Forthcoming Photo Books by African American & Black African Photographers

Forthcoming Photo Books by African American & Black African Photographers

Posted by on Feb 22, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Every year as I browse newly published photography books, I can’t help but notice an immense shortage in the number of titles being published by or featuring the works of photographers of color. “Why?” I wonder and yet no reason I can imagine seems acceptable. Consider this Amazon list of 2017 photography books by individual photographers, only 7 of the 307 books (just 2.3%) are by Black photographers of African origin or descent despite the hundreds if not thousands of well-known, working photo-based artists out there.

There’s still no lack of photo books about the “tribes of the world”, made by photographers with an insatiable need to scratch their itch to photograph what they’ve identified as “vanishing” cultures. The artistic value of books like these is often questionable as they are filled with images that cross the line from art photography to blatant cultural appropriation.

What makes a B&W photograph of an indigenous artist at work in a photo book that will sell many copies at $50 a piece any less offensive or disrespectful than the mass-produced goods that formed the basis for the Navajo’s trademark dilution claims against Urban Outfitters and its subsidiaries?

So what can be done to diversify the photobook medium? Here are a few thoughts to inspire a conversation if not action:

  1. I urge the major and independent photo book publishers of the world to notice the work of photographers of color and dare to publish their work in an effort to close this racial and cultural disparity.
  2. I call out to photographers of color who have published photo books to regularly share their own knowledge of the (self) publishing process with others like them.
  3. We must form a community of photobook makers (that can pool financial resources and other design/production support) to help the non-published reach their publishing goals.
  4. Beyond the typical survey or monograph, the publishing industry at large must commit to diversifying the photobook medium by releasing books every year featuring unique bodies of work by individual photographers of color.
  5. At the very least, curators can help fill the gap by budgeting for and publishing catalogs of the solo exhibitions featuring photographers of color that they organize.
  6. Organizers of art book fairs should recognize this underserved group and take measures to diversify the titles displayed at their events.

Lastly, to get back to the point as specified by the title of this post. The following is a list of those 7 photo books to be released in 2017 that I mentioned earlier and including Adger Cowan’s book which was just published this January:

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz (2017)

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz (2017)

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz
Publisher: Damiani (March 28, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Consisting of 120 color and black-and-white photographs taken between 1985 and the 2000s, most of which have never been published, Sights in the City is the testament of Shabazz’s visual journey.

 

Leslie Hewitt (2017)

Leslie Hewitt (2017)

Leslie Hewitt
Publisher: OSMOS BOOKS (June 27, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
That cinematic rumination on historicity and the relationship of the archive to memory, minimalism, lived experience and time, sets an exemplary precedent for this first monograph surveying Hewitt’s oeuvre.

Gordon Parks: Collected Works: Study Edition (2017)

Gordon Parks: Collected Works: Study Edition (2017)

Gordon Parks: Collected Works
Publisher: Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation (April 25, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
This five-volume collection surveys five decades of Gordon Parks’ (1912–2006) photography. It is the most extensive publication to document his legendary career.

Koto Bolofo: Printing (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Printing (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Printing
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Innovative fashion photographer Koto Bolofo (born 1959) is well known for his portraits and fashion shoots, and published in such prestigious periodicals as Vogue, Esquire and i-D. In this volume, his images lead readers through the corridors and stairways of the Steidl printing center, documenting the magical formation of some of the most beautiful visual books ever made.

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
In Paper Making, Koto Bolofo graphically captures Hahnemühle’s artisanal processes and antique machinery alongside today’s most advanced technologies, uncovering the attention to detail, vision and pride that have sustained the company’s unmatched reputation for centuries.

 

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg (2017)

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg (2017)

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
This three-volume publication, which continues a groundbreaking reappraisal of the photographer’s archive, presents aspects of life in Soweto, where Mofokeng grew up; Dukathole, a township in the East Rand of Gauteng Province; and Johannesburg, the city in which he worked.

 

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge (2017)

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge (2017)

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge
Publisher: GILES (March 3, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911–1994) was one of Nigeria’s premier photographers and the first official photographer to the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Benin.

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans (2017)

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans (2017)

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans
Publisher: Glitterati (January 27, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Master American photographer Adger Cowan’s predominantly black-and-white photography is collected in Personal Vision: Photographs, his monograph of original images taken over the past forty years.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther PartyThe Black Female Self in Landscape and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.

New Image Library Specializes In Race and Cultural Diversity

New Image Library Specializes In Race and Cultural Diversity

Posted by on Feb 15, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Autograph Media is a recently launched photography licensing agency from the people who run Autograph ABP, the British-based photographic arts organization. Specializing in all aspects of race and cultural diversity throughout history, Autograph Media’s image library is comprised of a multitude of collections from various media partners like Getty Images and Magnum Photos.

Indian suffragettes on the Women's Coronation Procession, London, 17th June 1911. Mrs Fisher Unwin, who had links with India, was in charge of this contingent, which was part of the Empire Pageant. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Indian suffragettes on the Women’s Coronation Procession, London, 17th June 1911. Mrs Fisher Unwin, who had links with India, was in charge of this contingent, which was part of the Empire Pageant. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Covering a wide range of subjects, while browsing through the Autograph Media archive online one quickly realizes what a treasure trove it is. Well tagged and contextually/conceptually linked, during my first look I quickly went from 1950s images of newly arrived West Indian immigrants in London to documentary work on the British in India… and yet Autograph Media doesn’t stop at visualizing the history of Britain’s colonized subjects.

27th May 1956: Immigrants from the West Indies arriving by ship at Southampton Docks, Hampshire. Original Publication: Picture Post - 8405 - Thirty Thousand Colour Problems - pub. 1956 (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

27th May 1956: Immigrants from the West Indies arriving by ship at Southampton Docks, Hampshire. Original Publication: Picture Post – 8405 – Thirty Thousand Colour Problems – pub. 1956 (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

During my Autograph Media search I discovered images from the Afro Newspaper/Gado archive. Founded in 1892 by John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave who gained freedom following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, The Afro-American newspaper was formed when Murphy merged several church papers together. With a large circulation in several cities, the Baltimore-based newspaper was instrumental in effecting social change on a national scale from pushing for black representation in the legislature, to establishing state-sponsored education for African Americans, fighting the implementation of Jim Crow segregation and even collaborating with the NAACP on civil rights cases.

Three women in lavish dress stand with nooses around their necks in protest of lynchings, 1946. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Three women in lavish dress stand with nooses around their necks in protest of lynchings, 1946. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

With its nontraditional and inclusive hiring practices, The Afro-American employed notable black intellectuals (Langston Hughes, Romare Bearden) and journalists and while many of the images in the newspaper’s archive don’t give photographer credit, we do know that they employed women photographers like Erika Stone. The image of Little Miss Black Liberty below from Autograph Media’s online archive is by Stone, a photojournalist, magazine photographer and member of the Photo League. After she had children, Stone exclusively photographed children and family. (For more work by Erika Stone, take a look at this portfolio of her Ellis Island images  from a previous Baxter St blog post by Patricia Silva.)

A child wearing a Statue of Liberty headdress on National Freedom Day in New York City, USA, circa 1988. National Freedom Day commemorates the signing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery on 1st February 1865. (Photo by Erika Stone/Getty Images)

A child wearing a Statue of Liberty headdress on National Freedom Day in New York City, USA, circa 1988. National Freedom Day commemorates the signing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery on 1st February 1865. (Photo by Erika Stone/Getty Images)

Autograph Media is a compilation of several photography archives, many of which you can access individually from their own websites. Yet the value of Autograph Media lays in its mission of making visible a multitude of historical images that offer a more fair representation of human history at the intersections of race, culture and gender. Visual resources like this remind us of our past, our humanity and ultimately what’s worth fighting for in this era of uncertainty and political instability.

Group portrait of three Chinese children standing in a room in Chicago, Illinois, each holding an American flag and a Chinese flag, 1929. From the Chicago Daily News collection. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Group portrait of three Chinese children standing in a room in Chicago, Illinois, each holding an American flag and a Chinese flag, 1929. From the Chicago Daily News collection. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther PartyThe Black Female Self in LandscapeIn Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes and Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers.

Photography and The Black Panther Party

Photography and The Black Panther Party

Posted by on Jan 27, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Sadie Barnette’s Do Not Destroy solo show opened last week at Baxter St to a roaring reception. It’s not every day that you get to see a gallery show that features the classified FBI documents of an ex-Black Panther Party member. That Panther is Rodney Barnette, who founded the Compton, California, chapter of the Black Panther Party of Self Defense in 1968. The centerpiece of Barnette’s show is undoubtedly the wall filled with copies of her father’s surveillance files, embellished in the artist’s signature “graffiti” and faux jewel treatment.

170118-Sadie_Barnette-Do_Not_Destroy_018

Barnette’s show features minimal photography. Opposite the wall of FBI files stands two seemingly life-sized portraits of a young Rodney Barnette that his daughter/the artist has rephotographed. On the left we see him smiling in his US military uniform. In opposition, to the right is Barnette captured in harsh flash donning a black beret, t-shirt and leather jacket; his dark shadow looms large behind him as he looks off camera. This photograph of Rodney is untitled, and yet we need no explanation that this is a changed man, reincarnated as a BPP member.

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Huey's Apartment, Oakland, California, 1971

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Huey’s Apartment, Oakland, California, 1971

In the juxtaposition of these two portraits, the viewer contends with the use of photography as a witness to Rodney’s shifting identities and ultimately the medium’s political power. Without going into the internal politics and covert government action that caused the party to disband, I’d like to briefly discuss what art critic John Berger considered to be “the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle” and the Black Panther Party’s strategic use of photography (and posing) in crafting their own brand of Black anti-fascism.

Elaine Brown (bottom left) and to her side Huey P. Newton leading the Black Panthers at a press conference in San Francisco. (October 1971)

Elaine Brown (bottom left) and to her side Huey P. Newton leading the Black Panthers at a press conference in San Francisco. (October 1971)

Many B&W photographs exist of the high profile BPP leaders. Both male and female members are pictured in socio-political context: raising fists, encouraging crowds, marching in demonstrations, standing in formation, working at their headquarters, being interviewed by and addressing the press, conversing critically with each other, meeting other political leaders, performing community service or even just relaxing at home.

Wanted by the FBI, Interstate Flight - Murder, Kidnaping, Angela Yvonne Davis. Gift of Brian Wallis, 2010. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Wanted by the FBI, Interstate Flight – Murder, Kidnaping, Angela Yvonne Davis. Gift of Brian Wallis, 2010. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Then we see the isolated figure: numerous solo portraits of Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. This image of the lone revolutionary becomes ubiquitous just a few years earlier with Cuba’s Che Guevara and the Black Panthers utilize their portraits on paraphernalia like flyers, buttons, posters, t-shirts, publications. Sometimes these solo portraits were used to vilify the Panthers, like in the wanted poster below of Angela Davis. (Side note: you can view this poster in person at the ICP Collections at Mana Contemporary in NJ. It’s quite an amazing experience!)

Stripped to the waist in the afternoon sun, Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers shakes hands with followers and friends who greeted him as he walked out of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, Calif., Aug. 6, 1970.

Stripped to the waist in the afternoon sun, Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers shakes hands with followers and friends who greeted him as he walked out of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, Calif., Aug. 6, 1970.

The Black Panther Party’s visual message also conveyed their unique style and sex appeal, both aspects of the party’s identity that no doubt helped with recruitment efforts. Jet black leather jackets, Ray Bans, berets, perfectly coiffed afros merged effortlessly with the sleek profiles of .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols to create an impressionable representation of Black power.

Portrait of Kathleen Neal Cleaver by Howard Bingham.

Portrait of Kathleen Neal Cleaver by Howard Bingham.

Both Kathleen Cleaver (BPP communications secretary and wife of Eldridge) and co-founder Huey Newton became the party’s default sex symbols. Newton was pictured exhibiting his bare-chested, muscle-toned physique both at home and when he was freed from prison in 1970. Bingham’s images of Cleaver portray her as a thing of beauty though she may not have intended this to be her role. Yet Cleaver did play with fashion by often sporting a large afro, hoop earrings and the radical above-the-knee length skirt style thus creating a new revolutionary aesthetic in clothing for (Black) American women. The Black Panther style was even appropriated in advertising as seen in this vintage ad for Newport cigarettes.   

A Black Panther feeds his son at the “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, California. February 17, 1968.

A Black Panther feeds his son at the “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, California. February 17, 1968.

