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National Poetry Month with DewMore Baltimore

Through her investigative, bio-regional maps, artist Sandy Rodriguez engages a multitude of narratives across dimensions and time periods, inviting viewers to challenge power. In these works, she processes contemporary injustices such as police brutality, rashes of immigrant detention centers, and harrowing viral videos of family separations that coexist with repeated histories of conquest and, most importantly, resistance through culture, protest, and healing.

Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based artist and educator, is a first-generation Chicana and third-generation painter informed and motivated by current human rights abuses that directly impact communities in the southwest. The artist’s investigation into color and ethnography led her to research the Florentine Codex, the pre-Columbian history of color, and maps, which influenced her latest series, Codex Rodriguez – Mondragón, a title named after her family lineage. This work incorporates native and regional plant-based pigments onto the sacred, ceremonial, and once outlawed paper called amate, referencing the Nahua traditional means of communication. The use of plant materials is significant not only for their histories but also for their medicinal and healing properties. In Rodriguez’s work, the multitude of records, documents, and natural materials offer space for various languages to be spoken in a rewritten codex, a macro and micro view of humanity in relationship with land and universe.

On Thursday, April 4, Rodriguez will be in dialogue at The Walters with Ellen Hoobler, curator of the exhibition Transformation: Art of the Americas. Rodriguez will discuss the material, technique, and history behind the centuries-old objects created by indigenous peoples across the American continents and how they communicate with contemporary issues and practices. The exhibition also serves as a source of research for future works that will take place in 2020 with the Walters. In a phone interview, Rodriguez spoke about the layers of history, the ethics of representations of violence in art, and the complexity of borders.

Sandy Rodriguez, “De los Child Detention Centers, Family Separations and Other Atrocities,” 2018, Hand-processed dyes and watercolor from native plants and earth pigments on amate paper

Tanya Garcia: You’re coming to Baltimore in connection with the Walters exhibit Transformation: Art of the Americas. What will you be discussing at your talk?

Sandy Rodriguez: We’re going to be talking about transforming materials, and I’ve walked through the exhibition when I was last there and I’m thinking about how transformation is represented within the collection at the Walters. So we’re using that as a departure point to talk about this series and when and how in the history of the Americas we have transformed materials for the making of artworks, or the idea of transformation within a variety of contexts and how it’s presented. So we’ll look at the exhibition as a jumping off point to talk about how it manifests in my contemporary practice.

In your work, there are lots of references to pre-Columbian history through material and yet there are also components that include aesthetics of European maps and the Florentine Codex. In addition, you include contemporary stories that engage with a concept of historical repetition. All these visual references to time exist in the same landscape. Can you talk a about the construction of this world you’ve created and your motivation for approaching it in this way?

I think of this series, [Codex Rodriguez – Mondragón], as an opportunity to think deeply about our current political moment, history, and cultural knowledge. We are on the 500-year anniversary of the Mexican conquest, a story written by the Nahuas [in the Florentine Codex] one generation after the conquest. It is an opportunity to reflect upon the ending of a time as we know it, our resilience, and that time can begin again. The research allows me to make sense of what it means to be a Chicana artist working in the United States during these really troubling times. My intention is to provide a range of entry points for discourse and offering up a single object that collapses time and space from moments that resonate with the time that we’re living in. So I’m intentionally calling on these visual narratives and connections with material culture to show the wealth of history, but also making those contemporary connections relevant by referencing the modern period, the colonial period, and the times in between.

That’s interesting because the contemporary period can’t exist without all these things happening as well—even our identities are made more complex by these histories. How does this work relate to your identity as a Chicana?

I’m motivated by both horror and hope, love and joy. Being able to make sense of the atrocities that we’re bearing witness to every day, week, and even years in our feeds. I’m trying to negotiate my feelings about it and take action through creating these objects that will continue a conversation. I’m the first-generation Chicana born in the border region, from three generations of Mexican painters. And what really motivates me is presenting a history that’s lesser known and providing opportunities for rich discussion that’ll continue on long after the newsfeeds are gone and the next horrific story is in the front of our minds.

Right, which is almost every other hour at this point.

I know! Yesterday I was at the hospital and I just got there and I was looking on my phone and I saw the pictures of the families that are being detained under the freeways in El Paso in cages. And right now I’m just finishing up a map of the caging of people in Los Angeles and the same freaking photograph from 1954, from “Operation Wetback” here in Los Angeles, had families and people just behind cages, locked up in Elysian Park, in a public place. And here we are, a generation later and it’s the same shit, different day, and how quickly do we forget, you know?

Right, we want to assume or believe that progress is linear; we’ll make excuses for people in the past because of the context of the time that they were living in, but it’s not so different from what’s occurring now.

