Three stage settings topped with multiple videos stretch across the expanse of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, featuring the autoethnographies of Heldáy de la Cruz, Julio Salgado, and Edna Vázquez, all in collaboration with multidisciplinary artist Carlos Motta. de la Cruz, Salgado, and Vázquez each share their experiences of living as undocumented migrants in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, discuss their queer sexual orientation with family members, make music honouring those who paved the way for civil rights and labour activism, and perform artistic processes of drawing and design that liberate the body-mind. They tell their own stories that dwell in the joys of artistic expression and the liminalities of compounded structural suppression faced by undocumented people living in the United States. Together, the three “chapters” of the exhibition, along with an extensive timeline of research from 1982–2020 concerning significant U.S. legislation and community-based efforts surrounding migration, challenge the borders of nationalism, heteronormative cultural expectations. The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of performances and events with the artists, a symposium designed by Carlos Motta, and fundraising efforts for local community activist organisations, such as Pueblos Unido and Voz Worker’s Rights Education Project, speaking to the deeply multidisciplinary nature of Motta’s larger practice.
Over an email exchange, Carlos Motta generously and pointedly answered queries I prompted for this collective project and how it articulates personal counter-narratives through its form in addition to its relation to Motta’s previous works that query the socio-political conditions of marginalised communities, their enmeshed ethical stakes, and the deep affective bonds that they invoke.
Your exhibition at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, co-curated by Roya Amirsoleymani and Kristan Kennedy, develops a series of work you exhibited at SFMoMA in ‘Soft Power’ and then at Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery, UC Santa Cruz in ‘We the Enemy’, both in 2020. Could you describe this body of work and its presentation at PICA?
‘We Got Each Other’s Back’ is a three-part, multi-channel video installation featuring portraits of queer artists and activists in the U.S. who are openly undocumented migrants and are actively producing work which denounces the historic and present immigration policies in the U.S. that are inherently broken. The project includes live and online events that engage the challenges faced by undocumented migrants.
Much like the first chapter of ‘We Got Each Other’s Back’, these current chapters comprise collaborations with local communities and artists. Who are your collaborators in Portland and further afield for this project?
The work includes three chapters: ‘Narrative Shifter: A Portrait of Julio Salgado’, which is a collaboration with LA-based activist and creator of the ‘Undocuqueer’ project Julio Salgado; ‘Edna Vázquez: Sola Soy (I am Alone)’ and ‘Heldáy de la Cruz: Desierto a desierto (Desert to Desert)’ with singer/songwriter Edna Vázquez and Portland-based artist Heldáy de la Cruz.
How does this work continue your discussion of immigrant identities and experiences?
The work tells real-life and nuanced stories in the first person; stories of lived experience told by Julio, Edna, and Heldáy, which range from the personal to the political, serve as examples of the hardships faced by undocumented migrants in the U.S.
The work, and your practice more broadly, engages the intersections of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, and border politics—could you share more about this intersectional perspective and how it manifests within the work?
The project emphasises the importance of thinking about the intersection of identities as foundational to understanding the levels of oppression faced by undocumented migrant communities in the U.S. The artists openly speak about how being undocumented and being queer represents both a challenge and an opportunity to speak against systemic discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and immigration status.
I was particularly struck by your work ‘The Crossing’ (2017) that I saw in ‘When Home Won’t Let You Say: Migration Through Contemporary Art’ at the ICA Boston in 2018, in which a collection of oral histories voiced by LGTBQI refugees were visually illuminated upon multiple screens. The accounts seemed to transcend categorisations of documentary or portraiture. How do you characterise such works, and do you incorporate this form in the work at PICA?
I think of these works as attempts at a process of collaborative self-representation, as documentation of pressing political issues affecting queer communities, and as a form of commemoration to underrepresented communities within institutional contexts like the museum.
At PICA the context is a little different, as it is an artist-centred institution that works intensely for and with artists. To me, PICA is the perfect venue to premiere this work, as a critique of the institution isn’t necessarily the goal (as it was in ‘The Crossing’). PICA functions as a community-driven art centre, an ally in the struggles conveyed by the work.
This idea of “we got each other’s back” references affective and political valences—positionalities that are too often misconstrued as binary. How does their intertwining function within the context of the exhibition?
‘We Got Each Other’s Back’ is a project about forming, centring, and affirming communities. At a time when the government and institutions are giving their backs to individuals and communities, the notion of “having each other’s backs” is fundamental. If we have friends and allies that can help us and one another, we can, in some ways, survive systemic adversity.