(We Are Millions)
Karen Navarro pieces together
By Kate Mothes
Through a process of documenting, fragmenting, layering, and reassembling, Houston-based artist Karen Navarro’s multi-media photographic works piece together a portrait of contemporary America. Through the lens of migration, race, and community, she examines the myriad stories that bring people together, compel them to move from place to place, and construct a complex relationship between notions of home and a sense of belonging. A new solo exhibition Somos Millones at Foto Relevance in Houston highlights the artist’s ongoing exploration of identity.
Navarro immigrated to the United States from Argentina, and in 2014, she discovered that she could trace her ancestry to the Indigenous Mapuche culture of South America. “I have always been interested in identity, but this piece of information shook my past understanding of who I was,” she explains. “I currently find myself on a journey of reparation to reclaim a part of my identity that has been erased by the colonial gaze and influence.” Her research recently took her back to Argentina in an effort to navigate how histories are shared or exhibited at personal, societal, and institutional levels. She continues, “Sometimes I feel that I belong neither here nor there, as if I occupy a space in between. This sense of otherness has led me to create works that aim to reconnect me with my ancestral, Indigenous culture.”
Somos Millones brings together two bodies of work: an ongoing project that incorporates crowdsourced skin tones, data, language, and other materials into mixed-media works titled América Utópica and a series of vibrant portraits titled Neither Here Nor There. Navarro is interested in the way a photograph ceases to be just a photograph once parts of it are isolated, removed, sculpted, amalgamated, or abstracted. The neon light in “Shine America 2043” evokes Glenn Ligon’s “Double America” (2012) and glows atop a surface of skin tone color blocks, labeled like paint swatches with the names they belong to. We’re not looking at “light brown” or “beige”; instead we see Dominique, Chitra, or Raul, as Navarro insists that viewers comprehend the extraordinary individuality that makes up a place’s cultural and societal patchwork.
Crisp, geometric shapes, a bright palette, and the bold, confident gazes of her subjects highlight the artist’s aim to rectify the way Indigenous peoples have been presented in the past, especially in history books or museums that portray Indigenous bodies as dehumanized, primitive, “other,”—or omitted their presence from the historical record almost entirely. For an upcoming project, she focuses on sitters who are Indigenous to or living in Argentina. “One of my ultimate goals for this project is to proudly celebrate our Indigenous identities and to be able to inhabit spaces that were unthinkable for us, such as museums inside and outside of Argentina,” she says.
“Although the blank spaces represent something missing, it could also be an opportunity to fill in the blanks with the story we want to tell.”
In making portraits of others, Navarro puzzles together individuals’ stories, building a complex and nuanced portrait of the immigrant experience and the cultural tapestry of America. In her studio, she photographs people she knows from Houston—first, second, or third-generation immigrants—who chat with Navarro about their experiences and familial history. Later, she deconstructs the images by focusing on details like eyes or hair and transposing, flipping, or separating them into smaller pieces, as if large pixels have come loose from the surface and float awkwardly around without a place to settle.
The relationship between Indigenous identity and immigrant experience is a complex one; both involve a sense of belonging to a place or way of life and combine in Navarro’s personal experience. Not only did she move from one country to another, she excavates an intricate relationship with her ancestral culture in the country where she was born with little familial information to work with, filling in gaps and making connections where she can. The physically and emotionally laborious process of relocating, and both building and sustaining social networks across disparate geographies, is translated into an overall expression of identity and community as a constantly evolving process.
“When I’m fragmenting, removing, separating, or creating gaps, I’m thinking about the pieces of information from my (our) ancestors that are missed; about misinformation and stereotypes created by the media and how history has portrayed us. I’m also thinking about displacement, the feeling of separation,” she tells Dovetail. Some of the spaces appear empty or consist only of color or panels have been pulled apart within the composition; floating pieces of a whole. “Although the blank spaces represent something missing, it could also be an opportunity to fill in the blanks with the story we want to tell.”
Header image: Fractional, 2022. Archival inkjet print, wood, acrylic paint, and epoxy, 20 x 24 inches, edition of 3 + 1 A.P.