Amanda Hergenrather is a writing major at Eastern Mennonite University interning at the Anacostia Community Museum, helping with research for the forthcoming book History of Place: Barry Farm/Hillsdale, a Postbellum African American Community in Washington, DC 1867-1970. Here Amanda tells the story of Elizabeth Chase one of the first settlers in the newly created African American community.
Elizabeth Chase was already free before the Civil War. Later she became an entrepreneur by trade and a suffragette by conviction. Born in the early 1840s, Elizabeth Chase likely led a life of privilege compared to many African American women in her day. Elizabeth’s mother, Caroline Chase, lived in Ward 2 where she and Elizabeth worked as washerwomen. Elizabeth’s two brothers were laborers. It was this work that likely contributed to her ability to purchase land and lumber for the house she would soon construct, east of the Anacostia River, in Barry Farm/Hillsdale. She bought a plot of land in the late 1860s, and by 1871 her newly built home stood on the corner of Elvans and Stanton Roads. Not only did Chase live alone in the home she was able to personally finance, she pursued self-employment all through her life in Barry Farm/Hillsdale. By 1874, she was running a restaurant in Uniontown, until she began a catering business based out of her home in 1884.
To run her businesses, Chase would have had to be proficient in reading, writing, and arithmetic; skills few other African American women could boast at the time. Elizabeth Chase took advantage of the opportunities she had been afforded, but she didn’t stop there. In 1877 Chase joined 33 African American Barry Farm/Hillsdale residents, male and female, including her mother Caroline Chase, in signing a petition penned by Frederick Douglass Jr. in favor of women’s suffrage. Rather than being content with her own good fortune, Chase recognized the need to give all women the autonomy to live their lives as they saw fit; autonomy that could one day be attained through gaining the right to vote. In signing the petition, Elizabeth and Caroline Chase left a mark in history. Even though the right to vote wouldn’t be afforded to American women for nearly half a century, the Chase women helped lay the groundwork that would be instrumental in attaining that right.
We honor the memory of Elizabeth Chase, an entrepreneur, homeowner, and independent suffragette, a most extraordinary and inspirational African American woman of the 19th century.
Amanda Hergenrather is a writing major at Eastern Mennonite University interning at the Anacostia Community Museum, helping with research for the forthcoming book: History of Place: Barry Farm/Hillsdale, a Postbellum African American Community in Washington DC, 1867 – 1970. Here Amanda tells the story of the first years of Miss Frances Eliza Hall, a white, missionary teacher in the newly created African American community.
Most of what we know about Frances Eliza Hall as a teacher comes from the monthly reports she kept during her time at Mt. Zion School, where she came to teach midway through her life. Here, Hall began working as a teacher miles away from the comforts of her childhood home in Auburn, NY. Hall, at not quite 40, came to the District an unmarried white women with plans to spend the remainder of her adult life teaching and living in a recently established settlement for newly freed people in Washington, DC. Miss Hall began teaching at the Mt. Zion School in 1867. Her classes started small, and often students were absent, but Hall was positive about the abilities displayed in her students. As time went on, her class sizes grew, no doubt in response to her warm and encouraging teaching style. Hall was fairly radical for a woman of her time. Even if Hall’s church was supportive of her teaching aspirations, as an unmarried, middle-aged woman moving into a community of mostly former slaves, Hall must have had a fair deal of explaining to do to all her friends and family in Auburn, NY. Many must have worried about her safety, but Hall was determined to do what she knew to be right, regardless of the taboo it may have presented to her community. In her time at Mt. Zion School, Frances Hall faced hardships that would have dissuaded less resolved school teachers. Hall was tenacious in her determination to provide an education for the African American children of the Barry Farm/Hillsdale community east of the Anacostia River. She reported that between April and June of 1868, the total amount of students in the first class she taught had increased from 30 to 53, with most students attending regularly. Hall’s hand written reports on her classes each month show her dedication to her students. Though Hall’s June report was positive, and she left for the summer with every intention of returning, come October the Freedman’s Relief Association, which paid Hall’s salary, withdrew its funding, allowing only Hall’s colleague to return to Mt. Zion that year. Thankfully, Hall’s time away from the school was brief, as the Freedman’s Relief Association was persuaded to provide a $20 monthly salary, half what she had been making