QUIZAYRA and CASS
Tell us a little bit about yourselves. How did you two meet? How would you describe your creative journey so far?
Q: Cass and I met under strange circumstances. We were both fellows in a strange residency program in Italy. We were there to work on ways to create community through art, but the residency was a disaster. I think we really bonded over mutual frustration. In the residency, we witnessed and experienced different levels of microaggressions that made us really angry, but we didn’t see how we could change things. So we talked to each other about it and shared our experiences as a way to alleviate the situation.
C: Quizayra and I are both artists who work in overlapping yet slightly different mediums; I work in documentary film and photography, and Quizayra works in design and photography. Both of us share a love of art, politics, and culture, and the intersection of those three things, so we quickly realized we needed to work together. The residency was just motivation to realize that we had something to say and needed to say it!
Let's talk about Matters Unsettled, your curatorial collective. This is such an amazing concept - what was the process like founding this collective? What are your goals for the future of Matters Unsettled?
C: We admittedly did not start out conscientiously creating a curatorial collective. We had a really great idea for a show, which became Crafted Strangers, which we were able to realize through an emerging curatorial fellowship that we were awarded by the Center of Craft, Creativity & Design in Asheville, North Carolina. Once we started to think of ourselves as not just artists but curators, and how we enjoyed working together and that we also had a lot more to say, we decided to form a collective and continue curating in a critical and thoughtful manner.
Q: Our immediate goal is to create more exhibitions, but we aren’t limiting ourselves to the gallery space. We see a variety of projects falling under Matters Unsettled.
You've said that Matters Unsettled was built to "challenge issues around culture, identity, & belonging" - could you elaborate on that a little? Do you think this exploration is especially important, given our current political climate?
C: You know, when we formed Matters Unsettled and were conceiving and creating Crafted Strangers, this was pre-Trump and the current political climate that we are currently engaged in. Both Quizayra and I are women, women of color, and women working in the arts, so we have always had to face and deal with challenges, aggressions, and barriers that are systematic because we are human and live in the world. Both of our personal practices and our collective’s mission focus on how we, as individuals and groups, who are outside the dominant Eurocentric worldview, are living our lives. That takes into account how you are engaging (or not engaging) with your culture. How is this impacting how you feel about yourself? How do you feel you belong to whatever is important for you to belong to? These are questions that you can’t help but experience being a person of color, a woman, and especially both. So we aren’t inventing anything new, but rather trying to create spaces where the conversations, voices, and experiences of women and POC (people of color) can be heard from a larger audience. As far as how this relates to current politics? I feel that the political climate has made it possible for these pre-existing thoughts, emotions, and biases to come to the surface and be part of the public dialogue.
Q: This hostile political climate has been a daily reality for many people long before Trump became president. This administration is a reflection of the American history/reality we, as a country, keep failing to address and process. Our work as artists and curators is centered on using the gallery platform as a way to help each other process the socio-political challenges of our time. We really created Crafted Strangers as a celebration of contemporary artists of color and that, in itself, is a political act.
Was it difficult to start Matters Unsettled? What's been the biggest challenge so far getting it up and running?
C: Starting Matters Unsettled was the easy part! As we touched upon before, we came to the realization that what we wanted to do together was create this collective to continue making the shows we wished we were seeing in the gallery space, and we were fortunate enough to have the opening of our show and fellowship at the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design to launch it all. The biggest challenges now that the show has opened and we have launched is really figuring out the right way to grow our business - what steps we want to take and how we want to do it.
I'd love to touch on your latest show, Crafted Strangers. Could you tell us a little bit about that - how did it originate, and what was the process of putting it together?
C: Crafted Strangers originated from informal conversations that we had been having around our individual experiences growing up, studying, and working in the school system and art world. We realized we had a lot of overlapping experiences despite coming from very different backgrounds, but the common denominator was that we were non-European. I am mixed so that’s not completely true, but I work in First Nations art and culture. This was the beginning of Crafted Strangers.
Q: What kept coming up as we brainstormed was the sense that our outward identities seemed to be crafted by outside forces. We are acutely aware of the limited representation popular media and the art world gives to marginalized communities. And we’re not marginalized by choice. I don't feel I work from the margins as a Latinx person, but that is what it seems like when you enter different art spaces. So we wanted to create an exhibition that celebrated outstanding contemporary artists that are part of immigrant and indigenous communities. In doing so, we are making space for stories and identities that are often excluded or excotized in the established art world. In short, we want to create more cultural equity in the art world.
In regards to Crafted Strangers, your website mentions using craft as a "tool to regain control over how one chooses to define themselves". This is a fascinating take on the concept of identity. Could you elaborate on that in the context of the experiences of immigrant and indigenous people?
