Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn from Atlanta follows two previous drawing exhibitions organized by Atlanta’s High Museum of Art showcasing the work of artists based in and around the city. Where the preceding exhibitions—Drawing Inside the Perimeter and Sprawl! Drawing Outside the Lines—took form as packed surveys featuring dozens of artists each, Of Origins and Belonging narrows its presentation to six artists: Jessica Caldas, Xie Caomin, Yehimi Cambrón, Wihro Kim, Dianna Settles, and Cosmo Whyte. Each of these artists has a personal connection to immigration: Caomin and Whyte came to the U.S. to study as adults; Caldas, Kim, and Settles are the children and grandchildren of immigrants; and Cambrón is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient. I recently sat down with five of the artists—Whyte was in London for the opening of a group show featuring his work at Somerset House—and curator Michael Rooks to discuss the exhibition and the personal and political questions it explores. Our conversation was conducted in person in June 2019 and has been edited for publication.
Logan Lockner: Michael, this is the third in a series of Atlanta-focused drawing exhibitions you’ve worked on here at the High over the past few years. I was hoping you’d be able to contextualize this show in that series and talk about what the previous iterations looked like in comparison.
Michael Rooks: The first two shows happened in 2013 and 2015. The intention was to do this every couple of years. They came out my introduction to a lot of artists’ practices in Atlanta in my first few years here and wanting to provide a platform within the museum—this place that represents a complex set of power structures in the art world but also in Atlanta—for the unique voices that represent different perspectives in the city. The first two shows were really about taking a snapshot of what was going on at that time and were not organized around a theme. This show took longer to get going because we were in a period of transition in 2017 when the next show would have happened, and that transition included thinking about the reinstallation of the permanent collection and all of the new priorities that our new director brought to the institution—including a new ethos, frankly, that’s been transformative.
For this iteration, [High Museum director] Rand [Suffolk] and I talked about presenting a different kind of show organized around a mission-driven idea that could also provide a space for more work by each artist, as opposed to one or two drawings—less artists, more room.
LL: The previous shows were large surveys including dozens of artists, right?
MR: The first included around forty, and the second, seventy-three, I think?
LL: So six artists is a consolidation? [Laughter]
MR: Yeah, a radical consolidation! I was really proud of that second show, but there was criticism about it being a big, sprawling show—named Sprawl!, after all—and that it was confusing, with too many directions. But that was the point, that this was a cacophony made up of so many different approaches to art-making.
LL: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a question I was recently asked about whether or not art had become too politicized, which strikes me as being dependent on who is making the art, who is presenting it, and who is viewing it. You mention this show being organized around a socially driven idea—around these questions of origin and belonging, immigration and family. How did you come to articulate that idea as a curator?
MR: What you’ve said reminds me of a line by filmmaker Pratibha Parmar quoted by bell hooks in her essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”: “The appropriation and use of space are political acts”—regardless of the content of the work. Depending upon the urgent priorities and issues that drive what people do in their studios or in their daily lives, that fluctuates. I come out of a somewhat hybridized background: I was a sort of dorky art historian guy, and I never wanted to be an activist. But I had to become one sort of out of necessity in the late 80s by attending ACT UP protests and kiss-ins in Chicago, and then curating shows at the MCA Chicago about AIDS awareness. At the time, I felt somewhat tokenized, as though I was supposed to know everything about AIDS and activism when, in fact, I studied French realism and, later on, postwar American painting.
I don’t see where those two things—art and politics—are mutually exclusive. You can address things that are urgent and pose existential questions while also making work that provides aesthetic and visual pleasure. This red hot debate about immigration that has captured the collective consciousness of the entire country seemed worth considering in the context of Atlanta. With this exhibition, I didn’t want to provide any answers but instead ask questions. I asked these artists, “If you believe that cultural difference and cultural belonging can coexist, how is that reflected in your work and in your experiences?”
Jessica Caldas: As for the person who asked if art is becoming too political, I would challenge that and suggest it’s only political to those whose have had the luxury and privilege of not having their whole lives politicized. Certain acts are political just by virtue of who is doing them and how they exist in the world. I’m resistant to this idea that things are newly political.
Xie Caomin: For me, art is politics. You cannot separate them. I remember several years ago I read an article by Jacques Rancière where he discusses “the distribution of the sensible.” Within aesthetics, even something as simple as a postcard you buy at the market is political: it reflects certain ideologies, class values, and the stratification of society. You can’t separate the two, so art can’t be too political. Think about impressionism: you may say, “Impressionists paint landscapes, so that’s just pure landscape,” but obviously not. It reflects the priorities of that time and the emergence of new capitalist ideologies in Europe.
Yehimi Cambrón: I painted my first mural—showing a monarch butterfly—at a Cuban restaurant in 2017. I used the mural as a platform to advocate for the protection of undocumented youth, and after a year of it being there, someone spray painted over the hashtag “Here to Stay.” Shortly after I fixed the mural, the owners of the restaurant contacted me saying they didn’t want to get involved with politics and the DACA debate. “We want to remain neutral,” they said. My first feeling was one of being censored and silenced, and then I realized that in my situation [as an undocumented person] I don’t have that option of being neutral. This is my life. It was only political because my existence is politicized. My artwork isn’t necessarily about politics. In some ways, I feel like I’m trying to take that back—that politicized narrative and the way we talk about immigrants and specifically immigrant parents—and redefine it into something more human and true to who we really are.