previously. Hall accepted her old position at half pay, and double the students. During her absence, many students had been sent away “for want of room,” and upon her return the classroom was overflowing once again, with a total of 66 students. It was a trying school year for Hall and her students. In 1869, an outbreak of measles came to the Barry Farm community. In Hall’s monthly report for February, she attributed the “low average attendance compared with enrollment,” to illness among students, which left some out of classes for nearly the entire month. Hall noted that for three days, she herself was too ill to teach. In the next month’s report, Hall notes that a greater part of the month was lost due to her own illness. In June, after returning to health and continuing the semester’s lessons, Hall noted the increase in student attendance, and that the school was filled to repletion, and could scarcely hope to house more students the following year. After her experiences in Mt. Zion School, Hall went to teach at Hillsdale School the second school built at Barry Farm/Hillsdale. One of her students was Georgiana Rose Simpson who would become the second African American woman to obtain a PhD. Hall stayed living in the community after retiring from teaching and nearly until the end of her life. In 1909 she sold her house and moved back to Auburn, NY. She was 82 years old, and would live another 10 years with her brother and his wife. This Women’s History Month we remember Frances Eliza Hall who used her position of privilege as an educated woman with no marital ties to move into a community that some may have considered dangerous, but that she viewed with hope. Frances Eliza Hall left her mark on the lives of the numerous African American children she taught during her time in Barry Farm/Hillsdale. Dedicated and tenacious, she refused to abandon her vocation until she felt her work was done.
The February birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln inspired the timing of Black History Month. Anacostia Community Museum Collections Researcher Jennifer Sieck goes beyond the birthdays and behind the scenes in the archives:
Abolitionist, activist, ambassador, author . . . All describe Frederick Douglass (circa 1818-1895), but did you know he was a musician, too? In the photograph below, Douglass’s violin rests beside him as he works at his desk in Anacostia, a neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C.
In his three autobiographies, Douglass recalls listening to “tones loud, long, and deep” sung by African Americans with whom he was enslaved. The songs “breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.” He credits these songs with his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery.” Biographer James M. Gregory recounts that “while [Douglass was] an exile in Scotland . . . in a despondent mood he saw a violin . . . at a store door, and . . . bought it. He then went home, shut himself up, [and] played for three days until he was in tune himself and again went out into the world—a cheerful man.”
Douglass shared his love of music with his family, especially grandson Joseph, who became a concert violinist. Born in Anacostia in 1869, Joseph Douglass studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and often performed before and after his grandfather’s lectures. They posed for this photo, for example, in Boston, Massachusetts, where Frederick Douglass spoke and Joseph Douglass played at the People’s Church (Methodist Episcopal) on May 10, 1894. It was among the last photographs for which Frederick Douglass sat; he died on February 20, 1895.
Joseph Douglass considered himself a musical ambassador. He toured abroad and in the United States, “particularly throughout the South and in Southern colleges” to reach African American audiences. The renowned Howard University educator also directed community music schools, which provided music education and social services to immigrant families in New York City and Washington, D.C., respectively.
Joseph Douglass lived with his family in the U Street Corridor of Washington, D.C., a neighborhood also called the “Black Broadway” for its thriving arts scene. It was home, for instance, to composer Duke Ellington and opera singer Madame Lillian Evanti (Lillian Evans). The Anacostia Community Museum’s portrait of Joseph Douglass is part of the Evans-Tibbs Collection, named for Lillian Evans and her husband, Roy Tibbs, a music professor at Howard University. Joseph Douglass contracted pneumonia and died at age 66 in 1935.
Did You Know?
Frederick Douglass’s violin is on display at his home, Cedar Hill, a National Park Service site approximately one mile from the Anacostia Community Museum.
Frederick Douglass taught his son, Frederick Douglass, Jr., and grandson Joseph Douglass to play violin.
At age 22, Joseph Douglass performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in collaboration with artists such as poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
On February 14, 1896, Joseph Douglass gave a concert to benefit a “home for friendless girls” at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C.