Not only did the Black Panther Party provide political power for many Black Americans, but they also affirmed the notion of family. This familial bond was forged mainly through offering life-sustaining services like free breakfast programs and community schools operated in cities like Oakland, CA. So not only do we see Panthers providing children with nutrition and education, but we also see children in attendance at rallies and marches. Of course, the most famous BPP child was Tupac Shakur, son of party member Afeni Shakur.

Knowing that the photographic image is only as empathetic as the photographer behind the lens, the BPP leaders were strategic in appointing Stephen Shames as the party’s official photographer. In another move to control their image, Muhammad Ali’s personal photographer Howard Bingham was contracted for six months to shoot a 1968 cover story for LIFE magazine upon the insistence of party leader Eldridge Cleaver.

British Black Panthers take to the streets of London. Photograph by Neil Kenlock.

British Black Panthers take to the streets of London. Photograph by Neil Kenlock.

Despite the negative reports and judgements about who they were, the Black Panther Party members were in full control of their own image as surely they knew their supporters and haters around the world were watching. The BPP’s strong message spread overseas in areas where other Black communities were struggling for their own civil rights, inspiring regional groups like the British Black Panthers – see the work of Neil Kenlock. In this time post-US election where many are preparing for struggle once again, we are fortunate to be able to reflect on these images.

For additional viewing, I’ve created a Black Panther Party Photography board on Pinterest. Also, the Smithsonian Institute has an excellent BPP archive of black & white, documentary photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sadie Barnette’s Do Not Destroy, curated by Alexandra Giniger, is on view at Baxter St now through February 18, 2017.


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: The Black Female Self in Landscape, Forthcoming Photbooks by African American and Black African Photographers and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.

In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes

In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes

Posted by on Jan 25, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich, Uncategorized | No Comments

Earlier this month, noted art critic John Berger passed away. His death immediately sparked ripples of mentions throughout photography and art communities online. Though his writings may have been eclipsed by the more-celebrated musings of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Berger’s observations on the propagation of the photographic medium are nonetheless as crucial and still relevant today.

When I heard of his passing, I immediately looked for my copy of About Looking (Pantheon Books, 1980) which I happened to find years ago amongst a pile of books left on the street. The book is a collection of essays by Berger written over ten years which were all previously published in New Society magazine and The Guardian UK newspaper. About Looking not only discusses the act of looking at photographs, it is “a fascinating record of the search for meaning within and behind what’s looked at.”

Berger’s most direct critique of our lens-based medium is an essay titled Uses of Photography, in which he writes down “some of my responses to Sontag’s 1977 book On Photography.” Without publishing the entire essay, below I’ve highlighted select quotes that introduce and elaborate on Berger’s idea of “an alternative photography” to counteract the medium’s nefarious functions and realize it’s altruistic possibilities.

WARNING: The following quotes contain radical (or what could be considered socialist) views on photography’s historical role in modern, Western society. Proceed with a decolonized mind.

“The speed with which the possible uses of photography were seized upon is surely an indication of photography’s profound, central applicability to capitalism. Marx came of age the year of the camera’s invention.”

“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances.”

“A mechanical device, the camera has been used as an instrument to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a memento from a life being lived.”

“Has the camera replaced the eye of God? The decline of religion corresponds with the rise of the photograph.”

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”

Upon (re)reading this quote I immediately recalled photographer/ethnologist Edward Curtis who made it his mission to document the North American native population because of his imperialist belief that they were “a vanishing race.”

Edward Curtis. “The Vanishing Race – Navaho”, 1904, volume 1, portfolio plate 1, photogravure, 46 x 31 cm., Special Collection, Honnold Library, Claremont.

Edward Curtis. “The Vanishing Race – Navaho”, 1904, volume 1, portfolio plate 1, photogravure, 46 x 31 cm., Special Collection, Honnold Library, Claremont.

“… the current systematic public use of photography needs to be challenged, not simply by turning round like a cannon and aiming it at different targets, but by changing its practice. How?”

“The truth is that most photographs taken of people are about suffering, and most of that suffering is man-made.”

Certainly this quote speaks to the historical and systematic utilization of ethnographic photography of native and indigenous populations around the world. In our globalized era, suffering is injected into (public and private) visual culture through images of war and illicit pornography which is a byproduct of modern slavery or human trafficking.

“It is possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.“

“The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.”

“The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.”  

Next Berger argues that photographs are typically used in a “unilinear way… to illustrate an argument, or to demonstrate a thought…” Consider the way a forensic photographer records the initial appearance of a crime scene as the first encounter and experience it through their subjective perspective. Berger also cites a photograph’s more common, tautological use so that it only “repeats what is being said in words.”

Although Berger argues that memory is not linear and works radially, with an “enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.” This radial pattern of memory is compared by Berger as being like the spoke of a wheel, which is a bit simplistic with just a single radiating plane. In my opinion, memory’s radial pattern has multiple (perhaps intersecting) planes and instead mimics the fractal-like, radiating pattern of a dandelion seed head.

Diagram of a radial pattern.

Diagram of a radial pattern.

Radial pattern of a dandelion seed head. By Avenue (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Radial pattern of a dandelion seed head. By Avenue (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory. We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.”

“A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.” 

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this profound “radial system” and ways in which it can be used in storytelling and to display photographs in physical locations (galleries, public sites, etc.) More importantly I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps Berger was signaling our use of the #hashtag as a descriptor and curator of images on social media.  


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party and The Black Female Self in Landscape.

The Black Female Self in Landscape

The Black Female Self in Landscape

Posted by on Jan 12, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

A recurring theme within contemporary art photography has been the imperative to address the biased or unavailable historical representation of the Black, female body. Since the 1990s’ artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Renee Cox, Xaviera Simmons and now Nona Faustine, have used photography to recognize Black womanhood in all its unattested complexities. In the photographs shown below, each artist has settled their melanated bodies within their landscape of choice – sites that have witnessed unspeakable violence, marooned existences and/or enlightened encounters.

Carrie Mae Weems. Dreaming in Cuba, 2001.

Carrie Mae Weems. Dreaming in Cuba, 2001.

Arguably the most prolific in her use of self-portraits within landscape, Carrie Mae Weems’ elegant figure has crossed the lens of several different bodies of work starting with her 2001 Dreaming in Cuba series. Unlike the other artists discussed, Weems more often than not stands in opposition to the lens, as if leading a group behind her. Exaggerated by robes or gowns, Weems’ figure floats into the frame, inserting the Black, female body into spaces from which its presence was forgotten or previously denied entry.

Xaviera Simmons. Denver, 2007.

Xaviera Simmons. Denver, 2007.

Launching her art career after a two-year pilgrimage retracing the TransAtlantic slave trade with Buddhist monks, Xaviera Simmons’s concern with wilderness explores spirituality in art. In previous works, Xaviera has used photography to create (self) portraits in both constructed and natural environments that question African-American identities and their relationships to those settings.

Renée Cox. River Queen, (from the Queen Nanny of the Maroons series), 2004.

Renée Cox. River Queen, (from the Queen Nanny of the Maroons series), 2004.

Although all of these artist perform for the camera, Renee Cox’s work is most dramatic in its telling of the stories of Black female figures like Queen Nanny, the only female national hero of Jamaica. Taking advantage of the physical strength expressed by her own, muscular body, Cox is concerned with self liberation and challenging the predetermined roles imposed on Black women.

Nona Faustine. “ ‘. . . a thirst for compleat freedom … had been her only motive for absconding.’ Oney Judge, Federal Hall NYC,” 2016.

Nona Faustine. “ ‘. . . a thirst for compleat freedom … had been her only motive for absconding.’ Oney Judge, Federal Hall NYC,” 2016.

Continuing this photographic tradition, Faustine’s work brilliantly hits at the intersection of two major socio-political conversations of the 21st century: the #BlackLivesMatter and body size acceptance movements. Standing on sacred, scarred or political North American spaces, Faustine’s self-portraits ultimately function as archaeological documentation. In its robust form and stoic posture, her body is a blatant reminder of chattel slavery yet also channels (art) historical representations of the feminine – from fertility goddesses/Venus figures to ancient Egyptian statuettes.

Faustine’s use of poetic captions with each photograph is particularly unique as she educates the viewer of what lies beneath these commonplace landmarks and tourist attractions. As commentary on issues that haunt our past and present realities, the images in White Shoes and in Faustine’s follow up exhibition at Baxter St are timeless, visualizing the cycle of (our country’s) birth, (economic) growth, death and rebirth.  

Nona Faustine’s solo exhibition, My Country, closes this week at Baxter St. You can also see her talk at the Brooklyn Museum this Saturday, January 14th.


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther PartyThe Black Female Self in Landscape and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.

Interview with Andrea Wolf

Interview with Andrea Wolf

Andrea Wolf is an interdisciplinary artist interested in how images accrue meaning culturally. Her project Weather Has Been Nice uses algorithms to decompose images taken from mailed postcards.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
We’re going to talk about a couple things, but let’s begin with Weather Has Been Nice. How did you start this project?

Andrea Wolf
About three years ago I discovered an open source pixel-sorting sketch and processing by Kim Asendorf, but it was only for still images. I liked how the pixels shifted, distorting the original image and also endowing it with movement. I was also curating a show for Miami Basel that focused on landscape and technology. Those two things started to merge, and I thought it was a very interesting way to explore landscape by decomposing it. Memory is a very important aspect of my work. I already had a few postcards, but I wasn’t into collecting them yet. Then things just started to click. I had the idea of working with landscapes and I had these postcards that show idealized scenarios which connects with the discourse of tourism and the question of what you are supposed to remember. Decomposing these images shows that landscape as memory is not only something outside ourselves, but also a construction. It’s a personal construct and a social construct.

Martha
I was thinking about all that needs to happen to these postcards before they arrive to you. The photo been taken, the postcard been designed and printed, then been bought and written on and sent. Then someone else receiving it and then discarding it, and then you finding it and scanning it and turning it into something else.

Andrea
In general I like working with found footage and appropriation. I share that feeling about the story of these objects. Things that are so personal end up in flea markets or junk shops. I’ve always thought it would be very interesting to document the history of even just one postcard. But that’s another project entirely.

I decided to work only with written and mailed postcards. When I began collecting postcards, I needed a restriction; a criteria of selection. There might be aesthetic criteria too, they had to be in color, and I was specifically looking for landscapes because I was trying to explore them visually. Then the fact that they had been written and mailed became really interesting. I’m fascinated with the social and the personal; the relationship between personal memory and cultural practices of remembrance. I had to consider how to make this more evident in the pieces themselves, But I didn’t want it to be something very explicit. Finally I came up with the idea of inviting different sound artists and sound poets to create soundscapes with those texts.

Weather Has Been Nice. Sala de arte CCU, Santiago Chile, 2016.

Martha
This project has gone through several iterations. Every time you show it, you want to bring something else to the table. It’s not a closed project; it feels like an evolution. How did you decide to be so open?

Andrea
It wasn’t a conscious decision. The media I work with lends itself to this kind of progression. Also, making one piece requires so much work and production, and after I show it I start to think about what else I could do, or what I could do differently.

I’m comfortable thinking of my work like an open-ended series. It’s more complicated in terms of a commercial point and determining how to sell the work, but by showing different versions you also see it grow progressively.

I think the installation for Weather Has Been Nice, as it was presented at NEW INC’s Showcase at the New Museum and then at Sala de Arte CCU in Chile is at its peak. Those where large-scale installation but now I’m thinking of producing smaller, individual pieces for each postcard,

I have a show coming out next year in a gallery in Chile that is a different context for showing this project. I have the idea of making individual pieces for each postcard, and then also the idea of making prints and flipbooks. There are so many things that I can do, particularly with this project. If I continue finding more postcards and scanning them, why would I limit it? Why would I say “No, it’s done”? No one is telling me it has to be done. If there’s a point where I feel like I have to move on, I will.

Groana Melendez
I work mostly in photography, and I can keep going because it’s my family and my family keeps growing. But it’s nice to hear you talk about a different kind of process and still being open-ended because in the end, everything you do is part of your practice.

Andrea
It’s open-ended, but it’s also limited. You establish some rules or some common practices for a specific work or series to develop. It’s not that suddenly I’m bringing in portrait postcards. It has a line. It has a path. I’m sure it’s the same with your photography practice.

You trace borders and frontiers, and some of them you can push, which is also interesting. Some of the most interesting things in the work happen by mistake –for example, I might be projecting something and I see the reflection on the floor and I wasn’t looking for that, but it looks great and maybe that is the thing.

