Interview with a Curator: Alejandro Anreus in Conversation with Luis Cruz Azaceta, Bending the Grid

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(Luis Cruz Azaceta, Photo by Akintola Hanif)

As “Bending the Grid. Luis Cruz Azaceta: Dictators, Terrorism, War, and Exiles” prepares to close and travel to other cultural institutions, Aljira continues to offer copies of the catalog from the exhibition. Below is an excerpt, an interview featuring curator Dr. Alejandro Anreus and the artist in conversation.  Join us on Friday, April 25, 2014 for a closing party with readings by poets and writers Pablo Medina, Aracelis Girmay and Alejandro Anreus curated by Dodge Poetry Festival Founding Director, Jim Haba. See the show before it closes on May 3, 2014. 

FIVE QUESTIONS FOR LUIS CRUZ AZACETA

Interview by Alejandro Anreus, February 13, 2013: an excerpt from the Bending the Grid catalog by Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art 

AA: You became an exile at the age of 18. How essential is this to your vision as an artist?

LCA: As an artist you use your experiences dealing with your surroundings and your conditions. The condition of being an exile is of being in two places simultaneously—physically in your place of exile, emotionally and spiritually in the place you left behind, your roots. This experience allowed me as an artist to address the condition of isolation, separation and oppression through my work. It gave me an eye to understanding that this experience goes beyond my personal journey to a perspective of a more global condition that many live in.

Works like the paintings ARK, Man Carrying his Country II and Swimming to Havana, as well as works on paper such as Cambodia and Wall 4 convey some of these conditions.

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(Azaceta, Man Carrying his Country II, 1993, 30 x 30, acrylic on canvas)

AA: Since you began painting in your own visual vocabulary in the 1970s, social content has been central to your work. Why is this?

LCA: Social content is central to my work because I believe that art should address our human condition. My intention is to create compassion in the viewer. The vehicle for compassion is the aesthetic that draws one into looking closely at what are, perhaps, sometimes horrific subjects and embracing them.

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(Azaceta, ARK, 1994, 110 x 119, acrylic, charcoal, polaroids, shellac on canvas) 

AA: Over the years your pictorial style has evolved, expanded, et cetera, yet dictators, war and terror keep appearing in your work. Why?

LCA: I think you are referring to the degree of abstraction in some of my later works. My pictorial style has changed from series to series over the years. I constantly challenge myself to explore new ways of creating form and content. I don’t want the work to become manneristic, mechanical or repetitious. For example, in the painting Piñata, you have a Trojan horse idea… an act of surprise. There are incongruous, shifting forms to create a pictorial fight—the intense colors and clashing forms are battling alongside the unexpected armada.

Ah, the subject of dictators, war and terror… unfortunately they are more visible than ever.

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(Azaceta, 2009, “Pinata”, 96 x 122, acrylic, charcoal, shellac on canvas)

AA: The balsero, the exile, is a constant in your entire body of work. Many times the balsero is a self-portrait. Could you expand a little bit on what this means?

LCA: I went into exile in 1960 from Havana to New York. Not the typical crossing of Cubans from Havana to Miami, the reason being I had family in New Jersey and New York that I joined. I paint the balsero because it is an image that conveys the journey to freedom. It’s a heroic act of desperation where one’s hope is stronger than the danger, fear and horror of the journey.

Throughout my work I’ve used self-portraits as a vehicle to convey different conditions. With the balsero, imagine going across in an inner tube not knowing exactly which direction you are headed, hoping you are going north. Imagine the sun, no food, no instruments, shark-infested waters and the statistics, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, that only two out of five make it.

The work ARK is one of my favorite balsero paintings. In it I use raw canvas as a representation of the expansiveness and isolation of the ocean. I originally had painted the word “shark” in the upper right-hand corner, but when the work was finished I realized that perhaps there were too many sharks, and I decided to cover the “sh” with a piece of canvas that allowed it to read as “ark,” which became the title of the piece. There’s a linkage of forms that extend out from the word “ark”—the lines, which become lifelines or deadlines depending upon the image attached, lead to an empty inner tube and a self-portrait—a fragmented body with an extended arm that becomes an oar—one’s inner drive and determination for survival.

AA: Where do you see your work headed at the moment?

