An Initiative Between Ella Diaz, Professor of English and Latino Studies at Cornell University, and Museo Eduardo Carrillo
Telling to Live: Critical Examinations of Testimonio in the Artwork of Lorraine García-Nakata
The following nine essays were written by an incredible group of undergraduate students at Cornell University, who enrolled in my fall 2013 course, “Telling to Live: Critical Examinations of Testimonio.” A type of writing known in Latin America, and integral to Chicana/o and U.S. Latina/o literary canons, testimonio typically offers an individual’s story as representative of a whole community. I designed the course to engage both literary testimonios and alternative forms appearing in visual and performance art in order to explain, and also test, the boundaries of this essential literary genre. From I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984), a canonical testimonio, to the Latina Feminist Group’s formative anthology, Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001), the course included a section on testimonio as educational praxis, which is an important component of Chicano/a Studies pedagogy. The course culminated in an online exhibition of visual artworks by Chicana artist, Lorraine García-Nakata, launched at the Museo Eduardo Carrillo in late October 2013. “Navigating By Hand: Lorraine García-Nakata,” is a retrospective show for a historical Chicana artist and her work over several decades. Making the case that García-Nakata visualizes her story as a collective experience—one that testifies to the power of everyday life, the students toured the exhibit and then contributed to it through short, online essays, each of which analyzes García-Nakata’s artworks. Most importantly, Lorraine speaks to viewers through her generous and brave offerings of her life, from the innocence of childhood, to the hopes, fears, and desires that come with age and the raising children. In turn, the students in my class speak back to Lorraine in clear and resonant voices that critically examine the content and the form of several of her pieces.
Crossing Gender Lines: “1950’s Self Portrait” (2008)
Eamari Bell, Cornell University
In the piece titled “1950’s Self Portrait,” a 7’ by 4’2” charcoal/conte work on paper, Lorraine García-Nakata paints herself as a young girl in an unconventional outfit—overalls and a shirt with a baseball cap and sneakers. In her left hand, she holds a baseball mitt.
Read more of Crossing Gender Lines: “1950’s Self Portrait” (2008) by Eamari Bell
The major theme of this piece is the innocence of childhood: the girl’s lack of awareness of the importance of appearance in society and how one looks can affect her.
Having the ability to dress as a tomboy at such a young age is rare because most parents enforce gender roles early on in childhood, specifically in choice of clothing. On the surface, Lorraine’s outfit appears to break all gender norms for a young girl, especially during the 1950s. However, femininity is still present in this photo, enforced by society. For example, the shirt she is wearing underneath the overalls isn’t a plain white t-shirt; it’s a blouse with a Peter Pan like collar. As a little girl, I can remember wearing these shirts as a part of my school uniform. The Peter Pan collar was always a distinguishing factor between the girl and boy shirts and reinforces the gender roles this picture appears to contradict. This simple detail of the collared shirt visualizes many little girls’ stories of the “uniform” we are unwillingly born into and forced to grow up in.
In comparison to García-Nakata’s “1960’s Self Portrait,” (also a 7’ by 4’2” charcoal/conte on paper piece,) it blatantly differs in the clothing Lorraine wears. This difference is reflective of the 10-year difference between the pieces and the way she has been molded during that time frame. Within this decade of time, Lorraine has experienced growth both physically and as a product of society. Two distinct transitions that are shown between these two images are seen in clothing and choice of toys. In the “1960s Self Portrait,” Lorraine has transitioned out of her semi-tomboy outfit, into a full dress, representing full acceptance of the gender norms for how a young girl should dress. Additionally, she is now playing with a hula hoop, a toy very specific to girls, instead of the more athletic baseball mitt. This portrait serves as a token to a public pressure that young girls inevitably experience in our society. Taken together, the two works are a coming of age story for young girls, both from the 1950’s and 1960’s, to the present. This coming of age story may begin at different life points for different girls but that pathway has the same guiding buffers leading to one eventual outcome.
Blinded by Youth: “Friends No Matter What” (2008)
Kerry Close, Cornell University
Lorraine García-Nakata’s “Friends No Matter What,” a 7’ x 4’ 2”, charcoal/pastel on paper work, serves as a powerful image of youthful defiance of racial norms in the 1950s. The image portrays a black girl and a Latina girl, the latter of whom represents the artist herself, standing back-to-back, blindfolded, with their hands clasped.
Read more of Blinded by Youth: “Friends No Matter What” (2008) by Kelly Close
The content implies that despite, or perhaps because of, society’s inability to accept both girls due to their race, they have struck up an alliance. The inspiration for the image comes from García-Nakata’s past, when her white best friend’s mother opposed their friendship; yet despite her disapproval, “we found a way to remain friends, ‘no matter what’” (García-Nakata 2013). Indeed, “Friends No Matter What” tells the viewer that, in the pre-Civil Rights Movement context of the piece, “no matter what” can be taken to mean “regardless of racial stereotypes.”
