Just before he died in July of this year, civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis wrote an essay addressed to the nation. In it, he urged Americans to see democracy not as a fixed state, but as a continual action. Lewis was writing in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, a movement that filled the author “with hope about the next chapter of the great American story.”
The powerful moment also inspired people the We, a collaborative exhibition by Austin artists Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen at Prizer Arts & Letters. One of the works in the multimedia exhibition is a folded, framed, emerald-hued United States flag titled a flag for John Lewis or a green screen placeholder for an America that is yet to be (2020). I spoke with Aguilera and Makonnen via Zoom about what America has been and what, in this pivotal moment, they hope America could be.
Lauren Moya Ford: This is a collaborative project between the two of you, and you’ve been working together for some time. How did you first start collaborating?
Betelhem Makonnen: We were both founding members of ICOSA Collective in 2016. Initially our collaboration was with the other 20 members creating ICOSA as a concept, space, and independently-run gallery in Austin. Adrian and I just kind of gravitated towards each other. The distinction we had in that group of 20 people is that we are both recent immigrants, and both of our approaches towards art making is more conceptual rather than material-based.
We developed our exhibition Yo soy aquí over a nine month period in 2017. It really was like a baby, like a full gestation. Both of us are very intense and research-heavy in our work, so we met every week. And that was the first year that I started grad school at SAIC (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), so we continued our meetings through video and telephone. Yo soy aquí was very successful in terms of its reception and the formalization of the ideas. After that, we realized that the communication was super rich and we still had so many ideas to develop together, and we have continued working together.
LMF: What’s your working dynamic like?
BM: We’re both very different. In a lot of ways we’re like water and oil, but I think that’s what makes it so rich, because we complement each other. Rather than a sameness, it’s more like difference that comes together.
Adrian Aguilera: I call the kind of communication that happens between us osmosis: you put two things in water and then take them out, and they both get the same varnish or information by being in the same place and are suddenly connected. When we bring something up in a conversation about an idea or a project, we’ll say, “Oh, I was just thinking about that!” and “Me too, actually.” We’re already thinking about things in these ways and it’s exactly the same thing, without even sharing it before.
LMF: How did COVID-19 change your working mode?
BM: I helps that my studio is in the Canopy complex, and Adrian’s is right across what we call our Rock Garden, at the MOHA ( the Museum of Human Achievement). There’s lots of outdoor area, and last year, almost forecasting this situation, Adrian built a deck outside his studio in the woods. A lot of the work for people the We, including the initial conversations, happened on the deck outside his studio, in what feels like a forested area even though it’s right here in central Austin. I know that it influenced a lot of the work we created such as the cyanotypes and the materials that we used because we were having these discussions outside, masked, in this time of COVID.
LMF: You’ve both been based in Austin for years, but you’re originally from other countries. It’s been an extremely fraught few years for folks that are not ‘from’ the United States. How have your backgrounds informed this show, which is so much about American identity?
AA: With Yo soy aquí, we worked from the perspective of two immigrants, but more from a universal idea that everyone is an immigrant, everyone comes from outside. The difference with people the We is that we realized that as outsiders, we still need to work it out as well, as in Black people or indigenous people that can still not get to be part of the same idea. So our perspective continues being the multiple perspective, the immigrant perspective, the one that translates all the time, the one that actually creates its own language with another language, that constructs ideas about life in a different place.
BM: What happened to me at the beginning of the pandemic is a shared experience with a lot of recent immigrants. On May 6, my mother died in Ethiopia, and I live here in the West, as do almost all of my siblings; I come from a very large family. There are very strong rituals that are connected with death, and funerals, rites, and responsibilities that we have as children to our mother. But in that lockdown, we couldn’t go. And we had to perform mass for my mother on Zoom with my brothers. I come from a very ancient culture and (in Ethopia) we have very specific things you’re supposed to do several times, in 24 hours after the death, a week after the death, 15 days, a month after. And all of that we couldn’t do. We were stuck here and having to translate those rites within the situation we were in.
LMF: Tell me about the title of the show.
BM: Our previous project Yo soy aquí, has a turn of phrase, too. It’s an errant phrase: it should be estoy aquí, and that was a deliberate play with the language, which we do a lot in our collaborative works. Saying soy aquí instead of estoy aquí says, “I am here, this here is made of me.” This new show, which turns ‘We the people’ to ‘people the We,’ is speaking about the people that are disenfranchised from this ‘we’ that was very specifically white, male, land holder, slave holder. No, you have to people the we. This place was made by those people that are disenfranchised and marginalized and kept out of that idea of ‘we.’ And you can’t have this here without those we’s. We are navigating that universal idea of, “Hey, we’re all immigrants,” we’re all immigrants to this planet. But then we are making it specific to this country, and the history of this country’s denial of the belonging of certain parts of the population.
LMF: The word ‘América’ shows up in two works, and you also have the song “Soy loco por ti, América” by Caetano Veloso playing on loop in the space. Can you tell me more about your cross-national, cross-language perspective?
BM: In those pieces, Adrian deliberately put the América there with the acento to open up that idea that we tend to reduce America to the United States. But for Adrian who is from Mexico and for me, who lived in Brazil for over a decade before moving (to Austin), America means the land from Canada all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. We tend to forget that, being US-centric. So it’s very important in what Adrian is contributing to the show: the idea of the 500 years, taking it out, beginning from the arrival – the chegada – of the colonials. We’re constantly pushing back against what belonging is, against what presence is, and of what identity is, including the reimagination of the flag.
