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The native identity of America, the continent

Julia McHugh and Renzo Ortega
This interview of artist Renzo Ortega was conducted by Julia McHugh, Ph.D., Trent A. Carmichael Curator of Academic Initiatives at the Nasher Museum. Photos by J Caldwell.

This interview of artist Renzo Ortega was conducted by Julia McHugh, PhD, Trent A. Carmichael Curator of Academic Initiatives at the Nasher Museum.

Corn is a repeated motif throughout your art. Why?
Corn is a recurring image in the visual history of America from its representation in ancient objects to popular and contemporary art. It has always been linked to ethnicity, culture, and territorial identity discourses. I used corn for the Mestizaje series because I needed an element that represents the native identity of America, the continent. It is also a recognition of the native agricultural knowledge that developed corn. In my paintings, corn is a symbol that becomes a container that stores information. And that data is our legacy and the foundation of our future.

Talking about memory is not enough

Renzo Ortega, El Nacimiento del Maiz (The Birth of Corn), 2019
Renzo Ortega, El Nacimiento del Maiz (The Birth of Corn), 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 30 inches (121.96 x 76.2 cm) each panel. Collection of Carmen Castanet Betts and Michael A. Betts, II. Photo by Brian Quinby.

Will you tell us more about two of your large-scale pieces, El Nacimiento del Maiz (The Birth of Corn) and La Tragedia del Maiz (The Tragedy of the Corn)? What do they depict and why did you decide to produce them in diptych and triptych form?

The ones that win the battle are the ones that often write the history, and in current conversations about decolonization, I believe that talking about memory is not enough. Because the oppressive system also controls the narrative of the reconciliation processes. I feel that little by little our history and memory are diluting it, erasing our struggles, achievements, and contributions to society. These are the main reasons my pieces El Nacimiento del Maiz and La Tragedia del Maiz are essential: They oppose representing the stigma of a victimized existence and narrate my story from the fantastic illusion of painting.

In El Nacimiento del Maiz, I show the harmony between the spiritual and earthly. A balance of creation, where human rationality, represented by geometric shapes, interacts with magical pictorial gestures, generating a living entity, the Corn. Which evolves and mutates; it is yellow in one panel and purple in the other. This is a painting of silent sound, as there is no human figure in it…it is a close-up approach to the genetic nucleus from which everything was born, and we carry that information in our bodies. We are constantly renewing ourselves, an eternal rebirth.

Multi-panel paintings, also called polyptychs, are like books where each panel is a different chapter; this format helps me build the artwork’s narrative because I can elaborate on the transitions of time and space. What is fantastic is that I have recently conceived multi-panel paintings as full-length music albums or records, side A and side B.

How Peruvian is my painting?

Installation view of Art of Peru
Installation view of Art of Peru. Photo by Brian Quinby.

What do you think of the current installation of El Nacimiento del Maiz alongside our ancient Peruvian collection? Have your paintings ever been displayed in this way?

Beyond the diasporic nostalgia, I believe my artworks belong to the Land where I made them. I have been making art in the United States for more than twenty years, and six of those years producing work in North Carolina. Denying the socio-political context where I work and my relationship with the place and people that welcome me eliminate a vital component of my life experience: my American life. My cultural contribution is my legacy to this country and documents my experience as an immigrant-naturalized American citizen. I should not part with those attributes just because I am also Peruvian. And it is for these reasons that throughout my career, I have been asking myself the question: How Peruvian is my painting?

Looking for answers, I have applied consecutively to a significant Peruvian painting salon competition organized by the Banco Central de Reserva del Perú, with unsuccessful results, in searching for my Peruvian artistic identity. On the other hand, in the context of the United States, when I was a Hunter College graduate student, my work was misinterpreted on many occasions by white students; it was considered foreign. They did not even consider my New York life experience, stigmatizing my paintings as folkloric and modernist, saying they were not contemporary enough – a racial bias because I am a person of color that speaks English with an accent.

Those identity issues and misinterpretations of my work have strengthened me because they made me realize that I am not the only one. Many artists in the United States and throughout America feel the same. We find ourselves immersed in political agendas that institutions of power want us to follow, silencing our voices and imposing aesthetics that do not belong to us. Vanishing our knowledge, aesthetics, and ancestral legacy is a way to keep our people subjugated. In this context, the opportunity to exhibit native-contemporary American paintings at the Nasher Museum of Art, along with objects from our past, is a statement that we are still here, not eliminated, that we are not decoration or artifacts showcased in a vitrine.

For me, this exhibition goes far beyond the concept of what the “Art of Perú” is. The ancient objects are from times before Perú, and I made the artworks outside the Peruvian territory. Moreover, giving the politically constructed idea -Perú- credit for the pieces on view is a recognition that the country does not deserve due to how it has treated its native people. Those who earn the credit are the descendants of the people who created those beautiful objects that we admire today in museums, everyday people who are still alive. So for me, exhibiting my work with ancient objects from the territory of what is today Perú is a political act of contemporary native representation; I proudly embrace that.

A kind of constant evolution

You were in residence at the Rubenstein Arts Center at Duke University in 2019 when you made these two pieces and the others in your Mestizaje series. Why is the series titled Mestizaje? How did being an artist-in-residence at Duke affect your work?

When participating in an artist-in-residence program, artists can best focus on a specific theme, set short-term goals, and produce work outside their comfort zone. It also is an opportunity to think outside the box and experiment, generating a different creative dynamic than the one in their own sacred space/personal art studio, an environment where artistic processes tend to be more intimate and slow.

