Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Raquel de Anda

It’s been a difficult year, to say the least. Between police shootings, vitriol against immigrants, and millions of stranded refugees, it would be easy and even understandable to feel impotent when facing crises that require such broad systemic change.

But Raquel de Anda has never doubted her ability to stimulate progress. A curator and cultural producer, de Anda has spent her career challenging the status quo, and seeking to give agency to artists and communities whose voices have traditionally been excluded from the mainstream social and political spheres. She began her career as a curator at San Francisco’s Galería de la Raza, one of the nation’s earliest gallery spaces to represent Latino and Chicano artists. Since then, she has curated gallery exhibits around Chicana artists and climate change; helped organize artists for the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York; served as associate producer for Question Bridge: Black Males, which explores black male identity through a series of streaming interviews and conversations; and produced the transmedia Argus Project, whose centerpiece is a wearable sculpture that protects its wearer while also monitoring and recording police behavior. Recently, we spoke with de Anda about her formation as an arts activist, what qualities she looks for in artists, and the different ways art can have impact within the gallery setting versus the public sphere.

NEA: How did your interest in the arts first develop?

RAQUEL DE ANDA: My first memory of making art is going to my parents' friend, Michael Tracy's, house in San Ygnacio, which is about 45 minutes from Laredo. He would have this giant Dias de los Muertos celebration, and everyone would come together and we'd make sugar skulls. I remember making those skulls and seeing papel picado around us, and all of these beautiful dried roses that he had spread throughout the house. It was a way of being. It was the aesthetics of the culture that really influenced me and my understanding of what art was.

There was a lot of that growing up as a child. Being politicized and understanding what it meant to be Mexican American, in a border town where pretty much everybody was Mexican American—that was also very much a part of my upbringing. Our doctors, our lawyers, our teachers—everybody was Mexican. So being Mexican for me never meant that you couldn't strive for greatness.

My parents were also very much in the civil rights movement. My mom and aunt started our city's first sex education program, and my father is a civil rights attorney. I have so many different memories of my parents protesting, or trying to stop a nuclear dump in the city, or organizing to allow the Pastors for Peace to enter Cuba with this bus filled with electronics and technology for children and families. All of these memories aligned with my understanding of identity and what it meant to be a citizen; what it meant to be human in this world.

So I was surrounded by a lot of that intersection between art, identity, and politics. It was kind of all the same for me, because art for me at that point was really more about culture and upbringing and identity.  

NEA: How has being bilingual and bicultural shaped who you are as a curator and as an art activist?

DE ANDA: Being bilingual and bicultural is integral to who I am as an individual. Growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border really helped me understand the need for bridges—the need for creating understanding across difference. Being bicultural allows you to see the world from different perspectives. In a way, it expands your empathy for understanding how different people navigate through and experience the world. Within my individual practice, I often try to create new forms of meaning, new ways of understanding, to create bridges, so that when people walk into a space, they can understand how other people navigate through the world. So it is very much a part of who I am as a curator within galleries, outside of galleries, and as an organizer. It's being able to have that fluidity of practice and of thought that I think allows me to enter into different spaces.

Man in armored suit

A video still from The Argus Project. The centerpiece of this transmedia project was a wearable countersurveillance suit that offered both physical protection and monitoring and recording of police officers. The project debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo courtesy of The Argus Project

NEA: Can you talk about the different ways that you build those bridges in a gallery setting versus within the public sphere?

DE ANDA: Galleries are important because they create validity. They create a certain value of a person's identity, or of a story, of history. So [to build those bridges] means figuring out a way of listening to hear whose stories are not being included in the dominant dialogue, and finding ways of bringing those stories to those spaces that have traditionally been exclusionary—where people of color have not often been included. So the first step is bringing people's stories in.

The second step is figuring out what communities these people have connections to that can be invited in. Oftentimes within alternative art spaces, galleries, institutions, it takes agency to open up a door and decide that you want to enter into that space. That alone comes with its own sense of authority. So you can both show artwork, but then you can also host a variety of different programs that allow people to feel comfortable in different ways. Individuals are complex beings. We learn differently. We all celebrate and enjoy the world differently. So for me, thinking about the kinds of programs and who we're catering to is partially what that bridge is.

