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Edgar Reyes Captures Life Shaped by Work, Migration, Family, Loss

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Edgar Reyes’ grandma knows that when he comes to visit her in Guadalajara, he’s going straight for that one dresser drawer that’s full of photos and messages from the past. He will pull out the drawer, place it on the kitchen table, on top of the shiny, floral tablecloth, and start with his questions.

“Who’s this? Who’s that? Why do you have this? Can I open this letter that somebody mailed to you in 1994?” Reyes recounts the dialogue. That 1994 letter held a Polaroid photo that he’d sent his grandma from Virginia, where he and his mom had just started to settle in. “I was blown away because I was, like, six years old. I don’t remember taking this picture. I could imagine my mom making me write the note on the Polaroid to send to her.”

Only occasionally does Reyes’ grandmother let him actually take any of those treasured photos back with him; more often, he photographs them and uses the images in his digital collages, installations, and prints. “My grandma doesn’t like getting rid of photos,” Reyes says. “She likes me seeing them and photographing them.”

That Polaroid photo appears in a piece in Reyes’ current solo show, Fragments at VisArts in Rockville; it’s reproduced within a large collage printed on billowy chiffon. In the photo, young Reyes looks overjoyed, mouth agape, sitting close to his smiling mother. On the wall behind them, a small icon of Jesus Christ keeps watch, nestled into the photo’s upper right corner. The white border bears a handwritten caption: “Con mucho cariño para mi Abuelita” (with much love for my Grandma). The clarity of this photo anchors the rest of the piece, which is awash in dreamy, technicolor clouds and modular plants that glitch and cut out just like memory does. Installed in the gallery, the piece itself never stays stagnant, just like memory doesn’t; the room’s airflow makes the delicate chiffon undulate.

 

Edgar Reyes, “Cariño,” digital print on chiffon, 53 x 53 inches and “Life,” found objects

 

Both past and contemporary images of Reyes’ family and their connections to land, culture, and religion appear throughout Fragments. The work is part archive, part homage, an accumulation of intergenerational memory and experiences shaped by migration, displacement, loss, and work. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Reyes and his mother moved to the United States when he was around five years old. He has early memories of Mexico and the migration, but most of his memories are from Northern Virginia, where they eventually settled, and where his mother and his step-dad, who migrated from El Salvador in the ‘90s, and his younger sisters still live. 

Reyes’ art hasn’t always been so personal. His undergraduate education in graphic design and photography at Lynchburg College (now the University of Lynchburg) prepared him to consider art and design as trades and to focus more on commercial work. It wasn’t until he moved to Baltimore that he began digging into his own life experiences through his art. MICA’s Community Arts MFA program brought Reyes to Baltimore in 2012, and he recalls, that same year, reading about then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake offering a “welcome mat” to Latinx immigrants as part of her plan to regrow the city’s population. That intrigued him as an opportunity to connect with the local immigrant community and work creatively and collaboratively within it. Much of his community art has involved mural projects around Baltimore, painted with other artists and young people, and afterschool programs with the nonprofit Latino and immigrant advocacy organization CASA

Like most art school curricula, Reyes’ undergrad education was predominantly white and Eurocentric. But in grad school, he discovered a book that opened doors for him: Mexico and Modern Printmaking: A Revolution in the Graphic Arts, 1920 to 1950, published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When Reyes learned that the first known book published in the Americasa Catholic religious text—had been printed in Mexico in 1539, in the indigenous language Nahuatl, he saw it as a revelatory sign of the imposition of Catholic doctrine upon native peoples. “Hearing that was like a weight had been lifted, but also I felt like I had been ripped apart,” Reyes says. “Nobody taught me this.” 

 

Edgar Reyes, "Empty Vessel," found objects
Edgar Reyes, "Sophie," digital print on Chiffon, 54 x 36 inches

Of all the artists in Mexico and Modern Printmaking, Reyes identifies most strongly with the printmaker and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, who was born in Washington, DC but lived most of her adult life in Cuernavaca, Mexico, making art that was influenced by labor movements, motherhood and families, and the varied and shared experiences of Black womanhood and Mexican life. Reyes connects with Catlett in part because her migration from DC to Mexico is the reverse of his. “Her story gets so intertwined in so many movements,” Reyes adds. “For many reasons, both the Black community and the Mexican community claim her as part of their movement.”