I think it’s a disservice to you and your work and your practice to limit yourself. On the other hand, it’s important to work within certain ethics and logic and specifications for each project.

Martha
What I really like about this project is that we usually think of moving image as the progression of different images, twenty-four images per second. What happens in Weather has been Nice is not that, but it’s still moving image. It blew my mind when I realized that instead of being a video in the common sense it was an algorithm that in real time was affecting a still image. I like how it subverts what moving-image can be.

Still from Weather Has Been Nice.

Still from Weather Has Been Nice.

Andrea
When I started, I wasn’t aware that I was subverting what we understand as moving image. I was interested in unraveling or unfolding an image. I was reading a really cool book by Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking on An Empty House. It’s essays and his writings. It’s kind of like an artist’s sketchbook.

One of the essays resonated a lot with me. It was about how HD image has prompted this obsession with being very realistic, with high fidelity and getting sharper and sharper, and at the end of the day that’s not necessarily the most real image. If you only give image the value of a mimetic representation, then maybe it is, but what does an image really is when you think about the real image?

An in this essay he writes, “to search for the image that is not an image, not a realistic rendering, but an artifact. ” That resonated and stuck with me. In many ways that’s what I think about memory and that’s what I think about the images of ourselves and of the world that we put out there, so I just wanted to question our methods of representation and the value we bestow on images. I mean, this is a super real image of a landscape when it’s kind of unfolding before your eyes. Also, we have this need to create logic out of what we see, even if it becomes very abstract and with geometrical shapes, a lot of people still see a landscape in the abstracted version of the first initial image.

Martha
I also wanted to talk a little about REVERSE and how it influenced your practice to be in charge of this huge project for so many years. [REVERSE is a non-profit artist-run organization dedicated to expand the conversation in Art and Technology].

Andrea
In many ways it was a great experience. It made me more aware of my administrative counterparts when I’m an artist, and helped me understand the expectations of a gallery or an organization—like the importance of meeting deadlines and sending images when you’re asked for them. When I was running REVERSE I couldn’t understand why I had to go after artists to get their images for a press release.

It also helped me be more organized in general. At the beginning REVERSE took away from my practice. Preparing the space and figuring out how it should work consumed so much time and energy. But it also allowed me to engage with a much broader artist community than I would have just working in my studio by myself. My network grew so much, and not just visual artists, but sound artists and curators and organizations doing similar things.

It put me in a position where I knew more people and also had to look for more people. If you’re curating a show, it takes you away from your regular group, your social connections, and your comfort zone. It opened a lot of new opportunities for me to learn, to see, to rethink my work. I saw so many performances and different artists and works going through the gallery and that clearly influenced the way I was thinking about my work.

Even though REVERSE took some time away from my main studio practice, I had a privileged seat in watching a lot of different artists who were in a similar point in their careers as I was, and maybe a few who were further along and a few who were just starting out. It gave me a lot of inspiration and information.

Martha
How did it all start?

Andrea
It was like a real estate marriage. I had this idea of how cool and interesting it would be to have an art space with art studios, and a gallery and build a community. I had a vision of a place where I would like to work and be as an artist, but I wasn’t actively looking to make it happen. If I had planned it better I probably would have gotten a few partners.

I had to leave my apartment because they were raising the rent and it just didn’t make sense for me to stay there. I lived in Williamsburg, near REVERSE. One day I saw that a really cool spot—a garage in a great location, that now has been turned into a fancy restaurant— was available for rent. I wasn’t looking for a commercial space, but I like real estate porn, so I called.

I met with the broker, and I was like, “This is cool, but I actually need an apartment.” So he showed me another place a block away.  It was crazy: upstairs there was the apartment, and downstairs it was this small warehouse open space. I can be very impulsive, and I got super excited. I talked with the friends I was planning to live with about the upstairs situation. I also have a good friend who works in construction, and maybe two or three weeks before this we had been talking about the idea of having a space. He said, “If you ever do that I’ll help you build it up.” He had done that with other spaces. I called him and I was like, “Piro, remember our conversation? I think it’s happening.”

A lot of things just came together. I had very good friends who supported me. It sounded like a great idea to live there and have the space. I already knew enough curators and artists. I had been showing as an artist. I had the community from ITP. I knew that I could put the word out there and that to kickstart it I would invite curators to guest-curate.

I had my business plan to build walls in the larger space and create studios to rent out to artists, which would help sustain part of the space. I didn’t anticipate the amount of work involved in not only building it, but also managing it. So I just jumped in and went for it, and it grew like a monster.

I try to be a little bit more conscious in my decisions now. It was great, but maybe it’s better to think things a little bit more through. On the other hand, if I had thought it through more I might not have done it. I think that at some points in your life you have to take those leaps of faith and go for things, but I’m older and more tired now.

REVERSE Art Space.

Martha
It was a great space. It also reminds me of what you’re saying about your work. You had limits. It was meant for a special kind of art that might have had a hard time finding a home.

Andrea
That was definitely one of the missions. I didn’t want to limit REVERSE to new media or art working with technology, but it became super clear that that was a common thread. It was very natural because of my art practice, and because of the people I know and my ability to understand work that other places might have turned away. I was very happy to push it in that direction. But we established that it was more a conversation about technology than technology was a requirement for every exhibition. For example, we could have exhibitions about painting and architecture. This idea of being interdisciplinary and trying to understand how technology affects us as a society, culturally, and also how it affects the art-making process. A lot of people working with art and technology came to us because we were one of the places offering a space for it.

Groana
A lot of the things you said about managing REVERSE reminds me of us [Martha and Groana] working together right now.

Martha
I think we get carried away by thinking, “It would be awesome to do this.” Then when we’re doing it, it’s like, “Oh, this was so much more work than we thought it’d be.” It is not only curating the list of artists, but reaching out, researching, coming up with an interview strategy, then meeting up, recording, editing the recording, transcribing, editing the interview, reaching out again with the artists, picking the images…

Groana
Any words of wisdom?

Andrea
My advice is, don’t think about all the work that’s involved; just follow through. Woody Allen says that comedy is tragedy plus time. We tend to forget because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t do anything. Imagine if you remembered how terrible you felt during pregnancy or how difficult birth was—no one would have more than one child.

These are things that you learn. Then for the next big project you might be able to set boundaries a little better because you will know how much you can do. And—this is very important—you have to learn to listen to yourself about how much you want to do.

I also learned that sometimes you have to invest to make good things good and to achieve the outcome that will eventually get you the financing you need. I also value my time. It’s important to put a price on your time. Like, how many other things could I be doing while I’m transcribing that would get me further toward my goals? Where should I put most of my effort? Is it really in transcribing or is it in editing the interviews and diagramming the book and thinking of all of it together? Of course we are limited by our resources, but sometimes you have to invest a little in order to get much more out of it.

I had to make a decision. I couldn’t continue with REVERSE and have my practice. I had to decide which one was more important for me, and which one to push forward. I chose my practice, because for me REVERSE was like a super big art project. I didn’t want to be a gallerist first and foremost and an artist on the side.

So, my advice is to push through. You’re already in it, so make the best out of it. And think of all the good things you will get out of it. Not only in what you make or what you accomplish, but in having interesting conversations with different artists.

Martha
You’re right.

Andrea
It wasn’t easy to learn all this. Believe me. I probably still don’t apply everything I’ve learned.

Martha
This project was born out of a studio visit. I met with a curator, and he told me that my art was not Latin American enough for his show. I said, “What is that? What does that mean?” Then Groana and I decided to showcase Latin American artists to explain how so-called Latin American art is not a thing.

Weather Has Been Nice. New Inc Showcase, New Museum, 2016.

Weather Has Been Nice. New Inc Showcase, New Museum, 2016.

Andrea
I think that goes in line with an older view of Latin American art. It’s someone that has an image of Guayasamín, the painter from Ecuador, or, very political art. I think that’s still part of it, but nowadays the boundaries are so much more blurred. My art would probably not be Latin American at all for that curator.

It’s very important to consider what it means to be an artist from Latin America. How much does that really define you or your art? What does it mean to be an artist from Latin America in New York? I can see how that could be an easier place to situate yourself because there’s a specific market for it.

I have a lot of issues with paperwork that asks you to define yourself and your identity. I’m from Latin America, but I’m also Caucasian and I’m also Jewish and my grandparents are from Eastern Europe, so what do I mark? It’s great when you can check more than one box, but it’s a very limited view of what a person is. I can’t help but think of Deleuze and Guattari and El Devenir [Becoming]. This idea of identity as something that is constantly transforming. I understand we won’t get bureaucracy to see it that way.

It still feels very binary, and I think the world in general is moving to a different place. I wouldn’t know what to tell that curator. Maybe he should visit more studios of artists from Latin America and see what they’re doing. Maybe his opinion will change. I would like to have a definition by his standards. I bet it’s very political or ethnic.

Martha
I don’t think there’s a degree of how Latin American you can be. I think that whatever I do just because I am Mexican, it’s Latin American art. We were really upset. That’s why we’re starting this, because I think there’s a way of defining what’s not you in terms that feel comfortable to you.

Andrea
I know a little bit of your work. You work a lot with your family photos, and they’re not photos from a typical midwestern American family. People think that if you’re from Latin America, you can’t be blonde or have very light skin. And there is an expectation that Latin American art will be related to crafts. It’s very ignorant—not only about the current state of affairs, but also about history. The Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italian, the French, the English all came to Latin America and grabbed their piece. At some point there was a mixture, and something different will come from that. I’m getting upset.

Martha
When it first happened, I was very upset. It’s hard to respond to something like that. I know it’s unlikely that anything I’m going to say will change anyone’s mind. But his comment empowered us.

Andrea
That’s great. And I understand the feeling of not knowing what to say in the moment. I would probably ask the person to define Latin American art—not to correct him, but just to know what he thinks. C’est la vie. That’s too French.

Groana
It’s not Latin American enough.

Andrea
Yeah.

Groana
Tell us how you got into art, how you became an artist.

Little Memories. 2010 - 2011

Little Memories. 2010 – 2011

Andrea
I actually studied journalism and communications back in Chile, and people in Chile tend to make a big point of it, like, “Oh, she’s a journalist and an artist.” I’m like, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t work as a journalist. Yes, I studied that and it’s not like I’m denying it, but just because I went to college and got that degree doesn’t make me that.” I worked in all type of media while I was studying and I came to the realization very early on that I didn’t like journalism, but I liked documentary films.

I always liked working with research and nonfiction material. I did my last semester in Barcelona and I loved it. I saw that they had a master’s in documentary filmmaking so I went back to Chile to graduate and then went back to Barcelona to study documentary filmmaking.

I liked more the theory classes than the actual practice just because they were going through all the subjects that I’m really interested in: the meaning we give to images, specially as an index of truth, cultural visual operations, and collective memory and storytelling. So I got very excited about all that and then… – I’m taking the long road to answer this, but it’s just that it wasn’t like a specific moment when I was like, “I’m an artist”.

I actually wanted to stay in Barcelona and it was much easier to stay as a student and it wasn’t as expensive as it is here to study, so I enrolled in this Masters of Digital Art because I loved editing and video and I saw a lot of classes there that I thought could be helpful in my practice. I had classes of programming, this is going to show how old I am because our classes, I think it was the last year that they taught programming with Action Script, but we also had Pure Data and stuff like that. And, oh my god, did I suffer at the beginning. I was like, “What the hell am I doing here?” I never saw myself as a technical person. With video, yes, that came super natural to me. Editing, I loved it.

Then after the first month of being like “What am I doing here? What is this?”  I started making peace with it and I saw the amount of opportunities that open up when you are able to control the tools to create the work that you want to do. Not that I’m a great programmer, but that was something that interested me. And when I started working on my thesis project with another friend, an artist, it proved to be useful. It was the first time that I actually started using home movies and we programmed this whole project.

It just was this kind of natural progression that took a while to settle and understand. I was still thinking “I’m going to do documentary film”. I’ve always been very interested in film in general, so I didn’t see that right away, but things just kept taking me back to thinking of film even in a different way and not as a movie that you have to watch in a theater.

Then for different personal reasons I had to go back to Chile. I had this online project that was memoryFrames and I showed it to some people that were working with art and technology and they invited me to join an exhibition that they were curating, but I needed a physical interface and I had this idea of a machine that would emulate the metaphor that we were doing on the online version, but I had nothing done. I had a month to build that. It was kind of horrible, but also great. There was a moment when I was in Chile that I had to find my place that I realized that was what I wanted to do and that I had to start reaching out to the community of people working with Art and technology.