XC: Even without addressing content, the activity of painting on a wall as opposed to a canvas can be a political gesture. Who is painting the mural? Who is looking at the mural?
Dianna Settles: I think part of what feels fraught or threatening to some people who may feel like their narratives are becoming increasingly irrelevant is just the simple fact that historically there has been so little attention placed on fine arts spaces for people whose experiences are not very European or very white. It’s easy and maybe lazy to say that exhibitions like this are only happening because immigration is a hot button issue, but it also must be a strange confrontation for people who have generally been able to identify with the victors—or the oppressors—of history.
XC: I totally agree with Benedict Anderson’s definition of nations as “imagined political communities.” Imagined. When I was in China, I didn’t really have to think about who I was. When I saw dumplings, they were just dumplings. But here [in the U.S.], they’re Chinese food. [Laughter]
The first year I was in graduate school in the United States, during an in-class critique, I realized that my classmates—none of whom were Chinese; I was the only Chinese student—expected me to share some sort of exotica or classified information with them through art. When they looked at my work, they expected to see a dragon or a Buddha or something. It was like they were trying to find something in my work that proved I was different from them. When I painted a seascape, for example, they would say, “Ah, you have a special connection with this”—I don’t know—“voidness and serenity.” They expected something different. Eventually I thought, “You know, maybe I am Chinese.” [Laughter]
But, you know, I discovered over time that my painting always lacks a central figure, or the traditional foreground-background relationship, and then I started to use other people’s eyes to look at my work. I tried to use others’ perspectives to construct myself or the fantasy of self. I can imagine that if I were sitting at this table with a group of artists and curators in China that they would say, “Well, now that you’ve lived in the West for so many years, what is your experience?” So the definition of self is not solid, and you only reveal certain information about yourself based on the context. I think for a nation it is much the same. Of course we know the idea that undocumented workers are stealing white people’s jobs is a fantasy, but what’s important is trying to understand where that fantasy comes from and how to face it.
LL: I wanted to ask about how each of you approaches figuration and what role it plays in your work. For Yehimi, for example, it appears that representing figures who may otherwise be socially invisible is very important, whereas it seems the figure isn’t as much of a priority for others.
Wihro Kim: Throughout most of my life, I tried to run away from myself—feeling like there’s a place somewhere else where it’s better, where I can exist, and I think I was able to find some power in that, tapping into that kind of magic, and I tried to make portals into it. Recently I’ve been thinking that you can’t run away from yourself, but I still want to do that thing that makes me feel good and powerful. The way I’ve reconciled it is along the same lines of what others have said: as a politicized being, if I make work that is honest, the work is inherently political. I don’t really address identity explicitly, but I want to do what is honest for my experience. Perhaps that shows that people whose situations are similar to mine have as many infinite nuances as anybody else.
I have been working more with the figure lately, and I’m not completely sure why yet. A figure is so strong.
LL: There’s a self-portrait in the show, right?
WK: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess. It’s kind of a line drawing going into the land. It’s like a symbol. I guess it’s me, but it also acts as a portal. When I use something like a line drawing, I can use it as a way to play with space. It’s putting my body into it, in a way.
YC: I can add about the figure. When Michael approached me about being a part of this, I couldn’t think of anything better to put on the walls of the High Museum than the faces of my family. I wanted to portray the complexities of these people—through the lines of their faces, through their gaze in each portrait—as a way of inviting others to learn more about the complexities of mixed-status families in general and the complexities of each individual, as well. When you’re standing in front of a portrait of someone who is looking right at you, how can you look away? It’s not an “undocumented immigrant” anymore or an “illegal alien”—which is not a correct term—it’s a human being and an individual.
JC: I feel similarly to what you’re saying about using family portraits to talk about these broader issues of representation or identity. In the past few years, I’ve been using more old family photos in my work. Part of that was my response to grappling with this issue of Puerto Rican identity on a personal level but also recognizing it as something broader socially, and I struggled with how to show that without othering the people I’m depicting. I’ve found that even though the family photos I’m referencing are very specific to my experience, they’re also the kind of images that are common across different backgrounds.
XC: I want to also talk about belonging. In this title—Of Origins and Belonging—belonging is an important word. For me, it’s nothing about, “I belong to a certain culture or heritage.” It’s more like the discourse between lovers: “You belong to me, I belong to you.” It is a very challenging journey to love somebody, to let myself belong to somebody. This is so hard. So what about love between different nations, different cultures? This is not necessarily a happy experience: it takes courage and requires a risk. But why do we still want love? Why do we make art?
Right now, I’m learning English, and it’s a challenging experience for me, just as listening to me is probably a challenging experience for all of you. But we need that. We need to belong to each other. It can be a terrible experience, but it’s still the best experience possible.
Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn from Atlanta is on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through September 29.