Within the public art world, it's really about intervening. Sometimes that looks like using a billboard—which is generally used for commercial purposes—as a form of expression, to exert a person's voice, or to showcase a symbol that is representative of something. A few years ago there was an action on the National Mall that was developed by Miguel Luciano and CultureStrike that was part of an exhibition that I curated on social practice at Washington Project for the Arts, hosted at the Art Museum of the Americas. We worked with a group of DREAMers—undocumented youth who were brought to the United States by their parents—to create these giant, five-foot-tall kites that had their images emblazoned on them. This was during a moment where we were trying to pass legislation that would allow undocumented youth to do things like attend public university or apply for healthcare; it was a moment where we really wanted to lift up these voices and challenge stereotypes about immigrants.

A group of about eight to ten DREAMers worked with Luciano to build these kites and then flew them on the National Mall in front of the Washington Monument. The photographs from that day are so striking because you see these individuals who have historically been denied a voice, and have been demonized in the media for being lazy immigrants that are trying to come into the United States and steal everybody else's goods, exerting their own voice and telling their own story—flying these temporary monuments on our National Mall. It was a really beautiful, poetic action about freedom. So for me, working in the public realm is really about intervening into the spaces that have a different historical symbolism, a symbolism that is entrenched in popular media and popular ideas that often do not include alternative, or marginalized voices.

NEA: What are some of the biggest issues you see within the art world? How do you hope your work can change those issues?

DE ANDA: So I think one of our biggest challenges within the art world is deciding who gets to tell their story. It's about whose history gets to be validated within the archives of these institutions. We're writing our own histories every time we create an exhibition and validate one story over another. Along with that is also the idea that if people aren't telling their own story, then who ends up having their story told by other people?

[In terms of] funding, there are so many different pathways that allow people to work in the world equally. I think we need to develop new stepping stones to allow different people into places they haven't traditionally been allowed into. It could be money that goes to fund artists documenting stories at the front lines of crises, whether that be an artist who's working at Standing Rock or an artist who's documenting the immigration crisis in Europe. Or it could be money to develop a larger body of work. I think because those stepping stones don't exist for so many people of color, a larger issue within society is thinking about how to create equity in places where it hasn't existed.

Something else I've also seen a lot as the practice of socially engaged art increases, is the tendency within the art world to gesture at an issue, as if the gesture is the final end-piece. I think there's a variety of different ways in which artwork can create impact. Not to say that it's always what needs to happen with any sort of creative expression, but there is a huge potential for artwork to be used in a way that it can develop action around specific issues. So one of the questions for me as I work within the art world is thinking about how we equip artists with the tools to understand how their art can extend into the real world. How can we build curriculums? How can we develop impact? There's a huge wealth of wisdom out there that artists can benefit from, and there's so much energy out there that's bubbling up to the top. One of the things I always return to is how can we connect artists and organizers to strengthen the work that we're already doing?

A digital mural of a man scaling a fence

Jumping the Fences (2009) by Papo Colo. The piece was a part of the Galería de la Raza's Digital Mural Project. Photo courtesy of Galería de la Raza

NEA: How do you view your role as a curator?

DE ANDA: My partner and I often talk about this connection between creating meaning and building power. As a curator, as a producer and as somebody who at times identifies as an artist, how can we create meaning through the arts? How can we use our words, how can we create images to get people to understand what our stories are? And then, how can we use that understanding to really build power as a community?

As a curator, I began my career at Galería de la Raza—one of the first [galleries] to represent Latinos in the states. I was both politicized there and came to understand what art could be as a place for building representation and community power. I learned how to develop this language through the gallery space, and then through our digital mural program, I started to understand how public art can extend the strength of the exhibition. As I left Galería and began to work independently, I started to look at my work within the larger realm of social practice. My role as a curator has always been about creating experiences where people can come to understand each other better, and can come to understand how we can impact the world around us. If there's anything that I know about art and culture, it's that it’s really good for process, for bringing people together to collectively work on a project together, and potentially talk about things that are very difficult or that they wouldn't talk about otherwise.  

