Juana Valdés, born in Cuba and working between Miami and New York, is one of the most inspiring Latinx artists of recent years. Aldeide Delgado spoke with her for Contemporary And América Latina (C&AL) about Cuban identity, refugee policies, imperial discourses – and the importance of recognition.
Juana Valdés, Rest Ashore, video still. Locust Projects, Miami, September 12 – October 24, 2020. Photo: Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist.
Juana Valdés was one of the most powerful Latinx artists of 2020. During the year, she presented a major immersive installation at the Miami art space Locust Projects. Her work was featured in the new, groundbreaking book Latinx Art: Artists, Markets and Politics by Arlene Davila. And she received the prestigious prize Anonymous Was A Woman, which has been awarded to outstanding artists such as Amy Sherald, Deborah Roberts and María Magdalena Campos-Pons, among others. Born in Pinar del Río, Cuba, Juana Valdés lives and works between Miami and New York.
C&AL: In your work, you reflect on migration as a result of your personal experience, specifically about the dynamics of family exile in Miami. You have described this period as “living on the edge of the edge”. What do you mean by this expression?
Juana Valdés: When we arrived as a family in Miami in 1971, it was and still remains today a city with segregated neighborhoods by race, ethnicity and class. We couldn’t live in the same predominantly white neighborhoods that most other Cuban families moved into. We ended up living at the edge of a white neighborhood, on the boundary of the racially mixed communities of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and a few African-Americans. While we benefited from the government’s services as recent refugees and immigrants, we still suffered the same kind of discrimination affecting African-Americans in terms of housing, good-paying jobs and mobility. It left me with a sensation of not belonging to either community – an outsider in both cultures negotiating daily interactions.
My recent work focuses on migration because I see it as one of the most significant issues of the 21th century. 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2019. I recently heard on the news that Venezuela would soon replace Syria with the largest number of displaced people. And it is not just countries in war or political conflict. The future will bring climate change refugees, as it already happened with hurricane Katrina.
C&AL: According to author and curator Ariella Azoulay, we should consider people classified as “undocumented” in relation to the massive violent expropriation of objects that began in the 16th and 17th centuries as part of the imperial discourse. This body/object relationship has become a recurring element in your practice, for example in the series Colored China Rags or Terrestrial Bodies, where the use of ceramics as a symbolic resource becomes fundamental. Can you comment about your work process from this perspective?
JV: I agree with Azoulay’s theory, and in many ways my works address that and form what she would call a new ontology: a new way of looking at the order of things in the world posterior to the colonialist gaze. The collectible series creates these visual connections through the arrangements of objects. One needs to consider where they come from but also the body/hand that made these objects. Whose ideal desire is being considered or denied? The installation pieces involve collecting, hoarding, and recycling objects to create sculptural installation works. The objects act as an archive to the reconstitution of power through the extraction of resources as goods, land, raw materials, and commodity. The imperial history of control is evident in the reconstitution of the arrangements in the same way museums present African Art and other Indigenous people’s ritual objects. I don’t think you can look at the work without questioning our colonial history and its aftermath: migration, poverty, loss of land, and resettlement of people.
Juana Valdés, Terrestrial Bodies. Cuban Legacy Gallery, MDC Special Collections, Miami, October 24, 2019 – June 16, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
C&AL: Your exhibition Rest Ashore (2020) evidences of how asylum and migration policies produce hierarchies among migrants that reinforce racialization practices. Could you describe this phenomenon?
JV: I decided to base the exhibition on my experience as a Cuban refugee. As an immigrant or Afro-Caribbean, one needs to travel back in time to understand Miami or the US in the early 70s. I compared data from the Pew Foundation on Cuban Americans and the government’s legislation. It shows a community that has, on the whole, integrated itself into a new society in a successful way. Why it this possible – and could it be a model to address other asylum seekers? Can this be used to deal with the refugees coming out of Syria, Afghanistan or African countries? How will the success of their integration be measured? Cubans are successful because they self-identify as “white” rather than indigenous or black. This is not the case with communities such as Puerto Rican, Mexican or Hondurans. Few nationalities have benefited from the same ease of legal status as the Cuban. The question that the work put forth is: Does the support that comes through legislation and funding from the government makes a difference? It is hard to argue with the data.
Juana Valdés, Rest Ashore. Locust Projects, Miami, September 12 – October 24, 2020. Photo: Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist.
C&AL: You participated in the exhibition Building a Feminist Archive: Cuban Women Photographers in the US (2019, curated by Aldeide Delgado), which explored, in the context of discussion about Latinx art, the pluricultural strategies for the reconstruction of Cuban identity. How have you dialogued with the categories Cuban art, Afro-American art, Latin American art, or recently Latinx art?
JV: When you are making art, I don’t think one is engaged with all these terminologies. It comes from an understanding of the place where I am making and who I choose as my audience. In the late 90s, I decided to shift my focus and not necessarily address the idea of being Cuban, a Cuban-American artist, Latin American or Caribbean, but to question ideologies of gender, race, class and ethnicity, of belonging and transnationalism, loss and migration. Through this discourse, I address and work through these labels in the process of making art. I embrace the identity of Latinx partially because it’s the closest to my lived experience as an Afro Cuban Latina Woman in the US. The “x” in Latinx incorporates all of those realities. What does it mean to be seen, experienced, and responded to as a Black person in America? This does not fit within a Cuban, Caribbean, or Latin American experience. I don’t see myself as an African-American or as 100% Cuban because those are specific experiences with a particular narrative. For me, Latin American art leaves out indigenous and people of color, so what is left?
Juana Valdés, Rest Ashore, video still Dreaming of Foreign Landscape. Locust Projects, Miami, September 12 – October 24, 2020. Photo: Zachary Balber. Courtesy of the artist.
C&AL: In 2020, you received the Anonymous Was A Woman Award, which provides $ 25,000 to support the careers of artists who identify as women. What does it mean for you to receive this recognition?
JV: It has been an incredible confirmation for me. The grant addresses specifically women artists over 40 who are successfully making art. We are sustaining a career against the odds. The Award acknowledges that women are underrepresented in the arts. This happens in all fields, but in the arts the impact feels greater. Like many of the other women who received the award, there is something meaningful in that it’s coming from your peers, as other women acknowledge the work you are doing. Being nominated for Anonymous Was A Woman was emotional, and to receive the award was a surprise. It is a competitive field because there are so many amazing women making art today. The Award proves that my work resonates.
Aldeide Delgado is a Cuban-born, Miami-based independent Latinx curator, and founder and director of Women Photographers International Archive (WOPHA). Her areas of scholarly interest include a feminist and decolonial re-reading of the history of photography and abstraction within Latin American, the Caribbean and Latinx contexts.