In their artwork, Open Call artists Lizania Cruz and Luis A. Gutierrez both ask what we know about the past, and how we can know it. For the Open Call 2023 Group Exhibition, Cruz investigates an episode in the 19th-century history of the Dominican Republic, when the United States sent a delegation there to explore annexation of the island nation. Gutierrez delves into the struggle for worker’s rights in Colombia, with paintings that incorporate archival images from a massacre of banana plantation workers in 1928.
Two months before the exhibition opening, Cruz joined Gutierrez and The Shed’s editorial director Phillip Griffith for an online conversation from the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts’ Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in Midtown Manhattan, one of the first community print shops in the United States, where Gutierrez also works when printing. They shared insight into their processes and the nuances of working with historical events as artists.
Phillip Griffith (The Shed): What are you working on right now for your Open Call projects?
Luis A. Gutierrez: Typically in my process, I start with a first step, doing the research. Once I’ve collected the images I’m going to work with, I start painting on canvas, creating two types of paintings: black canvases and abstract color studies.
Once I’m done with the painting part of the work, I start to screen print the images I’ve collected on canvas, and then I go into the studio and start puzzling over how to bring everything together. I always say this phase of work is like the piecing together of history itself. It never comes together in quite the same way. I bring the elements from each of these phases together to create a painting out of them. It’s not quite intuitive, but it’s driven by the visual experience of these parts. I’m making decisions based on which colors and textures work better together. I’m in this second phase right now, piecing together, hand sewing elements into a backing canvas, which can be tedious.
Lizania Cruz: My process takes me from conceptual form as a starting point into research and engagement with participants. Now, I’m in full production mode for my installation’s various components. I’m working with a fabricator to build a pulpit, which is what I’m calling a speculative sculpture. Today, I’m printing some of the photolithography that will show the archive where I found the inspiration for the work.
Yesterday, I returned from the Library of Congress, so I am still collecting archival material, not so much as research but as material to use in the interactive app I’ve developed as part of my Open Call installation. With my collaborators on the app, Matt Ross and Mary Kate Skitka, I’m working through how the different archives are going to relate to each other in the app, specific data visualizations, and designs. I’m hoping in the next two weeks to do a demo to test the application.
Luis, we’ve talked a little bit about the history of the United Fruit Company and the banana industry, but are you working with a specific event or that history in general?
Gutierrez: I’m working with a specific event known as La masacre de las bananeras, the Banana Massacre, that took place in 1928. The United Fruit Company’s workers were on strike demanding better working and living conditions, and fair pay. At the time they were paid with vouchers rather than money, which they then had to use in the company’s stores. They were trapped in a cycle, so there was an uprising with civil disobedience, the burning of buildings. The United Fruit Company lobbied the United States government to put pressure on the Colombian government to bring in their military. They ended up killing the protesting workers; estimates range up to over several thousand people massacred. This tragic event was forgotten for a long time. Only recently have scholars begun to dive into the archives to investigate what happened.
I’ve been working on this project for more than three years. The installation at The Shed will be the pinnacle of my research—finally I’m going to be able to show this to a lot of people. That was always the goal of my research.
Cruz: There is a similar voucher system in the sugar cane industry in the Dominican Republic.
I’m also thinking about US imperialism, specifically with the Commission of Inquiry of Santo Domingo, which happened in 1871. Organized by President Ulysses S. Grant, the commission assessed the material gains that could be made in the Dominican Republic (then called Santo Domingo) and the sentiment of the people toward annexation. They focused their work in particular on Samana Bay, which in 1824 became the home of a group of emancipated African Americans who settled there and throughout the island. The abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass was the secretary of the Commission of Inquiry, and I’m specifically interested in his role in this history.
The work for Open Call is part of a larger body of work. Since 2019, I’ve been working on a project called the Investigation on the Dominican Racial Imaginary, thinking about how the Dominican state has erased and suppressed Black consciousness and identity, along with African heritage, in Dominican identity. I’m considering Douglass through this nuanced lens, asking participants the question: should Frederick Douglass be a suspect or witness in the investigation?
Last week, I interviewed the scholar Julia Hooker on a newsprint takeaway for my installation. She has written about Douglass and how he went to Santo Domingo thinking of it as a Black nation. But I don’t think Dominicans today see ourselves as part of a Black nation. What happened in the past 150 years to change that worldview? Audiences at The Shed will be able to testify in response to my question about Douglass. I’ll collect that data and incorporate it into my larger body of work.
Gutierrez: Douglass’s part in this is so interesting—to fight for freedom and equality, and then take part in this colonialist history at the same time.
Cruz: Exactly. I’ve been trying to understand his motives. Some of the scholars who have written about this talk about citizenship and what it meant right after Reconstruction to create a refuge for Black folks, like in Liberia. It’s colonialism. How do we question those motives and think about the people who were already living in places like Liberia and the people who were arriving from the States?