There was this one time that I met this very well established artist in Chile with a long trajectory. Again, he thought I was a journalist because the person who introduced us told him that. We started talking and he was like “Oh, but you’re not like interested in doing an interview. You’re an artist.” That was the first time that I had to say, “Yes, I’m an artist.” It takes a while to feel comfortable with that statement – years. But at some point being in Chile I said “Okay, this is what I want to do and this is where I have to put my energy.” Things started happening and exhibitions started to pop-up and then I applied to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at Tisch, NYU. The only program that I applied to was ITP. I got accepted. I got a scholarship from NYU.

I came here and at some point I felt the same that I felt with the Master’s in Digital Arts in Barcelona. I was like “What the hell. This is so much technology.” I just don’t like technology for the sake of technology, I only like it if it allows me to say something. Here I am now. I can’t shake it off. I guess it’s part of me.

If there’s one thing that I really appreciate of the American culture is this idea that you can reinvent yourself and that maybe you should. That failure isn’t a bad thing. The important thing is when you show your strength and how you recover from that. That is a big contrast with what I was telling you about Chile and how I’m still labeled as a journalist. “Yeah sure, but not really.” I chose a different path than the one I did when I was eighteen going into college knowing really nothing. I think it feels good to be able to have flexibility. As an artist I think also it’s good to have that flexibility because you see so many artists sometimes trapped in a successful formula. Many times that is also a demand from their galleries and the market. I assume that if you become like a super big artist, you have all this pressure to continue being that successful. I think it’s great to have the freedom to explore within your own artwork and within your own practice and not be stuck with something.
I just learned how to knit, so who knows? Maybe my next work will be like a knitting piece. I don’t think so, I don’t think I’m going to get that good, but I think it’s good to have that opportunity. In general, I’m more drawn to artists that are versatile and ductil; you can see that in their work.

Groana
You mentioned being really interested in documentary. Do you see your practice being documentary in a way?

Andrea
No, but I can see the relationship. I don’t deny being a journalist. I think that what I went through really informs my work. I choose to work with materials that come from real life of real people. I work with other people’s memories, so I have this interest in nonfiction as a starting point, but then what I do with that is not necessarily what you would expect from a documentary film.

This allows me to question methods of representation and social discourse and a lot of things we are taught to believe and pursue. I’m not saying that documentary films can’t do that. Some of the French filmmakers of the New Wave era did it beautifully, like Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. Or the Dadaists like Buñuel from Spain. I think that was a super interesting time of questioning the value of the image and storytelling. The challenges now have gone a little bit further than back then, but I like to go back to the roots because I really like their work.

Future Past News, 2016.

Future Past News, 2016.

Martha
I haven’t made that connection between your journalist background and Future Past News, which is like journalism but in a very different way. [Future Past News is a Virtual Reality installation that juxtaposes a 1937 newsreel with today´s news]

Andrea
That’s the most journalistic piece that I’ve done. I was editing the present news and writing all these texts to scroll down the screen. I took it very seriously and I think that’s probably because of my foundations. I also wanted to be very accurate with what we were showing.

I think it’s pretty far from what a lot of journalists practice today. I don’t know how many media professionals are questioning what they hear from different political or social actors or putting things in context. Either they have an idea of fake objectivity they want to pursue and they lack context, or they have a very biased point of view but aren’t honest about it.

I don’t think I was thinking about that either. It was just like it was so much in my face. I had this newsreel from 1937, with all these things happening and they’re all these things happening now. It just felt so similar… And when I talked to Karolina Ziulkoski about it, we were both like, “yes, it’s crazy, we need to do something with it” I think it was more like giving context to something. It’s really crazy because we’ve received some very hateful comments on social media from Trump supporters. They’re really good at trolling.

Martha
I guess it never crosses your mind when you put up a work like that.

Andrea
I had a sense it was controversial, but because it’s art I thought it would be viewed by an audience that had similar thinking and beliefs. But then it’s online and it’s out there and it’s on social media and anyone can see it. If I had to choose again the main image to promote it, I would probably pick something different—we have one that shows Hitler in the old newsreel and Trump on the phone.

Of course, I’m not saying Trump equals Hitler. In context, I’m saying the situations are very similar. I think that what he does is very similar to the way dictators and populist fascism work. I think that in choosing that image we narrowed the conversation. It was very easy for people to be binary about it.

Martha
And people can choose not to see the full conversation. Some people just read headlines and assume that the note is about something.

Andrea
What’s even more dangerous and worrisome nowadays is that a lot of people get their news from Facebook. That means they are only looking at items that are tailored for them from outlets and people that share the same views. That narrows your worldview so much, and it kind of exalts the ideas you already have. I wish people read the headlines from different media. I can’t deal with Fox News, for example, but I still like to know what they’re saying because I think it’s important to be informed and to get different points of views.

Interview with Elia Alba

Interview with Elia Alba

Elia Alba is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice revolves around building community. I caught up with Elia at a rooftop in mid-town Manhattan for drinks on a chilly fall day. (Featured image: The Spiritualist, 2014. Maren Hassinger in Inwood HIll Park, NY.)

Groana Melendez:
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Elia Alba:
My parents emigrated in the 1950s from the Dominican Republic. They grew up in the very same town, but actually “met” and fell in love here. I think it’s because the Dominican community was small. They weren’t in Washington Heights; it was the Upper West Side! My parents married in 1958. My grandmother arrived here first in the 1940s, and she lived in West Harlem.

Groana:
Before Trujillo?

Elia:
My grandmother came to New York during Trujillo. She was a very interesting person, very independent. Barely any education but traveled the world and learned how to sew and worked for milliners and coat designers and did all kinds of things. She worked ten months out of the year and traveled two. She did that for a long time.

Groana:
Your mom worked in the garment industry?

Elia:
Yes. Her last job, she was as an assistant designer, making the patterns for Betsey Johnson. Then she made knockoff dresses somewhere else.

Groana:
My mom used to work in the factories when they were here.

Did you grow up on the Upper West Side, or did you move around a lot?

Elia:
I don’t know what Dominican woman didn’t.

My mom used to brag about how we lived on the Upper West Side in a six-bedroom apartment with two fireplaces. It was $145 a month, and that was a lot back then so my mother would rent out rooms. My father hated that there were always other people in the house, so we had to move. We moved to 175th and Broadway, which was very Jewish. Then my father got tired of apartment living, and we moved to a house in the Bronx. I was 6, and my sister was 5, and we lived there until they decided that drugs were taking over New York (this was the late ‘70s). They packed it up and decided they were going to raise their daughters in the Dominican Republic, and yo, what a culture shock!

It was 1978, and I was 15, but it was 1943 over there! Girls did not wear shorts. Talk to your mama; she’ll tell you.

My parents decided to put me in this ritzy school that was really crazy. My first understanding of class was in the DR! I remember once, these girls invited me to go bike riding in the park. It was heavily chaperoned. They came to get me, and I had on a tank top with spaghetti straps and shorts. When they arrived and saw me, they said, “We can’t go out with you like that. You look like a hooker.” I was like, “What’s a hooker?” I was 15 years old! So I had to go back in and wear a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. It was July in the DR. It was the worst bike ride ever. I don’t think my mother was aware how lame the DR was at that time. It was my introduction into how things functioned there.

Groana:
How long were you there?

Elia:
I was there a few years, until 1981, but it was my core years. I really feel it formed me in some kind of wacky way. It made me all uptight about things.

When I got to the States, it was just different. I was open-minded but very conflicted. I learned a lot about class and color. I always felt ugly in the DR. I had to press my hair too. They made me put chemicals in it.

Groana:
I begged to have my hair relaxed at nine years old.

Elia:
Of course! We all did, and our parents didn’t help us, making us feel uncomfortable about looking the way we did because they felt uncomfortable. I’m not even angry with them, but it’s interesting because I think my family and those that I was around pushed the straight-hair thing. It was actually white folks that would tell me, “Oh my god, your hair’s so beautiful. Why are you doing that?” It was kind of weird. Like, “What? Who are you with your straight hair talking like that? Get out of here.”

Groana:
Did you always have to balance a day job with your artist practice?

Elia:
All the time. Is the next question, “How do you do that?” or “Why do you do that?”

Groana:
Are you happy with your day job?

Elia:
I don’t hate my day job. I actually like going to work, because I’m very independent with how I want to do things. I don’t want to rely on grants. I don’t like writing applications. I do have to say that there are times when I wish I lived more of an “art life,” especially when it comes to residencies. It would be nice to just get up and go, but I would be stressed out about money.

Groana:
Right. That’s where I’m at right now.

Elia:
I also had a kid, and I just felt like, “No, I can’t put him through that lifestyle. I’m just not going to do that.” I know people have done it, but that’s just not my thing.

I want to be able to do work and just do my art practice on my own terms and have the money to do it. It’s a choice. Just like you make that lifestyle choice to be that artist that wants to live grant to grant. No one should criticize your choice for working. I did know I didn’t want to work in an art institution. That would zap me. I didn’t want to give them my creativity in that way. I think I’m creative in my job, within its limitations, but it doesn’t zap me of my creativity. It doesn’t tap that source.

The Pulsar, 2014. (Abigail DeVille at West Side Tavern, Chelsea.)

The Pulsar, 2014. (Abigail DeVille at West Side Tavern, Chelsea.)

Groana:
How did Supper Club start?

Elia:
The Supper Club started in 2012, so it’s been going for a minute. I am having a solo show at The 8th Floor Gallery in fall 2017, where we will show all 60 portraits. The 8th Floor is an exhibition and events space located in Chelsea. It was established in 2010 by The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to promoting cultural and philanthropic initiatives. They have been hosting and funding the Supper Club since 2015, so I am really excited to be presenting the project there.

A lot of my practice is about bringing together different kinds of communities, and I wanted to make a book that was about artists of color, but not necessarily black and Latino. It has Southeast Asian folks, Arab folks some mixed-up folks because I feel like that’s really where the color conversation should be residing.

Initially, I was just going to make portraits, and I asked my friends. Not everyone in the book is my close friend, but rather people I’ve known along the way. Then I started thinking about how I wanted to give these artists a voice because it’s not enough just to take the picture and write a description. Recess Art came on board, and we began talking about hosting dinners, having conversations, and recording them. Initially, it was just going to be three dinners with three groups, of the artists that I was photographing.

That first dinner was intense. It brought up important issues for folks of color that people don’t like talking about but can’t deny. For example, either you’re not black enough, or you’re not Latino enough, or you can’t be part of this conversation because you’re Southeast Asian. All these different positions came up. It wasn’t the intention of the first dinner. I just wanted to let people talk. I didn’t say anything or give them any prompts, the way I do now.

Let me backtrack. The prompt for the first dinner was when I asked Wanda Ortiz to come in as her performance character “Chuleta” and be a provocateur and poke people to talk. She was the “host” for those first three dinners. After the third dinner, I realized that I wanted to keep doing it. At first, as I said, it was only the artists I was scheduled to photograph, which was 50 at the time. I’m up to 60, and that’s it.

Groana:
You have 60 portraits already!? That’s insane!

Elia:
It is insane. I remember when I was talking to our buddy LaToya (Ruby Frazier), and I was like, “I want to do one hundred!” She says, “Elia, you’re crazy! You should do twenty or twenty-five.” I said, “Twenty-five is not enough. That is definitely not a conversation.”

Groana:
It’s like a spotlight.

Elia:
And then who are the rest that you don’t see?

Fast forward. Recess and I started the dinners. We didn’t host another big one. We started doing smaller dinners with groups of five and six people, and we ordered takeout. Now the dinners take place at The 8th Floor. Sara Reisman, the artistic director, wanted to work with me. She’ll tell you, “I wanted to bring this to Rubin’s because I wanted to sit at the dinner table, and I knew that was the only way I was going to do that!” Because I kept it only non-white folks for a while. I was adamant about that. Although I did loosen it up in 2014 and allowed some good friends to join because of the nature of the work they were doing. I felt they could sit at the table. They were quiet, which was interesting.

Groana:
Because a lot of times, that’s the problem, right? Just listen. We just need you to listen. Don’t try to tell us what’s right or what’s wrong.

october-15_2868_1

Dinner on Racial Subjugation in Latin America, at The 8th Floor, The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, October 10, 2015.

