Christina Navarro hopes exhibition can lead to larger conversation

With 'We Are the Culture,' opening at Secret Studio today (Friday, Oct. 13), the curator addresses a range of issues while giving a platform to artists from a traditionally overlooked community.
"Abuelito" by Christina Navarro
"Abuelito" by Christina NavarroCourtesy the artist

Christina Navarro turned to abstract art five or six years ago as one way of working through past traumas, transferring the deep-seated anger, frustration and sadness she felt directly from her hand to the canvas via expressive brush strokes. 

Taking in one of the artist’s paintings on display in “We Are the Culture,” a group show curated by Navarro and opening at Secret Studio today (Friday, Oct. 13), it’s possible to envision the range of emotions felt by the artist as she worked, captured in quick, aggressive strokes and thicker, heavier lines that practically carry the weight of pained past experiences.

“I’m a poet, as well, but [painting] helps me get out emotions that can’t really be described with words,” said Navarro in an early October interview at Secret Studio. “I do have a lot of grief and pain that I feel like I can channel in a really beautiful way in my art.”

But Navarro also has a second, more figurative work dubbed "Abuelito" on display in “We Are the Culture,” which depicts her grandfather and is part of a more recent series of paintings exploring the artist’s cultural heritage – a concept central to the group show, which focuses on Indigeneity and Blackness within Latino culture and includes contributions from Cat Ramos, Anthony Pomales and first-time exhibitor Amaris DeJesus.

“It makes me really proud to make art that represents my community and represents who my ancestors were, because it feels like I’m immortalizing them,” said Navarro, whose curation work continues to give a necessary platform to traditionally overlooked voices. (Navarro’s previous exhibition, “I Am Also Soft,” took place at All People Arts and featured contributions from Black and Indigenous artists.) “My [grandpa], he was Afro-Indigenous Mexican, and he died 10 years ago, and this painting is a tribute to him. I feel close to him even though I didn’t really get to know him, and he’s someone I honor every year on my ofrenda.”

Both Ramos and Pomoles have described similar ancestral connections within their own practices. In a February interview, Ramos, who has a series of photographs on display in the exhibit, said her paintings of skeletons have evolved into one way to hold close family members who have died, including her brother. Pomales, meanwhile, said in August that his paintings are “connected with the ancestors, like the spirits in the sky, or the spirits in the stars.”

Beyond creating a platform for the artists, Navarro said she hopes the show sparks needed, nuanced conversation around the racism that exists within the larger Latine community, and which often goes unacknowledged.

“A lot of time Latinos think our culture is some mixed utopia, and there’s no racism, that race doesn’t exist in the Latino community. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” said Navarro, who expressed that whiteness, or proximity to whiteness, is often centered by some within her culture. “And I think it’s because in the Latino community, racism is more covert, or more woven into the fabric of our culture. It’s maybe not as explicit as white American racism.”

As an example, Navarro pointed to the colorism that exists within the Latine community, often directed at those with darker skin tones. “A lot of Latino parents, when they talk to their kids about getting married, or dating, or even procreating, they’ll make jokes like, ‘Don’t bring home someone dark skinned,’” Navarro said. “There are little phrases like that are part of our everyday lives. … And it’s like we become blind to it, and we become blind to how messed up some of the norms in our culture are.”

Navarro said she became attuned to these ideas growing up in Orange County, California, which she described as highly segregated. As a result of the racism and prejudices she experienced from a young age, Navarro said she naturally gravitated toward Indigenous spaces and toward the strong Afro-Indigenous women within her own family, and her art and curation continue to serve as a means to connect with these roots.

“I’ve always been treated differently based on how I look, and I’ve always been racialized, whether it’s being racially ambiguous, or whether it’s being [described] as ‘that half-Black girl,’ or being told, ‘You look Mexican,’” Navarro said. “And that’s why I think the conversation is important to me, because I don’t know any other experience. … I feel like I hold a responsibility to talk about it, and to call things out and educate people where I can. And I like the idea of doing this in honor of my ancestors, and in honor of my family. This is my second art show, and it makes me so happy to provide a platform for a very specific group of people to celebrate their art, and to have this safe space to enjoy our culture together.”

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