tracing a wound through my body: Interview with Emilio Rojas

by Steph Garcia

Emilio Rojas: tracing a wound through my body, is the first survey of the contemporary and multi-disciplinary practice of artist Emilio Rojas curated by Laurel V. McLaughlin at Lafayette College Art Galleries in Easton, PA, September 2–November 13, 2021. The exhibition explores works spanning the last decade in a meditation upon the trace—or that which is left behind. Through written exchanges, Steph Garcia interviews Emilio Rojas on his current exhibition.

Installation image from Emilio Rojas: tracing a wound through my body, Lafayette College, September 2–November 13, 2021, Emilio Rojas, “m(Other)s,” 2017–ongoing. Eight videos, timing variable. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo: Lafayette College/ Adam Atkinson.

Stephanie Garcia (SG): Your exhibition is divided into four kinds of traces: the cut, the line, the corpus, and the scar.  In the description of your show, it notes these traces render palpable what Chicana, queer, and feminist theorist and poet Gloria E. Anzaldúa acknowledged in her pivotal book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza as heridas abiertas, or “open wounds” with the potential of healing. Anzaldúa is referring to the U.S.-Mexican border as this herida abierta and goes on to note that borders, in general, are “set-up to define the places are safe and unsafe…a dividing line…a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary…[a place where] the prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.” How has Anzaldúa’s writing informed your work and in what ways is your work an act of healing?

Emilio Rojas (ER): I came into the work of Gloria E. Anzaldúa when one of my best friends, artist Guadalupe Martínez, gave me a copy of  Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, as a birthday gift 11 years ago. As she handed me the wrapped book, she said softly: “This book will change your life,” and it did. Through her work Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (1942–2004) has given me the words to understand my experience as a queer Latinx immigrant with Indigenous heritage, battling identity and cultural hybridity while surviving and existing within multiple worlds.

The work is not just informed by Anzaldúa’s writing, it exists because it is an attempt to continue her work. To think deeply about borders, hybridity, trauma, intersectionality, and healing. It is a homage and an offering to Anzaldúa, who unfortunately departed too early at age 61 due to diabetes complications. Her work called me to respond through my body, through the land, and through the collective creation of a new border pedagogy, that centers the queer women-of-color feminism—the Chicana feminism that she articulates. In this way, every work from this series includes a parenthesis (to Gloria/a Gloria) inserted in the title as a way of honoring her and a delineation of the lineage it follows.

Many of the pieces in the show are dedicated to her in the title but all of my work holds her teachings and writings in their spirit. I’ve been working with her archive for 7 years. In one of her typewritten notes, Anzaldúa writes: “My job as an artist is to bear witness to what haunts us, to step back and attempt to see the pattern in the events (personal and societal) and how we can repair el daño [the damage] by using the imagination and its visions. I believe in the transformative power and medicine of art.” I deeply believe in the healing potential of art and our job as artists to bear witness and use our visions to imagine a better future. The unique understanding that we possess is that we are able to see patterns where others cannot. How do we use our work as reparation and also as empowerment? 

Emilio Rojas, Heridas Abiertas (to Gloria), 2014–ongoing. Performance with tattoo artist Victor Nieto at Famous Tattoo Works, Easton, PA, September 17, 2021, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo: Lafayette College/ Adam Atkinson and Jackson Kitchell.

SG: In Heridas Abiertas (to Gloria), you collaborate with a tattoo artist to incise the U.S.-Mexican border, creating a 22-in scar, or border, along your spine. In El Mestizo (2010), you shave off half of your body hair in yet another act of bordering. As someone who also identifies as Latinx, when I look at your work, I am reminded of how politicized our bodies are and see both a clear depiction of the Third World, which Anzaldúa notes that many Latinx people inhabit and the complexity of that space. Could you elaborate more on the importance of performance within your work, specifically the use of your own body?

ER: Before studying art, I went to medical school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This education provided me with a special awareness of the human body, which I incorporate in my pedagogy, performance, and processes. I often think about the way our bodies do not matter to society. The bodies of “the other” are always disposable, so we need to make sure we are being seen.

