2012 has arrived and it can mean only one thing: the apocalypse. Will the End Times be ushered in by the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar reaching its end date? We can’t be sure until late December! What has become painfully certain, however, is that we are in an election year. And, while the economy looms large on the minds of most Americans, immigration is not far behind. Will America eventually choose a candidate who would grant “amnesty” (read: anything resembling legal status or *gasp citizenship!) to the millions of undocumented people living and working in this country, ushering in the likely demise of the U.S.? Or, will we the people elect a man patriotic enough to send all the illegal Cuban, Chinese, Honduran, and Southeast Asian immigrants back to where they came from; namely Mexico? The fate of the country and the soul of freedom hang in the balance!
At least that would seem to be the choice as presented by the Republican candidates during the never-ending cycle of G.O.P. primary debates. The language surrounding immigration, espoused by the candidates as well as other jingoist hardliners, has become so vitriolic and so reduced that hyperbole strategically crowds out any sober dialogue that addresses the complexity of the issue or pathos for the individuals most effected by immigration enforcement.
Bibiana Suárez’s exhibition entitled Memoria (Memory) at the Hyde Park Art Center attempts to catalyze that discussion through playful moderation. Tracing the influence of Latino culture in America, Suárez expresses hope and frustration while eluding anything that would resemble rhetorical bombast. The show is such a disarmingly tempered analysis of themes of Pop culture representations, identity, labor, and the dynamics of integration that it takes all the steam out of this hot button issue.
In order to create her large-scale installation of mixed media paintings and ink-jet prints, Suárez borrows the format of the game “Memory” in which players selectively turn over cards placed face down in order to find pairs of matching cards. The gallery walls are filled with one hundred and eight “playing cards” sized 23.5 inches by 23.5 inches with images depicting maps, body parts, historical images, or various phrases in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Text boxes featuring an assortment of inclusive and derogatory names for the Latino Diaspora are meant to depict the “backs” of the playing cards. The game aspect of the installation invites viewers to seek connections within the available images. It also serves as a metaphor for the ever-shifting boundaries of integration within American culture as well as the gamesmanship of the national debate.
Certain matches, such as two images titled Yo quiero no. 1/ I Want no. 1 and Yo quiero no. 2/ I Want no. 2 depicting the Chihuahua from mid-90’s Taco Bell ads, have already been made on the north and south facing walls. Not all of these combinations are identical matches, however. Conceptual matches add nuance to the artist’s themes. For example, Negrita tejaricana/ Black Texarican, an image of a brown faced, dark haired girl is matched with Blanquita tejaricana /White Texarican, the same girl with blonde hair and pink skin. Through these types of expanded connections, Suárez is able to shape a broader conversation about innocence and identity.
The exhibition does a good job of cataloging the checkered history of Latino representation throughout American popular culture, from Desi Arnaz and West Side Story to Speedy Gonzales and the Frito Bandito. These elements are presented dispassionately, as things that exist for better or worse. Their influence on how America understands Latino culture, and the message that is being reverberated back to that culture is left up to the viewer to decide. The more urgent aspects of Latino identity are treated in a similar manner. Two black and white images titled Campamento de trabajadores emigrantes después del fuego no. 1/ Migrant Labor Camp After Fire no. 1 and Campamento de trabajadores emigrantes después del fuego no. 2/ Migrant Labor Camp After Fire no. 2 depict burned bodies lying in the remains of a makeshift labor camp. Suárez acknowledges tragedy and suffering as part of the experience of Latinos without expressing any grand political statements about labor, poverty, or social justice. The artist walks a fine line between making political art and utilizing more conceptual archiving strategies adept at bypassing authoritative editorializing.
And maybe in the end that is the best course for creating a quiet space for contemplation about a decidedly loaded topic. Rather than strive to assemble an artistic broadside capable of matching the grandiosity of the apocalyptic language that surrounds the immigration debate, Suárez offers viewers a place to reassess and possibly heal. Memoria (Memory) may be a sober show, but it is also hopeful. The match for a piece titled Corazón herido/ Wounded Heart is a panel called Corazón cosido/ Sewn Heart.
Memoria (Memory) will be on view at Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, IL through March 25.