The piece clearly depicts García-Nakata’s personal story, but race relations in the mid-20th century were also a highly public issue. This theme reinforces the mission of testimonio: not only to tell one’s own story, but also that of a people. While the drawing indicates García-Nakata’s personal triumph over racial prejudice, the piece can also be interpreted in a more pessimistic light. The girls’ position –– not facing one another, with blindfolds covering their eyes –– implies that their senses have been disabled; they cannot see the reality of the situation in which they have been placed. Additionally, the girls fill up most of the canvas space, and there is a small empty background behind them. Thus, the girls occupy their own space, devoid of outside influences telling them how to think. The colors in the drawing also have been muted; their faintness illustrates that the world in which the girls inhabit is not one that is wholly connected to reality. Combined, these stylistic details imply that, while as girls, society’s perception of race was unimportant to them; their refusal to acknowledge the prominent role that prejudice played in American society in this time period can be considered naïve.
The piece calls to mind stories from the book Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001), particularly those in the section, “Alchemies of Erasure.” In stories such as “El Beso” by Ruth Behar and “The Prize of a New Cadillac” by Yvette Gisele Flores-Ortiz, the protagonists become involved with someone outside their religious and cultural spheres. Subsequently, they face vehement disapproval from their families or that of the object of her affection. In “The Prize of a New Cadillac” in particular, the narrator initially assumes that the differences between her and her boyfriend will not stand as a roadblock to the success of their relationship. She later writes of the experience, “I was too young to know the complications of loving a Jewish man” (201). Similarly, in “Friends No Matter What,” the composition of the drawing implies that while the girls in the drawing are aware of the obstacles that plagued their relationship, their refusal to allow them to affect their friendship, while admirable, could also result in pain for both of them.
García-Nakata, Lorraine. 2013. “Statement on ‘Friends No Matter What,’ (2008).”
The Latina Feminist Group. 2001. Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios. Durham: Duke UP. Print.
The Bridal Savior: “Facio Nova Omnia I” (2004)
Ashley Elizondo, Cornell University
Lorraine García-Nakata’s pastel on paper artwork, “Facio Nova Omnia I,” spans an amazing 29″ X 30.” In it, she depicts a young, ethereal woman garbed in layers of pale blue fabric, gossamer veil, and long satin gloves.
Read more of The Bridal Savior by Ashley Elizondo
Her arms and hands are outstretched, as if welcoming viewers; in doing so, she is the image of a warm, gentle, and delicate bride.
At first glance, the woman’s beauty distracts from the religious connotations of the artwork. The title itself, “Facio Nova Omnia,” is Latin for “ I make all things new,” and comes from the scripture describing John’s vision of the“ new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelations 21:2, English Standard Version). Covered head-to-toe with only her face showing, the woman symbolizes innocence and purity while perfectly capturing John’s description of the New Jerusalem.
García-Nakata’s chosen pastel medium further accentuates the spirituality and divinity of the woman. In applying a medium that comes from the Earth– grounded pigments and water– García-Nakata illustrates the indigenous spiritual use of herbs and pigments. Her use of pastel further allows her to add a softness and blurriness to the image, denoting an element of divinity. This is further exemplified through her legless depiction of floating in the heavens amongst the clouds. Streaks of light emanate from the woman’s face giving her a soft majestic glow, much like the artistic depictions of Christ. Her posture and facial expression further nod to her Christ-like appearance as her arms extend in welcoming and her countenance is gentle and nonjudgmental. It is as if she is offering, with a simple touch, to embrace the viewer’s pain, suffering, and sins as her own, while once again making all things new for her onlooker.
Her right hand, noticeably longer than her left hand, biblically symbolizes the strength and support of God (“What the Bible says,” 2013). As opposed to a white traditional bridal gown, hers is the color of the sky and sea. Though the color blue is known to symbolize sincerity, faith, understanding, and healing (Bourn, 2011), it also holds significant biblical meaning. It is the color of God’s chosen nation, the color of God’s throne, and the Word of God (Leonard, n.d.).
Once realizing all the religious undertones of the image, viewers are left flabbergasted as they are forced to grapple with a female Christ-like figure. In Aztec mythology it is not a male but a female goddess, Coatlicue “The Mother of Gods,” that is responsible for the creation of the stars, moon, and sun (Wikipedia, n.d.). By having an omnipotent female instead of a male, audience’s reactions will speak volumes about a society’s perception of female value, power, and status. With this art piece, García-Nakata challenges audiences to reflect upon the interplay between Christianity and indigenous spirituality. Whether intentional or not, there is mixture, or even a marriage, between the artist’s short-lived Catholic background and her ancestral indigenous culture evidenced by the representation of a female Christ-like figure in a bridal gown.