Joseph Douglass was the first violinist to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company (1914) and the first African American violinist to tour internationally.
Like his famous grandfather, Joseph Douglass appeared regularly at the White House. He gave concerts for Presidents McKinley, [Theodore] Roosevelt, and Taft.
 Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself. 1892. Boston: De Wolfe and Fiske Co., p. 14.
 Gregory, James M. Frederick Douglass, The Orator. Containing an Account of His Life; His Eminent Public Services; His Brilliant Career as Orator; Selections from His Speeches and Writings. 1893. Springfield, Mass.: Willey and Co., p. 211.
 Stauffer, John, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier. 2015. Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American. New York: Liveright Publishing Co., p. 61.
 “Joseph Douglass, Abolitionist’s Grandson, Dies.” Baltimore Afro-American, December 14, 1935, p. 22.
 “Joseph Douglass, Noted Violinist, Dies.” The Washington Post, December 8, 1935, p. 17.
From the Collection: Last year on Memorial Day weekend, descendants and friends of the Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries gathered to commemorate the people who are buried in this busy urban park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. The Museum’s photographer was on hand to observe and document the ceremony.
The park’s history is not widely known. Long before it acquired a dog park, soccer field, basketball court and children’s play area, the land served as the city’s only Quaker cemetery, the Friends Burying Ground (active 1807-1890), and a large African American cemetery, Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery (active from 1870-1890).
In the early 2000s, neighbors were concerned about development plans that risked disturbing the burials. They joined forces with Howard University anthropologists and spearheaded efforts to document the park’s historical significance. Over the course of three years, the Walter Pierce Park Archaeological Team documented the artifacts and remains of over 8,000 people buried in Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery and the Friends Burying Ground. In 2015, the National Park Service named the Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery at Walter Pierce Park a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site.
Local resident Mary Belcher has been active in organizing The Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Organization and commemorating the park. Last year, on Memorial Day weekend, participants recited the names of those buried in the park, and some told the stories of their interred ancestors. African American Civil War Memorial Founder Frank Smith and Patricia Tyson of FREED (Female Re-Enactors of Distinction) sat close together as a light rain cloistered the groups. Descendants T.J. Thomas and the Reverend Joanne Braxton addressed the crowd and told of their respective interred ancestors’ stories, and how they discovered their relationship to the ground. It is estimated that around a million people have ancestors in the Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries.
The Walter Pierce Park Cemeteries Organization will be hosting the commemoration this Memorial Day weekend on Saturday May 26, 2018 at 11 am at Walter Pierce Park.
During the research process prior to the opening of Gateways/Portales, I had the pleasure of meeting with the artist Cornelio Campos his Durham, North Carolina home-studio several times. I got to sit among his vibrant paintings and works-in-progress, and learn about this soft-spoken artist’s journey. Born in Cherán, Mexico, he arrived in the United States in 1989, moving first to Los Angeles where he worked in construction. Eventually he moved to North Carolina in 1992 after hearing of better job prospects from a cousin. He moved to Epson, North Carolina, where he did farmwork. He later transitioned into landscaping and moved to Durham. He currently works as an alarm installation specialist in addition to being a well-known artist in North Carolina. He has been featured in many group and independent shows, as well as community events throughout the state.
In 2015, the archives at the Durham County Library accessioned and are continuing to build Campos’ archive. His papers include correspondence, sketches, purchase invoices, institutional partnerships, his many exhibitions, as well as commissions, including one for noted Chilean author Isabel Allende. The archive details the depth of his artistic career in addition to his importance in the state of North Carolina as a whole.
Campos’ personal experience of coming to the United States and to Durham in particular, is that of other Latinxs in the region. Many Latinxs started coming to North Carolina in the 1990s, drawn by the promise of work and money. Like Campos, many became farmworkers. In March of 2016, Dr. Ariana Curtis conducted a video interview with Campos for the Anacostia Community Museum’s Gateways/Portales exhibition. During his interview Campos lamented how incredibly taxing farmwork was, and how few people understand what difficult, back-breaking work it is. “No one told me how hard coming to the United States would be.”
