Inside The New Shopping Bag – Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy

From time to time we ask users of The New Shopping Bag about their life. In light of our new art inspired collection ‘Untitled’, we’ve approached several people from the art scene to be part of this interview series. For this edition we had the pleasure to sit down with Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy. Sofia was Born in Mexico and spent many years in New York City, before she came to Rotterdam to become the new director of Witte de With Centre of Contemporary Art. With her unique view on art and how it should relate to the audience, she has turned Witte de With into a vibrant art centre, with its very own ‘Untitled’.

Describe yourself in three words.
Intuitive. Fun. Nerdy.

Where are you now?
I am in a city that is booming with new initiatives: Rotterdam. I moved here a year and a half ago with a couple of suitcases, plus my books and a handful of artworks. I came here — from New York, where I lived for nearly two decades — to direct Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art. At my arrival, I noticed this institution was ready for changing its terms of engagement with a public. And, I thought, why not start by beginning to be more responsive with our immediate environment. We have indeed been working on this. Our ground-floor space, for example, used to be a white-cube gallery, presenting art in traditional ways, which is fine, for some or at least for some time, though not exactly the most welcoming environment for most. Nowadays, this gallery is a multi-use space, combining art displays, with a bookshop, a café, and a whole lot of event-based programming. These changes, which use a range of aesthetic and hospitality strategies, were also made in collaboration with artists. One of the artists we first engaged with was Federico Herrero, who, in the once-white-cube gallery, created a colorful room-size painting that radically changed the very energy of the space.

Among the many other changes we have been developing are programming initiatives where curatorial and education aims are intertwined. For example, we developed a work-study program there with this in mind. Our first group of participants — nine youngsters from Rotterdam — proposed naming this ground floor space of Witte de With. The new name they gave it is MELLY, after Melly Shum Hates Her Job, the famed public artwork in Rotterdam conceived by artist Ken Lum. (This artwork is a billboard that hangs in our building façade since its commission in 1990.)

The idea behind this initiative is not only how to better relate to our local context, but also to co-produce and share ownership of contemporary culture. So its not only about what we do and change, but about how we come to do things that can ultimately involve personal transformation and also enable social change. Anyhow, all this is in movement and we are in the flow of things. I would ultimately like for our institition to be more inclusive—even magnetic, I would say.

Tell us something about you and The New Shopping Bag
It’s beautiful, resilient, and overall design saavy, like Rotterdam, no?

I got my (first) SUSAN BIJL as a birthday gift from a new friend here, Lara Almarcegui, a visual artist and long-time Rotterdammer. Her present felt like being gifted a city marker. I felt it was an acknowledgement that I was settled, like a passport handing of sorts. My Rotterdam I.D. See, at my arrival to Rotterdam I noticed that so many people were wearing these bags, of one color or other, of one design or other, but always everywhere. At some point, I approached someone about their make. To my luck, this happened to be the very-well informed Samira Ben Laloua, editor of the magazine Extra, Extra. “It is THE bag from Rotterdam,” she said, and explained that it was muchlike Baggus are to New Yorkers. And indeed, I had come to Rotterdam with The Cloud, Baggu’s 2017 water-proof bag, which I had purchased because of its name, of all things, that is, because I was moving to a rainy city and, alas, to work at an institution that had a cumulus as its logo.

Now, I use my SUSAN BIJL. And by now, I have gifted one kind or other of these to family members and friends from abroad that come to visit me in Rotterdam, and I also often take these as gifts when I travel abroad. You know, this is in keeping the cultural tradition of gifting an item that expresses the materials, craft, image, and design of a given place; a gift that becomes a conversation piece. I find these the most representative portable piece of Rotterdam I can bring along. (And, by the way, hosts at MELLY carry The New Pouch by SUSAN BIJL as a cash register of sorts and tablet carry-on, which tunes into the music speaker in the space. That decision was because it was local and practical, as well as because the pouch’s colors just striked a beautiful dialogue with Federico Herrero’s long-term site-specific painting in the room!)

Tell us something about Susan.
I don’t know her personally, but her use of colours is what now especially draws me to her bags. Some of the color combinations she uses are very strange, awkward even, and yet they work beautifully. This kind of unusual color coupling—and at times, mix of trios—is what makes her designs so special. The simple and now iconic design of her bags marks this inherent visual dissonance and yet geometric balance.

What ecological measures would you take if you ruled the world?
There are so many! Probably better rationalizing the use of water and petroleum-based energy sources.

How do you brighten up your existence?
I love seeing my family. We’ve been living apart for many years. So every time it is possible to take some time off, we organize a family trip together. They brighten my existence. I also love love to have them and my friends at home — and, I should add here that I consider friends part of my extended family. This is not unique, I gather, for it is a feeling had by many people who emigrate from their hometown or country. In any case, I love to host them, cook for them, and to have slumber parties, of course! My days are brightened also at my work place, especially when an idea that has been disscused for a long time is materialized in an artwork or spatialized as an exhibition. I also love to witness audiences enjoying our programs at Witte de With, and am moved when they express that an artwork has made them realize a world unknown to them — that world is at times an actual place, at times an emotion or memory that they come to experience.

What part does colour play in that process?
I think of colour all day. Not only because I work in the arts and consider their uses and meanings, but also because colour is a synonym for race or trigger of identity politics in cultural discourse, which I participate on a daily basis—in the very least, by acknowledging its relevance, and at best when championing its inclusion. On a more superflous level, I also begin the day by using colors—as in, by applying make-up, which I actually find is more emphatically used in the Rotterdam I have come to experience than in my former New York circles.

What is your favorite ‘Untitled’ artwork? Or other favorite art (all time or recently)?
My favorite ‘Untitled’ is not an artwork of itself, but the ground-floor gallery of Witte de With. Untitled was this space’s very name from May 2018 to March 2019. It was named to evoke the transition we are in. See, our institution’s name was publicly questioned in 2017, in part, because of its association to master narratives of Dutch colonial history. Since then, we have been enaged in ongoing research about acts, processes, and meanings of naming. At this stage, then, naming a project space Untitled was to convey this unfolding experience involving a commited study to research and redefine.

How does art influence you in your daily life?
In every way, as I learn of the world through art. I consider that art is a basic need, even if we are mostly asked or have been taught to believe it is a luxury, the outcome of a talent or hobby, or even a given commodity. Nope. Art is, at its best, the articulation and sum of emotions, worldviews, and intelligence! And art is simply made everywhere, and has been historically created, presented, and valued in different ways, whether in the most privileged of socities or in the most adverse of contexts.

Which music have you been listening to recently?
Hawaiian music!

What is your biggest loss?
Just before I came here I lost to cancer one of my very close friends, Holly Block. She was an early mentor, once my boss and still today an inspiration.

What is your ultimate destination?
Whereas some may seek safety and solace, I pursue arriving to peace.

Photography by Jan Bijl