Elia:
I think the first white person I had at the table was Maris Curran, a filmmaker who had just finished working on a project called Five Nights in Maine, which deals with an interracial relationship. The film was very powerful because it dealt with this interaction between a black male whose wife dies and he goes to visit his mother-in-law. The film revolves around that visit.
So that’s how The Supper Club started. I was really lucky to have Recess jump start this project. I always say this over and over; Recess is about ideas, which is very unlike a lot of arts organizations, where you have to submit a full-blown concept. Recess just liked the idea so much that they funded the first dinners. They funded the first photographs. That really jump-started the project. It’s taken so long because I had to move on from them. Then I ran out of money. I did a Kickstarter. I started to take more pictures, and then I ran out of money again.

The Rubin Foundation came into the picture in 2015. There was, however, an important shift that came in late 2014. While I was having these small dinners, I realized I wanted to host big dinners again, but this time I wanted to cook. At this time I was funding the project on my own, and with the help of my friend and curator Rocio Aranda and her husband James Congregane, they granted me permission to use the recreation room, which had a kitchen, in their building to host these large dinners. I noticed that once I did the cooking, it shifted the dynamic to how people interacted. Now we’re talking about an exchange. Even when you’re buying dinner for people, it’s not the same. I would cook (and still do) comfort-type foods. Like Saya (Woolfalk) said, “It’s like coming home for Thanksgiving Dinner!” That’s the feeling.

That really shifted it for me. It really was about looking at this group of color collectively. I do feel that this is a conversation that no one wants to have. Or they do want to have it, but not really, because it becomes you’re against something when you’re not, or you don’t understand when you do. That’s the complexity, I think. A lot of it having to be Caribbean, because we were raised that way all the time. I think when you look at my work, it really is about addressing the complexity of race and complexity of identity, which people want to put in a fixed place, but it’s not. I don’t even believe people are fully one race or the other, even if they look it. There’s always other stuff going on. That’s a lot of what drives this, and it drives everything. I was shocked when some people agreed to sit for me. I like my portraits; some of them are fun, and some of them are serious, depending on the artist. Some people let me go to town with them.

juana_9999

The Orisha, 2015. (Juana Valdes in Key Largo, FL.)

Groana:
I really like Juana Valdes’ portrait. It’s gorgeous.

Elia:
Juana was like la diosa Olokun in the middle of the ocean. Juana’s portrait is crazy. I can’t wait until you see the others. The pictures reference other artworks or time periods. The Supper Club has all these little stories about how I photograph people.

I know people are different. I know certain histories that we bring into this country are different, whether it is forced or not, but there’s also similarity. Southeast Asians were dominated by the British for a century. They have that in their history! Folks of color have the imperialist oppression in their history. Why do we want to focus on dividing? I want to have that conversation. However, when I have these dinners, there’s always tension.

I always pray for a kumbaya moment. I did have one during the last dinner. I invite hosts now, and my last host was Edwin Ramoran and his question was, “How do you define sanctuary?” It was a table full of queer folks: Filipino, Latino, African-American. In the end, everyone went from sanctuary to safety, and about feeling safe as a person of color. Nobody felt safe at that table. That said something. It was just a beautiful moment. There was a teeny moment of tension, like a second, but then it dissipated.

In my 20 plus dinners, I’ve had maybe one or two where that kind of moment lasted. Everyone just felt it. But even at the first dinner, the last person you heard was Simone Leigh saying, “That was intense, but it was good.” It’s about these conversations that in my opinion have to happen. I think as black Latinos, this is a thing we have to go through because people want you to pick sides. If you pick the Latino side, then you’re saying you’re not black, which is not true! Ever!

Groana:
Today I realized that you actually record the dinners. I just imagine walking into that situation and already being on guard, knowing that it is being recorded.

Elia:
People were a little bit guarded, but I always feel a little alcohol doesn’t hurt none.

I always tell people, “Keep the conversation real.” Whatever is out of pocket will not be published, sometimes to keep the conversation going, you might have to tell a little story or two. You might have to be a little critical, or you might have to badmouth somebody. It’s not about gossiping. You need those kinds of fillers and those kinds of scenarios or points within the conversation so people can relax. Some people do come to dinner very structured. They’re like, “No, I’m not saying anything.” I’ve gotten to the point now where I feel, “If you ain’t going to talk, you can’t come.” I used to say, “You can sit down and just observe,” but no—that time came, but that’s over.

I provide prompts with questions, so people can start thinking, but the conversation might go in another direction. I might say, “What is sanctuary?” We could start talking about disco balls, and I don’t flip that conversation. I have to let it organically evolve, because if I start to shift-shape it, it will then be a talk at a university or something, and that’s not what it is. People are fine with it now. Some people get a little crazy; I’ve had issues.

Groana:
What kind of issues? Tension between people? Because it sounds like mini therapy.

Dinner on Global Blackness and Transnational Identities at The 8th Floor, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, August 14, 2015.

Dinner on Global Blackness and Transnational Identities at The 8th Floor, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, August 14, 2015.

Elia:
“No, I didn’t say that.” I’m like, “Yeah, you did.” “No, I didn’t.” Then I send them the transcript and they say, “Oh, but you can’t print that.” But people are getting a little better. There was a moment where some artists felt that if you had some political opinion about anything, somehow a curator or a collector wouldn’t collect you. But there are a lot of political artists that are collected, and they say anything. They say what they’re going to say. A curator? They’re doing a show on something, and you’re doing work like that, and they like you, and you have a reputation, and you have awards to back you up? They’re not going to not work with you.

But we are fearful as artists, so that was the initial challenge of this. Yeah, it is therapeutic. I think I wanted it to be therapeutic for me. I think it always starts from the place of the self, right?

Sometimes it makes me sad. Sometimes I walk out of there sad. Sometimes I walk out of there so angry. It really depends, you know?

Groana:
How do you bring the idea of The Supper Club to a wider group?

Elia:
Here’s the thing. I discovered that in order to have an intimate conversation, we could have 20, 25 people tops. Twenty-five is a lot. Twenty, where everyone’s participating, is closer knit. We had one dinner that accidentally almost had 35 people. That does not work. It’s not a dinner; it’s a conference. You have to think of dinner at your mom’s house. My mom would serve 20 people. I don’t know what it is about that number, but that’s the number.

Late in 2015 and early 2016, I did two dinners in Washington DC, sponsored and hosted by Jessica Stafford Davis’ Agora Culture. That brought together an amazing crowd from DC and I did manage to get a couple of artists in the book to go to DC.

Groana:
But how does a kid in the Midwest—in the middle of “nowhere” right now—create a similar space?

Elia:
You start with your friends. I think people need to start with their own communities. I think we have this going on all the time; we just don’t think about it. My friend Clifford Owens, who was at one of the dinners in DC, reminded me of this. He said to the group at the table, “You know Elia has been doing these dinners since 2004 at her house. She’d make food, and we’d sit down, and we talk about art, we talk about race, we talk about politics. It just wasn’t recorded.” If I look back, that’s what my mother used to do. Make food and have her friends over, and they would hash out sports, politics, art, pop culture. This is no different.

You start with your community first, and you challenge your community. You challenge them with challenging questions. I organized a dinner in December 2014 that was the year that Mike Brown and Eric Gardner were killed. I wasn’t sure what we were going to talk about, until the night before the dinner. I emailed everyone and told them, “We’re going to talk about these killings because I don’t know how we can not talk about anything else at this moment.” Everybody came fired up.

One artist said, “Right around the time of Art Basel, everyone was up in arms about Trayvon Martin, but they still showed up to Miami. We went to Florida anyway.” All that came out. “What are the post-black artists thinking now? Take three seats back.” Things like that were coming up. Then there was another artist who said, “Fuck race! The planet is dying, and it’s not going to fucking matter!” Then Shaun Leonardo said, “I’ll worry about the planet when I don’t have to worry about a gun being put to my head.” That dinner had Coco Fusco, Lorraine O’Grady, Maren Hassinger, Kalup Lindsey, Arnaldo Morales, Clifford Owens to name a few. It was the dinner my filmmaker friend, Maris Curran attended.

We had this writer, Juan Thompson, who was reporting from St. Louis. He was studying to be an attorney and then switched to become a journalist on race issues. We had a curator from The Whitney. It was incredible. There was no kumbaya moment, but collectively everybody was upset with what was going down. My question was, what about Rodney King? That was in the early 1990s. What happened to those fools who beat him up? They’re walking around free.

Groana:
How long do you think The Supper Club will go on?

Elia:
Right now, I’m doing a residency at Lafayette College, where I am printing the portraits for the exhibit. I am also working on the book itself, and I have to start doing some writing for it. We are planning additional dinners too. The Rubin Foundation will continue to sponsor and host dinners, and I have been in talks with another arts organization to do the dinners nationally. How long will it go? It is unclear to me but I do see it going on for a while.

dawit-2006

The Explorer, 2015. (Dawit Petros in the studio, New York, NY.)

Groana:
What was your major in undergrad?

Elia:
I attended Hunter College and completed a special honors curriculum for interdisciplinary studies, and minored in studio art. I was a terrible painter! I gave my brushes away. I thought getting expensive brushes would make me a good painter. It did not. When you’re not good at something, you need to let it go. Because your creativity isn’t just around one thing. I know when I see a good painting, and I know when it’s not great too. God bless all the people that can paint. Painting is hard. Good painting is really hard. Not everybody can do it.

During school, I got a full-time job at L’Oreal. I was working with the sales department, with PR planning all the meetings and parties. That’s still going on! So I thought I was going to go into PR. Then I was like, “No, I want to be creative.” So when I graduated, I said to my boss, “I really want to get into the art department.” They had me do something for a Paloma Picasso’s fragrance called Minotaur. I designed the cover of the box and packaging for the spring collection in ‘94 or ‘95. By the way, nothing was on a computer. I did it all by hand!

I had so much fun doing it, and at that point, I discovered I was good with materials. I told myself, that’s where I need to be heading. I quit my job. I was about to turn 33, Jesus Christ’s age, and I enrolled in the Arts Students League because I didn’t know where else to go. I applied to Hunter for an MFA, and they liked the work I presented, but when I sat in front of the committee, I didn’t know what I was talking about. They said, “You should know what you’re coming in here for. You need to know what you’re talking about with your work.” I said, “If I need to know, that defeats the purpose of getting an MFA.” I was being argumentative, which was probably not a good thing. Of course, I didn’t get in.

I get it now; you should have somewhat of an understanding of what you’re doing. Not a full-blown explanation, but something. I applied again, and I didn’t get in a second time, but I did get into the Studio Museum in Harlem Residency Program, which was cool. I was working a lot with materials, doing abstraction work with a lot of sand and wood and paper, but then I got pregnant. I’m allergic to all that stuff, so I was like, “I can’t pop pills and be pregnant.” I literally changed my game. I went from working with materials like that to working with fabric. At the same time, I changed from abstraction to figurative. I think that’s how art functions. I don’t think 90 percent of the time it’s intentional, or that you’re totally aware, “I’m going to do this, and it’s going to be that…” You just evolve.

jeffrey_3627

The Disco Shaman, 2015. (Jeffrey Gibson in his studio, Hudson, NY.)

 

Interview with Alejandro Yoshii

Interview with Alejandro Yoshii

Alejandro Yoshii is an interdisciplinary artist whose defining act is the touch. We caught up with Alejandro a few weeks after he presented in A Mexican Tertulia at Baxter Street in collaboration with Celebrate Mexico Now.

Groana Melendez
Can you tell us about your artistic background? Do you have formal training in art?

Alejandro Yoshii
I came to the U.S. to study art, I did an MFA in Fine Arts at Parsons the New School. Before that, I studied Communications in Mexico and worked in advertising and graphic design. Painting was always part of my life, I was making paintings all the time but I didn’t have any academic training until I came here.

Once I started the MFA, I stopped painting and began doing other things. I think that happens a lot when you go to grad school. They challenge you to do something different than what you were doing before. I started doing more installations and sculptures and even performance. I’m exploring many different media now. I don’t feel myself fixed into a label of a painter or a sculptor. I like to work around the ideas and concepts and then later decide the medium.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
What I like about your work is how it is so much about touch and it is also about you in particular, being there, touching something.

Alejandro
Like imprints of my body.

Martha
Yeah, you are like, “I was here, and this is my index of me being here.”

Groana
You even have a work titled “I am here.”