Installation view of “Mapa de Los Angeles” at Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery

Similar to some areas in LA that you mention, Baltimore is a city that is under constant surveillance and policing—especially in certain parts of the city. You include records of instances of oppression within the landscape of your work. Sometimes it’s a notation of a historical date when someone was killed by police, imagery from a viral video, and shadows of a helicopter representing imperialism. How do you consider imagery as a way of telling a collective and complex story?

I have a long history of creating work around issues that are critical to our present moment. Some of the works that I started 20 years ago were about mass incarceration, or about communities in resistance to revitalization. And they looked different 20 years ago. They were images of Los Angeles on fire, and the prisons, and they were more painterly, in the landscape tradition. But in 2014, a number of protests began happening against police brutality and I actually did a number of paintings about Baltimore.

It’s a complex kind of collective storytelling that’s part of our history, to pull from popular images that we’re seeing. I take captures of viral videos; I go back and I look to other images of resistance, images that are presenting in a visual, concrete way a throughline to make sense of what we’re seeing. I try to layer those contemporary scenes to jog personal memory about the subject. But then I go in and I start looking for recent scholarship on how these types of stories have been represented in the Americas, to talk about images of power, to look at how we can keep these conversations going. [In the process of creating my work] there will be like a hundred images surrounding a large map. And then it becomes a matter of prioritizing how to, in a nuanced way, layer these histories so that there’s discovery each time you’re engaging with the map and that each conversation in front of it can not only perform a contemporary history, but question into other narratives that are parallel to the present.

That makes sense in terms of what a narrative essentially is: containing multitudes of different stories. Complicating the visuals with notes on the maps so that every time you come back, you’re learning something new, that’s a visual representation of that multiplicity as well.

In the second map, “De las Señales Pronosticós y I.C.E. Raids en el Sanctuary state de Califas,” it’s trying to make sense of that lash of immigration raids where residents of California were being punished in a sanctuary state and they were being rounded up, and thinking about these moments where you see fully armored Customs and Border Enforcement officials and then juxtapose that with the colonial images of the conquest of Mexico, when you have all of these men in suits of armor with their hands on brown bodies, capturing people. It is just so crystal-clear how you can pull those visual throughlines and add a layer to this experience. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. We will live through this also.

In Book 12 of the Florentine Codex [which documents the Spanish conquest of Mexico], you have all of the different vessels that transported Spaniards, and the different weapons that were used in this war. And I went deep into the Customs and Border Enforcement website to find a list of all the air and land vehicles that are used to hunt and capture residents in the US, all the air vehicles, all of the land vehicles, all of the marine vessels, and they all have the most ridiculous names. I do a lot of this [in my work] so that everything is completely researched and it’s all based on actual fact. None of this is fiction. It looks more outrageous than people might believe, you know?

But it’s real, and that’s what’s so absurd about it. Going back to some of your work involving flames and fires as a sort of omen, I’m also thinking about the way you use land, and how the oppression of land is often described in parallel with human oppression and, in particular, the oppression of women. How do you see this occurring within your work and how do you incorporate resistance within your work?

When we’re looking at, for example, the immigration raid painting, there’s a couple of vignettes that are on the right-hand side. One is the capture of Perla Morales, a mother captured in National City—the place where I was born near the US-Mexico border—and that was that viral video where she was snatched directly off the sidewalk and she was with her screaming and crying daughter. I’m just getting chewed up thinking about that video. And right underneath it, I put the image of the rapid response legal network—pro-bono immigrant attorneys and immigrant rights activists that are showing up every time there is a whisper of an immigration raid. So, while you have these scenes of resistance that feature female figures, it’s important to think about how these figures are part of contemporary history. When you’re looking at a lot of different text, you hear a lot more about the male contributions. In the first map [I made], I took out all the male painter-scribes, and I dropped myself in to reference a matrilinear history of our generation’s cultural production in the Americas. So whether it’s through putting myself or other women in the works as agents of change, it’s something that I’m very aware of.

Sandy Rodriguez, “Sauco- Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea,” 2018, Hand-processed dyes and watercolor from native plants and earth pigments on amate paper

In your map pieces, you use other life forms such as plants or animals or lands—or those fires, which we often think of as the result of human negligence, but fire also has a natural connotation with rebirth, starting over, cleansing spaces, and so on. I see a lot of these plants and animals and landscapes as having their own stories. How do you put them in intentionally, in parallel with our own history?

Our relationship to plants and animals and the earth has changed so dramatically in the modern period that the ways in which we see elements of the natural world are very separate from our lived experience. I go out for field study trips to regions that are really diverse in the United States southwest where I walk the contested land, I research with an herbalist the plants and their uses, and engage with the other living inhabitants by basically camping out off the grid for about a week. I learn what I can about the animals and the plants that I’ve encountered from contemporary engagement. And then I go back into colonial texts to understand how these resources were used in the historic period: What do we know about them? How have they been used for food, for spirituality, for medicine? What parts are processed for color? Lastly, I’ll take the color that I’ve extracted from that source, and I’ll integrate it into the work. Getting into the various representations of what these symbols mean in different time periods allows me to think more conceptually about how and what I’m evoking by using these elements within the work.