I am a multidisciplinary artist working primarily with the body, which means performance is at the core of my entire practice. Sometimes it manifests itself through video, other times through photography, animation, installation, social practice, public interventions, land art, poetry, or sculpture. My body is always in relation to these media, and to body politics that are often shifting. I also collaborate with other bodies, who hold multitudes on their own, and we learn from each other. I utilize my body in a political and critical way, as an instrument to unearth removed traumas, embody forms of decolonization, migration, mourning, and poetics of space. It is essential to my practice to engage in the postcolonial ethical imperative to uncover, investigate, and make visible and audible undervalued or disparaged sites of knowledge, narratives, and individuals.

My body is the vessel/vehicle through which I understand the world and make sense of my experiences. From that knowledge and distillation, I create performances where my body renders visible the intersectionality and complexity of my multiple identities, porosities, and privileges. I try to inhabit that liminal space that Anzaldúa so often refers to, that in-betweenness, which, for me, is a site of immense power. Bayard Rustin once said in a speech during the beginning of the civil rights movement: “The only weapon that we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them into places so wheels don’t turn.” I often think of performance as the practice of tucking our bodies into those uncomfortable places that challenge the status quo and the construction of hegemonic narratives that tend to exclude us.

Emilio Rojas, Questions to the Border, 2019

SG: I’m still thinking about the accompanying “Questions to the Border” handout for your show. These questions range from the seemingly mundane, like “What type of car do you drive?” to more profound questions like “Have you lost count of how many people have passed through you? Or died trying?” To me, the document is not only a dialogue between the reader and the border but also seeks to challenge the reader to think about the border as more than an object, but rather the people who traverse it. Could you talk about the role this list of questions plays in helping us navigate the exhibit?

ER: The questions to the border come from a pedagogical exercise that students who participated in the piece Naturalized Borders (a Gloria) (2019), which is exhibited in the show. The piece is a scaled-version of the U.S.-Mexican border as a 100-foot-long line of corn, squash, and beans, also known as “the three sisters.” This piece was created in collaboration with the Bard College Farm during the summer of 2019 for the Live Art Biennial, Where No Wall Remains. The interactive land art and community-based project included workshops where over 400 audience members and students participated in an attempt to develop new “border pedagogies.” One of the written exercises was to imagine if you had the chance to sit with the border at a table for dinner: What questions would you ask her/him/them and who would you be addressing?

This exercise occurred to me after reading Pablo Neruda’s, Book of Questions, (El libro de las preguntas) finished months before his death in September 1973, and after reading the book Tell Me How It Ends: An essay in forty questions, 2017, by fellow Bard College faculty member and author Valeria Luiselli. Neruda’s Book of Questions is composed entirely of unanswerable couplets and was his last poem, one in which he juxtaposes the maturity of his late work and the imagination of a child.

So, I have thousands of questions from hundreds of participants, which straddle between poetics

and politics, between a job interview and a first date. Some participants took the questions very seriously, while others tried to deflect the tension of the subject and the violence that this site brings to mind with humor. As migrants, we are used to being interrogated and questioned, needing to prove ourselves with our answers. We are not used to asking questions back, especially to those in power. As the border becomes anthropomorphized in the exercise, it reverses that position. The part of the corn where the kernels grow tightly wrapped in a husk is called an “ear,” so after sharing their questions with one another participants dispersed within the installation and found an ear to whisper their questions to the border. The corn is planted in the shape of the line of the border, so the questions return into the border and remain unanswered but perhaps heard. To whisper in an ear, so the land might listen. An intimate as well as poetic gesture, to whisper into someone’s ear, a close and confidential exchange where no one else can listen to what has been uttered. For me, a question works like a seed. It might not bloom immediately; it might be dormant for years; it might need fire like the seeds of sequoias for it to sprout, but once it’s uttered there is the potential for it to grow. For me, art has to ask questions as well as question our role as engaged citizens in this world.

Emilio Rojas, Naturalized Borders (a Gloria) [still], 2019. Video documentation of land art and community project, 2:31 min.
Image courtesy of the artist.

SG: In spending time with your show, I noticed how many of your pieces are deeply rooted in community, and many involve community in the act of art-making. In “m(Other)s,” you collaborated with local immigrant and undocumented mothers and their children to create portraits evocative of 19th-century “hidden mother” photographs. In “Moving Through Borders,” you worked with migrant dancers to trace their individual crossings through drawings, photographs, and video. Why is it important for you to work closely with communities and how do you choose to employ certain strategies to center their voices and narratives?

