Boston Art Installation Inspired by Latin American “Sobremesa” Amplifies Community Voices

A group of students and staff work on an art project
Image credit: Daniela Rivera
January 13, 2020

At the end of the meal, dessert and coffee come out, more wine is served, and the conversation keeps going and going—sometimes for hours. No plates are cleared, and no one gets up from the table. Welcome to sobremesa, or “over the table,” a common cultural practice in Latin America.

This tradition, in which everyone at the table has a voice and the ability to share and negotiate, inspired an original work by Daniela Rivera, an associate professor of art at Wellesley who has enjoyed many a sobremesa with her family in Chile.: In her installation, Sobremesa (Karaoke Politics), she grouped together numerous repurposed dining tables, stained in different colors, to create an open platform on which viewers could stand and converse with each other. 

During the fall semester, Rivera’s work took on a new life when she and Jenny Olivia Johnson, associate professor of music, co-taught From Mark to Sound, From Sound to Mark, a class that combines elements of sound engineering and graphic representation. They asked their students to figure out a way to expand upon Rivera’s Sobremesa, and the students decided to create a one-time public art event and installation that would involve and reflect the community in which it was situated.  

They chose the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester because of its residents’ diversity of culture, voices, and experiences. The Wellesley students started their project at Mother Caroline Academy and Education Center, a middle school for girls, and then connected with BCYF Grove Hall Senior Center, a community center for seniors, where the students and seniors discussed what they would like to do for the community and how they wanted to showcase its many facets.

Calling themselves the Calico Collective, thanks in part to inspiration from a neighborhood calico cat (and because all calico cats are female), the students spent countless hours preparing at the vacant lot chosen for the project, and they worked with the City of Boston on permits and logistics. 

The result was a planned day of celebration with the community in October, during which the students transformed the lot into a representation of the neighborhood. They had designed, engineered, and built a photo and interview booth where people could share their stories, and they painted the surface of an old basketball court so that participants could use it to create large chalk drawings. Based on Rivera’s original concept, they set up multiple tables together to form a stage at the heart of the lot, from which music, community interviews, and spoken word poetry were broadcast, people sang karaoke, and dancers performed. 

“The message that carried through the words on chalk, the photos, the music, and the interviews was, ‘I belong,’” said Rivera. “What the students created was a way to facilitate the opportunity for others to be authors of their own public art piece.”

“All of us knew how important it was not to just place art in Dorchester, but to create art with the community,” said Kristen Adams ’20. “Art is both fun and empowering, and this project was able to draw upon so many different roots that sobremesa hints at to energize a beautiful, interactive, live art place.”

Katianna Condé ’20 said she hopes the project will also attract the city’s attention and lead to permission to develop the vacant lot into something that will serve the community better. The students also hope to donate the installation’s content to the neighborhood public library as a record and memory of the event they shared. 

“The experience working on this project was so transformative for me—creating and imaging art and messages in co-creation with the experiencer became very important to me,” said Adams. “I am from the area and would love to see this be part of a long timeline of empowering all generations and backgrounds of my community to do this, and more!”

Photo (inest): Installation maquette for the Sobremesa (Karaoke Politics) project. Daniela Rivera, 2019.

Photo: The Calico Collective works on their installation with Daniela Rivera (left).