Catlett’s move to Mexico in the late 1940s illustrates how political and social mores about migration fluctuate, especially when we shift our perspective away from the United States, which has always found ways to restrict immigration with ever-increasing brutality.

“I feel like people underestimate how progressive different parts of the world are,” Reyes says, adding that when sports like baseball were still segregated in the US, Black athletes went to Mexico to play under better conditions and for higher pay. Similarly, after facing all manners of racism, segregation, and dismal pay as an educator in the US, Catlett found refuge in Mexico at the print studio Taller de Gráfica Popular and eventually as the head of National Autonomous University of Mexico’s sculpture department—“one of the most renowned art departments in Mexico,” Reyes notes. “It’s just nuts to me that the US basically told her, no, you can’t do that here.”

 

Edgar Reyes, “Flor” and “Doña Mary,” digital prints on chiffon, 96 x 36 inches each

 

The continuing tendency of the US to punish people migrating here, using border walls and detention centers, grates against our natural, human inclination to go where opportunity lies, where we can make a life. The country’s role in aiding and abetting conflict in numerous countries, and thus influencing the conditions under which more and more people would need to seek refuge elsewhere, is another infuriating dynamic.

Reyes’ grandparents and great-grandparents had migrated in and out of Mexico at different points in their lives for various reasons, including work, “so this idea of migration has never been new and was never seen as right or wrong,” the artist says. His grandmother, Sixta, still lives in Mexico. His grandfather, Quirino, lived there until his death—he had been ill while Reyes was making this work, and he died shortly after the exhibition went up. Much of the work on view references Quirino and his life’s work of cultivating land and selling nopales (cactus) and cattle. 

 

Edgar Reyes, Quirino, digital print on polyester, 54 x 72 inches

The large, digitally collaged “Sixta” is printed on polyester, and it is texturally reminiscent of those old-fashioned, plasticky tablecloths that all grandmas of a certain era seem to have owned. The collage includes a retro floral design superimposed over a big family photo, with a bright field and sunny landscape receding into the background. In the center is a picture of Sixta sitting under a canopy, selling corn—something she still does out of a fierce desire for independence and self reliance. She smiles with the same openness that emanates from young Reyes’ face in the aforementioned Polaroid.

To the left is a companion piece, “Quirino,” of the same proportions, but here the chatter of a family photo is replaced with the serenity of a field of cactus. The field’s colors have been altered into a monochrome of vivid, solemn, and otherworldly shades of blue. In the center: an old picture of Quirino sitting on a donkey and holding what looks like a basket.

These two memorable portraits feel reverential and subtly iconic. The figures’ physical distance in two separate works could be seen as a reference to their separation as a couple about thirty years ago, though they remained technically married in the eyes of the Catholic church. Hanging in the middle of these portraits are two narrow, almost floor-to-ceiling chiffon banners featuring more family members and flowers, their colors intensified and lively as they ripple and flow between the parental figures and the land.

Tending to, harvesting, and selling plants are integral to this family’s line and livelihood, but there’s a healing element to cultivation too. “Both my grandparents seek refuge in caring for plants. My grandfather has always kept chile plants and all sorts of different fruiting plants at his house, and then he would plant them in his farm or sell them to people,” Reyes says. “Same thing with my grandmother. My dream, I guess, is to have her backyard in Mexico—she has a little lemon tree, and a whole bunch of roses and flowers.”

 

From Edgar Reyes: Fragments (L-R): Nopal, digital print on woven canvas, 16 x 24 inches; Cages, digital print on woven canvas, 24 x 16 inches; Abuela, digital print on woven canvas, 16 x 24 inches
Tending to, harvesting, and selling plants are integral to this family’s line and livelihood, but there’s a healing element to cultivation too.
Rebekah Kirkman

In a photo printed on a sturdy woven canvas, “El Rancho,” a soft-featured and machete-gripping young man (Reyes’ cousin) stands at an edge that overlooks Quirino’s farm in the valley, beyond which low mountains loom. Overlaid onto this scene is a close-up photo of Reyes’ grandfather fiddling with barbed wire. In the upper right corner, or in the sky, Quirino is wearing a small necklace of La Virgen de Talpa. A similar necklace, as well as one with Jesus Christ embroidered with the finickiest tiny stitches, rest on a plinth a few feet away, the cords tangled around an ear of corn—a quietly critical admission of the way that faith and reverence to the church are bound up in both his family’s history as well as the predominantly Catholic country of Mexico. 

