For curator E. Carmen Ramos, immigration to the United States is very much tied to the country’s foreign policies. In the art she sees that reckons with the nation’s approach to Cuba, Iraq, Central America and elsewhere, Ramos finds a deep understanding of identity and American society.
Born and raised in New York City, Ramos, a curator of Latino art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says that immigration is a prevalent theme in Latino art, whether the connection is clear or subtle. Ramos, whose family originally emigrated from the Dominican Republic, finds the debate about immigration to be both extremely important and also a very frustrating part of American life, an aspect she sees reflected in the art of those who have immigrated to the United States.
When talking with Smithsonian Second Opinion, Ramos identified five artists whose works tackle immigration in America. In each entry below, she describes her selections.
Luis Cruz Azaceta, Shifting States: Iraq
This is one of a series of paintings that Azaceta made that are kind of like portraits of countries, representations of countries that have been undergoing strife, ever since the Arab Spring. Iraq is somewhat of a different situation, because the painting also relates to the U.S. involvement in that country’s political affairs for a really long time. It’s a huge amoebic form at the center of the canvas, and coming out of it are all these suggestive representational forms, things that look like a bomb, or a satellite dish, or a ship or an oil rig, so there are all these things that relate to the Middle East and surveillance, all these suggestive iconographies emerging from the central form. It looks like something is bubbling up, like it’s becoming. Something is changing, something is growing.
One of the reasons I always think about that in terms of immigration is because Azaceta lived through the Cuban Revolution, and that was the time he immigrated to the United States. He was part of the first generation of Cuban immigrants who came to the United States right after the Revolution, really early. So he left because of the political situation; he didn’t agree with the direction of the government and he didn’t want to be conscripted into the Cuban army. He’s looking at contemporary history through the lens of his own experience, having lived through the Revolution and seeing the progression from the early part, which a lot of Cubans viewed very positively, and seeing it become something else.
Rafael Soriano, Un Lugar Distante (A Distant Place) and Candor de la Alborada (Candor of Dawn)
There are a lot of Cuban-American artists of a certain generation who really deal with migration and the challenges of migration. So you have artists like Rafael Soriano. He’s different from Luis Cruz Azaceta, in that he immigrated as a well-formed adult and artist. He already had a career in Cuba, he was an artist in Cuba. He was a geometric abstractionist, so kind of very pristine, straight-edged paintings. And then when he comes to the United States, sometimes he has a crisis, right? Like, what is he going to do? He can no longer create these crisp, knowable, clear paintings, so he kind of ventures into this very emotive, abstract, surreal images of searching and exploration. So that’s another artist that’s an interesting take on how migration affects and impacts the work of an artist, the way the artist works.
Ana Mendieta, Untitled, from the Silueta Series
Artists who emigrated as children present a different set of issues. They became artists in the United States. People like Ana Mendieta, for example — she’s another artist in our collection — very well-known for dealing with these issues of displacement, which in many ways informed a lot of her earth works, in which she had this real yearning to go back into the womb, and the earth became sort of representative of that. She did a lot of works where she merged her silhouette with the earth.
She was working during the rise of feminism, so there’s a relationship there between a lot of that womanist iconography and ancient female forms, things of that nature, although she kind of rejected feminism, or stated that she did, although I think she still very much related to those ideas and that movement.
Scherezade García, The Dominican York
“Dominican York” is a term that has been adopted by a group of Dominican-American artists in New York City, sort of how Chicano at one point was a disparaging term that was later taken on by youth, and redefined in an affirmative way. Originally, the term was very disparaging and had a kind of criminal connotation — a lot of drug dealers were called Dominican Yorks — and they kind of redefined it. So Garcia is part of this group of artists that have identified with this notion of a “Dominican York,” which is kind of a hybrid Dominican-American from New York.
Throughout her career she’s really focused on migration as an American issue — American broadly defined as the Americas, so thinking back to the migrations that have populated the Americas, from European migration to the forced migration of African slaves, so she’s always thinking about placing current migration in these global historical patterns of people moving, right?
In this work, which is acrylic and charcoal, she has this very dark little child, an angelic child, and she relates that to people of the Americas, because they’re very culturally mixed, even in the Dominican Republic where she comes from. She has this beautiful dark angel and surrounding her is this halo and these childlike drawn airplanes. There’s a lot of movement in the work. She uses a lot of sequins in the painting so it glitters a little bit, symbolic of the immigrant’s search for prosperity and the New World, as it were. She’s wearing a little sequined chain that has a plantain tree hanging from it, a crop that is very much associated with the Dominican Republic. The little dark angel is against this aqua-blue background, which is symbolic of “the liquid border,” in between the Dominican Republic and the United States.
Ramiro Gomez, magazine series
My colleague Dorothy Moss at the National Portrait Gallery is about to open up an exhibition on portraits of laborers, and there’s one artist that’s included in her show, an artist that I’d like to acquire for our collection. Ramiro Gomez is a very young artist, and he’s been doing a lot of interventions, in a way — his work is very varied. The work I initially came to know him for is, he started ripping out pages from house magazines, like Dwell, like House Beautiful, that kind of thing. So he would rip out ads or these pages from articles in these magazines and paint in laborers, mostly migrant laborers, working in these beautiful domestic spaces. They’re very interesting.
Sometimes he intervenes in these images in a very pointed way, in the way that highlights the invisibility of migrant workers, the people who prop up these middle- and upper-class lifestyles. Yeah, these houses are beautiful — but who’s maintaining them? Who’s taking care of the kids?