What can the superhuman tell us about humanity? Jorge Rojas on curating superHUMAN at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art.
Dulce Pinzon’s photographs endow domestic workers and laborers with superhuman capabilities. Her subjects don the uniforms of superheroes like Spiderman or Superman, all while cleaning windows or babysitting children. A new group exhibition at Aljira IGallery in Newark, New Jersey called superHUMAN brings together work in the vein of Pinzon’s, that draws on fantasy or science fiction “speculative genres” to say something about the human condition. The show asks, how can superhero-type qualities cast light on desires and concerns that are genuinely human.
The artists borrow from myths, comics, Hindu and Buddhist folklore, graphic novels, and popular TV shows like Lost or Star Trek, not to indulge in romanticized notions of the past or future, but to provide a new and original perspective on political and social life of today. Artist Jorge Rojas sat down with me at Aljira Gallery on a rainy Saturday afternoon to discuss the show he co-curated with David Hawkins.
Yezmin Villarreal Rivera superHUMAN unites elements of speculative genres (i.e. science fiction, comic books, and myths) in a variety of media: paintings, comics, animations, photographs, etc. What was your vision for the show?
Jorge Rojas For a long time I’ve been in conversation with a dear friend of mine David Hawkins, the co-curator of the show. We were interested—and it’s funny, because I don’t have a huge passion for comic books or superheroes—in contemporary artists who use speculative forms like science fiction or mythology to address important contemporary issues such as race, cultural identity, sexuality, and gender politics.
Some of the artists in the exhibition are artists I have known personally for some time, like Blanka Amezkua. I was always interested in how she adapted Mexican adult comic books where the female characters are being exploited. As a feminist, Blanka is able to transform these works, giving them her own touch. Even though they may be illustrated with their breasts hanging out, she empowers them, giving them back their own sexuality instead of taking it away.
YVR It is interesting because normally that type of adult comic is exploitive to the female body, but in Calypso, she distorts the image or re-appropriates it by placing paint on it, or what is that?
JR She uses nail polish, which is a surprising way of using material—
YVR Yes, another “feminine” element.
JR She also punctures the pieces to create a sculptural, textural effect. The first time I met Blanka, she was doing these wonderful embroideries. She grew up attending embroidery circles with her mother and grandmother, and other women. They would sit together, talk, and embroider. That experience led her to the idea of embroidering these comic book women as a way to give them back their strength.
YVR She titles those two pieces, Calypso and Odysseus.
JR She is living in Greece now. She and her partner moved to Greece about two years ago, or three years ago maybe. I think being in Greece has really influenced her.
YVR We are taught Greek myths in school from an early age. They are introduced to us as cautionary tales that are supposed to teach certain morals and ethics, but it’s puzzling because everyone interprets myths differently. Blanka distorts myths like she distorts the images with nail polish.
JR That’s right, that is a common theme through a lot of the works. There’s not always a clear interpretation. That goes well with speculative ways of thinking about things.
Science fiction is a classic example. Take Star Trek or Star Wars—every Star Trek episode dealt with something that was an issue here in our society. Setting a story in space is like opening this little door to a safe place where you can talk about these things, as long as you transform the characters into some kind of alien creatures who can speak.
YVR You can give fantastic qualities to characters such as being able to survive in space, or flying. Still, the narratives that those films or comic books explore are vulnerable in the way that they are human. They are up in space doing things we all wish we could do, yet they are still trying to grapple with—
JR Morality. I’m glad you brought up the word vulnerable because most superheroes through history have had their vulnerabilities, right? Like Superman and Kryptonite: everyone has something that makes them vulnerable. This is what allows us to connect with these characters. They represent our potential in some ways, and at the same time they represent that we’re all human and we all have weaknesses. That’s why there’s an emphasis on the word HUMAN in the title. The exhibition really is about how all these artists are making humanist work.
YVR I want to jump in and talk about Dulce Pinzón’s work—
JR Yeah, that work is amazing. She has been showing a lot. She’s currently in Mexico City.
