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Artist Carmen Lizardo Addresses Regionalism Through Self Portraits

Self Portrait - From the series Americana by Carmen Lizardo

Manifesting diversity in today's society is essential for global unity and positive change.

Through her art practice and work as an educator, New York based artist Carmen Lizardo plays an important role in conveying and spreading a free open minded non-denominational

way of thinking.

Lizardo champions the technique of communicating this message with her widely recognized self portraits. We recently had the opportunity to interview Lizardo on her latest project, and current focus of her artistic practice.

You address the topic of regionalism in your work, how does it come into play in your latest series, and do you feel that the current political environment is enhancing the message you communicate?

Lizardo: Through the generations, immigrants’ historical associations are directly affected by regionalism and displacement. Regionalism is the action of xenophobia in which something as simple as how someone refers to a particular word, custom, accent, or other characteristic associated with a specific region or culture is actively identified as foreign, and therefore is also strange and dangerous. This behavior undoubtedly leads to assume that immigrants, which in our current history refers only to people of color, are the usual suspects. People of color will always be considered "Foreigners", making cultural and ethnic behavior that is not native or not practiced by the majority wrong simply because is not "Normal".

The barriers of race that divide us are social constructs that support a system of inequality, and regionalism is what creates and continues to uphold a dangerous symbiotic culture of discrimination against anything non-native. Immigrants are by definition, citizens of the world. In a sense, their home is everywhere and nowhere. Even though immigrants often understand and celebrate their heritage, what shapes us is much more complicated than bloodline. The immigrant’s family tree does not follow a simple convention; when embracing the culture of the new land, we become a cultural hybrid. We strive to figure out our (new) heritage, region or place and in doing so we form a tapestry made up of a self-constructed history. The particularities of this history are not recorded in books, but it exists in the immigrant’s mind. It is why I make the work I make. I make art in order to see how my history was, and still is being created.

Concerning the current political issues, I do not feel that my work is enhanced by it. What my artwork only confirms what the presents America's racial history and points at how they continue active discrimination that people of color face every day. What my work has done is ungag our society on the subject. It has only confirmed for those who were in doubt that race is and forever will be a complex issue that it always will be so and that the notion of a “Post Racial America” is a myth. The racial dialogue of America is now more relevant than ever, simply because race it has become more obvious. Even if we are sick of the topic we cannot simply wish away racial inequality; it is a potent thing, a weapon that destroys nations. In art, the subject of race and immigration is placed in the category of “personal self-expression.” It is true that my work is influenced by my personal experience, but whose work is not? What matters is that it describes a real experience, and not one unique to me, but rather one that multiple people can identify with.

We will never be colorblind - And why should we be? Race and immigration are also the best things about America. We cannot understand the immigrant in the US without considering race; likewise, we cannot understand the complexities of race and ethnicity without considering immigration.

Self portrait - From the series El Negro Detras de la Oreja by Carmen Lizardo

Last year you exhibited in the group show Artists and Innovators that took place at SUNY New Paltz, can you share how did the opportunity came about and how was the experience?

New York Foundation for the Arts was commemorating three decades of Artist Fellowships with a traveling exhibition. The artists in the exhibition are all NYFA Fellows. In 2004 I was nominated for two NYFA fellowships in Painting and Photography. In 2005 I was awarded a NYFA residency grant, and in 2010 I was selected for the NYFA MARK program. I am incredibly thankful for NYFA’s support because I have been so well supported at crucial points in my career. The exhibit Artists as Innovators featured work by more than 20 NYFA Artist Fellows who have gone on to record significant achievements in their artistic careers. The works on display showed how the fellows have addressed pressing and often controversial issues through their art, including racism, gender equality, sexual orientation, immigration, and globalization.

As a teacher and adviser for young artists, what are the recurring challenges you see young artists going through, and how do you see these challenges transform post-graduation when they start their art careers?

I had been was full-time faculty for seventeen years, and during my tenure, I was fortunate to witness first-hand the catalytic power of creative expression. I found harmony between art and teaching and I could not imagine doing one without the other. One of the challenges in teaching art is finding the way to express my creativity both as an artist and as a teacher and to share my feelings about art and life through both endeavors. The discovery changed me and opened the door to freedom for me, and I hope to share this transformative power of art with my students.

Art has always been my weapon, and I practice my resistance in the arena of culture. I use my art as a cultural tool to effect social change; my work is my voice, the tool I use to inspire dialogue, action, and progress. I have found that I can make this happen very directly in the classroom. I read once that there are two ways to spread light into the world: One way is to be the candle that creates the light, and the other way is to be the mirror that reflects the light. I take that to mean that when I am in my studio, I am the candle that generates the light, and when I teach, I am the mirror that reflects the light. Either way, I am part of the light, which is very important to me.

Artist Carmen Lizardo in her studio

In 2017, I stepped down from my academic job to dedicate my time entirely to my studio practice. However, it is my privilege to advise and support young artists that pursue a career in the arts. Unfortunately, I have also seen what is wrong with our educational system, both as a student and faculty of color. As a student, I was well-nourished in the craft and aesthetic of art by the works of western masters, and my training and education in art school were superb. However, I have also struggled as an Afro-Latina and as a woman to see myself reflected in the artworks I so love. I believe it was this gorging that they indulged in on the one hand while starving them on the other, that left so many of the Afro-Latinos and African-American art students I knew in school feeling lost, frustrated, and alone. Of those, I knew in art school very few graduated, fewer still held true to being the art makers or artists they aimed to be as they borrowed their way through an expensive private art school education. A profession for the mind should not just be for the rich. The only way to promote social change and to free our society is to allow for this not to be a prohibitive dream.

"I identify with art that forces me into a journey"

As a catalyst for social and political change, art is unique in its capacity to provide the tools and platforms for community members to represent their own experiences and aspirations, to enable visionary thinking and practice, and to bring communities together to engage in challenging conversations that can lead to advocacy, action, and change. I striven to instill this kind of passion and interest in my students, as I offered practical guidance, honest critical advice and most importantly I tried to extend kindness. I know everyone needs compassion, and I was lucky enough to encounter that in my earlier years. Many of my students are now my friends, and I respect them and admire them for the work that they do. I also offer an open the door to those who seek mentorship beyond academia. I found that I am best when I am in my element, which is within my studio and my daily life. It offers an opportunity for teaching without any hierarchy. It is indeed a free exchange, and now that I have left academia, I am open to sharing my knowledge to those who genuinely want the kind of help I can give.

Self portrait - From the series Americana by Carmen Lizardo

Are there any particular artists or photographers that you follow these days?

I will always be in love with the Masters and Byzantine arts, and Paul Rand will forever influence me. I love Bauhaus, formalism and color theory. Moreover, I am a process-junkie, and Surrealist women are part of my bloodline. However, today, my inspiration and entire admiration (with proper courtesy, of course) come to the artists Childish Gambino and Lin Manuel Miranda. They are my Caravaggio, my Leonardo, my Picasso. They make my brain visible, and they make me proud. Art has made me brave, and I feel these artists are the most courageous. I identify with art that forces me into a journey -- A journey that induces an experience inwards to portray what is happening all around us.

This artist introduction and interview was curated by Shally Zucker - Senior Editor at Artqol



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