Bourn, Jennifer. 2011. Color Meaning: Meaning of the Color Blue. Retrieved November 10, 2011, from http://www.bourncreative.com/meaning-of-the-color-blue
Coatlicue. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 30, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coatlicue
Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. In text (Revelations 21:2, English Standard Version).
Todd Leonard, C.J. (n.d). Biblical Color Meaning in the Bible. Retrieved November 10, 2011, from http://www.raisedpraise.com/id19.html
What the Bible Says. 2013.”The Right Hand of God.” Retrieved November 10, 2011, from http://www.newchurchphoenix.org/resources/files/TheRightHandofGod.pdf
The Gender Identity Trap: “The Alchemist” (2005)
Elizabeth Ferrie, Cornell University
At first glance, “The Alchemist,” a 29’’x 30’’ pastel on paper work, seems to portray an ordinary scene of a woman deeply engrossed in her studies. However, upon further contemplation, the work speaks to the increasingly confining influence of gender roles that comes with age.
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The freedom and innocence of childhood, captured by Lorraine García-Nakata in her works such as “1950’s Self-Portrait,” (2008) is replaced in “The Alchemist” by a feminine passivity. Unlike the portraits of childhood, the woman in “The Alchemist” only gives the viewer her back. By denying the viewer her gaze, or even the slightest glimpse of her face, the woman’s invisibility takes on larger social significance. As a visual testimonio, this piece marks the identity struggles of stepping into womanhood: the washing away of an individual identity not defined by societal constraints, as seen in García-Nakata’s childhood portraits where the girl is dressed like a tomboy, and its replacement—or the normative gender identity enforced by patriarchal culture. As reflected in the work’s title, this is a visual “alchemy of erasure” embodying a universal female experience of coming of age, “when a woman has to be made invisible, it is because she is powerful” (Latina Feminist Group 2011, 167).
Further, the woman’s feminine dress and adornments accentuate the piece’s theme of conformity to a gendered identity. The use of light pastel colors in “The Alchemist” gives the work an ethereal, dreamy feel. Garcia-Nakata’s heightened use of white and blue, colors emblematic of purity, contributes to the work’s gendered social message and encourages viewers’ to question our expectations of her identity. The fact that the woman is facing books with no titles or words on the pages adds a symbolic irony. Books typically represent a window to limitless possibilities and insights; but the lack of text signals unforeseen barriers to this realm of aspirations. This imagery also evokes the traps of patriarchy revealed in Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Your Life As a Girl” in the anthology Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (2011) in which Sittenfeld tries to resist falling into gender role stereotypes, but is pushed back into place by society (5). Sittenfeld writes, “In classes you speak as infrequently as possible and walk around with your head lowered. You play on the soccer team, but if boys ever watch, you make only halfhearted attempts to kick the ball” (5).
The Latina Feminist Group. 2001. Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios. Duke University Press.
Sittenfeld, Curtis. 2011. “Your Life As a Girl.” Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist
Generation. Ed. Barbara Findlen. Emeryville: Seal Press, 3-10.
Not as Clear as Black and White: García-Nakata’s Challenge to Systematic Racialization
Phoebe Houston, Cornell University
Lorraine García-Nakata’s “Friends, No Matter What” (2008), represents her childhood memories of being separated from her friends based on their different racial and ethnic heritages and cultures–an intimate personal experience that she shares with viewers through this work.
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But the drawing also functions as testimonio; the story it tells is not merely the story of a young Lorraine; it is also the story of thousands of other children who were shaped by the social politics of the United States, especially before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. This resonates with the most famous definition of testimonio—that it is an individual story which represents the “reality of a whole people” (Menchú 1984, 1).
The pale blue pastel of the young Lorraine’s dress gives the drawing a “colorized” feel, which further emphasizes the historical backdrop through a period aesthetic: maintaining the aesthetic grants viewers a feeling of distance from the inequalities perpetuated in the not-too-distant past. At 7 feet tall, the sheer scale of this work further emphasizes the monolithic and far-reaching nature of a segregated United States. The girls in the drawing are holding hands while blindfolded, depicting a physical and emotional closeness between the two, despite being placed in a vulnerable position. Lorraine and her friend are literally blindfolded, but are also victims of a society which systematically denies them equal footing. Their blindfolds also represent the innocence of childhood and the intrinsic blindness to their “differences,” further underscoring the fact that racial divides are synthesized entirely by social constructs. When one takes away physical sight or removes the filter of learned generalizations about other races, nothing remains but sameness. The experience of being torn away from a loved one on the grounds of race and ethnicity alone and wanting to be “Friends, No Matter What” is one that is shared by countless people who grew up during the Civil Rights movement and endures in the modern, “post-racial” society as the story of countless victims of enduring discrimination.