LCA: The latest work includes a series titled Shifting States that deals with the Arab Spring and another series that touches upon natural disasters and climactic changes.

For more information on upcoming programs and events visit www.aljira.org

Utopian Vision Born of a Harsh Truth

 New York Times Review, April 2014 

Photos from Aljira’s opening reception for Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality at the New Jersey State Museum on view through September 28th.  Chief Curator for the exhibition is Margaret O’Reilly, Curator of Fine Art, New Jersey State Museum. Co-curators are Carl E. Hazlewood, artist, writer, independent curator and co-founder of Aljira; Jaret Vadera, Artist | Cultural Producer; and Cicely Cottingham, Artist and Co-Founder, Aljira Design. Photo credit: Akintola Hanif. Click here to view more. 

Aljira at 30: Dream and Reality

 Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality is a landmark survey exhibition presented by the New Jersey State Museum celebrating Aljira’s 30th Anniversary. A lively, historical overview, the exhibit contains many archival images showing Aljira’s journey: from the early days when a group of artists answered an ad for studio space in the Roseville section of Newark to its current home at 591 Broad Street. Aljira at 30 includes work by a representative selection of artists from the hundreds who have touched down and passed through and made Aljira the vital, far-reaching enterprise that it has become. 

Aljira was started by artists in 1983. It has grown and thrived over the last 30 years because of people. Hundreds of artists, curators, employees, educators, volunteers, and supporters have given their time, and their hard work to keep this unique art space going. We can reimagine Aljira as a social sculpture, as an artwork in and of itself that brings people together in creative ways to build community, and shape society. It has always been about people, and not bricks and mortar. 

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Bisa Washington, “St. Clementine’s Traveling MOJO Emporium - We Got Hope”, 2008, 10 x 12, mixed media

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"5 Days in July", two-channel installation

First shown as a double-channel video installation by Chuck Schultz and Esther Podemski at Aljira in 2007, 5 Days in July revisits the 1967 Newark Riots, an important cataclysmic moment in American history. It’s now again on view as part of Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality. This civil disturbance began when African-American cab driver and musician John W. Smith was arrested, beaten and dragged into the Fourth Precinct for a minor traffic infraction. This action triggered rebellion among the African-American community that spread throughout Newark. To quell the unrest, government officials mobilized the New Jersey State Police and National Guard.

At the conclusion of the rebellion, there were 26 dead and approximately 1,000 injured, 1,500 arrests, and $10 million in property damage. The “Newark Riots” represents one of the earliest civil disturbances among the more than 160 rebellions that occurred during that long hot summer. 

In 1983, 16 years later, when a group of artists, (Victor L. Davson, Sietze Frankfort, Carl E. Hazlewood, Rafael Sánchez, Elizabeth Seaton, and Fausto Sevila) that would become the founding members of Aljira ­– answered an ad for space in the Roseville section of Newark, the ghosts of 67’ still loomed heavily over the city. Newark looked like it had just been through a war. Buildings were in ruin, and the community was raw, and disconnected.

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Curators Okwui Enwezor and Carl E. Hazlewood in the early days

Artists and co-founders Carl E. Hazlewood and Victor L. Davson framed Aljira’s curatorial focus in the earlier years. In 1993, Aljira was selected by the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions to organize the United States’ representation at the IV Bienal Internacional de Pintura in Cuenca, Ecuador. For the Bienal de Cuenca Carl organized Current Identities: Recent Paintings in the United States. The exhibition was so successful that it travelled after the Bienal de Cuenca to ten additional countries and 12 cities in Central and South America. 

When we started, we didn’t plan how things would turn out. It was an ongoing revelation from one achievement to the next. For me, it was great to work with other artists. I was always interested in working with others and Aljira gave me the opportunity. Because of our cosmopolitan background, as immigrants from Guyana, Victor and I did not have the same built-in social and cultural barriers many others had within the American context. The character of our organization reflected our own personal background: multi-racial, multi-cultural and inclusive.

Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality looks back, but also looks forward. We accomplished so much in a short time!  In ten years, we went from doing a children’s mural project to organizing a prize-winning exhibition for an international Bienal. It has been very satisfying to look over all the materials in the archival ephemera section: the organization lives and breathes there.  

