Undocumentedness, Social Engagement, and Global Arts at UVA


Undocumentedness, Social Engagement, and Global Arts at UVA

Q&A with Professor Federico Cuatlacuatl
Federico Cuatlacuatl headshot
Courtesy of the artist

VA Global caught up with Art Department Professor Federico Cuatlacuatl to talk about his artistic and scholarly practice and his ongoing collaboration with the UnDocu+ Collective, which included a recent event at UVA and in Charlottesville.

You recently co-organized a symposium and exhibition titled “The Aesthetics of Undocumentedness” on the relationship between art and the expression of the spectrum of undocumentedness. Tell us more about this event.

Cuatlacuatl: This was a 2-day event with workshops led by visiting artists at Visible Records, followed by the exhibition opening at the Department of Art Ruffin Gallery and a symposium in the Rotunda Dome Room. We published a book in Spanish and English featuring the eleven artists from the exhibition. These artists come from all over the U.S and around the world. This has been a long-time planned program by Erika Hirugami (curator and co-founder of Undoc+ Collective) and myself. This program recognizes the lack of intentional support and spaces for Undocu+ creative practitioners in this country. We have never seen a group of nationwide Undocu+ artists coming together to organize an exhibition and voice our own real lived experiences through our works. We knew that this was an urgency and the only way to address it was through self-initiatives. We are thinking of providing supportive programming for ourselves but also how this can help younger Undocu+ artist generations see themselves thriving as well.

Zhiwen Xu,  Exhibition Opening, Ruffin Gallery, January 27, 2023
Zhiwen Xu, Exhibition Opening, Ruffin Gallery, January 27, 2023

How does your own research and creative practice relate to this topic?

Cuatlacuatl: My entire life has been coping with and unpacking these real lived experiences of undocumentedness, both personally and collectively. I grew up undocumented and went to undergraduate school as an undocumented student, this is both a personal matter and an artistic endeavor in pointing to what is now a global humanitarian crisis of migration. Over the past few years I have been developing an artistic research and practice that asks questions leading to unearthing historical transparencies and accountability for power systems that forced us to self-displace. Why was my family and my community forced to self-displace to the point that most of my hometown is now living in the U.S? How did Mexico fail to protect vulnerable indigenous communities and how is it continuing to marginalize us for more than 500 years? How is the U.S complicit of imperial and neoliberal practices that force rural communities in Mexico to self-displace? Through a mix of experimental videos and socially engaged projects, my practice is often engaging in transborder indigenous migrant experiences.

You previously held DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Does your personal experience contribute to your work and, if so, how?

Cuatlacuatl: Yes, when I arrived at UVA I was still under DACA. Having lived through this myself has allowed me to amplify from the personal to the collective experiences of thousands of talented DACA recipients. I know how difficult, frustrating, and overwhelming this can be and therefore I invest my work in continuing to address these matters. This exhibition and symposium was an incredible way to extend my efforts in bringing together artists who can also voice their experiences and narratives through their amazing creative works. We were smuggled, we are smuggling, we have defied the borders of this country, we are the living resistance of borders. We are the testimony of forced displacements, we have witnessed the humanitarian crisis of mass migration of our times, we are here to tell our own stories and testimonies.

We are the testimony of forced displacements, we have witnessed the humanitarian crisis of mass migration of our times, we are here to tell our own stories and testimonies.

Social engagement is a key component of your work. How does this feed into your teaching?

Cuatlacuatl: Inevitably, my real lived experiences inform the way I develop my teaching approaches. The same way that I’m thinking of more intentional and ethical ways of working with communities and pressing matters, I encourage students to develop empathetic ways of developing artistic research practices. A couple years ago I redesigned one of my courses to dedicate an entire semester working with Maria Chavalan Sut, an indigenous woman from Guatemala facing deportation at that time and living in sanctuary near UVA campus. Students learned about Guatemala’s violent history towards indigenous communities, they learned about Maria’s personal life experiences, and they learned about the larger immigration issues in this country. At the end of the semester we partnered with a local community cinema, the Lighthouse Studio, to screen an experimental short film that the students worked on together. Currently, I’m teaching a New Media course under a Mellon Race, Place, and Equity grant as a community engaged course. Students will work on short animation films and develop socially engaged animation production processes.

What are your next steps with the “Aesthetics of Undocumentedness” project?

Cuatlacuatl: Erika Hiragmi and I are discussing long term plans as part of our Undocu+ Collective. We launched a national open call for Undocu+ emerging artists and partnered with Visible Records to host a group exhibition of these artists in summer of 2023. This open call also offers a residency opportunity with funding for travel, lodging, studio space, and materials related costs for developing new works. At the same time we are already in conversation with galleries, museums, and other institutions nationwide to plan a traveling iteration of this exhibition, symposium and future publications. We’re publishing a second edition of the first book with trilingual texts (Spanish, English, and German) to be distributed with partners and institutions in Germany later this spring. Our long term goals continue to evolve and are always thinking about how we can support one another as well as providing love and support for incoming generations of creative practitioners.

For more information on the recent “Aesthetics of Undocumentedness” event, see this article from UVA Arts.