A Conversation with artist Juana Valdes

A Conversation with artist Juana Valdes

One of the first works you see when you enter the Albert Brenner Glickman Galleries to view Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago is Juana Valdes’ Under View of the World /El mundo desde abajo. In this deep, blue work, she uses objects such as porcelain figurines and bone china saucers—each one stamped with an identifying mark that often references the country of production—to highlight the global circulation of commodities as a metaphor for colonialism.

A globally renowned artist, Valdes says she “sustains a multidisciplinary practice that explores matters of race, trans‑nationalism, gender, labor, and class. My work functions as an archive that analyzes and decodes that intersectionality of this subject by investigating their history of place of origin. I map complex experiences of migration as an Afro‑Cuban American artist or Latinx artist, if you want to say that. What comes into multiple cultures nation constructions of identity and how these identities constantly being shaped and reshaped by the experience of displacement and transculturation.”

Prior to the opening of Relational Undercurrents, The PMA sat down with Juana to discuss her work and the exhibition.


Juana: I was born in Cuba. I guess that's the most important thing. I grew up in Miami. A lot of my childhood was in Miami. I moved to New York in my early 20s to become an artist and my educational foundation takes place in New York. Also, in many ways, my coming of age.

I've realized over the last couple of years that my worked really looks back at this whole issue of migration and trans‑nationalism. It looks at women and specifically women of color. Then, questions their role in society—their labor, their worth as women, their worth as laborers, physical labor, how does that work with this whole socio-economical structure that exists already in the world.

For the last couple of years, I've specifically been working with domestic ware. I realize that a lot of the work does use mass-produced objects. I've been using mass-produced objects to talk about the labor it takes to make these objects. Lately it has been bone china. Through the bone china, I'm tracking this idea of commodity as it begins in Europe and it travels to the Americas through the Caribbean, and how that is also tied to the issue of slave, the issue of labor, ultimately globalization.

Graeme: Your work hasn't always been ceramics and these sorts of things. How would you describe how your work has evolved over the past few years?

Juana: I went to school for sculpture and I think I always see myself as a sculptor. I find that a lot of the work I do, even if it's two‑dimensional, has a three‑dimensional quality to it, such as the sienna prints. When you look at it, it really makes you think about where your body is physically, and then you have to realize that you're looking up, and that already gives you a sense of orientation. The work started out as sculpture and it started out as prints. Then it evolved into a large‑scale installation that dealt with the environment and space.

I decided very specifically that I wanted to look at this whole idea of ethnicity, which began also with my looking at my own personal history. When that work came about, I started to shift mediums more in terms of working again with the re‑found objects, making pieces that were sculptures.

The first piece of ceramics that I did was a series of small porcelain birds. That was recreating a memory that I had in my childhood when I was still in Cuba. You didn't have money. You didn't have places to buy stuff. Kids would have to make up their own toys, and we used to make paper boats. We were lucky to have paper. We were very happy to have paper. The little things in life make a major difference. We used to make paper boats and we would run out and go to puddles and put the paper boats in the puddle and stamp on the water to make them move.

I had gone back to Cuba and had done a performance piece in which I sit in the Malecón and for a whole afternoon ripping pages of this traditional novel called Cecilia Valdez. I rip the pages out of the book, make them into boats, and then I throw them into the ocean to see if they will sail away. It's their futile attempt at escape. When I was in Holland, I had the opportunity to do ceramics and I'm like, "I'm going to make myself paper boats in porcelain."

I figured out how to do it and I did and I started this whole interest of working with porcelain and understanding the material and where it come from and ultimately the history of it. I really love the way in which the boats were able to really mirror the actual paper boats. I realized that this was a material that I had a natural affinity to. I've been working with it integrated into the materials that I use all the time now.

Graeme: Has your work changed at all over the last few years in response to this cultural moment that we seem to find ourselves in?

Juana: Well, yes and no. Actually, it has impacted the work because the work was already there. I want it to look at my own ethnicity. What does it mean to be a black woman? What does it mean to be of Afro descent, to be Cuban?

I want my work to address that component of how people are dealing with very hostile situations. I think now that people have a better understanding of intersectionality, that as a woman and as a black woman you might actually be dealing with double aggression. You get it from one point and you're also getting it from the other; you're always negotiating the space in which you're in. And the work addresses that. It has been addressing that for quite some time.

Graeme: Can you talk a little bit about your experience at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture?

Juana: I just fell in love, love, love, love with Maine. Skowhegan in and of itself is just wonderful. It's a magical place. It was my first introduction to Maine. I was very much an urban child and I was kind of mystified at first. A component about Skowhegan is that they have all the land around it. That sense of land and the sense of space and moving about. Because it was rural it felt very safe, but very open at the same time. Like you can just wander and just enjoy the nature. I don't know if I'm being naive because I was so young at the time. It just felt very wholesome and safe.

Graeme: Can you talk about the environmental themes of the show a little bit?

Juana: My work is probably not oriented more to the touristy ecology like some of the other artists. Part of what I do want my work to address is the idea of how we use resources and commodities and the fact that it's not this never-ending supply of land and natural resources. That the continual use of that in the way that we're doing is going to create a planet that is not sustainable. Hopefully, we'll find ways in which to change it.

Graeme: Maine is the only venue for this exhibition without a large center of Latinos, Caribbean folks, Latin culture, Caribbean culture. It seems there is a unique opportunity there, in that the state may appear disconnected from the issues and the people of this region.

Juana: I want to believe that we are not that disconnected anymore. I think social media made us aware. I feel that there're connections between people that are close to water or have a relationship to water. I believe that there are going to be point of entries into the work. I think also a lot of the works in the show are made in the way that the artists work in places where people don't necessarily have a lot of resources. They make do. That's another point of entry if I'm right about Maine.

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March 26, 2019
Director of Communications

Graeme is a Maine native who, after ten years living in New York and the west coast, decided to come back and set up shop in Portland. In addition to the PMA, he's held positions at GQ, Rogues Gallery, and Might & Main. He lives in Yarmouth, where he spends most of his free time with his daughters, Ramona and Maude.