Alejandro
I know it sounds like a strong statement like I want to be in my work. When I went back to Mexico one time, I was talking with friends, and they reminded me of a prank I pulled in middle school. My class went on a field trip to a nature reserve and research center in Mazatlán, where I’m from, and I made an imprint by the lake there. I just drew this thing, like a footprint of an animal with six fingers. Later on, the teacher came to the classroom and said, “I need to know who did this because the researchers thought it was an actual footprint. They took a sample and sent it to Mexico City to investigate it.” Then they realized it was just a joke. The teacher was so embarrassed and wanted to know who did it. I had to confess that it was me. Maybe what I’m doing now, putting my body in my work came from this experience. I don’t know, but it was a funny and bad thing to do at that time.

Also, I kind of like to work around the body, and question the notions of the body and how we see ourselves and others. I think it’s related to my background of being Asian in Mexico. I’m Japanese-Mexican. People don’t see me as Mexican at first, and I have to explain that I was born in Mexico, but my family is Japanese.

Then, when I’m in Japan people see me as Japanese, but I don’t speak very fluently. There is always this sense of not belonging to a place, and the only place I think we truly belong is in our body. It’s like the only physical place we live and exist.

 

(In)tangible bodies (2014). clay, photographs, video, objects.

(In)tangible bodies (2014). clay, photographs, video, objects.

Groana
That’s so beautiful. I never thought of that. I’ve also made work about belonging and not belonging, and I never thought, “The place you do belong is in your body.” Can you tell us about your family background?

Alejandro
My maternal grandparents immigrated to Mexico before the Second World War. My grandfather came first, followed by my grandmother. My mom was born in Mexico, and she went to Japan to study marine biology. There she met my dad and brought him back to Mexico.

Groana
Oh, wow—I didn’t realize both of your parents are Japanese.

Alejandro
My mom is Mexican-born Japanese. Basically, I’m Japanese, but I was born and grew up in Mexico.

Groana
Do you ever go back to Japan, or did your parents ever take you?

Alejandro
I studied there for a year in high school.

Martha
How’s your Japanese? How do you relate to the language itself?

Alejandro
My Japanese got better when I was there. I speak some Japanese at home, like the term pocho but in this case mixing Japanese and Spanish.

There are many stories about the Japanese immigration to Mexico. In Chiapas, there is the little town of Acacoyagua that is the first place where Japanese immigrants settled in Latin America, as an organized immigration. It was called the Enomoto Colony. In the main plaza of this town, there is a memorial for the immigrants, on the back of it there is a haiku that says something like “summer grass, battles of the heroes, traces of a dream.”

I’m very interested in that. I’m going to Mexico in December, and I want to go to Acacoyagua Chiapas. I’m curious to learn more about it. There are some descendants of these immigrants and many people who have Japanese last names.

When my grandfather went to Mexico, he was single at that time. There was this thing like matchmaking for Japanese who immigrated to other countries. Most of the immigrants were single men, and they wanted to find somebody to marry, and I guess it was very difficult to marry a local person if you didn’t speak the language. The matchmaking process was done through photographs. My grandmother was told about this person in Mexico and was asked if she wanted to marry him, and she said yes. It was kind of like an old archaic version of Tinder.

Martha
With more severe consequences. You couldn’t just go out on a date. It was straight to marriage.

Alejandro
Actually, when my grandmother got to Mexico, she was already married. Her name was changed to Mitsuko Kasuga.

Martha
They married even before they met?

Alejandro
Yes. They even did a ceremony without the groom. There is a photograph where she is wearing a kimono and everything, but he’s not there.

Martha
A proper marriage?

Alejandro
Yeah, a long-distance marriage. When my grandfather came to Mexico, it was about ten years after the Mexican Revolution ended, and it was harsh times. They lived in San Luis Potosi.

Martha
Right now it’s a little better, but I can’t even imagine what it was like then. It’s not even like that big of a city now.

Alejandro
Water was scarce. My grandmother was shocked at breakfast when somebody brought her water and asked, “Do you want to use this water to wash your face, or for coffee?” She couldn’t have both.

After WWII began and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japan became an enemy of Mexico as Mexico was an ally of the US. The Mexican government gave the order to relocate all the Japanese people from the coastal and rural areas to the central part of Mexico, like Mexico City or Guadalajara, to have them close and monitor them.

It wasn’t as harsh as in the U.S. because they didn’t have concentration camps. (Actually, there was a small concentration camp in Queretaro.) My grandparents had already built a life in San Luis Potosi, and they had to start again in Mexico City, but it was good for them in a way. That’s why there is a big Japanese community in Mexico City. There is a Mexican-Japanese school and other things.

Martha
I was thinking about how circumstances forced your grandmother to move, but then you left Mexico by choice. You were like, “This is what I want to do.” I thought that was an interesting contrast.

Alejandro
Yes, my grandparents had a very difficult time, and now I’m in a more privileged situation. Their experiences are inspiring and a motivation for me. I always have it in my head and my heart.

I want to explore that part more. My grandmother used to write tanka poetry. They are short poems where she expressed most of her experiences, from the time she left Japan to her everyday life in Mexico.

Martha

It’s interesting that your grandmother was somewhat of an art-maker, even though it’s not visual art, she used art to help her process what she was going through.

Alejandro
I’m very interested in my grandmother’s poems about her life and what was happening around her. And the process of abstracting experiences and reducing them to verse within a rigid system of five, seven, five, seven, seven syllables. I like that idea of taking things from the world and reducing them into a short point.

Groana
How much of your practice is about performance?

Alejandro
I sometimes do performances. If I have a show with an opportunity to do a performance, I will. In performance, the body is the medium, the actions, the body and the remains are the work, but it’s very challenging to put yourself in front of a lot of people.

Some of the work I do with the traces of the body and the imprints has a residue of an action or a performative action—like painting the whole space with the body, or a wall. Performance is quite challenging, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, how you’re going to react, you’re vulnerable, etc. I’m very nervous before a performance, but when I’m doing it I kind of get lost and forget about it.

molido2

Molido (2015) Performance.

Martha
You’ve been talking a lot about Mexican-Japanese people, but the work you did on Ayotzinapa is more about a Mexican issue. It’s interesting how you embrace both.

Alejandro
I don’t mention it directly. I guess some of my work is a form of a silent protest. I made that piece after the missing 43 students, and when all the protests were going on in Mexico because of that. When you’re far from Mexico and you’re observing things from a distance, it’s difficult to address those issues, because you’re not there. You’re not experiencing it, but you want to talk about it. You want to make it visible for other people who don’t know about that situation.

I tried not to make political work that is in your face with blood and bodies. It was a performance piece where I ground cacao seeds and used the paste to make drawings that were instructions for actions and movements.

I was thinking of the number 43 in relation to the body and in this case bodies, and movement, in relation to the social mobilizations to protest against this criminal incident. So I had these three elements: body, movement, and symbols. The drawings on the wall became an accumulation of these repetitive actions.

And when I was grinding the cacao, the smell of cacao permeated the whole room in the exhibition space.

Molido (2015) Performance.

Molido (2015) Performance.

Even if you don’t want to talk about political issues, you inevitably end up addressing them—it’s something that we experience every day.

I have another work that is a big piece of paper with 47,515 of my fingerprints. I read an article in the New York Times stating that at the end of the Felipe Calderón presidency, the official number of murders from the drug war was 47,515. There were obviously more than that, but I wanted to recount all these numbers and make them visible. I counted each of the 47,515 fingerprints. I like to make work that can be grounded in political issues, but in a more poetic way, visually.

47,515+ (2012) squid ink on paper. 60" x 204"

47,515+ (2012) squid ink on paper. 60″ x 204″

Martha
Which is very nice. I think about someone like Teresa Margolles and What else could we talk about? She talks about it in a way that you as a viewer are somewhat forced into violence. I like the way you approach it because it’s still very visible, but it’s not so violent.

Alejandro
Yeah, I don’t think I would like to attack violence with violence. My work is not so graphic. I think I try to find ways to say things that are around my life, in a non-aggressive way I guess. I just take things I see. If that is what I see and experience, I need to put it out there.

Martha
I can understand, because when that happened, I was here in New York. All of my friends, all the people I knew, were protesting back in Mexico. Protesters were even getting arrested, and I was here looking at it on my phone. I went to Union Square, and there were like three Mexicans there. I felt so weird not being back home.

Alejandro
I know what you mean. I make art, but if I also want to do some activism, then I do it. Artwork may come from political issues or family stories or other experiences, whatever is informing my work at that time.

Groana
What does your practice look like? Your daily practice?

Alejandro
I sometimes start by making sketches and drawings. I like to make quick drawings with watercolor, and sometimes more detailed sketches. I like to put them around on the walls and have them visually in front of me, and see them every day.

What I like about this process is that when I start making and object or something, I later find similarities to the things I did a long time ago. It’s a way to create your own visual language.

Then I also have to do my freelancing jobs in graphic design. I have to pay my bills you know, but I have flexibility with time, and I’m able to work and make my own artwork, but my schedules are a mess sometimes. I guess that’s my system of working or process, having all these visual elements and then trying to make connections around them.

Sketches

Sketches

Groana
Can you tell us about your most recent shows, especially the one opening tomorrow (December 9, 2016)?

Alejandro
The one that is tomorrow is a post-election show and related to the winning of Trump, part of the proceeds will be donated to the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It’s for a good cause. I made the smallest sculpture I’ve ever done. I’m responding to Trump and the wall, and also referencing the body.

The show that opened a few weeks ago was more of an installation. I wanted to do something intersecting sculpture, drawing, and installation. I had these prints of my body, my arm, leg and foot, and printed them life-size on metal. I use them as rulers, with them I measured and cut the pieces of wood to make the structure, kind of like tables. The objects I had on top were also imprints of my body, mostly of my hand, and then I drew the surface of the table. I had all these mix of things, everything around the body, like deconstructing my body and constructing something else and occupying the space.

thepalaceat420am

The Palace at 4:20 am (2016) Plaster, graphite, pencil, raw hide, black gesso, bone black pigment, whitewash, magic sculpt, wire, wood, digital screen print on dibond.

Martha
It reminds me of the measuring system they use in the U.S., which was basically the king’s measurements. Like a foot was the length of the king’s foot.

Alejandro
Yeah, I decided to make my own system of measurement based on the body.

Groana
What are you working on now? I know you mentioned going to Mexico, to Chiapas.

Alejandro
Yeah, that is totally different from what I’ve been doing, more personal. At this point, I’m researching and studying more the history of the Japanese immigration to Mexico.

Immigration is something that happens all the time, and shifts certain structures in the world, socially, culturally, politically. I think it’s important to talk about all these in order to bring more diversity, I guess.

It’s funny, because now that I’m in the U.S., I’m interested in things from back home. Every time I go there, I gather more material. My parents are marine biologists, and they have all these old biology books. I remember looking at them when I was a child, but now as they don’t use them anymore, they told me I can do whatever I want with them, so I’ve been tearing them up and making collages, I love these images of shells, fishes, plants, etc.

sketches2

Sketches

 

Martha
That makes sense. I was never interested in the pictures that my parents took of me. But when I came here I was like, “I want to scan all of them, and do work around them.”

Alejandro
Yeah, there is some kind of nostalgia, no?

Groana
You have to step away, in order to see your life. That’s the whole reason we want residencies, right? We need to step away—not only to have the time to focus, but also to reflect on our lives.

Alejandro
To reflect and see the things from outside. I think that to get deeper into your thoughts, you have to step back a little bit and see yourself from the outside.

Martha
I think it’s very hard to focus on things when you have them so close to you. It’s easier to see them clearer when you step back.

Alejandro
You don’t see them. You take them for granted because you have them and you’re just like, “What else can I do?” You try to make things outside your bubble. Now, when you’re outside the bubble you’re like, “Oh, wait, I can see what is in the bubble.”

Martha
You don’t even think it’s interesting because that’s just normal life to you. When you’re outside, you realize normal life is not even a thing. And besides, that’s actually what you can talk about more, because that’s what you know about it, whatever else you are a little bit clueless, but your experience is your best topic. All of our experiences are so different that it’s important to say, “This is what it looks like to have my life.”

Alejandro
And in New York, there are people from all over the world, and everybody has different experiences in life. It’s interesting, what happens here, the conversations that happen here. Everything is around our roots, and that’s important. It makes you see that the world is more diverse. And on the other side, you don’t want to assimilate into another culture and lose your roots, because you want to keep your voice and keep your background.