ER: In my practice I engage in current political and social issues, by tracing their genealogies back in history through materiality and insertion, thinking about how it relates to the communities whom I identify with, and share common experiences. The series “m(Other)s” are video portraits of immigrant women, mostly undocumented, holding their first-generation children, who are United States citizens by birthright under the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a country that prides itself as a “nation of immigrants,” these pieces serve as a reminder of the conditions of invisibility of immigrant women.

This work is inspired by the “hidden mother” photographs common from the beginning of photography up until the 1920s. I first found these images in an antique shop, and they were extremely haunting. I started collecting them because I was intrigued by the portraits of the infants in relation to these ghostly figures, disguised as chairs or camouflaged under fabrics. These photographs haunted me; and, for a number of years, they remained ingrained in my memory as I kept collecting them. In the photographs, the mothers are covered in order to hold their children in place for anywhere from thirty seconds to a minute until the photograph is exposed. In the videos, the mothers are covered with a fabric that resembles the star section of the United States flag. I also interviewed the mothers about how they felt their labor and motherhood was invisible in this country. I was remembering Poet Danez Smith when they asked in their book Don’t Call Us Dead  (2017): “Do you know what it is like to live on land who loves you back?”

When I work with different communities, I try to think of ways to center and amplify their voices through the sharpest tool in my toolbox, which is art/performance. Also, I try to extend the resources and access I’m given by different institutions in an attempt to distribute this horizontally. I cringe when artists say that they are giving a voice to the voiceless. I believe everyone has something to say and knows how to say best, they might just need a little encouragement. I like the idea of art as a megaphone you are able to pass around to amplify what people in your communities have to say. It is also a tool you can teach others to use so then they can pass it to others. When I work with communities, whether it’s immigrants, mothers, agricultural workers, queer folks, BIPOC, refugees, dancers, Indigenous people, I think of building empathic bridges that strengthen our bonds of solidarity and allyship with one another. Anzaldúa used to close her letter with, instead of sincerely, “Contigo en la lucha,” which translates to “with you in the struggle.”

Emilio Rojas, He Who Writes History Has No Memory (detail),2017–2018. Installation with performance-film, 4 x 2 ½ ft. framed poster, confederate seal, hot plate, and lacquered tortillas. Image courtesy of the artist.
Photo: Lafayette College/ Adam Atkinson.

SG: In many of your pieces, you also seem to be troubling the idea of monumentality and what and how we choose to commemorate. Moreover, you also seem to be drawing connections between architecture, land, trauma, and colonialism. I think this is most evident in He Who Writes History Has No Memory (2017–2018), in which you use a confederate seal as a tortilla press and create your own protest signs via rubbings from existing monument texts. What has attracted you to this subversion of monuments? In what ways do you feel that monuments could aid in the reclamation of narrative?

ER: History is constructed through its most visible public symbols, monuments, displaying the power of the past in the present, and making sure the future remembers. I think in order to reclaim our narratives we need to engage with the history that has been set in stone, marble, and metals in which, for the most part, people from the global majority have been excluded. I am also fascinated by unrealized monuments, and how in their failure they show us a way to move forward. How do we shift their meaning by going against what they represent?

With the name Abraham Lincoln, I take the letters and replicate the historical poster of the civil rights movement  “I AM A MAN,” referencing the largely unknown history of Abraham Lincoln opposing the Mexican-American War, against President Polk. I was in Durham, North Carolina when the Confederate Soldiers Monument was toppled. With the text left on the marble plinth after the fallen statue had been removed, I wrote POWER TO THE PEOPLE and used the poster in protests. These gestures can help bridge the historical past to our contemporary moment, through the use of frottage, public interventions, and protest, as mediums to collapse time, in an attempt to narrow the distance located between both the past and the present.

