How can the immigrant experience be framed? Is a consistent discourse of immigration, refuge, and asylum possible or productive? The work of migratory histories compels as they truthfully convey how the oppressive miasma of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism functions as both cataclysm and catalyst. As coverage of the United States’ horrendous Southern border camps develops, which Adam Serwer of The Atlantic details as “the malice, indifference, and deadly incompetence with which these facilities are run,”1 it is tempting to agree that the immigrant’s break from home, family, identity, is solely a brutal trauma–a cleaving, a wound.
Though pain is undeniably present within the story of immigration, it is not the journey’s sum total. Proposed by postcolonial critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha, immigration and its attendant subjecthood are defined through a marked ambivalence, a temporal displacement, a diasporic caress against the teeth of anachronism, an undeniable in-betweenness of being. As poet Erika Sanchez calls forth Gabriel Garcia Marquez in her 2017 collection, Lessons on Expulsion, “we are birthed by our mothers only once, but life obligates us to give birth to ourselves over and over.” Thus we come to the question of roots, of memory, what it means to return home when out of necessity, and desire, you have built yourself anew time and time again. Artist Juan Molina Hernández’s show autoretrato o piel vieja y lo que sobra de una manda cumplida (self-portrait or old skin and remnants of a prayer answered) at Roman Susan, dreamily scrutinizes this search for belonging, home, and history through an intimate lens. Included in the show’s programming is a crisp biography written by Hernández noting in the year 2000, “my family and I migrated to the U.S. from Mexico. Seventeen years later I had an opportunity to return.” Hernández’s use of ‘migrate’ in lieu of ‘immigrate’ is important to note as it speaks to Gloria Anzaldua’s work situating the imperial relationship between American and Mexican history in her seminal book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. In Borderlands Anzaldua begins by recounting that in “1846 the U.S. incited Mexico to war. U.S. troops invaded and occupied Mexico, forcing her to give up almost half her nation, what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California.”2 In addition to the forced annexation of land, the United States redrew Mexico’s northern border in order to favor American interests–a transformative shift that left thousands of Mexicans, indigenous people, and Mestizos with a radically refashioned image of collective identity and belonging.
Hernández’s work sifts through this inheritance of liminality; their photographic prints and video piece mark the echoes and fractures that formed their childhood and current relationship to these early memories. The show’s title, autoretrato o piel vieja y lo que sobra de una manda cumplida (self-portrait or old skin and remnants of a prayer answered), is also the title of an image Hernández positions multiple times throughout the space. autoretrato o piel vieja functions as a guidepost, a reference to the artist’s earliest memory in their grandmother’s gardens and their discomfiting return to her home years later. The print is dominated by sunlight, rays glint off the verdant chartreuse gloss of a lime tree’s leaves, while a single lime and lone red strip of firework debris center the eye. Hernández recounts how as a child they played under the leaves of their grandmother’s lime and banana trees. However, upon their family’s return to Mexico, the years of separation were most keenly felt when speaking to their grandmother about those same gardens: heritage roses, pomegranates, bananas, limes, trees and growth all decades old and the embodiment of a familial line, the traces of belonging. Conceiving of space where roots can grow, the consequences of transplanting roots, roots as both memory and memorial echo throughout the space, the exhibition’s beating bloom of a heart.
Hernández’s photographic pieces call to mind the work of Mexican artist Lola Álvarez Bravo. While Bravo’s turn of the century photos are intimate and vulnerable subject studies–their humanism deeply felt–Hernández’s work suggests the possibilities and pitfalls of emotional exchange. What does the camera border and what does it separate? In en el jardin (in the garden), a study of the artist’s grandmother, she is framed from a distance with the hem of her long, warm, mint skirt puddled in shadow. Amidst the flowers, she does not smile. In ojos como los de mi madre (eyes like my mother’s) several generations of the artist’s family are posed in a different corner of the garden, branches of desiccated magenta blossoms shading the four subjects. Two women and two girls peer straight at the camera’s lens. The two girls smile. The younger girl stands between mother and grandmother clasping their arms and hands, bringing them close, while the older girl’s smile hints of unspoken reservation. She stands near but apart from her grandmother, her right hand on her heart while the left grazes the leg of her jeans, she holds only herself. It is their eyes, however, that speak of connection, of those familial bonds that are both baptized and exorcized as life flows ever onward. Four sets of brown eyes look through Hernández’s lens. You may not be able to go home again but pieces of it will always remain imbedded within, grafted roots of memory.
Upon entry to the exhibition, an unexpected garden blooms: a massive array of flowering plants and cacti anchor the space and hug the glass of the facade. The slick green sheen of healthy foliage hangs from the ceiling, dots the entryway, and explosions of color nestle images of intimate moments. This is a garden of grandmothers, childhood, endings, and beginnings: it is the sticky sour sweetness of being rooted, replanted, and forever growing.
- Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (San Francisco, Aunt Lute Books, 2012) 29.