"The Best Art In The World"
By ANA MARIA FARINA, February 2021
On January 22, 2021, Joe Biden proposed the use of the word “noncitizen” in US immigration laws instead of the word “alien” to refer to an immigrant. For most Americans, that change might seem merely symbolic or even aesthetic; for immigrants who live under the constant threat of erasure and demonization, however, this step offered just the slightest bit of hope needed in order to continue the fight after the past four years of horror.
Two artists who have been directly dealing with themes of identity, immigration and displacement are Lina Puerta and Hidemi Takagi, now artists-in-residence at KODA Lab, a residency program in NYC for mid-career artists exploring social justice matters through the arts. Lina, born in New Jersey and raised in Colombia, has developed a textile piece named El Saparro (Canasto)/The Basket during her time at KODA. The tapestry is made out of digitally printed organza silk (created during the 2017 Joan Mitchell Foundation Artist Residency, of a discarded food net from food consumed by fellow resident artists), embroidered and quilted with fabrics; ribbons; and many other upcycled materials including from previously worn necklaces purchased or gifted while in Colombia and the Caribbean. The materials come together into what could have been a simply decorative article but isn’t, if you’re willing to look closely and learn about the source and symbolism—the sort of mindfulness also needed when looking at immigration itself, and most folk and indigenous articles for that matter.
This is not the first time the artist has made use of ancestral symbols, materials and techniques to shine a light onto something bigger turned invisible (in this case, her own indigenous ancestry that has been, in her own words, “denied and stripped away by colonialism”). In her 2017 Latino Farm Worker Tapestries Series, Puerta honored Latinx farm workers in the US in seven colorful and highly textured mixed-media tapestries, each honoring a crop that requires extreme manual labor, such as broccoli, tomatoes, and strawberries (also known as la fruta del Diablo, the Devil’s fruit, for being so hard on the farmer’s body). What happens when art brings the public’s attention not to the product itself, the beautiful fruit, but to the labor happening backstage, most of the time in terrible, irresponsible conditions?
As the philosopher Maxine Greene once said, “The arts, it has been said, cannot change the world, but they may change human beings who might change the world.” Klaudia Ofwona Draber, founder and president of KODA, believes in this power of art to impact change when artists are able to emotionally process the difficult themes around us. “It creates a common ground for these conversations,” she says, noting that the residency program was not at first focused on social justice but grew in that direction organically out of her own interest.
Thinking of the subject of change, Hidemi Takagi developed her photographic series The Barbershops, The Bed-Stuy Social ‘Photo’ Club, and Hello, it’s me, all portraying the growing gentrification in her neighborhood, Bed-Stuy, in Brooklyn, NY. They represent an attempt to grasp the cultural identities there presently so that they live forever, no matter what (or better, who) comes along. In The Barbershops, Takagi documents the neighborhood institutions of barbershops central to public life in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights that are under threat from real estate development and rapid gentrification. The Bed-Stuy Social ‘Photo’ Club series includes over eighty portraits of people living in these neighborhoods, historically home to African American and Caribbean cultures, making them the stars of the project. Hello, it’s me is a collaborative multimedia project that preserves the memories of minority older adults living at Saint Teresa of Avila Senior Apartments in Crown Heights, the product of months of conversations with the residents.
In continuation of these projects, Takagi turns the lens to herself and her own family and ancestry in her new series, Identities. Born in Japan and married to a Haitian man, Takagi is mother to a biracial daughter, her main subject in Identities. By investigating the ancestral lineage of both her husband and herself, Takagi questions and celebrates immigration and the multitudes contained in the identity of her family, both as the single individuals therein and as a whole.
As these artists move forward with their projects, we are invited to participate and engage with themes that are so culturally relevant it is painful, whether you’re an immigrant or not. As America seeks hope and healing under a new administration, let’s not forget to keep asking the difficult questions and fighting to bring the spotlight to those who most need it. WM
1. Acevedo, Nicole. “Biden Seeks to Replace ‘alien’ with Less ‘Dehumanizing Term’ in Immigration Laws.” NBC News, 22 Jan. 2021, www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/biden-seeks-replace-alien-less-dehumanizing-term-immigration-laws-n1255350.
2. Eater, and Southern Foodways Alliance. “Watch: These Tapestries Turn Food Farming Into a Work of Art.” Eater, 12 Oct. 2017, www.eater.com/video/2017/10/12/16461446/artist-tapestry-food-farming-video.
3. “KODA Laboratory for Creative Concepts | New York Nonprofit Arts Org.” KODA, 24 Jan. 2021, www.kodalab.org/about.
As both an artist and an educator, Ana is interested in experimentation, experiences of release and constraint, expansion and collapse. Her work investigates themes of hysteria and repression of the feminine, as well as the body and identity through the lens of feminist theory and psychoanalysis. Lately, Ana has been exploring the materiality of fibers and textiles, creating sculptural paintings that visually speak what Elaine Showalter called a “feminine protolanguage.”view all articles from this author