Like Campos, many Latinxs found steadier, non-seasonal work, and ended up making Durham their home. The Southeastern United States is currently experiencing some of the largest Latinx population growth in the country. This growth, particularly in urban centers like Durham, is challenging and changing the black-white binary that has dominated the Southeastern United States for decades. Campos’ painting Realidad Norteña (the Reality of the North) helps document that change, as well as confronting viewers with the realities of the immigrant experience.
Campos’ body of work visualizes and examines both the geographic and cultural borders between Latinxs and the larger United States population. Like the “Big Three” Mexican Muralists before him, (Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros , and Jose Clemente Orozco), his large scale paintings feature workers and the marginalized as subjects, with social justice as their themes. Campos aims to visualize the dangers and difficulties that people experience not only in crossing the border into the United States, but the severe circumstances that lead to such a decision. Realidad Norteña (the Reality of the North) was painted after Campos became a United States citizen; he describes it as his most personal, autobiographical piece.
The central image of the painting is a female figure that fuses the Virgin of Guadalupe, symbol of Mexico on the left, and the Statue of Liberty on the right, in a rising sun. The rays of the brown Virgin’s mandala mirror the blonde Statue of Liberty’s crown. In the center of the female figure’s chest is a hybrid seal that combines the U.S.’s bald eagle and Mexico’s emblem of a golden eagle devouring a rattlesnake. The eagle stands on a combination of Mexico’s prickly pear cactus and the U.S. olive branch. Spanning the female figure and bridging the two halves is a monarch butterfly, symbol of migration. Beneath the monarch is an orange lily blended with a white flowering dogwood blossom, state flower of North Carolina; the stem of the flower is stylized barbed wire that bisects the bottom of the painting.
On the left of the picture plane, Campos has depicted a mother and child seated in an arid, barren Mexican landscape which merges with the steps of a Pre-Columbian temple. On the right is a segmented landscape, divided from the Mexican side by the barbed wire. In the segment closest to the wire is a desert littered with bones and a faceless, contorted figure, waist-deep in the sand, gazing up at the U.S. flag. Just beyond the flag is a verdant, lush field, tended by hunched farmworkers.
During a September 2016 visit to Campos’ home, he brought out a faded cardboard box. When he lifted the lid I gasped when I saw the contents: the boots he wore as a farmworker when he first came to North Carolina. He then brought out a small, tissue-thin envelope which held his ticket from his journey from Mexico to the U.S. Both the boots and ticket stub are displayed together in the introductory section of Gateways/Portales. The dusty, weathered boots add an even greater weight to Realidad Norteña, hung just across the gallery.
In his video interview for the Gateways/Portales exhibition, which will be part of the ACM permanent collection, Campos discussed how people on opposite ends of the political spectrum have reacted to his work. Shrugging and smiling, Campos noted that he received an intense amount of anti-immigrant backlash when the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill bought and displayed his work, but despite the negative feedback, he was pleased that his art was sparking discussion. He says he sees his work as a form of visual documentation, and as he says, “cultural diplomacy”. In addition to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Campos has worked with several institutions throughout the state including Duke University, Johnston Community College, Peace College, North Carolina State University, and Smithsonian affiliate North Carolina Museum of History to try and educate and create a dialogue between the Latinx and the non-Latinx communities.
Realidad Norteña has recently been acquired by ACM, and will be on display as part of the Gateways/Portales exhibition, on view until August 6, 2017.
Elena C. Muñoz received her MA in Art History from Rutgers University, and her BA in Art History from Fordham University. Her primary research interest is teasing out the African influences in Latin American
and Latino art. She is also fascinated with the evolution and uses of Marian imagery in the Americas. In 2014, she was a recipient of the Smithsonian’s Latino Museum Studies fellowship, working with the Teodoro Vidal Collection at the Lunder Center and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Currently she is a research assistant at the Anacostia Community Museum, working on the exhibition Gateways/Portales, which examines Latino im/migration in the D.C. Metro Area, Baltimore, the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Cornelio Campos is a self-trained painter from Cheran, Michoacan,Mexico who now resides in Durham, North Carolina. He has been painting since childhood, although the strong themes present in many of his paintings did not surface until he became an American citizen as an adult. His earlier works show a Mexican folkloric influence, whereas his more recent works are quite contextual, mixing ancient and modern styles, themes and images. Campos paints with a passion for educating others, primarily on the migrant experience, and for sharing the customs and culture of his people, Purepecha from Cherán. His work has been shown at exhibits throughout North Carolina, including Duke and UNC – Chapel Hill, where some of his pieces are permanently on display.
