About the Artist
Libby Paloma is an interdisciplinary artist working in a wide range of mediums including assemblage, installation, photography, video and performance. Paloma's work is inspired by mythology and allegory while exploring and celebrating Chicanx, Mexican and Queer culture. Paloma's most recent works are assemblages featuring a portrait that is surrounded by intricate beadwork, religious relics, and miniature items that depict personal identity politics, gender and sexuality, and issues of cultural heritage.
with D. K. Broderick, June 2018
Let’s begin with the past, specifically with the stories of your family and of your ancestors. Why is it important for you to work with them and through them now — in the present? And in what ways does this work allow for processes of healing?
My work is personal. The immigration process and the assimilation process associated with living in the United States of America fragmented my family and cut them off from their Mexican identity and heritage in a lot of ways. Ways that still continue to impact them all today.
As someone who is third generation and trying to understand what it means to not only be someone who identifies as Mexican-American but also as someone who passes as White, looking to my family’s past has been significant and meaningful.
In addition to my family being fragmented and my complicated personal identity, a lot of our family histories and traditions were never captured by photograph. There are a few photographs but they aren’t a lot. Photographs are very much a symbol of privilege, you know. Instead, our family histories and traditions have been passed down orally through storytelling.
Anyway, all that being said, I want to create an archive not only for this fragmented family that doesn't really exist as a "family unit" anymore but also for myself. It's been incredibly therapeutic to to literally face these people and look them in the eyes for hours and hours while remembering their stories and recreating their stories in, through, and with my work. It's such an amazing healing experience to pull away and have some distance and perspective as an artist but also be right in their stories as a relative. I've gotten really close to my family members as a result of the work I'm doing, by facing them and remembering them.
Listening to you now has reminded me of the potential that storytelling can have to act as a medium of remembrance and aid in the work of commemoration — orally and aurally.
What's been really interesting are the ways in which their stories replay, over and over, in my mind as I'm making these assemblages. Sometimes I'll get stuck when I'm making a work and when I do I just call my Nana (Abuelita/Grandmother). And I'll ask her to tell me a story about our family, about her dad, or her brother, in order to learn more about my family history and also help spark something in me that can be channeled into the work. There's been a lot of storytelling over the phone as I'm making the work.
I have a few of these works in a gallery right now. At the opening people were asking a lot of questions about them, about who these people are, what their stories are, and what the symbols I include mean in relationship to them. Which is amazing because then I get a chance to tell their stories, to speak about my family, and to remember them with others. That's such an important and wonderful thing to be able to do because there are stories to tell here. In this sense, the stories also give themselves to me, to translate for them, and to share them. And that's pretty special, well, at least I think it is.
Some of these stories are about really difficult events. This has probably been the only time that I've talked to so many people I don't know, complete strangers, about the immigration stories of my family and the challenges they faced in coming here when they did, “illegally” (I use quotes here because my relatives came to California less than 60 years after the U.S. claimed California as their own after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo) during segregation as farm workers and migrant workers. These are conversations that we've been holding in our family for generations and now through the work I'm making, these conversations around race, class, gender and history have been given an outlet and a portal. These aren't easy issues to talk about but the work actually makes them much easier to approach than they are otherwise.
As you said, the work compels viewers to ask about these stories and listen to these stories. What a gift to be given and to be able to share with family, friends, and strangers in the ways that you do.
It is a gift! I've definitely noticed that too. They draw viewers in through their material construction and then make viewers wonder because of their content. People will really spend time looking, and then if they talk to me about them, listening, or at least that's what I've noticed and also what I hope for. To be given a story and to share it with others.
While we're speaking about the work itself perhaps we can get into some of its particularities. The materials you're working with have their own charged significances as does the religious iconography you’re actively incorporating. What kinds of symbolic meanings do these materials and iconographies hold for you, for your family, and for these stories?
The platters lend themselves to domestic work and to the ways in which a lot of Mexican people who come here, especially if you're undocumented, get work in service industries. So I'm thinking about that and those stories. These platters are not from my family, they're from thrift stores so there are other unknown stories that are already a part of their histories before I even use them to carry my stories. These platters have presumably been a part of numerous families and histories. They may have also been a part of precious moments of family gathering around a shared meal. Or not! I feel like in a certain sense I'm also honoring all of these unknown histories and peoples that used these platters before me.
I use a lot of beads in my work and there is a relationship between what I do and the rich history of bead work that goes into traditional Mexican folk art. Not these beads per se but I'm definitely thinking about these older cultural practices and traditions when I'm working with these glass beads. Sometimes I'll create patterns that are reminiscent of patterns that were used in Mexican folk art. I'm a jewelry maker and I've been making a living making jewelry for awhile, so that's another interesting overlap. My jewelry making comes through in my art practice and vice versa. I love working with these glass beads because for all of the reasons I just mentioned but also because they remind me of glitter.
There's a lot of glitter that is used in Catholic relics. I'm really attracted to those aspects of the Catholic church and religious artifacts. I find them to be extremely beautiful. I like using the language of the church to think about the ways in which I can mythologize my own relatives.
What's the process like when you begin a new work?
Sometimes I'll talk to the relative before making a work to them. Other times I'll talk to my Nana who I talk to regularly to see if she has any stories about the relative I'm thinking about that she wants to share with me. She's really interested in what I'm doing. She really supports the process. I'll often have her tell me my favorite stories again and again. Or if I get curious about something or someone I'll ask her to tell me about them. She and her brother have been the two main people I talk to for family stories. Especially in regards to what it was like growing up in LA with immigrant parents, one of which was “illegal.” I often show them a photo and ask if they know about it or have any memory of it. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Depending on the answer it become a bit of a mystery.
In the family I grew up in, there are certain members that have taken it upon themselves to be the keepers of stories, to embody this knowledge. It's not a responsibility that everyone can bear. Do you see yourself taking on this role — of holding and caring for stories — in your family?
Totally. I've always asked to know as much as I could about who we are and where we come from and about our history. I can remember hearing these stories in my mind from the time that I was very young. Now that I'm working on this project other family members are becoming more and more interested in our family and learning about their history through the stories I'm telling in my work. I've definitely become a holder of our stories. And who knows if I'm even getting them right. Some of the information is first-hand knowledge but a lot of it is being told to me through relatives. Really wild stuff. I'm learning about these really young memories that my grandmother has of her great grandmother. They're really interesting and fragmented so I often end up filling in these gaps and trying to make sense of pieces. It's always an interesting process to weave stories and information together. There's so much for all of us to know about our family and about our history.
The word “fragmented” came up at the start of our conversation and it just came up again now. Perhaps as a way of coming full circle we can talk about how this word — “fragmented” — is related to your process and to what you are trying to address and counteract through your work.
I think of my family as quite fragmented. At the same time I'm creating these really condensed and really connected pieces and each piece is about a single member. I imagine that when I have a family tree and it's up on a wall they'll all be on these little fragmented islands but within the larger assemblage they'll all be connected and not fragmented in the least. I really hope that these works do what I'm asking them to do, to bring fragmented stories together in order to create a less flattened version of my family’s rich histories of movement and migration. It's all just hopes and dreams.
Photos by Walker Esner