Q&A: cristina velásquez
By Zora J Murff | April 18, 2019
Cristina Velásquez (Colombia) is a visual artist working mainly with photography and paper weavings. Her work investigates representation and translation in the context of transcultural relationships —both as mechanisms for oppression and silencing, as well as powerful tools for connection and resistance. She is interested in the way one culture translates another, and how inevitably, a dominant culture sanitizes and reduces the other in a subtle, and not so subtle, continuity of colonialism. Similarly, Velásquez explores the ways social constructions of value, such as, race, class, and labor distribution, are shaped by images and language, echoing a larger system of power and exchange that goes beyond borders and nationality. Velásquez asks how photography and weaving might be called upon to further the understanding of social politics, history, and narrative, particularly in relation to Latin American studies.
Cristina was recently awarded a 2019 Light Work Artist Residency, the 2019 HCP Fellowship, and the LOST II Book Prize from +Kris Graves Projects. Her book Viterbo is available on the +KGP website.
ZJM: Hi Cristina! I’m excited to speak with you and get to know more about your work. How did you come to study art and photography?
Cristina Velasquez: I originally studied industrial design. Attempting to study art was insane in the context that I grew up. I come from a conservative family that suspects highly of "nontraditional" occupations, their potential to enable financial stability, and their contribution to society. In that context, I enjoyed having an excuse to create and experiment with different materials, but I was not interested in the tendentious and functional qualities intrinsic to design. In retrospective, I now feel I was making art in disguise all the time. Yet, I find interesting how my design background reveals itself constantly in my art practice, especially when I make books or curate spaces.
Regarding photography, making pictures was always exciting and felt natural to me. My mother is a frustrated photographer, so I grew up surrounded by cameras and paper. We use to experiment together in a dark room that she constructed in one of the bathrooms in the house where I grew up. As a single child, I also remember using photography and paper to entertain myself for hours, often not too far from my mother in a printing factory she use to own. Anyhow, photography has always been my way to reflect on the world and my place in it. It is a source of endless inquiry, critical dialogue, play, and introspection. I'm interested in its complex relationship to language and literature, and its kinship with other mediums... I also appreciate the fact it allows me to create work from within concrete life situations that matter to me.
In 2012, after some years of making art in my free time, trying to sustain a life as a designer, I decided to move to NYC to finally give a chance to my art career. I graduated from the MFA program in Advanced Photographic Studies at ICP-Bard in 2017.
ZJM: I really love the idea of 'making art in disguise', how we have a desire to create something, but may not readily understand that drive. You came to that understanding when you decided to pursue an education in photography, but I'm interested if there was a specific point when you knew that photography was what you wanted to do? I suppose I ask because I remember when I first started studying photography, I was very naive to how it was used as an art form. I remember having a conversation with a mentor and asking them, "When do you know that you're an artist?" It is now a question that a number of students have asked me, and I'm wondering if you had a similar experience.
CV: I cannot associate that moment of clarity to any particular thought. But, I remember the emotion and the feeling of absolute certainty. Moving away from my country, family, and financial stability, gave me the illusion that I could start over and potentially do whatever I wanted. Photography had always been too familiar, yet intellectually challenging, so it naturally turned into the vision of a new life that felt just right. I wanted to learn about photography, while at the same time, investigating through it, broader questions that were essential to my everyday experience. Dedicating my life to making pictures was not only natural and promising, but was also my personal act of resistance.
ZJM: Let's dig into talking about your work. Before we begin talking about some of your series, what do you think was the first "good" image you made in grad school?
ZJM: Why do you think that this was your first “good” image?
CV: Perhaps, because for the first time, I couldn't anticipate the result... I was not attempting to make good pictures. I just allowed myself to experiment playfully, really observing what was going on. I was starting to use the camera to slow time down and to think through the things that were important to me at the time. I remember wondering about agency, and performativity, as well as considering the implications of translating a multi-dimensional reality into a flat surface, removed from its original context... I was also starting to be aware of my attention to the body as a key driver of meaning.
ZJM: I was having a conversation with a student recently about the concept of "play" in photography. Do you think that's something you still explore in your current work, or maybe something you think about in your overarching practice in general?
CV: I’m not sure about the reference of play explicitly, but for me, the process of making photographs is very similar to dancing. You have to work hard, trust, and respond genuinely to what is presented, in a continuous back and forth that sometimes ends up beautifully.
I think that similar to playing, most of what happens when making a picture is not really under your control. I have had to learn to be very present to be able to really see what is in front of the lens, but at the same time fast and “smart” to be able to respond and give to the scenes the material support that they need to be transformed into good pictures. There is a lot of space for surprise and that can be fun... It can also feel very difficult at times...
