Bravo/Grande: Zeke Peña

When I talk about exhibits on the Fanciful Lobster, I'm almost always talking about shows I've curated. Today, however, I'm going to break that custom in order to discuss the RMAC's newest exhibit, Bravo/Grande: Zeke Peña. Curated by our former Registrar, Laureta Huit, who has since gone on to an exciting new position at the High Desert Museum in Oregon, this installation is a beautiful and provoking look at the binational, multigenerational communities of the Rio Grande River. Today's post is a synthesis of my own writing and Laureta's original description of the exhibition.

As an artist, Zeke Peña considers himself a historian first and foremost, and takes a multidisciplinary approach to his artistic projects. His works are collaborative in nature, with Peña working directly with members of different communities to produce oral histories, videos, and multilayered paintings. Of particular interest to him are the cultural shifts that occur between generations, as changing norms and policies directly impact our relationship with the world around us.

Zeke Pena in the studio.
In Bravo/Grande, Peña explores the complex relationship between the Rio Grande River and its regional communities through site-responsive art projects. By documenting oral and written stories, as well as incorporating creative community engagement and collaboration, this multidisciplinary project considers generational and binational trends in the access, use, and perception of the river. Through surveys and conversation, Peña explores how young people comprehend the national border, the military wall, and the river as synonymous concepts, and hypothesizes that the community's relationship to the Rio Grande has changed significantly through immigration policies and the militarization of the border. More specifically, access to the river has been limited, and this natural meeting place has become a militarized tool for division and separation.

Waterbound III. All individual images courtesy of Zeke Pena:
Peña then contrasts these contemporary perceptions by documenting stories from multigenerational and transnational members of the El Paso and Juarez communities. He is particularly interested in how the relationship with the river differs from older and younger generations, as well as how the relationship with the river compared between communities living on either side of it. The resulting portrait of the Rio Grande is a multivalent one comprising spiritual, symbolic, pragmatic, and recreational perspectives. Most striking is its transformation from a physical place directly engaging the community, to a symbolic, abstract concept having little direct impact on the lived experiences of the people. Whereas older generations have vivid memories of the river, from learning to swim there to sharing picnics along its shore, for younger people it has become a concept more than a place, the result of militarization, ecological changes, and shifting cultural attitudes.

Waterbound II
Bravo/Grande is a mixed media installation, with bilingual oral interviews, video, and paintings on wood panel. The paintings themselves are portraits of people Peña has interviewed, and incorporate elements of their respective stories and memories. They also explore more universal themes of duality by showing two views of a single face, and often incorporate ancient mythological symbols as well as more recent pop cultural references. Further underscoring their otherworldly quality is Peña's distinct light, which is sunlight reflected from the river itself. Several of the paintings also make use of augmented reality accessible on a tablet, adding another layer of imagery and meaning to the composition.

Waterbound I

Bravo/Grande Series: Christian Pardo Cardenas
I'm grateful to Laureta for reaching out to this compelling artist and bringing his work here for all of us to see and contemplate. Bravo/Grande will be on view until March 5, 2017. If you're in town, I highly encourage you to check out this show. Above all else, Bravo/Grande is about story telling, and the ongoing significance of remembering our past histories as our world continues to evolve and change.