban context. The idea is to re-think of Gamarra as a creative and sustainable space.

The project creates a number of small but highly visible projects created by designers, photographers, filmmakers, artists, etc., in conjunction with local firms and exhibited in public spaces inside and outside Gamarra, aiming to give these preoccupations great visibility among consumers, decision-makers and the local media. It’s main objective is to promote the commitment of local firms and authorities towards the advancement of creativity, cultural diversity and sustainable practices within Gamarra.

AUTRE: I'd like to discuss the Articulo 6 project - how did you first hear about the forced sterilizations and what was your initial reaction?

CUBA: The first time I heard about the case was in 2002. I remember reading about it on the newspapers, but also reading about other cases of human rights abuses that took place during Alberto Fujimori’s first and second term as President of Peru.

The second time I connected to the case was almost six years later, during my PhD studies in Public Health, and while having group discussions about the “social determinants of health”. My classmates and I decided to follow the case closely and chose it as a case study for the course. During this time I got to interview former congresswoman Hilaria Supa, and Maria Esther Mogollón, a journalist and activist on gender rights. They have both supported the victims of this case for more than 14 years, empowering them and helping them to pursue justice and reparation.

However, It wasn’t until the past presidential campaign in Peru in 2011 that the case returned to the public eye. The case acquired a lot of visibility and was strategically used as a key issue against Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, who was – ironically – running for president. I became convinced that I could take action, and use my work to give this case and the issue it brings forth, greater visibility. While I was geographically far away, I felt emotionally committed and connected to a case that exemplifies the situation indigenous women face in contemporary Peru.

I started to draft the project while processing the incredible amount of information that exists on the case, and connecting with people involved in documenting, researching and actively promoting justice for women and men affected by the sterilizations. I traveled back to Lima and Cusco that year to conduct research, and I had the opportunity to interview two very inspiring women engaged in a permanent search for justice. They shared with me very personal and horrifying accounts of their experiences. These and other testimonies have been essential materials for my work.

The name of the project Articulo 6 is chosen in ironic reaction to the General Health Law of Peru which sustains in its Sixth Article that “all persons have the right to choose freely the contraceptive method they prefer, prior to the prescription or administration of any contraceptive method, appropriate information on the methods available, their risks, contraindications, precautions, warnings, and the physical, physiological, or psychological effects that might be caused by their use”, and that “the application of any contraceptive method shall require the prior consent of the patient”. These are regulations that were completely ignored when the massive sterilization campaigns took place.

AUTRE: After 15 years, why did the prosecutor finally open the case? What is the status of the case currently?

CUBA: The case was conveniently “archived” in two different occasions, and attracted renewed attention in 2011 when it became a key issue during the electoral debates. Even though Ollanta Humala, Peru’s current president stood up for the victims during his campaign and even though he spoke loudly and clearly about the need for justice, the case has not being solved yet.

On March of 2012 the case was re-opened for a third time. The Association of Forcefully Sterilized Women (AMAEF) from Anta (Cusco), accompanied by activists, intellectuals, journalists and politicians approached the Attorney General, to yet again present over 2,000 testimonies and other pieces of evidence that have existed for years. However, all this evidence appears to be “invisible” in terms of the legal aspect of the case. At this point in time, the case appears to have lost its political importance, and we are afraid that it will be archived yet again.

AUTRE: Will the women who had to undergo these sterilizations finally have justice - in what form?

CUBA: As abstract as it may sound, I believe that justice is the least they deserve; yet perhaps the last thing they will receive, if things continue to move as they have in the past.

They know that the sterilizations are permanent, that they where subjected to harmful and inhuman conditions. They were disrespected and hurt. They have mourned and, as one of the women I interviewed told me, they have cried so much that even their tears are now gone. Another women told me that “they just want to be untied”, liberated from a kind of binding condition of injustice. It makes you rethink in what form should justice come. There is no amount of money that can compensate for their loss. Can one put a price on fertility? However, they do demand medical and psychological attention, but more importantly they are demanding to be treated with respect by health and government officials, to have the State officially recognize their loss and the violence they were subjected to. If this does happen, I believe a very symbolic and crucial healing process may begin to take place.

I strongly believe that justice should also come from all of us. All Peruvian citizens need to know that this happened, and they also need to remember it. We need to finally accept that this happened to all of us, and that the responsible one is not a single person, but a complex logic of vertical power and racist ideologies that unfortunately do not only stem from the State. Peru is a country defined by inequality and discrimination. We need to feel responsible, related, and act upon this.

AUTRE:Articulo 6 has a very important message – how will a fashion collection get the message out - could you produce this collection for stores or boutiques across the world?

CUBA: As a fashion designer and social researcher I will always struggle, trying not to let one of my sides win over the other. In this project I am very aware of the highly social and political issues I am raising in the form of garments, and that garments—as I conceive of them—can transform into bodies that advance and open debates as well as new understandings. One of the foundations of the project is to use fashion platforms to talk about the case, but also to discuss the narratives that can be touched upon while presenting it: issues of gender, strength and politics.

I understand garments to have agency, and that when they interact with people and things while performing themselves (in a runway, a photo shoot, a video, a conference, etc.) they may generate emotions, raise questions, foster divergent thought, and challenge established memories. If I know that the garments I created can make at least one person more familiar with the case, if I can move them towards it and prompt a reaction, a feeling and perhaps even an action, I will be satisfied. I strongly believe that we are all capable of letting people know more about this case, and to explore the ways in which we can all take part and change things.

The next part of the project does actually include the development of new pieces inspired in the initial garments and their trajectories as migrate and transform into more “public and commercial garments” that spread the message of the piece in numerous ways. I am aware that this project won’t solve the case. But it can definitely give it greater visibility. It can also let people know that we are all capable of talking out loud not only about ourselves.

AUTRE: Do you think fashion should be more of a medium for social change?

CUBA: I believe that it already is. However, it appears to suffer some sort of blindness towards its own powerful agency and the potential impact it could have if conceived as a device and a medium to transform and change things. In order to so we need to see fashion less in terms of material objects for consumption. We need more fashion that acts, critiques and reacts. We need design and actions for transformation, stronger activism and less narcissism.

AUTRE: Whats next?

CUBA: I am preparing to present Articulo 6 in Peru in August (in Lima and in Anta, Cusco). The idea is to engage in an open discussion about the case and its current situation, and not only about the project. In September I will be presenting the first collection of Articulo 6 in the New York Fashion Week. This experience in itself will constitute another “action” of the project. Later on I will develop at least 10 more actions that stem this work, and I am currently looking for funds to develop them. A total of 12 actions will be performed as part of Articulo 6. I want them to represent the 12 of Anta: the group of brave women that made the first formal accusations and that became a symbol for the case.

To find more about the project, its actions, and the case, and to pledge your support visit the Articulo 6 website. Photography by  Erasmo Wong Seoane, Model  Carla Rincón for IceBerg, styling by  Lucia Cuba & Yasmin Dajes, assistant production Joy Rosenbrum, hair by Olga Sonco. Text for this article by Oliver Maxwell Kupper for Pas Un Autre.