As part of his research into indigenous icons, figures, and traditions, Reyes has been researching how Catholicism first came to Mexico, how Spanish colonizers attracted native inhabitants to the religion by hybridizing indigenous traditions and beliefs with Catholic ones. An early figuration of La Virgen de Talpa (the representation of the Virgin Mary in Reyes’ town) from around the 1600s closely resembled the Aztec goddess Cōātlīcue, and was created with traditional materials like corn husks and paper mache, until the Church could send an official icon. “The fact that they made people believe this, that they could create something holy from an indigenous, traditional way of creating icons, is really interesting to me,” Reyes says. Various small figurines of Mary, and one of this Aztec goddess, are arranged on altar-like plinths in the show, a small reclamation of the artist’s own indigenous roots, which were “completely stripped away from me and my family” through generations of assimilation. 

Within a trio of other photo prints on canvas, on the left is a set of hands trimming nopales, slicing off the prickly spines with a knife. In a photo on the right, a woman stands in front of colorful apartment buildings, gazing up at something that seems out of the frame, or perhaps at the humble-looking crucifix adorning an apartment doorway in the upper left corner. Between these two, a mural of the Virgin Mary recedes behind a padlocked gate. Reyes says that after the mural was originally painted, a drunk person threw a molotov at her. “Nothing happened to the mural,” Reyes says, “but to preserve the mural, they created this—basically, she’s in prison.”

He connects this caged religious icon to the thousands of children and families who are separated at the US border and caged in detention centers—what many have termed concentration camps—and the obvious incongruity of the religious right turning a blind eye to the un-Christlike way we treat immigrants in this country. 

 

Edgar Reyes, "Itzpapalotl," digital print on canvas, 144 x 36 inches
Edgar Reyes, "Mami," digital print on woven canvas, 36 x 24 inches
Edgar Reyes, "Colonial Hold," devotional scapulars, corn
Edgar Reyes, "El Rancho," digital print on woven canvas, 24 x 36 inches
It’s not about smoothing over the rough spots or hiding problems, but it’s about understanding the conditions that created them, and finding something compelling or even liberating to say about it. 
Rebekah Kirkman

Although the artist ponders these big-picture contexts and histories, he always circles back to examine how it all touches his life. This personal perspective becomes a way to unearth truths about his family and eventually functions as a form of healing and understanding, and maybe even disrupting, the cycle of inherited trauma. “I have to be vulnerable, and I have to be willing to unpack some very emotionally heavy stuff with my family before I make other people become emotionally invested in sharing their story,” Reyes says. 

He takes seriously his role within his family and as an artist, preserving these stories in order to map and identify what has shaped their lives. “I feel like many stories, unfortunately, are just forgotten,” he says. “Not just for immigrants, but for a lot of people, if we’re not significant in history, if our families are moving from place to place, things just get left.”

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the senses of loss, distance, and connection that resound in Reyes’ work. “I haven’t been able to go back to breathe the air where I was born,” Reyes says. Although the emotional effects of travel restrictions, distance, and isolation are new for many in the United States, they are not new for immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, whose freedom of movement is restricted by punitive laws. 

Even as Reyes is intimately aware of all these enervating and maddening aspects to both the process and perception of immigration in the US, almost none of that energy escapes into his work. Sensationalized depictions of entire countries like Mexico, or of cities like Baltimore—which Reyes has called home for several years—are sure to persist, with a mainstream narrative that exploits tragedy, pain, and struggle. In Baltimore, many artists find brilliant ways to subvert or reframe those narratives through their work. It’s not about smoothing over the rough spots or hiding problems, but it’s about understanding the conditions that created them, and finding something compelling or even liberating to say about it. 

As his family’s own historian, Reyes seems invested in keeping and sharing their stories with great care in multifaceted ways. “Any other place in the world, there’s beautiful and there’s ugly things. And I find it really important, when I travel through Mexico and go to my family’s house, I want to see these pictures, I want to see us thriving,” Reyes says. “I want to see—what did you keep? What are those moments that you actually kept? And why did you keep them—can you tell me the story behind them?”

 

Installation of Edgar Reyes: Fragments at VisArts

All images courtesy of the artist

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