LMF: That was my next question: U.S.-style flags appear throughout the installation. What brought you to this symbol?
BM: We touched upon the flag theme in Yo soy aquí, and then again with Tempo, an outdoor sculpture made with the city of Austin’s Art in Public Places Program in which we reimagined the US flag using mirrors. How do you break open this forceful symbol of an ‘us’ that is, from its root, limited? We made the flag pieces thinking about John Lewis. But he’s also a placeholder. You can insert many names there for everyone who has fought to make this country realize that America is not realized as a concept until it acknowledges all the people that have put their energy and their life into making it. It is not the America that is imagined by the individuals that are portrayed on the backside of the two dollar bill that were present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
LMF: Your exhibition is accompanied by a publication, also called people the We, which brings together ten writers and poets, nine of whom are based in Texas. How did this part of the project come about?
AA: With our collaborations, we want to have a document that can work as a double force within the show but also creates its own separate thing with its own voice. As a graphic designer with many years of experience, there is also an interest of mine to put (publications) like this into our practice. (It) allows other people to be part of our project.
BM: We always had an idea that we would have some kind of publication. (During) the lockdown we were also having conversations with other artists. And so we both said, Let’s create an invitation for artists, writers, and poets in the community, and let’s try to do it mostly with people we’ve never worked with before so we can hear other voices. The reply was immediate and enthusiastic, and we were so grateful for that.
LMF: people the We is not the only publication in the exhibition. There’s also black Earth (first portrait), which is a black and white flip book showing the Earth turning in space. What was the impetus behind this very different publication?
BM: Conversation is the foundation of how we make work individually and collaboratively. We’re collaborating with the materials. We’re collaborating with history, we’re in conversation with nature. We were thinking about the first view of our planet – I believe it was by Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt – the photograph that he took really radicalized people’s relationship to the world. But when (Schmitt) first took the snapshot, Africa was what was in front of him. Later, ‘Blue Earth’ became the image that we all associate — the color image of seeing the Earth in the distance and the atmosphere. In our research we found out that ‘Blue Earth’ was actually not a photograph, it was a composite of many images made by NASA. And the face of Earth was changed to the Americas, and Africa was removed. For us conceptually, that was very significant in how we engage with history in our practice — that a new center and identity for the Earth was imposed. We decided we would make a book featuring that first image where Africa is shown, and making it spin around, kind of like an analog video. Making that return come back to Africa (after) being rooted in the West. It’s coming back to what we believe is the foundation (of human origin). That’s what it means to people the We: not skipping over to some other beginning.
AA: Conceptually speaking, it’s also the idea of how do you present the first portrait of something that exists but you can’t see? It’s the first portrait, this representation of the Earth where everyone comes from, and that comes from Africa, from Black people. And how media does this with anything, as in erasing or creating or covering it with something else. It’s a common practice in hegemonic powers, and because of that, it’s like, how do we acknowledge something that’s in continuous movement? How do we go back and portray that in a poetic way? Creating books, creating something that continues to have movement in a totally different way, is also very important to go from digital to analog. We are working with InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator and tools of the media industry but appropriating those techniques, tools, and software to create something that goes far beyond just regular books that can sit in a bookshelf.
LMF: As you enter the gallery, an audio piece plays the sound of the waves crashing, and you also have the cyanotype flags made with sticks and stones. Can you tell me more about the role of Nature in your work?
BM: Nature allows you to remove yourself from reason. About the stars and stripes: we were sitting outside with sticks and stones, trees, leaves, rocks, and sunlight all around us. We were talking about creating new flags, and the idea came to us: a new flag using sticks and stones and sunlight. Sticks and stones are fundamental building material, but they’re also what you pick up when you’re trying to protect yourself in protest. We used sunlight for the smaller cyanotypes, and then we thought, Let’s make the bigger flags. And how about creating our own sunlight? So we used UV light in the studio.
Nature appears in both videos. There’s decades and still (love is an action) (2015) I filmed in Govalle Park, walking in nature. And in Adrian’s untitled (soy loco por ti, américa) (2020) he’s dancing in the woods. It really has to do with refusing to be sequestered to a defined space and connecting to deeper time that nature allows.
LMF: What else would you like readers to know about people the We?
BM: John Lewis’s essay to the nation really played a big role in the process of making this show. What does a watershed election mean? Are we now going to decide what kind of future we are participating in? That is what John Lewis says. He says democracy is not a thing: it’s something that you do. It’s an action.
AA: I always have the concept of the eternal return in my head. It’s a cyclical thing that goes and goes, and returns to the same point. There are different icons and symbols that represent it, and one of them is of a snake eating itself. And in our conversations, I realized that the moment in which the snake is eating his tail is the glitch — it’s the moment when you realize that it’s up to you to change and not repeat the same pattern. (That moment) is now, it’s happening, in that bump in the cycle.
BM: We need a difference or else it’s just the same old shit over and over again. We keep hearing about this pandemic exhaustion. The normal wasn’t good; normal was a problem. Normal wasn’t working. That is not what the uprisings were about. (The hope I have is) that some kind of change happens, and we commit to a future that is a future for everyone in this country.
LMF: Let’s see what happens.
BM: Exactly. No matter what, we will continue, we will be here, we will be alright. But it’s an opportunity to commit to the ideals that we believe in: the possibility to move in the direction of fulfilling the potential, the amazing project that this country is.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen’s exhibition “people the We” is on view at Prizer Arts & Letters through Jan. 3, 2021. prizerartsandletters.org