Earlier on, you touched on the depiction of scenes from viral videos. How does your platform as an artist offer a place to reconcile and deal with something that’s traumatic? And as a viewer, or as a witness as we all are witnessing this through the news, how do we process or respond to that?

It’s different with every single map. I was working on a map of the people who had been killed by LAPD in Los Angeles. And it was for an exhibition at the Municipal Art Gallery. When I learned that a third of the police killings in the state happen in LA county, I was instantly motivated by a lot of very intense feelings to capture this in a different way. That turned into a nighttime sky map with comets, the constellations, owls in the sky, a moment to seduce viewers from a distance, to get them to come up and marvel at this beautiful starry night with comets. And then to really look at the LA landscape, to locate their own homes and places of work, and then in those plot points on the map I dropped in little red dots to stand in for all of the residents that had been gunned down in their front yards, on the freeway, wherever it happened to have happened.

I also layered in lynchings in the 19th century that happened in downtown LA where communities of color were targeted and basically snatched by vigilantes and then hung out in the public. At the same time, I put in medicinal plants that are healing plants for these regions. I had multiple conversations with the curator where I was worried, and I am worried always about depicting these traumatic moments without retraumatizing the viewer. What if the neighbor, the daughter, the cousin to one of these people walked into the gallery and sees this? Is this a respectful way of preserving this moment, this memory, and calling attention to things that don’t make the headlines? Through offering up the medicinal plants and the other elements of fauna that populate the scene, there is an attempt to present this story in a respectful way that allows for many types of conversations to happen, but you can’t ignore the subject.

Right, it’s a fine line to try to present something that is really difficult, but it’s the truth and it’s also really ugly and painful. In a previous interview you did, you talked about how in the maps, there’s these little spots that are kind of reddish, that look like a rash—

Where the detention centers are. You know, when you have 80 percent of the native population wiped out by disease in the colonial period, all these images of native bodies with sores and pox all over them, that history is repeated time and time again with these colonial moves. The population of Los Angeles also had the same decimation over time, from the mission into the early 1800s. When we’re talking about a plague on the skin of a people, it’s a plague on the skin of the land as well.

Sandy Rodriguez, detail from “De los Child Detention Centers, Family Separations and Other Atrocities,” 2018

You often include visual references through your maps of borders and nations. How do you negotiate the complications of borders and nations and land within the work? In one way, people often want to identify with a nation, but there’s complexity to the nation as an empire.

With the “Child Detention Centers, Family Separations, and Other Atrocities” map, I was working specifically with an 1841 map of the territory that used to be [called] Alta of Mexico prior to the annexation of the western US. These borders, these artificial boundaries that have been put into place are marked in various ways on these maps. I’m thinking about the border—I’m from the border, I was born in National City, I’ve lived on both sides of the border. My family has crossed back and forth for generations depending on political and economic climate. We are a people that migrate, our plants migrate, our animals migrate. This is how we live in this territory. It’s interesting to do that research, represent this contested territory in a way that speaks to these unnatural boundaries and these complex ways in which we understand migration and immigration.

How do you incorporate education in the process or the presentation of your work?

I spent 20 years working in museum education departments for a number of institutions. Working with objects to teach history, to teach relevant current moments, is extraordinary and powerful. I had a residency with the Recuperative Care Center in 2016-2017. And they offered me a chance to come into a homeless facility near downtown LA to work with homeless clients, therapists, and hospital administrators to create an art program. These are neighbors and residents of my city that are homeless, that are coming out of ICU but don’t have a place to call home. They’re put up in this facility while they look for housing and finish changing their bandages. I created a weekly program where at first we just kind of engaged with one another and told stories. It was a very different audience, from having taught K-12 teachers and the general public or art museum-goers versus going into a hospital to make artwork together and to talk about the raw materials that are used in the history of color.

The majority of my audience were people of color and they were elders, and I’d pull out something like cochinilla, or cochineal, and say, “Hey, this is a powerful color that has been used for painting and for all these other things.” We would smell it, we would grind it, we would process it and paint with it, and then talk about the associated plant that it required to grow on, the cactus. It became this level playing field where we all were sharing our experiences with these materials and making abstract art together with the color that we were using—sometimes narratives and sometimes maps, but it’s through art that we can bring community together, and it’s through these civic projects that we can mobilize communities in different ways that are important and powerful within these difficult times.

“Material Transformations,” a conversation with artist Sandy Rodriguez and curator Ellen Hoobler, will take place at the Walters Art Museum on Thursday, April 4 from 6:30–7:15 p.m.

Images courtesy of Sandy Rodriguez and the Walters.

Tanya Garcia is an educator and interdisciplinary artist based in Baltimore, MD. Using pedagogy, oral history, and media, Garcia asks the audience to confront the complexity of geographical and socio-political narratives.

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