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Edison Peñafiel: Behind the Art

MARE MAGNVM and Empathizing with the Oppressed 

In 2021, Edison Peñafiel embarked on an ambitious multichannel film installation, MARE MAGNVM, inspired by the contemporary and historical migration movements across the Mediterranean Sea and other bodies of water. The multichannel video installation was completed and presented last year at Sabrina Amrani Gallery in Madrid-Spain and at Mad Arts in Dania Beach. 

For the realization of this project, Peñafiel has been collaborating with Mad, a full visual agency with ample experience in developing physical and digital art projects. Mad has supported this project by providing all necessary space and services, including animation, coding, synchronization, and the creation of a perpetual loop on installations of this magnitude, in addition to helping with the creation of this NFT collection.

The MARE MAGNVM: VLTRAMARINI collection derives from the MARE MAGNVM 12 Channel Video Installation that was created and presented in 2021. This multichannel film installation consists of a stylized, monochromatic animation of the sea populated by 14 boats. There are 81 individual characters navigating the scene though they are caught in the perpetual loop of their video universe. Every 30 minutes, the characters arrive back where they began, only to continue, endlessly heading clockwise against the waves. 

Playing over this phantasmagoria is an ambient cello composition, bringing the full weight of the scene to bear. Larger than life-size, the characters dwarf the viewers who stand and bear witness to the struggle at sea. They each stand — some men, some women, some elderly, some pregnant – frozen in their stances. Their vessels are made of various found objects, like wood, oil drums, and tires.

MARE MAGNVM, which translates to Great Sea in Latin, is the name Romans gave to the Mediterranean Sea. Although the artist constructs fictional characters, these images point to real-life scenes from the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, along with so many other sites of migration across bodies of water. MARE MAGNVM does not refer only to a single or specific event. 

No information is given on the characters’ origin or their personal history. Their faces are not visible, covered by papier-mâché masks typical of Peñafiel’s native Ecuador, which both humanize and de-personify these characters. The identity of these people remains temporally and culturally ambiguous; their unspecific costuming transforms them into archetypal representatives of any Diaspora population.

The MARE MAGNVM: VLTRAMARINI NFT collection expands the narrative as a prequel and a sequel to the original MARE MAGNVM series that centers on real-life scenes from the many sites of migration across bodies of water around the globe. The NFT collection exhibits that precise moment when the VLTRAMARINI, those beyond the sea, finally arrive at an unidentified coastline.

Edison Peñafiel creates experiences that revolve around those on the underside of the world’s major conflicts: the migrant, the laborer, and the surveilled. He draws the eye to odd angles at which our world often intersects — using sculpture, animation, video, and space to create disturbing reflections of the realities we participate in and witness daily. 

These unnerving views break us out of the desensitized lull that ongoing crises create. Interweaving projection with physical objects mirrors how concepts interact with the real world. Video projection introduces movement and rhythm to stationary, three-dimensional elements. At the same time, these objects provide weight and fixed form. This presentation merges the tactile with the ephemeral, each informing and complicating the other. 

His work responds to the urgency of exploring the history of how we got here, how we perceive current events, and the hard truths of those who face the darkest parts of the present. Through visual references to German expressionism and the surveillance state, Peñafiel joins a long-term discussion about the turning gears of modernity and the alienation it continues to produce. 

This visual approach brims with anxiety illustrated in crooked lines, informed by the dismal cruelties of bureaucracy, the policing of human movement, and empty rituals of labor. The urgency and importance of these themes are always matched by their emotional impact. For Peñafiel, the outcome of his work must bring about a visceral change in the viewer, equal parts intriguing and unsettling. Through surreal imagery, these confrontations with injustice aim to produce much-needed empathy for the oppressed.

Peñafiel has presented his work at numerous prestigious venues including the Bass Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, the Orlando Museum of Art, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Atchugarry Art Center, the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans, the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, and the Centro de Arte Universidad Nacional de la Plata. 

Among his distinctions, he has been the recipient of awards from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Florida Prize in Contemporary Art, the South Florida Cultural Consortium Fellowship in 2019, The Ellies Creator Award, and an Individual Artist Project Award from the State of Florida Division of Arts and Culture in 2021. He is currently a resident at Oolite Arts in Miami.

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