Martha
There’s one part of you that really wants to fit in. Back in Mexico, I was rebellious, so I never had a quinceañera. Now that I’m here I’m like, “I wish I had had a quinceañera. I wish I had more of an accent, and I wish that I wish I was more Mexican,” whatever that means. When I was in Mexico cumbias were cool, and I will dance them at parties but never listen to them in my own time, but now I’m like, “Oh, I will listen to them in my house,” but that never happened before. It’s not like I really think there is such thing as more Mexican, I guess what I mean is that I wish I was part of a community of Mexicans here, I miss that familiarity.

Alejandro
Actually, that happens to me too. In Mexico, I feel like I need to assimilate more to the culture, and have a strong accent, in a way to prove that I’m Mexican. It’s like an identity play. Belonging and not belonging is confusing. It’s just a back-and-forth situation, of trying to find your place in the world.

Groana
What’s your relationship to photography?

Alejandro
In my practice I use photography to gather images, to get a collection of things that I see and captured my attention. Even if I take a photo of a chewing gum on the floor or something, it’s because it was interesting to me at that moment.

Recently I started printing my photos. I printed about 200, and I like to have them next to my sketches on the wall. Photography is my source material. Sometimes it helps me remember what I saw and what captured my attention.

Even if I don’t use them as artwork, they inform my work in a way. I like to take many photos of random things. I did a series of photos of only circular shapes, like a circular entrance or a circular object. I have many photos of that, and of sleeping dogs. They are part of my personal archive of visual images. I think it’s important for every artist to have visual archives.

Groana
Yeah, it becomes your library.

Alejandro
And accessible. That’s why I like to print them. Sometimes I make small sketches and forget about them. Now I’m forcing myself and put all of these images in front of me. I love that later I see them manifested in a similar form, but in another material. Like abstracting something from reality into a sketch and then transforming that into something else in another work or material. It’s like a filtering process.

 

Interview with Daniel Terna

Interview with Daniel Terna

Daniel Terna is a lens-based artist whose work is marked by absence. His images balance the emotional with the conceptual. We sat down with him to share food, drinks, and conversation shortly after the election.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Daniel Terna
I’m the child of immigrants. My folks were not born in this country. Still, it sounds so strange to say that because I’m just a New Yorker.

Groana Melendez
Where are your parents from?

Daniel
Dad was born in Vienna in 1923 and grew up in Prague, which was at that time in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Mom is also Jewish, Eastern European, but comes from Colombia. She was born in Paris after the War, but grew up in Bogotá. In 1959, when she was 12, her family moved to Brooklyn.

Martha
How did they meet?

Daniel
They met in a therapy group for children of Holocaust survivors. My dad is a survivor, and my mom is the daughter of survivors. At that time there was a movement around supporting first-generation children of survivors, exploring how they dealt with growing up in an environment where their parents were psychologically fucked up because of their experiences in the war. My dad was a speaker, and he saw my mom afterward on the train and asked her to get a cup of coffee. They got married three months later. She was 35, and he was in his late 50s.

homepictures_danielterna

Carpet Portrait (Mom), 2013

Groana
How do you identify, especially since you’re adopted?

Daniel
I identify as an ethnically Colombian, culturally New York Jew. I have no cultural connection to Colombia. I identify a lot with being your typical over-analytical pseudo-intellectual New York Jew. The Colombian thing rarely comes up because nobody really knows or asks. Somebody today thought I was from Lebanon. My birth mother was from Bogotá, but I was born in Manhattan.

Martha
Have you been to Colombia?

Daniel
No. I started asking my mom for some information about my birth mom. Every time I think about it, I’m like, “I need to make this into an art project.” Then I get stuck, because I’m like, “I need to call the lawyer that was involved with the adoption.” Then I’m like, “Do I need to record the conversation? How do I record it? What kind of camera does it need to be? Can it be the computer camera, or can it be my iPhone? Do I need a setup? Do I have a camera on the lawyer’s end, so do I call beforehand to tell them that I’m going to call them?” Then I don’t do anything.

Martha
You just get caught up in technicalities?

Daniel
Which might just be an excuse not to want to open a can of worms. But I did start looking into it, and the crazy thing is the lawyer just died. So that’s another one of those things where I wonder, What if my birth mom died right now? Maybe she’s in Queens; maybe she’s in Bogotá. What if I just missed that by a day? How awful would that be? Because I spent the last two years thinking about doing it, and then I didn’t do it, and then I did it, and now she’s dead.

Groana
Stop!

Daniel
It’s so Jewish. It’s very Jewish, that sort of anxiety, like worrying so much you don’t get anywhere. You’re standing in one place. You’re just standing in one place worrying.

Martha
Like a Woody Allen character.

Daniel
Like a Woody Allen character. Yeah. But I’ll do it. Don’t worry. I’ll do it somehow, but what if I have siblings? It’s weird. I probably do have siblings.

Martha
You don’t know what’s waiting for you on the other side.

Daniel
No, I don’t. Every Colombian I meet is like, “You have to go to Colombia, it’s awesome, I’ll tell you where to stay.” I have a standing invitation at an artist-residency in Medellín.

Martha
I get the hesitation, though, because you don’t know what’s waiting for you and it’s easy just to guess instead of confronting it.

Daniel
My dad says that I should use his story and experience in my art. He’s like, “It’s a very special situation that you still have access to a Holocaust survivor, and you should use me as much as you can.” With these newer pictures of his skin, I’m doing exactly that: looking closely at his body.


Groana
It sounds like a collaboration because he’s urging you to tell his story.

Daniel
I don’t know if I would call it collaboration. I’ve collaborated with another artist, and it’s a very different experience. With this, he’s more game to do stuff, but I don’t know if he would call it collaborating because he’s more like, “Do your thing. I’m here for you, and if you want to do this idea with me, great.” I use his body and the objects in his studio and his paintings as props, but there isn’t an active conversation going on.

Martha
In our classes at ICP there were a lot of people working with family. It’s interesting.

Daniel
For me, it comes from a fear of his death and wanting to go to places emotionally that we just wouldn’t under any normal circumstances. My father’s long life and his eventual death is the elephant in the room. He says that with his first wife, who was also a survivor, the Holocaust was the elephant at the dinner table. Through my pictures and my work, I have a portrait of my dad, and if I have kids I can say, “This was your grandpa. This guy.”

I’ve always had a fear of his death and anxiety about losing him. I grew up knowing that he was old and that he would die when I was young, so I’ve always been preparing for it. But he’s 93 now and very active and healthy. I think many of us photographers want to make work about our families. I think we’re all trying to understand ourselves better.

Daniel Terna, 2015. Dikes of Different Ages.

Dikes of Different Ages, 2015

Martha
For me it’s not about death, but rather memory as it relates to personal history. Both my parents are orphans, but they are very young, so I never associated them with mortality. It makes sense that you have a closer relationship with death.

Daniel
My dad is an artist, and he paints because the paintings are going to outlast him. His art is a record of his survival. He paints with acrylic because it lasts longer than oil or he covers it with a veneer after he’s done painting so it’s damage-resistant. When people come to look at his paintings, he starts scratching them. He’s like, “See? Nothing is happening. They’re good. They’re going to outlast you; they’re going to outlast your grandkids. If you’re going to spend money on this, it’s going to be made well.” I think a lot of that is his personality, but I also think it’s interesting to think about it as his desire to make a little mark on history. His paintings are essentially documents of him, portraits of his psychological state.

I started taking pictures of his skin and his wrinkles because I was interested in texture. His paintings are very textured as well; he uses sand and pebbles. He wants blind people to be able to see them. When you look at them you can see light and shadow; I wanted to do that with his skin. I wanted his skin to be my canvas. I wanted to make pictures that could relate to that physical sensation. I don’t know if I succeeded, but they’re not bad pictures.

Technically, I had been shooting with a flash, and that work was beginning to blend with some of my commercial work. It started to go in a direction that a lot of other people were headed, so I started thinking of the assignment Nayland Blake gave of breaking your own rules or setting boundaries. I decided not to use a flash. I put all these magnifying lenses on the camera so I could get really close. I also wanted to make something that was about going back to the beauty of optics, which to me meant using natural light, really soft focus, and doing something that wasn’t so trendy.

Daniel Terna, 2016. From the series A Crazy Bass.

From the series A Crazy Bass, 2016

Martha
When I saw them, it was not what I remembered from your show or from what I know about you. It was very interesting.

Daniel
Yeah, it looks different from what I had been doing.

Martha
Also, you don’t want to get into the trap of yourself.

Daniel
Exactly. I wanted to break it up, to try not to have a visual style—or even a style of personality. Sometimes I can be really depressing and sometimes I can be, in my opinion, hilarious. I have a huge variety of interests and approaches, which is sometimes to my detriment. While there are recurring themes of isolation, absence, labor, my relationships to others and specific sites, I don’t think my work is identifiable by a specific visual style. Sure there are strategies I use myself because they’ve worked for me in the past and I have a lot of trust and confidence in the instincts I’ve sharpened over the years, but I can’t entirely say that everything I do looks like it was done by me, Daniel Terna. I could see myself having a solo show and someone thinking it’s a group show.

Martha
Sometimes the story wants to be told a certain way.

Groana
When did your dad become a painter, and did you get into the arts because of his work?

Daniel
My dad started drawing in the concentration camps. One of the first camps he was in was Terezin, in Czechoslovakia. Terezin was a gated fortress concentration camp, but by most standards of the time, it was not so bad. There was a degree of freedom of movement so that Jews could congregate. Terezin was a hub of intellectuals, so there were a lot of famous painters, musicians, composers, singers—all kinds of artists. They got together and had these sessions and even informally taught those who would listen, like my dad, who had been taken out of school.

He became interested in the arts. He was like, “Okay. I want to be an intellectual. I want to be involved with this kind of community and live my life (if I survive) like this.” That’s where he got exposed to some artists that were drawing on paper, what little they could find. When he was in some of the worst camps later on (Auschwitz and later Dachau), he drew with a twig in the dirt. If a Nazi walked by, my dad could easily erase what he had made. He was teaching himself. After being liberated in 1945, he went back to Prague and discovered that his father, brother, and everyone he knew had been murdered in the camps. He married his first wife Stella, whom I made a film about (My First Wife Stella), and in 1946, he went to Paris and started taking a few art classes there, sketching and painting. He’s been doing it for his whole life.

But I didn’t get into the arts because he’s a painter. I was into photojournalism, especially war photojournalism. I always looked at the names of photojournalists in the New York Times, and I wanted to be just like them. I wanted to photograph in Afghanistan or Iraq when the wars broke out. In high school, I started taking pictures. The first things I shot were the Jews in Borough Park. I just wandered into buildings and businesses and openly photographed them.

Martha and Groana
Then what happened?

Daniel
I went to Bard, and I started seeing fine art photography, and that started shifting my perspective. I started reading Susan Sontag and learning about the problems with photojournalism, and I realized that what I really wanted was danger. I wanted the adrenaline rush, but I didn’t care enough about making pictures of people in trouble and telling the world about them. I didn’t care about doing that myself. Pornography is a really strong word, but I see some photojournalism as this twisted form of media entertainment.

I realized I couldn’t do it. An adrenaline rush was the wrong reason to be a photojournalist in a war zone. I took a class with photographer Gilles Peress at Bard, a human rights class, and I told him I was interested in being a war correspondent. He sat me down and said, very seriously, “I’ve lost a lot of students to war, who wanted to go to war, who got killed, and you will get killed if you go to war.” I laughed, and as a result, he body-checked me. He lifted me up and threw me to the ground. This was in front of some people, but it was really intense, and I was like, “He’s not kidding.” It was a supremely bold statement on his part, and it really cemented what he meant. He’s an incredible person, a true intellectual and deeply affected by the wars he’s photographed and the Rwandan genocide. I still see him around Fort Greene.

Groana
Why didn’t you end up in a journalism school instead of Bard?

Daniel
I did journalism in high school, and I loved journalism, and I still love journalism. One of the reasons I love photography is because you go into these unknown places. I think that’s why a lot of us are photographers. You have your camera, and you just go. Especially if you’re younger, you’re like, “Okay. I’m just going to go explore with this camera.” You discover people’s stories and talk to people, and sometimes even pretend to be someone you’re not, which is what I did a lot of times. I looked at colleges for journalism. I was looking at Boston University because I thought maybe I would be a reporter. But then I went to Bard, and I studied art history and photography, and the photo program was so intense that I ended up really dedicating myself to it. I also worked on the school paper, the Bard Free Press, eventually becoming the Editor-in-Chief, which is something I’m really proud of.

