Growing up, Christina Navarro said she was always viewed as strong, big and tough – the “one that wasn’t sensitive.” “So, I was never allowed to sit in that space of femininity and softness,” the artist continued. “I don’t think Black and Indigenous women are allowed to sit in that space as often as we should be, and I think it’s important for me now to honor.”
These long-developed ideas served as the framework for “I Am Also Soft,” a new group show curated by Navarro at South Side gallery All People Arts, which for the exhibit from 3-5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11.
The idea of “softness” exhibits itself in myriad ways throughout the space, from the comforting, rainbow-hued embrace of Francesca Miller’s “My Brothers Keeper 1” to Cat Ramos’ “Popocatépetl y Iztaccíhuatl,” which pulls from Aztec mythology but also transports the artist back in time .
Ramos’ painting, as well as contributions from Mich Martinez, also challenge Eurocentric ideas of softness, Navarro said. “People might not be used to seeing certain things, like skulls or calacas (skeletons). And they might seem harsh or different, and some white people, for lack of a better term, might be taken aback,” she continued, directing my eye to a painting by Martinez. “This is a great example of that, where people might think it’s scary at first. But that’s typical of representation in art in Central America, Latin America. It’s part of the Indigenous culture.”
“When I paint skeletons, it’s more Dia de los Muertos and the afterlife, more celebratory and cheerful than morbid,” Ramos said . “It’s really always been grief-healing for me to draw skeletons. It’s a way for me to stay connected to my brother, to my ancestors. To honor them.”
There’s also “Gotta Get Up,” an eye-catching piece of an angular Black figure in recline from artist Asmara Abraham, whom Navarro said has only been painting since 2020, and a nude female by Jasmine Wooten that explodes into a regal bouquet, the canvas affixed with a kaleidoscope of faux flowers. In “Let Me Grow,” by Bobbi “Cai” Towns, a central female figure comforts myriad rainbow specters, the colors popping on the canvas against the backdrop of a galactic night sky.
“I really love this piece, and it reminded me of the exhaustion that Black women can feel a lot from carrying the load of society, along with everything in their families and home life,” Navarro said of “Let Me Grow.” “And also about how Black and Indigenous women often don’t get that time for self-care, or just to breathe, because they have to look strong.”
Often, Navarro said, Black, Brown and Indigenous women are presented within our culture as strong, aggressive and powerful. “And those can be great things, and we are those things on occasion,” she continued. “But we don’t often get to exist in love and joy and creativity.”
While the concept for “I Am Also Soft” has been fermenting within Navarro for years, it took a relatively quick trip to actualization, with All People approving the show in December for a February opening – a turnaround that left the first-time curator with little opportunity to stress over details. “Which was good, because if I ruminate on something too long … I get cold feet,” she said, and laughed.
Moving without hesitation, Navarro put out a call to artists and was soon inundated with submissions. She then informed the selected artists of the show’s theme, and the desire to create a gallery space in which the artists could be the most vulnerable versions of themselves.
“I’m really proud of this show, and I’m proud of what it represents,” Navarro said. “Indigenous and Black people are constantly bombarded with trauma porn: It’s what we see on social media, what people talk about. And we already know; we go through it every day. To have a space to celebrate all of the other things we are besides the struggle, that’s really beautiful to me.”