On this day in 1531 the Virgin of Guadalupe was said to have appeared in Mexico to an indigenous man, Juan Diego.
The dark-skinned Guadalupe is often interpreted as a coming together of Spanish and indigenous cultures in Mexico. Her name, Guadalupe is the Spanish pronunciation of the Nahuatl name Coatlaxopeuh, a Mesoamerican fertility goddess. Her appearance to an indigenous man in the New World further rooted Guadalupe to the specificity of this place.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is a powerful religious and cultural icon for Mexico and Mexican-Americans. Her green mantle and golden mandala are readily recognizable to people outside of those groups. She is not only a visualization of faith, but also a symbol of nationalism, cultural pride, and resistance for those in Mexico and beyond its national borders.
Of the four areas explored in Gateways/Portales, Mexicans are the dominant Latinx group in Baltimore, Raleigh-Durham, and Charlotte. In Washington, D.C. metro area, Mexicans are second to Salvadorans. As a result of Mexican migrations throughout the US and the power of her imagery, Guadalupe appears in various iterations throughout the Gateways/Portales exhibition.
La Virgin de Guadalupe was declared the patroness for the entire Continental Americas by the Catholic Church in 1945. Though she is most often associated with Mexico and Mexican-American culture, she was not specifically designated as the patroness for Mexico until 2002. Guadalupe acts as a sort of cultural glue in the U.S., with her imagery and associated ceremonies being transplanted, creating a sense of community and solidarity among her devotees in Mexico and beyond. December 12th marks the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States!
Gateways is open! Through the lenses of social justice, constructing communities, and festivals as community empowerment, the exhibitionexplores the triumphs and struggles of Latinx migrants and immigrants in four urban destinations: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Raleigh-Durham, NC and Charlotte, NC
written with Elena C. Muñoz, research/curatorial assistant for the Gateways exhibition.
Most people know that I am Panamanian. Orgullosamente! Only some people know, however, that my father is Panamanian and my mother is African-American. Interestingly, this did not factor into Gateways until a meeting with Charlotte based artist Nico Amortegui.
Nico, born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, has lived and worked in the United States since the late 1990s. He is quick to say, one of the main reasons he is here and that he lives in Charlotte is his wife and two daughters.
Early in our exhibition stages when I was deciding what the salient themes were and how they would be represented, I met with Nico in his studio. We discussed some of his recent work, the growing population of Latinx in Charlotte, Latin American vs Latinx, and the restrictive focus on Latin Americans/Latinxs. THAT was the inspiration for his piece in Gateways: He wanted to create a piece that focused on Latinxs, but one that included space for his wife – who is not Latina- and his children.
When his work was in process I referred to it as “blended families” but Nico’s original piece created for the Gateways exhibition is called An Immigrant Connection to a Country of Immigrants. In his words,
It is based on the fact that when we talk about Latinos we blur out the Americans (United States) that have embrace the Latino culture and have made it part of their life.
This beautiful work is in the “Making Home, Constructing Communities” section of the exhibition, but the message resonates throughout the whole exhibition. When we fight for social justice and civil rights, when we build networks, when we celebrate our communities we do not do this alone. It is never ONLY the Latinx community and it is never only FOR Latinx communities.
This is the story of millions of families in the United States, including mine. So in the spirit of this piece, I say Happy Panamanian Mother’s Day to my mom who has embraced the culture and made it part of our lives. Although my mother is African-American, she has a big Panamanian family is mother to Panamanian children so …
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MOM!!!
Gateways is open! Through the lenses of social justice, constructing communities, and festivals as community empowerment, the exhibitionexplores the triumphs and struggles of Latinx migrants and immigrants in four urban destinations: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Raleigh-Durham, NC and Charlotte, NC
Born Úrsula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, the Queen of Salsa is better known as Celia Cruz.