One of my photography teachers was An-My Lê. She photographs with a view camera, but she works within fast-paced worlds, such as army bases, the military in training, even shoots on aircraft carriers. She works with subject matter that a photojournalist might be interested in, but she doesn’t approach it in the way that a photojournalist would—with an SLR, shooting a lot of frames. She takes many steps back and is like, “I’m making landscapes and pictures of huge systems.” I loved how she perceived the world, instead of documenting up-close the pain of others, which is this endless conversation we can have over and over. Every time you see a picture of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach, and say, “This is a powerful picture. This picture will get the world to change, to get off their asses and fix the refugee crisis.”

Daniel Terna, 2009. From the series I'll See You On The Beach.

From the series I’ll See You On The Beach, 2009

That conversation is always happening, and it doesn’t seem to stop, but it doesn’t seem to help enough. I have faith in the new power of virtual reality, like Clouds Over Sidra, where they made a documentary in a refugee camp. They set up a VR camera inside a tent. You see groups of kids walking right past you, and it’s like you can touch them. You’re there, and it’s so effective. It’s a really intimate picture of a situation in the world that is hard for us to imagine ourselves. It’s been really amazing as a technology.

I would love to use that kind of technology with my dad. For my thesis, I put a GoPro on him. The idea was to get the viewer to be in this old body that was moving on the stairs, and I was trying to think of a way I could relate his trauma and his survival to people, and I don’t know if I accomplished that. I don’t think I dug into it deep enough. After I did that, you started seeing this VR stuff coming out. I would like to do things with my dad with that kind of technology. What is it like to be a 93-year-old taking a shower, cutting your toenails, eating, just being in your body.

Groana
You still wouldn’t get to the experience of being. You would be watching him. So it would be more visual porn.

Daniel
Yeah, but you could also do this GoPro kind of thing with VR, in a way. You could. I don’t think you could feel exactly what old age is like, but that shouldn’t limit one from trying it. I thought, “How can you make somebody feel a physical sensation by looking at a photograph?” I tried to do that with some of my photography early on in grad school, and I don’t know if I failed or succeeded, but I was thinking about when I used to go fishing. I remembered the feeling of the fishing line on my finger. Or if you ever played the piano, the memory is so intense that you can almost feel it on your skin. You could feel the weight of the keys or the feeling of the fishing line, so I had my dad put on his socks, or tie his shoe, or comb his hair and brush his teeth.

Martha
How did you start 321 Gallery?

Daniel
The gallery started with my buddy Mekko Harjo. We wanted to show our work, but we knew it was impossible to be noticed by any galleries. It was 2012, which is actually not that long ago, but it feels like an eternity. We put up a show. Then I did a second show a year later. Two of the artists who were in that show, Tin Nguyen and Tom Forkin, asked if I wanted to team up and convert the space into a functioning gallery that mounted shows more frequently. I said yes.

Now Tom and I are working constantly at the gallery, helping people realize their projects. We’ve done 22 shows, including three art fairs. Well, we’re about to go to our third art fair, NADA Miami. Which is a ludicrous thing to think about in comparison to the election.

Shifting away from the gallery, I’ve been thinking that all these Trump supporters have identities, and I wonder who they are. It’s the first time that I felt the liberals were almost mean and overlooking a huge amount of people, especially when Hillary said, “A basket of deplorables.”

That kind of rhetoric is so offensive, and people knew that it was offensive then, but now we’re sitting here thinking, “Oh, my God, we’re fucked.” Who are we to sit on our overeducated chairs and judge a lot of white people in America who are not as educated and have been barely scraping by? When I go to D.C. in January, I want to see who these people are. Even saying, “these people” sounds so fucked up.

Martha
Of course they’re not all in the same.

Daniel
No, of course not. Also, can you blame them for being pissed off? It’s a weird position to be in. When Eric Garner was killed, I saw this moment that photography was about to have. Charlotte Cotton had just made Photography Is Magic, and she closed the book on that way of making work. And in a way, I’m thankful that conversation has died down. I need a long break from it. For what seemed a long time we were seeing the kind of work that Charlotte Cotton was really putting on this pedestal. I don’t give a fuck about that shit at all right now. It makes me angry to think of making work about the medium, photography about photography. It’s like when Daft Punk comes out with a new summer hit that gets overplayed everywhere. It’s exciting for a week, and then you just want to turn it off or leave the room.

When Garner was killed, I thought we were going to see a lot of work about people, and humanity, and emotional subject matter. I thought my interest in photojournalism and the problems I had with it would coalesce into something. We’re seeing work being celebrated now by artists who have been making socially-concerned work but were overlooked for a while.

I think this election has woken up all of us, and that includes artists. I haven’t seen energy like this since 2003 when the war in Iraq started.

Daniel Terna, 2015. Untitled (Green).

From the series We Buy Gold!, 2015

Groana
What are you working on now?

I’m still working on the skin and canvas idea, and playing around with masks and theatrical setups with my dad and sometimes my mom. Meanwhile, I’m working with an amazing designer, Rory King, finishing the publication of my From Several Angles Over Several Days project, which I first showed as a photo installation at Baxter St. at CCNY in the 2015 juried show. I’m also helping my dad curate a large show of his paintings at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, opening in January. And most recently I began giving him these assignments to make political paintings, and photography will be incorporated into it. Definitely a new, unusual direction for both of us, but something to do in reaction to the current climate.

The Great Escape, 2016

The Great Escape, 2016

 

Daniel Terna (b. Brooklyn, NY) has participated in select group exhibitions at MoMA PS1 (NYC); the International Center of Photography (NYC); Foley Gallery (NYC); Baxter St. Camera Club of NY (NYC); New Wight Biennial (UCLA, Los Angeles); BRIC Arts Media Biennial (Brooklyn, NY); New York Film Festival (NYC); Eyebeam (NYC); Museum of the City of New York (NYC); The Wild Project (NYC); the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA); Armory Center for the Arts (Pasadena, CA); Contemporary Arts Center (New Orleans, LA); and Gallery Tayuta (Tokyo, JP). Terna was a resident in the Collaborative Fellowship Program at UnionDocs, Brooklyn, and was awarded the Cuts and Burns Residency at Outpost Artist Resources in Ridgewood, NY. Terna graduated with a BA in photography from Bard College and received his MFA from the International Center of Photography-Bard. He runs and co-curates 321 Gallery, Brooklyn.


 

Milagros de la Torre – The Lost Steps

Milagros de la Torre – The Lost Steps

Milagros de la Torre is a lens-based artist whose work examines intimate representations of violence and its effects. She is currently featured in the publication After the Fact edited by Martha Naranjo Sandoval and organized by the ICP-Bard MFA Class of 2016. The following is an excerpt from the book.


First, I would like to thank the ICP-Bard MFA program for inviting me to be part of the uplifting conversation that normally happens within these walls. I’m especially grateful because of the subject matter we’ll be discussing here—the cross-observation and analysis of the event. Growing up in South America, I perceived and understood the notion of the event at an early age. One of my earliest memories is that of an earthquake with a 7.9 magnitude on the Richter scale. Such strength causes damage to most buildings, and causes them to partially or completely collapse.

The earthquake was the strongest impression not only of movement, but of what came later to represent the aftermath—what the event changed and what was no longer. As artists working with images, such impressions are ingrained at the back of our minds, helping us define as individual creators and producers of meaning, helping us to observe in a certain way. Such impressions often come back to haunt us and almost unwillingly become part of our own work.

Part of my upbringing was experiencing terrorism firsthand. Because of family circumstances I learned early how violence has the power to intimidate and spread fear. I grew up in Peru when the Maoist guerilla insurgent group known as Sendero Luminoso, or the Shining Path, was deploying its radical ideology and terror. Generating an internal conflict was eventful. How does one process the possibility of instant tragedy? The understanding of a beforeand-after of an incident? How can we as artists come to terms with such intense circumstances in order to interpret and translate through imagination?

falda

Milagros de la Torre, from the series The Lost Steps, Skirt worn by Marita Alpaca when she was thrown by her lover from the 8th floor of the Sheraton Hotel in Lima, toned gelatin silver print, 1996.

I would like to share with you the process I went through for developing a project from 1996 called The Lost Steps. The work, composed of fifteen photographs, was developed in the archives of the palace of justice in Lima, Peru. In Spanish, the archive is called Archivo de los Cuerpos del Delito. From the Latin corpus delicti, body or evidence of crime.

I was already familiar with objects being understood as evidence, but only after visiting the archives did I realize their strength as witnesses to extreme human situations. To quote Georges Didi-Huberman, “We take objects as neutral, insignificant, without consequence, which is precisely why they merit all our attention.” Images of supposedly everyday objects—a fork, a skirt—that had with a dense weight to them were presented as evidence for trials in criminal and terrorist acts, crimes of passion, and other circumstances. Their innocent origin counteracts their incriminatory testimonies.

The title, The Lost Steps, is drawn from the name given to a hallway, a long corridor of a courthouse in Lima that led from the sunlit majestic façade to the somber back of the building, where the accused waited for their hearings. It was generally believed that if one walked the lost steps hallway, one should expect imminent condemnation.

The photographs reference a process common in the nineteenth century, when the development of the optical lens was not as advanced and did not entirely cover the format of the photographic negative. The technical limitation creates a dark aura around the photographed object and makes it look as if it is floating, contextualized in a circle of light. This allows for both darkness and the light version of the object to be shown at the same time.

There is a limited depth of field, so we must concentrate our attention on a single detail in focus. The visual technique places the images in the past. Surrounding the object with a dark halo alludes to the obscure side of human nature, to the psychological intent and traces of the prosecuted. The depiction of objects is often symbolic of the still-life genre, but a singular focus of an isolated object might be more suggestive of portraiture and vulnerability, abstracting the emotionally charged objects from time or space as Susan Best noted when writing about the series.

Several factors informed the series conception. First I had to gain permission for access to the archive, which was not entirely easy. This is common when one works under military or dictatorship regimes. Fujimori was still in power, I had to prove I had been working as an artist for several years and that I was not seeking to undermine the image of Peru. Some conflicting ideas were present since the start.

I met the chief of the archive, Mr. Guzman, who had a passionate knowledge related to each criminal case and the part each object played. His memory served as a first catalyst. He had learned insider’s details since he had to collect and present the evidence from the archive, then wait in a back room until the judge asked him to bring them up front to the main courtroom. In the process he overheard privileged information from each case.

Another interesting fact is that this wasn’t an otherworldly archive where documents and records are preserved. It was a mix of different articles that were barely catalogued. It was, in a sense, the anti-archive. In a way, its sense and purpose laid within the memory of its guardian. Nonetheless, it served its function as a depository of all guilty things.

Mr. Guzman knew exactly where to find any object. If I named the case, he could find the evidence in no time. We improvised a photographic studio in the archive, then worked for several days recounting and trying to find explanations for the cases and aftermath images—where accounts are not depicted, but implied, relying solely on text to signal historical significance.

I decided to use a restrained type of text employed by law enforcement professionals under each image. This added an extra element to the work, as what might appear to be a simple fork was instead identified as a chemical test to recognize cocaine chlorhydrate made in a clandestine laboratory.

The photographs, each 16 by 16 inches, approximately the width of a human body, are large enough to fill the field of vision and small enough to draw the viewer close. I paid special attention to the characteristic of the prints, done in richly toned black-and-white fiber-based paper reminiscent of long hours spent in the dark room.

The work seems to be emblematic of our times, where there is an increasing militarization, overwhelming mechanics of violence, and a climate of insecurity where the human psyche is strongly at play. Unfortunately, they have global relevance today. Now let’s have a look at the objects of guilt.

Bullets. Belts used by psychologist Mario Poggi to strangle a rapist during police interrogation. Police identification mask of a criminal known as Loco Perochena (it was through the making of the mask that they could finally identify him). Incriminating love letter written by a prostitute to her lover. Crudely fabricated knife confiscated as evidence. Rudimentary weapon made from broken bottle and paper—one holds it a certain way to threaten a passerby.

Crowbar. Tool used to force entry. Fake police ID used by terrorist. Skirt worn by Marita Alpaca when she was thrown by her lover from the eighth floor of the Sheraton Hotel in Lima. She was found to be pregnant at the autopsy. Chemical test to identify cocaine chlorhydrate produced in a clandestine laboratory. Improvised knife made from a prison bed frame. Shirt of journalist murdered in the Uchuraccay Massacre in Ayacucho.

Thank you. I will leave it there.


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