Artist Imna Arroyo came to the William Benton Museum of Art Thursday night and discussed the inspiration and thoughts behind her exhibition “Ancestors of the Passage,” currently on view at the museum.
The work was inspired by her African and Puerto Rican heritage and how these roots shaped her identity and by this year’s UConn Reads book selection “The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It also was “aimed at reclaiming her spiritual and cultural heritage,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo is from Guayama, a city on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. She is a painter, printmaker and bookmaker who also works with multimedia presentations. She studied at La Escuela de Artes Plásticas del Instituto de Cultura in San Juan, Puerto Rico, obtained her Bachelors of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute and received her Masters of Fine Arts from Yale University. Since then, her work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art Library, the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, the Yale Art Gallery and the Museum Casa Africa in Havana, Cuba.
The installation consists of 27 terracotta ceramic busts with their hands facing up towards the audience among a seas of acrylic canvas and silk fabric. The figures represent her ancestors and spirits who died during their trip on the middle passage from Africa to America. The figures are surrounded by 47 black and white collagraphs which feature two-dimensional images similar to the sculptures and a projected video titled “Trail of Bones.” Finally, there is an altar to pay tribute to the ancestors and allow audience members to write on small prints to their ancestors.
Through the variety of media, Arroyo works not to simply condemn historical oppressors, but to express her own identity and honor those who made her life possible through their struggles.
Sydney White, an eighth-semester animal science major, echoed Arroyo’s statements about the importance of spotlighting mixed cultures.
“I’m mixed-cultured myself so I like to get people more involved in the idea of cultures coming together and spotlighting the fact that there are different cultures, but there’s even more depth with cultures that are mixed,” White said.
Arroyo called her work “timely” because of how it intertwined historical, political, social, environmental and even personal issues into one conversation. She mentions how climate change is impacting sea levels and then she connects it to Puerto Rico, where people have been living for months with inadequate resources including a lack of potable water. She took these broad issues and used them in her work to discuss deeper issues.
“It’s concerned about not only what’s happening with the environment, but also the displacement of people from their places, refugees. We might not want to acknowledge that we have refugees dealing with climate change and that’s one of our realities of our time,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo also stressed the importance of exchange in her work. Through the physical set-up of the piece and the interaction altar, she emphasizes the importance of the exchange and of conversation. However, firsthand experience is crucial to conveying this authentically.
White appreciated the amount of travel and research that she did for these pieces.
“There’s a difference between just seeing it and actually being a part of it,” White said. “Anyone can read, everyone can look at a picture, but it’s a completely different story when you actually put yourself in the environment, put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Having been to Nigeria, White knew firsthand about the impact that real life experience can have on a person’s perspective and worldview.
“It’s one thing to learn about Africa when you’re in America, but when you actually go you see that they have malls, they have hotels, it’s like being here but we’re only told that everyone’s poor, everyone’s sad,” White said.
Madison Savage, eighth-semester history major, appreciated how Arroyo’s work was grounded in a deep historical reality.
“I really like that it was very history-based and had a lot of her own personal history but also the way she related it to a shared culture of migration and seeking refuge,” Savage said. “I think it resonated with a lot of people, whether they can share the experiences of forced migration of slavery, but just relating to the idea of having a history – of having to leave one place and make a new life – but the history is there and you can look at it and face it through the past and through the ancestors.”
Fueled by history, experience and discovery, Arroyo’s work does just what it set out to do by promoting meaningful discussions about important issues.
“Art is a good way to bring about these conversations and talk about these things and do it in a way that doesn’t necessarily make it more comfortable, but makes it a more meaningful conversation because it gives us something physical to talk about and it gives us something historical to talk about and at the same time it’s contemporary too because art is just a good medium for conversation and discussion.” Savage said.
Alex Taylor is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.