In conversation with Juana Valdés: Finding one’s own place on the edge of the edge

Aldeide Delgado (C& América Latina) interviews Juana Valdés, calling her “is one of the most inspiring Latinx artists of recent years.” Born in Cuba and based in Miami and New York, Valdés speaks to Aldeide Delgado about Cuban identity, refugee policies, imperial discourses – and the importance of recognition.

Juana Valdés was one of the most powerful Latinx artists of 2020. During the year, she presented a major immersive installation at the Miami art space Locust Projects. Her work was featured in the new, groundbreaking book Latinx Art: Artists, Markets and Politics by Arlene Davila. And she received the prestigious prize Anonymous Was A Woman, which has been awarded to outstanding artists such as Amy Sherald, Deborah Roberts and María Magdalena Campos-Pons, among others. Born in Pinar del Río, Cuba, Juana Valdés lives and works between Miami and New York.

C&AL: In your work, you reflect on migration as a result of your personal experience, specifically about the dynamics of family exile in Miami. You have described this period as “living on the edge of the edge”. What do you mean by this expression?

Juana Valdés: When we arrived as a family in Miami in 1971, it was and still remains today a city with segregated neighborhoods by race, ethnicity and class. We couldn’t live in the same predominantly white neighborhoods that most other Cuban families moved into. We ended up living at the edge of a white neighborhood, on the boundary of the racially mixed communities of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and a few African-Americans. While we benefited from the government’s services as recent refugees and immigrants, we still suffered the same kind of discrimination affecting African-Americans in terms of housing, good-paying jobs and mobility. It left me with a sensation of not belonging to either community – an outsider in both cultures negotiating daily interactions.

My recent work focuses on migration because I see it as one of the most significant issues of the 21th century. 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2019. I recently heard on the news that Venezuela would soon replace Syria with the largest number of displaced people. And it is not just countries in war or political conflict. The future will bring climate change refugees, as it already happened with hurricane Katrina. [. . .]

[. . .] C&AL: You participated in the exhibition Building a Feminist Archive: Cuban Women Photographers in the US (2019, curated by Aldeide Delgado), which explored, in the context of discussion about Latinx art, the pluricultural strategies for the reconstruction of Cuban identity. How have you dialogued with the categories Cuban art, Afro-American art, Latin American art, or recently Latinx art?

JV: When you are making art, I don’t think one is engaged with all these terminologies. It comes from an understanding of the place where I am making and who I choose as my audience. In the late 90s, I decided to shift my focus and not necessarily address the idea of being Cuban, a Cuban-American artist, Latin American or Caribbean, but to question ideologies of gender, race, class and ethnicity, of belonging and transnationalism, loss and migration. Through this discourse, I address and work through these labels in the process of making art. I embrace the identity of Latinx partially because it’s the closest to my lived experience as an Afro Cuban Latina Woman in the US. The “x” in Latinx incorporates all of those realities. What does it mean to be seen, experienced, and responded to as a Black person in America? This does not fit within a Cuban, Caribbean, or Latin American experience. I don’t see myself as an African-American or as 100% Cuban because those are specific experiences with a particular narrative. For me, Latin American art leaves out indigenous and people of color, so what is left? [. . .]

For full article and interview, see https://amlatina.contemporaryand.com/editorial/conversacion-juana-valdes

[Shown above, photos/stills by Zachary Balber. Juana Valdés, “Rest Ashore,” video stills. Locust Projects, Miami, September 12–October 24, 2020. Courtesy of the artist for C& América Latina]

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