The importance and significance of this music legend cannot be understated. She is represented all over the Smithsonian including the National Museum of American History , National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Postal Museum , Smithsonian Folkways, and the National Portrait Gallery.
Every museum has a unique mission and thus interpretation of history and culture. The Anacostia Community Museum’s mission focuses on urban history and culture. The next exhibition to open will be Gateways.
Gatewaysexplores the triumphs and struggles of Latino migrants and immigrants in four urban destinations: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Raleigh-Durham, NC and Charlotte, NC
Visitors to the upcoming Gateways exhibition will see an urban interpretation of the icon. M. Tony Peralta, a child of Dominican immigrants, was born and raised in the uptown neighborhood of Washington Heights, NY. Being raised in New York during the hip-hop generation greatly influenced him and his work.
What does Celia Cruz have to do with Gateways?
The ubiquity of Dominican salons might surprise you. Indeed you can find them all over the U.S, including the Gateways metro areas of Washington DC, Baltimore, MD, Raleigh-Durham, NC and Charlotte, NC. Rolos are iconic in Dominican salons and Celia Cruz is everyday music. Celia Cruz is a music icon and rolos are an everyday item. Peralta’s work blurs the lines of the iconic and the everyday giving us:
The exhibition will boast the 37″ x 42″ canvas rather than this poster version. But enjoy this preview! You can hear Tony talk about this piece and his work when Gateways opens December 5th.
Joy McLean Bosfield (1924-1991) was a singer, musical director, actress, and musical instructor who performed throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East from the 1940s to the 1980s. Her papers in the Anacostia Community Museum Archives, documents Ms. McLean Bosfield’s professional career through photographs, correspondence, programs, and scrapbooks.
Joy was born on January 27, 1924 to John and Florence Mearimore. Her mother, an immigrant from Demerara, Guiana (now part of Guyana), married McLean’s father, a prominent New York businessman, in March of 1923 in New Jersey. Joy lived in Paramus, New Jersey until 1940, when she graduated from Ridgewood High School. During that same year Bosfield was accepted to the prestigious Hunter College, in New York.
On February 26, 1945, McLean Bosfield performed her first recital at St. Martin’s Little Theatre. Three years later in 1948, McLean married Charles McLean, who was originally from British Guyana, and the couple moved to England. She began performing in Europe in the early 1950s, singing soprano leads for productions for the BBC, British churches, and English musical plays. While in London, an American production of Porgy and Bess used her talents during their international tours as a rehearsal accompanist, vocal role coach, and assistant to the musical director.
After returning to the United States in the mid-1950s, Bosfield continue her career as a concert artist. In 1963 she moved to Washington, DC, where she became musical director of John Wesley AME Zion Church. She also worked for the Frederick Wilkerson Studio of Voice as a vocal coach, and managed the studio after the death of Wilkerson until the 1980s.
Retiring and moving to Chapala, Mexico in 1985, Bosfield participated in community theater productions and other community functions there, until her death on April 4, 1999.
Do you want to learn more about Joy McLean Bosfield’s long and distinguished career? You can by helping transcribe her two fragile scrapbooks in the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
The following post is by Elena C. Muñoz, research/curatorial assistant for the Gateways exhibition.
Happy Latinx Heritage Month!
When we met with Rosalia Torres-Weiner in March of 2016, she was one of the artists-in-residence at Latin American Contemporary Art Projects (LaCa) in Charlotte. Wearing colorful and elaborately decorated cowboy boots, she greeted us with a big smile and hugs before sitting us down in her brightly decorated studio-space. Her space at LaCa was decorated with large paper flowers, Calaveras, panels from her children’s story “the Magic Kite” which had just been turned into a play by the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, and of course, her vibrant, patterned paintings.
High on the front wall of her studio, she had painted, “I AM AN ARTIVIST AND I BELIEVE IN ACTIVISM THROUGH MY ART.”
While sitting and chatting, Torres-Weiner’s passion for social justice and making the invisibles visible, particularly children, is evident. Throughout our visit, her “artivism” and community engagement manifested itself through our conversation, and of course through the paintings that were displayed throughout the studio.