YVR I’m fascinated by how that project came to fruition, and the methodology of it—how did she form those relationships? It says something about the way we talk about art–high art, low art. I imagine her talking to a man on the street or a nanny in the park: I want to make this (artistic) statement, Would you be interested in dressing up as a superhero?
JR I wish I had more information about that too because it has a whole performative element to it: dressing up and making these relationships. I don’t know how much you know about the work, but it comes from a series called The Real Story of the Superheroes. This is probably obvious, but just to say it, the idea of the show was to celebrate immigrants. Pinzón celebrates the fact that immigrants do all these jobs that most of us don’t want to do. Politically that’s such a problematic thing—how immigrants are criticized and how they are treated. At the same time, Pinzón focuses on the fact that each one of them is sending money home.
She insists on including that in the titles: the real person’s name, her job, and how much money she sends home to her hometown. It sparks a conversation about the billions of dollars that are sent back to fortify other economies.
Pinzón recently published a book of the series, and she includes about ten other superheroes. There’s a piece of hers that I love that was in another show—it’s Spiderman as a window cleaner, so Spiderman is up on this building. (laughing) Pinzón lived in New York City for a long time.
YVR That’s something you see walking down the street, but people don’t take notice of window washers.
JR Cause they’re invisible.
YVR I want to talk about Chitra Ganesh. I found some similarities between Ganesh and Xaviera Simmons, and the way they use appropriation. This is something I noted especially in Chitra’s animation. She takes classical Hindu, Buddhist, and Greek myths, but distorts them. She puts disproportionate parts of the body together. This says something about the way that those myths and figures are appropriated sometimes too by people who don’t understand them. Sometimes they sensationalize a certain Hindu God or something like that.
JR People manipulate those icons and those images for their own purposes. Chitra seems really aware of that, very conscious of how that happens. That’s partly why she gives herself the freedom to do the same, but in another way. Probably more than any artist in the exhibition, she is confident about “appropriating” aspects of certain things and then making her own, and creating her own world all together. She knows we are going to recognize certain things in there. She uses the Hindu gods, and deities and symbols like the Cyclops mask that she wears in Hidden Trails. And then there are the eyes—the eyes become powerful symbols—and her braided hair, the dismembered limbs.
YVR She creates a certain perspective, as in the Hidden Trails photograph, viewers look at the figure from the feet. All you see is that dismembered hand, and then her body, and her face is covered so you can’t see any kind of reaction.
JR That’s a great observation.
YVR She plays with the way certain things can be appropriated or transformed at times, like with Blanka Amezkua’s adult comics.
JR Some of Ganesh’s work is kind of violent. Even with Chitra Ganesh’s animation piece—there’s the razorblade, and slits, and then the eyes come out. She uses the word transgression a lot in her work to talk about how the body becomes a site of transgression, like a stage. It’s about transformation: finding personal strength through sexuality, or through a connection to culture and heritage. All these artists are very conscious of their own cultural histories. Unlike many artists, they manage to avoid nostalgia.
YVR That’s the word I was going to bring up—
JR The artists in this exhibition have chosen to address this in a new way. An example of that is the nine panel Rhythm Mastr series by Kerry James Marshall. Those are his dailies, so those give you a sense of how the artist is thinking. That’s what I love in that specific work: it gets you into the mind of the process. I can almost see him in the studio working out his ideas—it’s like a sketchbook in a way. Of course the panels are very polished; his technique is amazing.
Marshall has talked about how when he was growing up in the United States there were no African American role models in the comic books. He grew up looking at comic books and thinking, Where are the black superheroes? So he decided he was going to create his own. In the Rythm Mastr series (you get a sense of it here in the last panel) the idea is that these African masks in museums come alive at night and have these superpowers. They fight injustice and they fight against technology.
I respect that about these artists in the show: they are speculating—creating new worlds, new universes—sometimes with humor, and sometimes with not so much humor. Each one explores it in his or her own distinct way.