C: Yes! We were very interested in the relationship between craft and Immigrant and Indigenous art because it has a long and complicated history. I always go back to the example of the art history textbook. You have these two huge textbooks that are supposed to teach you about ALL the art, and there are (maybe) two tiny little chapters dedicated to non-Western art. Our work has always been relegated as more craft based than fine art based. This goes into the conversation then of how craft is seen as less prestigious than fine art, and how many immigrant and First Nations cultures are valued only for the commodification of their craft handiwork. For example, how Native American design motifs are ripped off and repurposed many times yet nobody cares about the Native American people and their politics. Craft also has a murky history with women in particular, because it was seen as an acceptable practice for women to enter into, but it also creates this unfair hierarchical competition with the fine art world that I touched upon before. However, we were seeing a lot of wonderful artists who were using craft in provocative ways and that was really exciting for us. It is using something that has disempowered you previously and reclaiming it.
Q: We took a practical and conceptual view of craft. We considered the historical politics of craft practice, but we used craft as an entry point to contemplate how people are othered. Immigrants and first-generation communities, especially in the US, are expertly othered. From government policies, popular media, political campaigns, and language, black, brown, and Asian immigrants and their families are crafted as perpetual foreigners. In this sense, they are crafted as strangers within American society despite being embedded in the fabric of American life.
Further, Crafted Strangers "explore(s) the intersections of art, politics, and identity focusing on people of color in the US and abroad" - could you go into detail about how you chose the artists involved? Was there a lot of initial interest in participation? How did those themes affect the artwork involved?
C: We had already been inspired by a few artists when we were creating the show, and then we spent a few months doing research by going to shows, asking our network of artists and curators, looking online, and doing studio visits. It all came together naturally since the parameters of the show were wide enough to accommodate a diversity of practices. I wouldn’t say it was a survey show, but we were definitely trying to provide representation to as many people as possible who identified as Indigenous and/or Immigrant.
Q: Neither of us represents all the experiences and struggles that exist within our own communities, and we didn't want to be seen as wanting to do so. So our process was more about sharing our exhibition concept with artists, having conversations about their work and their experiences, and they offered work that spoke to our exhibition.
Could you talk a little bit about your experiences as creative women? Have there been any defining moments so far in your career that you're especially proud of? What about challenges - were there any times when you felt like giving up? What did you learn from those experiences?
C: Crafted Strangers is certainly a high point and defining moment! I have experienced many challenges by way of sexism in the industry, but I sadly don’t feel that they are anything out of the ordinary. The biggest lesson for me was to quiet the voices of unworthiness and self-doubt that I had created in my head that prevented me from going after projects I wanted to pursue, or in the way I wanted. I had subconsciously internalized the fears, discontentment, and unhappiness of my colleagues and peers and that affected me greatly. Then I realized that I had control and power and since then I have been determined to forge ahead. This is what RuPaul refers to as defeating your inner saboteur. I seriously love RuPaul and his show Drag Race, and he is so real when he talks about that and how good it feels once you make this realization.
Q: I used to have a crippling amount of imposter syndrome. I thought I only got to the position I did because of luck or because someone needed to fill a quota. It really affected my work and how I viewed myself. I think being surrounded by women that constantly told me otherwise helped me chip away at that insecurity. I also realized that no one else will value me and my work unless I value myself. I need to project confidence in my abilities, otherwise, people won't feel confident in me. I still have insecurities but when these feelings of self doubt start popping up, I stop and think, “What would a more confident and higher self say to me? How would I react if a friend was feeling this way?” These question help me self-reflect and remind and move beyond the doubts.
What's the importance of collaboration for you? Do you work better together, apart, or a combination?
C: I personally love to work collaboratively and I would almost say I prefer it because it gives you a sounding board and a different perspective that you can utilize whenever you need it (and I like to use it always). Quizayra and I have very different work styles and schedules. She is an early riser and likes to do things in advance, whereas I am a night owl and need the pressure to do things at the last possible moment. So we stressed each other out at first, but then we communicated and figured out a way to work together in our own ways while respecting the sanity of the other person. Hopefully we do that now. I think we do that now. Quizayra will correct me if I am wrong. But we are better now than we were before!
Q: Collaboration is key! I love collaborative work because it motivates me and it holds me accountable. I know Cass expects things from me so I can't just leave things for another day or let an idea die. I agree, we have totally different working styles, but I appreciate that because we balance each other out. I know I have the space to freak out because Cass will be a solid and calming force. I realized that stressing out is part of my working process. I usually freak out for a day, then we talk about it and keep going. I appreciate that our styles are different, but we are equally dedicated and enthusiastic about the work. I can send Cass five different ideas for projects or residencies ( I do this often ) and I trust that she will provide her honest opinion and put in as much time and effort into them as I do.
What's next for you two? Any personal or professional projects on the horizon that you're particularly excited about?
Q: So many! Right now, we are focused on promoting Crafted Strangers and joining the CCCD for the amazing programming they developed to complement the exhibition. We’re also developing another exhibition on the cultural politics of food, and we brainstormed what Crafted Strangers will be once the exhibition ends. We think this concept resonates with so many communities and could take on many different forms. We’re also working on some individual projects. Cass just ended a fellowship where she taught indigenous children filmmaking and how to create their own documentary. It looks awesome! I'm working on an ongoing bodega photo series that's part of a larger thesis. So there’s a lot going on and more to come!
Feature photo credit: Steve Mann.
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