ZJM: I want to begin talking about your work, but I want to circle back to something you said earlier, "...I was also starting to be aware of my attention to the body as a key driver of meaning." When I was looking through your work, I started with your series Promise you won’t colonize me, and this image stopped me in my tracks:
ZJM: It reminds me of Michelangelo's Pieta and also Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. I remember learning about Pieta in an early art history course. In looking at both statues and in your photograph, I'm getting similar feelings of tension between pleasure and pain. Could you begin by prefacing Mi Mujer and maybe talk a little bit about how this image came about, or its function in the series?
CV: I was born and raised in Colombia, a place with a strong history of colonialism and patriarchy. In this series I look closer at the female body, particularly at my mother’s and my own, to map some of the traces and tensions that remain from this history in the private and public spheres of the people from this region. Functioning as raw material, able to record an index of trauma or time, the body is my only witness and territory of study. Sometimes wild, beautiful, powerful; sometimes oppressed, exploited, and objectified. It is consistently the single bearer of silent histories of unbalanced relationships of power and violence. The female body —always a territory in dispute— serves as the starting point to enter a conversation about decolonization, and more importantly, about healing. This series originates from my personal experience and childhood memories.
ZJM: I really like this sentiment, "[The female body] functioning as raw material, able to record an index of trauma or time, the body is my only witness and territory of study... It is consistently the single bearer of silent histories of unbalanced relationships of power and violence." It reminds me a lot of Leigh Raiford's The Consumption of Lynching Images. In it she addresses the race and gender complications inherent in those images.
The photographs themselves offer up a different sort of evidence of the complexities of racial formation, whether by scrutinizing the disgusted look on the face of a white mob member, or acknowledging the quiet yet visible presence of a black man in the crowd. Because it's “spectacularness,” lynching reminded everyone who looked that in the end one was either black or white, either wrong or right. It returned everyone to his or her corporeal essence, to the (racist) truth that is “only skin deep.” But in their various contexts and incarnations, we can discern how lynching photographs both create and coerce the image of unified racial identities, black and white, across the clefts of gender and class, location and circumstance.
CV: I understand how you are making this connection, but I would never compare my this picture to the “lynching images” Raiford's text makes reference to.
This body of work developed naturally in the form of an ensemble, akin to musical composition. It is inspired by the literary structures of love and tragedy commonly found in the music from the region of Colombia where my family is from. For this reason, it is better experienced as a whole, rather than note by note. I believe it is important to acknowledge the platonic relationship that exists between photography and narrative, which I believe can be experienced as poetry or music.
This photograph, as it stands alone, opens discussions that can be problematic in many ways. I appreciate, however, that it points toward the ambiguity and complexity of human emotions —pleasure as well as pain— and reminds the viewer of a tradition of image making that has ashamed women because of their beauty, and subjected the human figure to oppressive patriarchal dynamics. Seriality allows me to reveal an intense awareness of the female protagonist’s growing power using a kind of heroine's journey structure. Power dominant narratives are subverted through a form of resistance that reclaims territory — the body— from object to subject...through feeling.
ZJM: In your work, one of the things I really enjoy is how dimensional female bodies are compared to the male form. Could you elaborate more on this? I’m also interested in the idea of the matrilineal line and how that relates to the previous question. Could you talk a bit more about this/how you came to the decision to make that a part of the work?
CV: Female lives and experiences are, in many cases, more dimensional than male ones. Pregnancy is one example of this, as it is evidence of our unique power and plasticity. My life has been shaped by strong, very complex female characters that decided to live outside of conventional orders. I believe that my admiration for them, specially for my mom and my two grandmothers, María and Margot, has heavily determined the way I perceive and photograph people. The body is, in a way, the territory they fought for. My work is a space where I acknowledge their power and pay tribute to their stories.
ZJM: Many photographers have engaged with body politics, using the personal to speak to broader truths. How do you think photography (if it can) moves us to a world that is more just?
CV: The play of power is essential to the understanding of photography. With time, I’ve realized that through photography I can also subvert and challenge the dominant structures of power that for years have separated people from one another. I am with those who think that picture making is one of the most effective ways to shift narratives about who counts in the world. Similarly, I am interested in photography’s potential to expand our visual alphabet, and by doing so, resist the threats of cultural assimilation, which feels very violent to me.
ZJM: You’ve had a pretty big year, winning a Light Work residency, the HCP Fellowship, and now the LOST II Book Award from Kris Graves Projects! Congratulations! What’s next for you, Cristina?
CV: Thank you Zora! I’m really grateful for everything that has happened this year. I just hope to continue having the privilege of making art and learning about photography for many years.
ZJM: Thanks for taking the time to share your work with us!
CV: Thank you Zora for making this happen!
All photographs © Cristina Velásquez