YVR One of the elements of speculative genre is this vision for another world, or a better world—another realm where there is a different kind of existence. Earlier, when we were talking about nostalgia, where something might be romanticized in a way and–
JR It impedes progress.
YVR If you look at the OED definition of nostalgia, it means a longing for something that never actually happened.
JR Oh, really? So something fictitious.
YVR Nostalgia is like looking at the past, but looking at it in a way that never happened. You bring your own fiction to the past.
JR That kind of makes sense. You romanticize the past, often times without having lived it.
YVR I think it’s a good point to bring in the Robert Pruitt charcoal drawing, Be of Our Space world. What he’s doing there with the braiding of the hair as the Monument to the Third International —
JR It’s Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument. I don’t know that much about it. I believe it was done in 1920 and it was a modernist sculpture that was supposed to express how art could change the world. It was meant to represent this ideal that our art is part of our society and by changing our art we are changing our society, and we can change our world that way.
It’s like this double-helix thing—almost like a Jacob’s Ladder thing with the staircase going up and going down, and then he has the cosmos on the shirt. Apparently, that is a nod to a superhero named Eternity, who I’m not too familiar with. His drawings are gorgeous aren’t they?
YVR Yeah, they’re great. What would you say if I were to call this a literary exhibition? Do you agree with that? With all the different allegories, myths, and literary references, many of these works play with language. For instance, in the description for Saya Woolfalk’s projections on the wall, it says she was playing with the etymology of utopia with the species of creatures called “Empaths.” Robert Pruitt alludes to modernist symbols . . . .
JR Absolutely—especially in Woolfalk’s case. The video piece, and also Robert Pruitt’s work—he talks about how this black stuntman is this super hero. He’s able to develop hard skin by dealing with all the racism. He has invisible powers in that he’s invisible to a lot of society. He makes quite funny, clever social, racial, and cultural obervations.
In a tongue-in-cheek way, he’s saying this is the kind of superpower strength that you have to develop in this society we live in. It sucks and it’s difficult, but you don’t get a sense of victimization or of him being a victim. You get a sense of flipping it. That’s what they (the artists) all do so well, they flip it.
YVR They all bring a certain wit to what they are doing. Like you said, they are aware of all of those different prejudices that people might have about immigrants, or about African Americans.
JR They all are dealing with barriers, but they are creating bridges too, I think to get beyond them. It’s about being progressive and shedding light on these issues.
So Saya also sculpts; she performs; she paints and makes these videos. The video that is here actually was designed to be shown in a planetarium using a big projector, to encompass the whole ceiling. She creates these hybrids; she’s mixed race—African American and Asian—and she’s very sensitive to what that means in society, how people view you, and where you do or do not belong. These Empaths that connect plant life to the cosmos are a way of saying we’re all connected—not only culturally but also with plants and with every living thing.
YVR When I was looking at her work, I was thinking of it as reimagining a creation myth. In my notes, I wrote the word reproductive, but also reproduction because of the repetitive kaleidoscopic elements.
JR Well, it’s very fertile.
YVR There’s a circular element to it too. It’s almost a version of the way we look at time–
JR Less linear.
YVR Towards the end—having no control over the unlucky hour at the end, right? (laughing)
JR I really hadn’t thought of it in terms of how much control we have but maybe in a way. I know what you mean. There’s a sense that it’s already set in motion. It’s as if it’s always been set in motion and it’s this cyclical thing that is spinning on its axis. At the same time is only one little piece of a much bigger thing. There’s this sense of inevitability. Is that kind of what you mean?
JR We can fight it, but there’s this thing that’s happening already and always has been happening: the death, the rebirth, and how we all become fertile as we are waiting for the next crop. (laughing)
superHUMAN is on view at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art through March 30, 2013. The gallery is located at 591 Broad Street, Newark, New Jersey.
Yezmin Villarreal Rivera is a poet and writes for BOMBLOG. She lives in Arizona.