The Shed: Both of your research seems framed by language in important ways. What’s the relationship between language, or this research, and images you might create?
Gutierrez: I’m a painter driven by visual experience, so this has always been a conflict for me, in a sense. I’ve asked myself how I present this vision without letting the images overtake communicating the history? In general in my work, there’s an opportunity to communicate in other ways too. I’ve written essays, and for Open Call I’m planning to present the research in an artist’s talk.
Cruz: In my practice, language is a framework. For this body of work I’m interested in the law and how it benefits white supremacy. I’m using the linguistic tropes of the law to invite people to question notions of what is legitimate in the law and how images and language are used to create hierarchies.
I come from a design background where language is super important. I always think of language as both an opening and a barrier in my work. I’m always thinking about what the right question or word is, so people feel they have more room to speak, or how I can be specific enough to get straight to the point. To me, that’s related to the importance of testifying and presenting evidence.
The Shed: You’re both working with historical events whose stories have been somehow misconstrued or repressed. There’s an element of speculation that you bring to your presentation of them.
Gutierrez: I’ve approached this history indirectly. I’m abstracting and manipulating images, and screen printing them in a way that allows for many so-called mistakes to be part of the final work. Sometimes it’s hard to read the image, and I’m engaging directly with that fact.
My hope as an artist is that I can offer other ways for someone to learn about what the image really means, whether in an essay or my artist’s talk or the audience’s own curiosity. For me, as a painter, the question is always how much research I can include in my paintings, because it’s a limited medium.
Cruz: When I say my work is speculative, I mean that I’m always looking at the archive, images, sources and questioning what is not there. Which voices have been erased? With the pulpit sculpture, we only have one image of it in the archive (Editor’s note: see the image on page 17 of this PDF). It’s an illustration by an artist named James E. Taylor, who was commissioned by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper to accompany the commission to Santo Domingo. I have so many questions about this image.
For instance, in the archive it says that the pulpit that Frederick Douglass used came from a Catholic church, but he was speaking to members of the AME Church, and Douglass was not a Catholic. So I’m also speculating about the style of the pulpit; in the illustration it looks gothic. I’m interested in what happens when I convert source material into something else that may or may not be true.
I want to invite audiences into the speculative process. How do they inquire into something that I might have missed? So despite this speculation, and somewhat contrary to you Luis, I’m very much direct. I’m building the pulpit and showing you the archive where I found it, as well as allowing you to see all the other research I’ve done. I use speculation to bring the audience along with me in my process.
Gutierrez: I think we’re both exploring history as something that is never perfect. There’s always implicit bias when you’re rewriting history.
What’s fascinating to me is trying to get to the truth, while knowing that I will necessarily never find it, but I’m going to have as close a picture as possible. Having a pixelated picture is better than having no picture at all.
The Shed: Lizania, the “picture” you’re working with, the illustration of the pulpit, was commissioned to be part of the commission. It was propagandistic…
Cruz: Exactly, the newspaper commissioned the artist but the commission brought the newspaper along. Yesterday in the Library of Congress’s picture collection, I found the set of illustrations that James E. Taylor completed but were not published in the newspaper itself. The image I’m referencing was published as a special insert. It was total propaganda.
The Shed: What connection do you feel between your work, these histories, and where you’re living?
Gutierrez: Living in the United States, my work connects directly to our moment, with so many workers demanding fair conditions. UPS almost went on strike. That’s 300,000 people. They are part of the Teamsters, which is the biggest union in the United States, that I’m also part of. We have Starbucks, the writer’s union, and the actor’s union going on strike. History is repeating itself, and it will continue to do so. This is a continuous fight for demanding what’s right for workers and their families. Most of the unions protect people who work with their bodies, people who are giving everything they have to really sustain an economy.
Cruz: I’m always thinking about New York City as a historic place. The other day a friend was telling me about the station on the Underground Railroad where Frederick Douglass arrived in the city. Today there’s a La Colombe coffee shop there.
Dominicans are currently one of the largest immigrant populations in New York. As a Dominican artist, I’m asking what it means for a New York Dominican audience to see this piece in relation to what they already know about Douglass and the United States.
My installation in the gallery at The Shed will face outside, visible from the sidewalk through large windows, so it’s going to activate that public space, too.
The Shed: You both seem relaxed talking about this final phase of work…
Gutierrez: The complicated thing is finding the time, but once I do, it’ll get done.
But Lizania, I know you’re managing a team of people. I’m by myself. It’s all about me. Is working with a fabricator a different kind of stress?
Cruz: Well, I come from the world of working with a team of people. I love it. Yesterday I was talking to Matt and Mary Kate about the app. We were thinking about how we could expand it in the future. Those conversations are exciting. They bring a set of knowledge that I don’t, and I’m excited to learn from them. And they’re excited to be working with an artist and not in a commercial capacity. The same goes with printing. The printers I work with always bring something to the artwork. I prefer that to being in the studio by myself. It balances out my stress.