– Carl E. Hazlewood

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Cicely Cottingham, Light Skinned Woman with Bare Fleshy Arms from the Flags Series, 2009, acrylic on vellum

Cicely Cottingham is an artist/painter. Her work was showcased in Aljira’s second exhibition. In 1991 she and Victor L. Davson co-founded the revenue generating enterprise, Aljira Design which, by 2004, provided over 40% of Aljira’s operating budget and helped to facilitate Aljira’s development into a “Major Arts Institution”, a designation of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Cottingham served as Aljira Design’s Art Director from 1996 to 2009. As a co-curator of “Aljira at 30”, Cicely has played an integral role in assembling the exhibition’s ephemera, sifting through three decades of Aljira’s program material and photographs. 

Wading through the many storage boxes triggered so many memories of wonderful, as well as difficult moments. It also reminded me of what a resource Aljira has grown to be for Newark, specifically, and the art community at large. I’m very proud to have played a role in this adventure.

– Cicely Cottingham

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Jayson Keeling, The Marked Man, 2011/printed 2014, archival pigment print, Photographer: Andy Brown 

“Aljira is really a unique space.” says artist and cultural producer, Jaret Vadera. “It is more like an incubator, or a conduit. It’s been a platform for tons of artists, curators, and writers, from Jayson Keeling to Bisa Washington to Renee Green to Fred Wilson to Eathon Hall to Rocio Aranda-Alvarado to Edwin Ramoran to Chitra Ganesh to Amiri Baraka. Bad ass, hardcore artists have come through here. It’s not a place for dead, stagnant art. It’s charged with energy, tension and contradictions which is what art should be.”

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Victor L. Davson, Dub Factor: Heroes – George Benson, 2013, acrylic and black rice on treated LP vinyl record album cover

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Amiri Baraka, 2013, New Jersey Poet Laureate Family Reading at Aljira, Photographer: Akintola Hanif 

Chief Curator for the exhibition, Margaret M. O’Reilly and curator of Fine Art at the New Jersey State Museum sees Aljira at 30 as an important moment in New Jersey’s history and the Arts. “Aljira has been agile in their response to changing cultural and societal issues, all the while maintaining a humanist ethos,” she says. “Through its commitment to bridging racial, cultural and ethnic barriers, the Center enlightens not just the arts community, but the local region it serves. Through exhibitions, programs, workshops and outreach, Aljira provides cultural services to the underserved and allows these communities to understand that the arts are not elitist, but a natural form of expression for all people.  It offers art as something more than simply an aesthetic experience, but a vital component in individual and community life.” 

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Dulce Pinzón, Catwoman is Minerva Valencia, from Puebla, who works as a nanny in New York.  She sends home $400 dollars a week, 2005-10, From the Superheroes Series, c-print on sintra

Aljira at 30, Dream and Reality features work by the following artists: Manuel Acevedo, Derrick Adams, David Ambrose, Amiri Baraka, Hugo Bastidas, Miriam Beerman, Frank Bowling, Judith Brodsky, Willie Cole, Cicely Cottingham, Roy Crosse, Victor Davson*, Efrain de Jesus, Dahlia Elsayed, Ming Fay, Chitra Ganesh, Jerry Gant, Grace Graupe Pillard, Renée Green, Carl E. Hazlewood*, Marion Held, Janet Henry, Aubrey J. Kauffman, Jayson Keeling, Estella Lackey, Mel Leipzig, Shaun Leonardo, Norman Lewis, James Little, Hew Locke, Donald Locke, Al Loving, Franc Palaia, Dulce Pinzón, Freddy Rodriguez, Kevin Sampson, Rafael Sánchez*, Elizabeth Seaton*, Fausto Sevila*, Danny Simmons, Helen M. Stummer, Mickalene Thomas, Mary Valverde, Bisa Washinghton, Florence Weisz*, Philemona Williamson, Chuck Schultz and Esther Podemski. (*Founding Artists)

The exhibition is on view from March 29 through September 28, 2014. An opening reception will be held on Sunday, March 30th at the New Jersey State Museum from 1pm to 4pm.

The New Jersey State Museum is located at 205 West State Street, Trenton. The Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday, 9 am to 4:45 pm; closed Mondays and all State Holidays.  Suggested admission is $5 for adults. For directions and more information visit www.statemuseum.nj.gov or www.aljira.org.