When I received the invitation from Bill Fick to be an artist in residence at the Ruby, I visited the space. And I was impressed by the studio’s large dimensions and natural light. It was an incentive to create a series of artworks based on cultural and geographical identity themes and to develop with the language of painting what American identity means to me as a continental telluric force proposed from the South of the United States. Looking for a term that could contain this energetic conglomerate of dichotomies, the word mestizaje perfectly described my concerns; because it symbolizes the union of different entities to create a new one that contains them, a kind of constant evolution.

Mestizaje goes far beyond the racial category mestizo, which by default includes a large part of our country’s population. It is a status we should be proud of because its vast, colorful field will always open new paths toward equity and inclusion. Mestizaje is multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-dimensional, and is without frontiers, and accessible to all. This series of works I made during the residency is a manifesto of evolution, starting from preserving our roots and memories as an active axis of a present projected into the future.

Working on the Mestizaje series during the residency at the Rubenstein Arts Center was an internal questioning journey, with an overflowing need to acknowledge the geographical space where I live. In sum, my artworks are a political action in response to the constant stigma that the natives of Continental America and the Caribbean face. Those stigmas deny our contemporaneity, destroying our memories and erasing our History. Relegating our lives to only objects of study also vanishes our mestizaje, which symbolizes our ability to form alliances with others for a good common. Mestizaje is Resistance!


Encourage a sense of touch

Installation view of Art of Peru
Installation view of Art of Peru. Photo by Brian Quinby.

If I understand correctly, during your residency you collected and mixed soil, found outside the Rubenstein Arts Center, into your paint. Why? How did this technique emerge and what was its effect?

An essential part of my painting practice is doing painting studies and other technical exercises simultaneously with the artwork I am doing in the studio. These studies include, for example, still life and landscape “Plein air” paintings. When I make art, I always look for a way to find other dimensions and symbolisms. When I paint outdoors, I have frequently included materials from the landscape in the artwork, mixing with the pictorial medium earth, leaves, branches, rain, seawater, and beach sand, among other found objects. Adding unconventional materials creates textures and simultaneously symbolic and physical representation.

The anecdotic part is that these textures made of paint and organic matter encourage a sense of touch in the people. When they see the works, they always want to touch them; the paintings activate a multisensorial experience. When I included Duke soil in the artworks, I symbolically paid homage to the native people and acknowledged their lands. This action is essential in any process of inclusion and equity. And while making the Mestizaje series, I had an urge to do it physically.

The material used in painting plays a crucial role from a technical and historical point of view. For example, in classical and baroque European painting, you see cochineal red and lapis lazuli blue, among other pigments; old masters used hemp and linen as surfaces, and all these materials came from India, Africa, and the new lands of America. The way those supplies got to Europe is a story linked to colonizing agendas and exploitation of cultures and their people. It’s a very similar to the trajectory that corn has had. For this reason, it is my responsibility as an artist to be aware of the materials I use in my work…in my corn paintings, Duke soil contains the blood of the people who have passed through here. This body of work carried bodies, our bodies.

I must treat our heritage and visual memory responsibly

During your residency, you joined me and several student interns in the Nasher Museum’s Study Storage facilities to view our collection of ancient Peruvian art, some of which is now on display in the Art of Peru reinstallation. I still recall our dynamic conversation there. What do you think ancient Peruvian art can teach us in 2022? What value does it have to artists working today?

Today it is necessary to emphasize seeing America as a whole continent, a great union. The existing barriers between what is Latin American and what is “American” (the United States) create a division between ancient art made in the North and the South of the continent. We could create solid links between our peoples if we had a continental vision. My Indigenous heritage is also connected to the native people here since the Pueblos, and they existed simultaneously. A few years ago at the Smithsonian, I saw a Moche (Mochica) pottery piece exhibited next to an Anazasi piece, and both were from the same period. I got too excited to see it; I felt that it summed up who I am now, my new identity. America was populated and developed way before the arrival of the Conquistador; there likely was a continental exchange between the North and South, East and West, including island territories. And if we see it from that perspective, migrations are part of a journey that we began thousands of years ago. People should not ignore or judge that, much less stigmatize and politicize forced human displacements. Ancient Peruvian art in the American context, more than teaching me, requires me to recognize and create alliances with the original peoples of these lands. Embracing my Indigenous legacy while ignoring the native force of the territory where I live, my children were born, and I made my artistic work would be disastrously disrespectful. Not paying respect to the new homeland land that welcomes me will turn me into a kind of privileged ex-pat, a gentrifier, a colonizer, and I don’t want to be that under any circumstances.

Similarly, I must treat our heritage and visual memory responsibly. Incorporating the image of an Ancient Peruvian artifact in my artistic work does not make me a Peruvian Artist, much less is it an act of native representation. There is an exploitation trend of ancient art aesthetics throughout the continent, an exoticization that collaborates with the stigmatized image of Latin-Americans in the United States and does not contribute to showing us from a contemporary perspective. The trap of the exotic and the mystical, which in some instances is a good marketing strategy, gives credit to a system that insists on presenting the archetype of the subjugated native when it is not. Native people are outstanding in all areas and have contemporary lives. For example, in Peruvian painting, those changes are taking place. If in the twenty century, we had Sabogal with his Indigenism, Szyszlo with his mythological abstraction, and Eielson with his Quipus, all white and mestizo men, embracing the native indigenous Perú from the outside. Today, we have artists such as Bruce Rubio, Antonio Paucar, and Venuca Evanan, who are direct representatives of native groups, setting guidelines for what is today Peruvian Contemporary Art. I assume the responsibility as an artist to find a link between what is native here and my heritage. This exhibition, for me, is much more than Art From Perú; it is bold and committed Art from America, The Continent—Nuestras Tierras.

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