A collaborative exhibition exploring borderland narratives and cultural traditions

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A collaborative exhibition exploring borderland narratives and cultural traditions
Gareth Smit, Front left: Mirna Lourdes and Rosa Icela Velasco Leon, sisters, with their daughters, back left Brenda Noemi Sierras and Itzel Abigail Ramirez Velasco. Quitovac, México, 2019, © Gareth Smit

TUCSON, AZ.- The University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography and Poetry Center present The Place Where Clouds Are Formed, a collaborative exhibition exploring borderland narratives and cultural traditions. Spanning two venues—CCP's Alice Chaiten Baker Interdisciplinary Gallery and the Poetry Center—this exhibition delves into the intersection of spirituality, migration, and the impacts of policies on the Sonoran Desert borderlands through poems, photographs, sculpture, and mixed-media objects. On view from April 6 to August 31, 2024, and featuring more than 40 photos and 20 poems, the exhibition was curated by Denisse Brito, Jenna S. Green, and Julie Swarstad Johnson, with guidance from Ofelia Zepeda, Martín Zícari, and Gareth Smit. Translation support provided by Ron Geronimo (Tohono O'odham).

Initiated as a collective in 2018 by Ofelia Zepeda, Gareth Smit, and Martín Zícari, The Place Where Clouds Are Formed aims to shift established narratives of the Sonoran Desert to be inclusive of genealogical stories, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions of its inhabitants. In partnership with Traditional O'odham Leaders and communities from villages in Quitovac, Cu:wĭ I-ge:sk (San Francisquito), and Sonoyta, towns located in Sonora, Mexico, as well as Quitobaquito and the surrounding lands in Southern Arizona, the exhibition situates photographs and other works of art in dialogue with poems in O'odham, English, and Spanish.

Now in its fifth iteration, the project has grown to incorporate new artists and mediums to diversify regional perspectives, including poetry and photography by Amber Lee Ortega (Hia Ced O'odham and Tohono O'odham) and Su:k Chu:vak Fulwilder (Onk Akimel O'odham, Xalchidom Pilpaash, Tlingit, Aleut, and Pomo), handmade paper sculptures by Terrol Dew Johnson (Tohono O'odham) with Chris Lasch and Alice Wilsey of the design studio Aranda\Lasch, and multimedia installations by Mónica Martínez-Díaz.

"Since the inception of this project in 2018 we have been exploring new collaborations between artists that disrupt the prevailing crisis narratives about this place," said Gareth Smit, co-founder, photographer, The Place Where Clouds Are Formed. "We invite audiences to consider how these works, in conversation with one another, tell another story."

"We were looking at the narratives about the border around 2018, and what was missing was a poetic approach to the border," said Martín Zícari, co-founder, writer and poet, The Place Where Clouds Are Formed. "Poetry can bring a kind of dislocation of language and the reader's position that media language obfuscates. That is one of the main reasons we brought poetry into the mix."

"My work reflects who I am as a person, my culture, my family, the desert," said Terrol Dew Johnson, artist featured in The Place Where Clouds Are Formed. "I have learned much from my elders about tradition, patience and technique. I combine this respect for tradition with my own visions of the world I see around me. Many times, I dream a design, and it haunts me until I actually weave it. Heritage and vision combine in my work reflecting the world in which I live."

"Photography has become one of the primary means for experiencing something, and it has been crucial for artists to communicate the enduring state of nostalgia experienced here in the border," said Mónica Martínez-Díaz, artist featured in The Place Where Clouds Are Formed. "There exists a conflict between the desire to stay and the urge to leave, the longing to return to the past, and the dream of a different future. It is a juxtaposed journey where beauty and terror, stability and chaos, struggle and aspirations are felt. The border encapsulates a spectrum of emotions, both positive and negative, and artists who are from the border have helped us illuminate aspects of those narratives."

"Traditionally, the photographic portrayal of Indigenous Peoples and cultures has been shaped by external perspectives, often resulting in oversimplified or stereotypical representations," said Denisse Brito, Learning and Engagement Manager of the Center for Creative Photography. "The Place Where Clouds Are Formed seeks to challenge this colonial lens by amplifying the voices and artistic expressions of Indigenous and Native artists, providing a nuanced and authentic depiction of their cultures and daily lives. This exhibition prompts viewers to reflect critically by transcending conventional boundaries. How can photography evolve to represent Indigenous communities accurately? How can Indigenous photographers leverage their unique perspectives to reshape photographic art and storytelling?"

"Resonance between word and image has been a guiding force from the earliest work included in The Place Where Clouds Are Formed, with Zepeda's exquisite poem of the same title sparking the initial connection among the project's founders," said Julie Swarstad Johnson, Archivist and Outreach Librarian for the Poetry Center. "The poems, photographs, sculptures, and prints by the full collective on display in this exhibition speak to one another vividly through line, texture, color, and negative space. Through that conversation, they embody the project's anti-colonial approach, one that is co-creative and conversational to its core."

"The Center for Creative Photography is honored to co-host The Place Where Clouds Are Formed in our Alice Chaiten Baker Interdisciplinary Gallery," said Todd J. Tubutis, Director of the Center for Creative Photography. "It's a dynamic space where CCP engages the public and promotes innovative artistic practices, research, and discourse. At the Center, we're committed to fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and celebrating diverse voices, representations, and histories. Our gallery aims to highlight how photography intersects with different disciplines and mediums, reflecting the richness and complexity of our world."

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