Undocumented Art and Activism: A Dialogue with Natalia Deeb-Sos

ZOË REINHARDT / AGGIE FILE

Art, activism, being undocumented collide

For many artists, their productions are their best attempts at bringing to life a tangible creation derived from some feelings, thoughts, core beliefs, experiences or emotions. Contemporary art tends to create a situation for the audience that aims to ultimately pull these certain feelings and thoughts out of them.

Using various media, such as video, sculpture and live performance, fourth-year art studio major Aida Lizalde navigates between depicting her experience in the performance form and the contemporary form. She uses the latter in an attempt to give the audience a taste of her experience.

On June 6 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum, she will be part of an event titled “Undocumented Art and Activism: A Dialogue with Natalia Deeb-Soss.” At the event, Lizalde will have a discussion with Professor Deeb-Soss about topics including living life undocumented, how art can be used to tell that story and how to use art as a form of activism.

“I don’t really want to just limit the way that I’m expressing things about society to just one material,” Lizalde said. “I mean it matters how [this is done], but I don’t want to be so purist in the sense of how I’m conveying them. I just went to this lecture and somebody referred to themselves as a ‘scholar-artist-activist’ and I feel like that is kind of how contemporary conceptual artists work nowadays.”

Lizalde already has plenty of experience, vision and talent behind her to help kickstart her near future.

“It’s really intimidating; it’s the first time that I’ve given a talk in such a big institution,” Lizalde said. “But I think it’s also intimidating because I’m really outspoken about things and I’m kind of like no filter sometimes in speaking about race issues.”

This self-described “no filter” personality was made clear as Lizalde noted her tendency to ask her faculty uncomfortable questions. She is also fearless about voicing concerns or criticisms, for example, about the museum’s lack of diverse representation in their exhibitions.

“I think that because of my identity [as a Mexican woman] and because of how I experience power structures and institutions, I have become really aware and really active in trying to understand the things that I consume and trying to just be really intentional about it,” Lizalde said. “If I have an opportunity to speak about something or to bring something up that people are maybe not thinking about in terms of identity or race or equality in the arts, then a lot of the time I do and it can be kind of obnoxious, but it’s something I feel really compelled to do.”

Although Lizalde says undocumented students can relate to her art, she also mentions that it reflects her own point of view. Other undocumented students may not see her experience as universal, and she fully acknowledges that “there are all kinds of ways that other students can talk about their experience or not.”

“Because of being in the situation of being an undocumented AB 540 student for so long, I think that there’s so much of my experience that gets put into my work that is interesting for other people that are going through the same experience to look at and understand how you can use an art practice to kind of carry out these conversations,” Lizalde said.

The Comparative Border Studies program is co-hosting the event along with UC Davis Asian American Studies, the AB 540 and Undocumented Student Center and the Manetti Shrem. Robert Irwin, a co-director of the Mellon Initiative in Comparative Border Studies, explained why Lizalde was the perfect complement to Professor Deeb-Soss for discussing similar issues as those that the Mellon Initiative researches.  

“She had been undocumented and is an accomplished artist — someone who UC Davis students can relate to directly because she comes from very same circumstances,” Irwin said.  “She was interested in talking about her experience being undocumented and how that speaks to her artistic creation and kind of the politics behind her art. We thought that sounded like an interesting idea to introduce to the space of the museum, where that could be put in dialogue with the art that’s on exhibit at the museum.”

On why he believes these sort of discussions should take place, Irwin outlined how they play a part in humanizing the reality of being undocumented and informing people on a deeper level.

“It’s really important for people to understand what that experience is like and what it means for people who have lived it,” Irwin said. “Particularly nowadays […] there are a lot of undocumented people around us and a lot of people in California care about them and want to be able to protect them but don’t actually know very much about them — about how they think, about the kinds of things that they experience, what their kind of fears and worries are, what kinds of challenges they face, etc. in any kind of a detailed way.”

For him, how this event will bring to light a firsthand account of living life undocumented is most interesting. This is especially because these types of firsthand accounts aren’t very attainable, as the undocumented population is largely one seeking to remain out of the spotlight for fear of the potential consequences.

“We know something about the undocumented because it’s gotten a lot into the news recently, but it’s mostly been, historically, an invisible population that doesn’t participate in the public sphere,” Irwin said. “So they’re not people that you see on the television, they’re not people who you see becoming prominent in professions or in the arts, and here we have the case of someone who is on track to becoming a prominent artist who has that experience behind her which is not the experience we have […] seen expressed publicly in the arts.”

In an email interview, Liz Santana, a second-year P.h.D student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, commented on why events like Undocumented Art and Activism are vital.

“I personally feel that having these type of events on campus creates an atmosphere in which undocumented students and undocumented allies can feel that […] the university supports and intends to understand issues that affect the day to day of many of our students and their families, specially those who are from a mix-status family,” Santana said.

 

 

Written by: Cecilia Morales — arts@theaggie.org