Art

The Central American Diaspora and Stories of Coming of Age

Artists reflect on migration, memory, and the cultural bonds that unite the first- and second-generation children of Central American immigrants who have fled civil wars, violence, and natural disasters.

Kiara Machado, “Centro” (2019) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DURHAM, North Carolina — At Duke University’s Fredric Jameson Gallery, the exhibition Connected Diaspora: U.S. Central American Visuality in the Age of Social Media offers a platform for Central American artists to share intimate perspectives on coming of age in the US. The group show, curated by Veronica Melendez, features 16 artists who use their work to reflect on migration, memory, and the cultural bonds that unite the children of Central Americans who have fled civil wars, violence, and natural disasters. Using social media as a tool for connection and amplification, these artists share their stories and expand their audiences within and beyond gallery walls.

The show underscores the complicated emotions that stem from isolation and displacement among first- and second-generation children of migrants who face dual pressures of assimilation and cultural preservation in their upbringing. This is expressed humorously in some works, as in Julia Mata’s Killing the Vibe (2018), a comic about how music can be used as a tool for cultural bonding or a platform for microaggressions.

Johanna Toruño, “The Unapologetic Series” (2017-18)

Other works tackle issues of visibility, particularly around violence directed at young Latina women. In Kiara Machado’s 2019 painting, “Centro,” a woman wearing a striped ikat skirt, with a large palm frond resting on her chest, lies in repose and holds a small doll in her hands. The figure resembles Guatemalan worry dolls, which can be found nestled among the colorful flowers that surround the young woman. These totemic symbols of surrender and peace ironically appear as the inescapable burdens young girls must bear, especially among children who live in the wake of violence and civil war. Machado’s painting reflects similar works she created in response to the horrific deaths of 41 young girls in a fire that started in the classroom of a group home in Guatemala City in 2017. The artist’s paintings honor the children whose lives were marred by years of familial and institutional violence.

Celea Guevara, “Love” (2019)

Intergenerational trauma is buffered by restorative images of strength and empowerment found among personal photographs and prints in the show. In “Latina” (2017) by Xiomara Garay, a collage of nine woodcuts of a woman seen from the back with her hair plaited in a long braid, are rendered in variegated brown skin tones that celebrate the beauty of all shades within the diaspora. Similarly, Celea Guevara’s linocuts of Afro-Latina women in “Faith,” “Love,” and “Peace” (all 2019), distill the essence of humanity into the simple spiritual messages found in the titles and the loving faces of the women pictured in the prints.

The artists in Connected Diaspora are creating spaces for Central Americans to be seen and heard. Johanna Toruño uses street art to claim space for queer women of color; in the show, small-scale, framed versions of her bold wheatpaste posters become vital affirmations of visibility and presence.

Many of the show’s 16 artists were also featured in Veronica Melendez and Kimberly Benavides’s seasonal zine, La Horchata, highlighting artists of Central American descent. Both the show and the zine are byproducts of networked collaborations via social media that have become a vital platform for celebrating the rich artistic, experiential, and geographic diversity among these and other Latinx artists.

Xiomara Garay, “Latina” (2017)

Connected Diaspora: U.S. Central American Visuality in the Age of Social Media continues at Duke University’s Fredric Jameson Gallery (124 Friedl, East Campus, Durham, North Carolina) through the end of February. The exhibition was curated by Veronica Melendez.

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