NEA: When artists begin projects in communities that are not their own, there's sometimes backlash that they're not sensitive to or cognizant of community dynamics. How do you address this issue within your own projects?

DE ANDA: I think a good example of this is an exhibition that I curated at Project Row Houses in Houston's Third Ward, titled Shattering the Concrete: Artists, Activists, and Instigators. Each house invited a different artist collective or group of activists to develop work around a specific social issue, anywhere from policing brutality, to prison reform, housing rights, and immigration. Many of those artists wanted to develop a community-based partnership, since their work is already based in the communities and neighborhoods they are from. This was something that we kept talking about as I invited them to develop their work. We asked ourselves, "Is this the right platform? Does it make sense to work with community in Houston?" There were certain projects where it did make sense, and there were others where it didn't. The main concern was not wanting to continuously ask and take from a community without being able to give back, or to invite people in, have this explosive, incredible event that excites and ignites people's imaginations, and then disappear. We talk about this as parachuting in and out.

With projects that made sense, we developed collaborations with organizations already doing work on the ground. When artists think about entering communities that are not their own, it’s important to think about the impact we're going to have upon that community. We have to ask ourselves who are the community liaisons that we're reaching out to in order to build a meaningful or sustainable program with. So I think that’s what developing equitable collaboration looks like sometimes, lifting up the voices of people who've been developing work in neighborhoods for long periods of time, and seeing how to strengthen or learn from their practice. It takes a lot of intentional thought, and I've done it wrong in the past. It’s because I've misstepped in the past that I am able to think this way now.

NEA: When you're curating a group exhibit or project or organizing various artists, what excites you about particular artists?

DE ANDA: I really appreciate work by artists that are speaking to an issue of urgency that's currently happening in the world. I love seeing when artists are responding directly, and often working outside of their studio. I love studio practice, but I'm most excited by work that extends outside of the studio, and by work that is trying to bring in individuals who aren't already equipped with the language of the art world.

I'm very much intrigued by poetics and humor. I appreciate artists who are directly confronting issues through unexpected routes. Artists who are creating works that are generative and poetic, works that envision new potentials for humanity and that allows people to see the world from a different perspective.

Paper trails hanging from the ceiling

People browse the installation Transforming the Narrative of Reentry, presented by the People's Paper Co-op. As part of the project, formerly incarcerated individuals were asked to respond to the prompt 'Without these [criminal] records, I am...' Their responses were presented together as part of the larger exhibition Shattering the Concrete: Artists, Activists, and Instigators that Raquel de Anda curated for Houston's Project Row Houses. Photo by Alex Barber for Project Row Houses

NEA: In terms of issues of urgency, your work has dealt with many of them: police brutality, climate change, immigration. Is there a common thread between these issues that most interest you?

DE ANDA: I grew up on the border. I grew up with people knocking on our door who were crossing and asking for the way north or for water or food. The reality of the border and the politics of immigration is an experience that has been very real to me. And as a result, immigration is an issue that I will always return to.

But really, I see all of these issues as one connected whole. They're all movements for human rights. Our systems of oppression rely on one thing: They rely on people being dehumanized, and they rely on the creation of narratives that allow people to be dehumanized. This is something that we see every time we turn the television on, when we see black people being demonized, when we hear racist comments about what immigrants are, what undocumented people are—even just calling people  “illegal” further perpetuates these belief systems. These are all ideas that have been systematically placed in our imagination, allowing for violence to continue.

The arts are great because they help humanize people. They help create voice and change the popular narrative. If there's anything that we know, it's that arts change hearts and minds. A cultural shift has to happen before any sort of political shift happens.  We saw this within the queer movements in the '80s with ACT UP and [AIDS activist artist collective] Gran Fury. All of the media that came out of that movement helped to humanize gay and queer people, and later on, pass policy and legislation. So a cultural shift has to happen before anything happens politically, and I think my role as a curator and as an organizer really falls within that understanding of what art is, and how we can re-humanize people who have been dehumanized through negative sentiments in the media and popular narrative.  

NEA: Why do we need the arts?

DE ANDA: For me, it's really about how art helps us shape the world. Art is how we're able to shape each other and our understandings of the world around us, it’s how we deconstruct our history and create new futures. It comes back to creating meaning and building power.

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