Artists illuminate Latino identity and life in the American West

March 20, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Thirteen young Mexican-American artists explore the ideas of "home" and "place" in the American West in an exhibit called "Mi Tierra" at the Denver Art Museum. Artists tackled topics of immigration, identity struggle and colliding worlds. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: A new art exhibit explores contemporary life in the American West, as seen through the eyes of Latino artists and their immigrant experience.

Jeffrey Brown is back with the story from Denver.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Denver Art Museum recently, an emotional moment for artist Ramiro Gomez and his parents.

WOMAN: I’m very proud of him.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’d brought them here to see his newest work, called Lupita, an installation that pays homage to a janitor who worked at these galleries.

It was particularly poignant. Gomez’s parents themselves are laborers, his mother a janitor, his father a truck driver.

RAMIRO GOMEZ, Artist: I wouldn’t be here without their labor. I wouldn’t be here without their sacrifice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Gomez is an up-and-coming artist in Los Angeles featured in galleries and exhibitions for work that captures a life of work by immigrants and others, not typically the subject of art.

RAMIRO GOMEZ: It’s important for me to highlight these people that are not going to be recorded in our history.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Denver, Gomez was one of 13 young Mexican-American artists chosen for an exhibition called Mi Tierra, their assignment, to create a new work that explores the idea of home and place in the American West.

There were smaller paintings and large installations, videos about the land before Europeans settled here, and a garden that looked like a giant pinata.

Many of the artists tackled the politically charged topic of immigration. This piece contained an actual panel of the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

RAMIRO GOMEZ: For me, place becomes a very difficult word to focus on, just because place is never permanent. We’re constantly moving. It’s constantly shifting.

I’m an American-born child to Mexican immigrants. So, I’m at once Mexican and American. I’m in between. That in-between space, that in-between place that I occupy is something that is constantly changing within myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dmitri Obergfell’s installation reflects an internal identity struggle. He was raised in Colorado by his American mother and was estranged from his Mexican father until recently.

For the museum, he recreated a market typical of many Latino neighborhoods in Denver, one that sells T-shirts, sculptures of narco-saints and praying hands with manicured nails.

DMITRI OBERGFELL, Artist: The reason I wanted to explore this sort of theme in this way using, like, this market is because I have kind of always existed on the perimeter of Latino culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: You feel complicated when it comes to identity?

DMITRI OBERGFELL: I think that it would be maybe in bad taste for me to take this opportunity and come into this exhibition and say, OK, I’m fully Latino now. Like, for me, it was just about exploring and having this sort of cathartic process to work through these complicated identity ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jaime Carrejo is a professor at Rocky Mountain College of Art and a fourth-generation American who grew up in the border city of El Paso, Texas. He created his own border wall with video images of Mexico projected on one side and of the U.S. on the other.

JAIME CARREJO, Artist: I’m really interested in the construction of divisiveness and how we use that to make people part of a group or exclude them.

In making art, you can create complex discussions about complex issues, because things don’t exist in dualities.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s interesting, because there is a duality here, right? There’s one country, and there’s another.

JAIME CARREJO: You have the dualities, but the wall itself, because of the reflective materials, they end up collapsing on each other. There would be moments where the image of Mexico will be transcribed on the image of the United States. You have this whole different landscape.

So, you end up with this complex layering and mix of an image, which I think is the perfect metaphor of what it means to be a U.S. citizen of the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Landscape and two worlds colliding was also the focus for Daniela Edburg, who’s lived her life back and forth in both countries.

Her piece, titled Uprooted, featured a large crocheted root and plant system that weaves together photographs of immigrants and images from the Western terrain.

DANIELA EDBURG, Artist: I have always had this thing of being, like, of two places.

JEFFREY BROWN: Literally. I mean, that’s how you grew up.

DANIELA EDBURG: Yes. That’s how I grew up, you know, with two languages, two points of reference culturally that are similar, but not the same.

In my adulthood, I have found it very comforting to find connections between the places through the landscape.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much are you watching the headlines and reading the news in this context?

DANIELA EDBURG: Oh, well, of course I’m watching what’s going on. And I — and of course it informs my work. But I am also talking about stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibition Mi Tierra shows through October.

From the Denver Art Museum, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.