Many of Torres-Weiner’s pieces deal with the complexities of the United States immigration system as well as the injustices and dangers immigrants often face. Some of her work sheds subtle light on the plight of immigrants in the United States, but some of her pieces are far more overt. One piece in particular that is direct in its handling of the hazards of immigration and crossing the southern U.S. border is Madre Protectora.
This piece is a reimagining of the patroness of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe. The standard representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe is of a young, brown-skinned woman, hands clasped in prayer and eyes cast downward. Typically she is shown standing atop a crescent moon held by a cherub and encircled by a golden mandala.Torres-Weiner’s version of the Virgin has morphed from a static, passive depiction of holy femininity into one of vigilant agency.
Instead of being clasped in prayer, her hands clutch a three-dimensional AK-47 constructed of wood, one finger on the trigger. A small, golden pocket watch dangles from her trigger finger, which in Torres-Weiner’s words, “indicates that over time, this situation will change”. Though her dark eyes are still averted from the viewer’s gaze, they are raised and alert, searching for any sign of danger.
The crescent moon and cherub are replaced by a blood red banner proclaiming her new moniker of “Madre Protectora”. Her golden mandala is supplanted by pink hibiscus flowers and stylized white dots, which according to the artist are, “one thousand points of loss. Each dot representing a life lost on the border.” The painting is recessed within a blood red wooden frame, with four lines of plastic barbed wire encasing the bottom of the piece, representative of the U.S.-Mexico border. Behind the wire are three red figures: the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and a pope.
I have always been obsessed with the devotion to, and various depictions of the Virgin Mary, particularly in Latin America and by Latino artists. The fact that a woman, (and oftentimes a non-white woman) was such a potent instrument of conversion during colonization, and can still command such power, zeal, and national pride is incredible to me. That being said, when we walked in to Torres-Weiner’s studio, I was immediately drawn to this armed Virgin. Madre Protectora follows a tradition of Mexican-American and Chican@ artists not only depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe, but of depicting her as one of active, maternal protection, central to the immigration experience.
Like many Catholic saints, the Virgin of Guadalupe is regularly prayed to for help and protection. Here, Torres-Weiner has imbued her with a hyper-vigilance that speaks to the extreme anxiety and desperation that often comes with the experience of crossing the border. Torres-Weiner is confronting the life-threatening circumstances that people often face when they come to the United States, whether it’s during the journey, or once they reach their destination.
The artist writes, “The Guadalupe, portrayed as a young millennial is armed with an AK-47 to show that faith can be as strong as the challenges that we face (deportations, narco-terrorism, economic disparity).”
Gatewaysopens to the public on December 5, 2016. The exhibitionexplores the triumphs and struggles of Latino migrants and immigrants in four urban destinations: Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Raleigh-Durham, NC and Charlotte, NC
Elena Muñoz received her MA in Art History from Rutgers University, and her BA in Art History from Fordham University. Her primary research interest is teasing out the African influences in Latin American
and Latino art. She is also fascinated with the evolution and uses of Marian imagery in the Americas. In 2014, she was a recipient of the Smithsonian’s Latino Museum Studies fellowship, working with the Teodoro Vidal Collection at the Lunder Center and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Currently she is a research assistant at the Anacostia Community Museum, working on the upcoming exhibition Gateways, which examines Latino im/migration in the D.C. Metro Area, Baltimore, the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Rosalia Torres-Weiner is a self-taught artist-activist who has lived and worked in Charlotte since 1992. Born in Mexico City, Mexico, she came to the United States in 1985. After working in the hospitality industry, she gradually turned to a career as an artist. She initially worked as a flight attendant; after painting murals in her children’s rooms, her neighbors commissioned her to paint murals in their homes. She launched her company Home Art Designs in 2001, painting murals in residential as well as commercial properties. In 2010, she pivoted and began to focus primarily on using her art as activism for the Latino community. She started the Papalote Project, (the Kite Project) using art as therapy for local children who were suffering from the loss of a parent due to deportation. She continues to produce socially conscious and community-engaging work from her studios in Charlotte, NC.