How can monuments be activated through the renewed engagement of public ritual that both disputes, resists, and deconstructs, not as a means of fixing history but as a way of readdressing it in our present condition? I brand the tortillas with the cast iron confederate seal and use them to make tacos that are eaten in meals where the participants discuss issues of systemic racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and how to organize across communities against oppression. This gesture stands in radical opposition to what this seal represented when I first encountered it carved in marble in the pedestal of the Confederate Soldiers Monument. The symbol, then, is ingested through our bodies and then transformed into what that symbol actually is, something to flush down the toilet. I am in favor of providing proposals to communities who have been oppressed by these monuments and their implications, so we can get together to figure out creative ways to reconfigure and reclaim our narratives. 

left) Emilio Rojas, Go Back to Where You Came From (still), 2019. Installation of two-month, nine-day performance-film, boat sculpture/rock, uniform, and boots, 14:92 min. Image courtesy of the artist; (right) Emilio Rojas, Go Back to Where You Came From (Mayflower) (still), 2020. Installation of performance-film and boat sculpture, uniform, boots, 16:20 min. Image courtesy of the artist.

SG: Your work is also spread throughout Lafayette’s college campus. Through this disbursement, you seem to further expand upon the complexities of what it means to be Latinx, and more broadly, queer BIPOC in the current political landscape and global pandemic, while still referencing key moments in history. For example, in Go Back to Where You Came From (2019) and Go Back to Where You Came From (Mayflower) (2020), you created two iterations of a performance piece, one of which was created during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump-era, which focus on the voyage of colonizers from Europe to the Americas. In a year where many inequalities were rendered visible, how has your work continued to change and where do you envision it going next? What does the role of memory play in your work?

ER: These two performances that you mentioned are from 2019 and 2020 and they stem from experiences of racism and xenophobia in which I was told, in various iterations: go back to where you came from. Each performance lasted a bit over two months, in which I carried a replica of the Santa Maria that carried Columbus to the new world and also a replica of the Mayflower the year of the 400 anniversary. In the first iteration, I carried the vessel throughout Europe, wearing a jumpsuit embroidered with the phrase “Go Back to Where You Came From,” eventually taking the ship to Puerto de Palos in Huelva, Spain, the supposed place where Columbus supposedly departed in 1492. In the second iteration, on the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arriving to the Americas in 1620 and at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic I traveled to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and worked with the reenactors of the pilgrims about the experience of their work as an interpretation of history and memory.  

With every project, my work changes because, hopefully, I learn new things along the way. The world is also constantly shifting and the work responds to those changes. In the future, I will attempt to continue working with this process with deeper considerations of our hybrid forms of identity, the relationship of monuments and reenactments to memory and fiction, and syncretic forms of postcolonialism and neocolonialism. Utilizing performance as a way of embodied research between theory and pedagogy, I also want to keep developing more radical pedagogies of borders and performance.

Emilio Rojas: tracing a wound through my body was on display at The Richard A. and Rissa W. Grossman Gallery, September 2–November 13, 2021. The survey will travel to Emerson Contemporary of Emerson College, Boston in Fall 2023.

Steph Garcia is an interdisciplinary artist based in Philadelphia. She utilizes storytelling, writing, sound, and installation to examine political struggle and social inequality. Garcia holds a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a project specialist for Monument Lab, a nonprofit that cultivates and facilitates critical conversations around the past, present, and future of monuments, and a community engagement coordinator for Make The World Better, a local nonprofit that focuses on park revitalization and stewardship.

Emilio Rojas is a multidisciplinary artist working primarily with the body in performance, using video, photography, installation, public interventions, and sculpture. He holds an MFA in Performance from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA in Film from Emily Carr University in Vancouver, Canada. As a queer Latinx immigrant with indigenous heritage, it is essential to his practice to engage in the postcolonial ethical imperative to uncover, investigate, and make visible and audible undervalued or disparaged sites of knowledge, narratives, and individuals. He utilizes his body in a political and critical way, as an instrument to unearth removed traumas, embodied forms of decolonization, migration, and poetics of space. His research-based practice is heavily influenced by queer and feminist archives, border politics, botanical colonialism, and defaced monuments. Besides his artistic practice, he is also a translator, community activist, yoga teacher, and anti-oppression facilitator with queer, migrant, and refugee youth.

His work has been exhibited in exhibitions and festivals in the US, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Austria, England, Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Colombia, and Australia, as well as institutions like the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Ex-Teresa Arte Actual Museum and Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Surrey Art Gallery, the DePaul Art Museum, and the Botín Foundation. Rojas is currently a Visiting Artist/Scholar in Residency in the Theater and Performance Department at Bard College in New York, for the 2019–2021 academic years and the inaugural resident of the Judy Pfaff Foundation (2019–2020).