STRANGE FIRE COLLECTIVE | Q&A: Elizabeth Ferrer
Elizabeth Ferrer is a curator and writer specializing in Latino and Mexican art and photography. She is also the chief curator of contemporary art at BRIC. Ferrer has curated major exhibitions of modern and contemporary art for numerous venues in the United States and Mexico, and has written and lectured extensively on topics related to her fields of interest. Exhibitions she has curated have appeared at such venues as BRIC House, the Americas Society, the UBS Art Gallery, and the Aperture Foundation Gallery, all in New York; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C; the Snite Museum, Notre Dame University; and MARCO, Monterrey, Mexico. Other major exhibition projects include traveling retrospectives of such historic Mexican figures as Mariana Yampolsky, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and María Izquierdo, and the establishment of the BRIC Biennial in 2014. Ferrer recently authored Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History and her monographic work Lola Alvarez Bravo was a New York Times 2006 Notable Book of the Year.
Rafael Soldi: Hi Elizabeth, thank you for chatting with me today. Can you begin with some background on how you came to where you are today? When did your love for photography and Latinx photography in particular begin?
Elizabeth Ferrer: I was born and raised in East Los Angeles and came east for college and graduate school. After graduating, when I arrived in New York in the mid-1980s, I became more curious about my cultural heritage. This was at a time when Latin American or Latinx art was being little-taught, so I decided I’d simply start traveling to Mexico and go through a process of self-education. In Mexico City, I discovered a truly dynamic art scene that was such a fresh alternative to New York. I met many members of a generation of rising artists that were making truly compelling work. I decided to direct my efforts as a young curator to bringing Mexican art and artists to the United States. I was fortunate to be able to curate some big traveling exhibitions for the American Federation of Arts and Independent Curators International as well as for galleries in New York. I also became increasingly involved with Mexico’s photo community, and was also writing about Mexican photography, both historic and contemporary. Eventually, I wanted to work closer to home and with Latinx photographers in New York—this has also been an overlooked area in the visual arts, even among the Latinx art community. Several years ago I started the research for my book, Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History. This book, published earlier this year, represents the culmination of many years of working to provide platforms and exposure for artists outside the mainstream.
RS: After so many years championing Latinx photographers, what makes this the right time to publish your book Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History ?
EF: The right time was probably many years ago since this has been such an under-studied area. Before my book was published, no such publication existed. In fact, photography by Latinx people is generally not taught at the college level, not collected by museums, and is little known by the critics and curators who create the photographic canon. I spent about seven years researching, writing, and then going through the editing process with the University of Washington Press. I believe that the book acts as a corrective; my aim is that these photographers do become seen as integral to the history of American photography. But at the same time, the book is a start. There is so much research to be done, and rising photographers in our community that deserve greater attention.
RS: The research you embarked on for this book is massive, I’m curious how you approached organizing the structure of the book. Were you surprised by where you ended vs how you envisioned it when the project began?
EF: This took a long time for me to think through. I wanted to write about a broad scope of photographers from the beginning of the history of photography, and from many parts of the United States, including Puerto Rico. One approach might have been to structure the book by ethnicity, looking at Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Cuban American photographers independently. But where would that leave Dominican photographers, or those from other Latin American countries who have long been based in the US? Ultimately, the book is arranged thematically, with an introductory chapter, and then separate chapters devoted to such themes as the rise of a Latinx consciousness in the US in the civil rights era, the 1960s; documentary photography; identity-based work, focusing on staged and constructed photography; family; geography; and conceptual approaches. I also include a separate chapter on Puerto Rico because in many ways it has its own independent history of photography, and photographers there have their own challenges and issues that they address in their work.
RS: There is already plenty of discussions out there about the term “Latinx,” I discussed it at length with Aldeide Delgado in a recent interview on Strange Fire. Like any label, it is imperfect and evolving but has value. To my knowledge, your book and Arlene Dávila’s Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics are the first major academic publications that not only embrace the term but use it as part of its title. What does it mean to you personally, and why was it important to use it in this context?
EF: I also spent a lot of time considering the term Latinx. In fact, in the earliest drafts of the book, I refer to “Latinos,” since Latinx had not come into wide usage at that point. I embrace the term for a couple of reasons. First, it’s forward looking. It is a term that came from our own community (unlike say, “Hispanic,” which became as a census designation) and it is a term that connotes self-affirmation and cultural autonomy. For me, the “x” is also powerful because while the original purpose of the “x” was to reject gender binaries, it also promotes intersectionality. We are all the sum of many parts, and I think the “x” in Latinx reminds us of this fact.
RS: In your role as Chief Curator at BRIC, what are some recent programs and exhibitions you are proud of, and what’s on the horizon that you’re excited about?
EF: The contemporary art program at BRIC has a strong goal of supporting marginalized and under-recognized artists, who we support in residencies, exhibitions, and other programs. I’m particularly proud at some of the exhibitions I’ve curated dedicated to Latinx artists, such as Juan Sanchez and Miguel Luciano. At the moment, we are showing a 55-foot long painting by Athena LaTocha, an indigenous artist whose monumentally scaled works on paper focus on the relationship of natural and man-made landscapes. The exhibition acts as an incredible, immersive experience for our audience. Time seems to slow down, as you gaze at all these abstract references that range from the glacial to the contemporary era. And finally, we’ve just begun to work on the next edition of the BRIC Triennial (formerly a Biennial), to be dedicated to disabled artists. This will be a BRIC-wide effort with curatorial contributions from the performing arts and media departments, as well as from the contemporary art team.
RS: Thank you Elizabeth, we look forward to your WOPHA presentation!
EF: Thank you so much Rafael, and I look forward to joining the conference next week!