Menchú, Rigoberta. 1984. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Trans. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Verso, NY and London, 2009. (2nd Ed).
The Latina Feminist Group. 2001. Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. Print.
Playing at Gender: “1950’s Self-Portrait” (2008)
Gabriela Leon, Cornell University
Lorraine Garcia Nakata’s “1950’s Self-Portrait” (2008) is a piece of massive proportions, towering at 7’ x 4’2.” Charcoal on paper, the artwork shows a playful little girl, wearing loose overalls, comfortable sneakers, glasses, a baseball cap, and a baseball glove.
Read more of Playing at Gender: “1950’s Self-Portrait” (2008) by Gabriela Leon
Her face is expressionless, but not sad, focusing our attention on her hand wearing the glove. It is extended towards us so we understand that she is in motion, reaching for something beyond our line of sight. At the basest level, the baseball glove is an important marker of her experiences as a tomboy; but it is also significant because she is engaged in a game that, in reality, is made up of rules where there are “winners” and “losers.” In this way, baseball parallels the social construction of gender as something that exists only through communal consensus. Reaching for the ball, Lorraine is pushing beyond the femininity expected of little girls, looking to her own individual expression of self-hood. As the audience, we are part of this development; her extended arm almost literally pulls us in and we feel that we are playing with her.
This feeling of community is reiterated in the handprint that Lorraine uses to sign her work. She is offering us her hand, asking that we embrace as neighbors living in the same social reality. The power of a hand is that it is both incredibly individual and distinctly communal. As humans, we all have them, and yet, in the unique pattern of our handprints, two hands are never the same. This mirrors the work’s visual testimonio. In Lorraine’s personal representation of herself, there is a fragment of our own childhood experiences, of those moments when we were first conscious of socially imposed gender roles. As Lorraine shows us through the scale of her work, childhood is monumental. It is a time of innocence when we are suspended in a blank space, like Lorraine in her self-portrait, pure and untainted, until society steps in, trying to beat us into conformity.
Claiming paternity and selfhood: “Big and Little” (1989)
Carmen Martínez, Cornell University
A common theme that runs throughout Lorraine Garcia-Nakata’s work, both visual and poetry, is family. She shares powerful moments with her family while growing up, or those from the lives of her children.
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In her 22” x 30” monoprint, “Big and Little,” García-Nakata depicts a portrait of herself with her daughter, printed twice. The only marked difference between both portraits is that in one of them, her daughter has a cutout of a wig, similar to her mother’s hairstyle, superimposed on her own. Next to each portrait is an envelope, the first of which is empty, and the second has the wig—next to the same portrait with the hair on top of the child’s head. Besides these elements, there is no other background except white space. Both Lorraine and her daughter are facing forward with smiles and holding hands, like a classic family portrait.
The focus is clearly meant to be on the portraits and envelopes, given the white, empty background. The envelopes suggest that the artist is attempting to communicate a message through these portraits—perhaps a message to the viewer. The second envelope with the wig, paired with its proximity to the portrait, supports the notion that this detail has a significance that is meant to be communicated to the viewer. Additionally, the similarity of the wig to Lorraine’s hairstyle suggests that the embellishment’s purpose is to claim her child by adding this characteristic. After recalling some of Lorraine’s personal family history, the overlay of the wig suggests a reaction to society’s perceptions of racial identity because her children are biracial: her daughter is African-American and Chicana, and her son is Japanese American and Chicano. Perhaps, like many other parents of biracial children, Lorraine visually claims her child as her own in response to public perceptions that her child is not hers, due to differences in physical appearance. Thus, in these prints of her family portrait, she defies society’s expectations of what her family looks like and, subsequently, her work is a visual representation of testimonio.
Rejecting Norms: “Our Connection” (1981)
Stephanie Martinez, Cornell University
“Our Connection” is a charcoal on paper artwork by Chicana artist Lorraine García-Nakata. This 20” x 30” image shows a woman holding out the palm of her right hand as she looks to her left.
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García-Nakata strategically uses colors that are contrasting to make the palm of her hand the first thing that one sees in this piece. Hands are used to touch: to provide a sense of intimacy and connection. However, the way in which the woman’s hand is placed on the window demonstrates that there is a separation between the woman and what is on the other side. The hand placement, along with the direction of the woman’s gaze, not only reveals that there is a separation or a disconnect, but also a resistance, presumably towards issues revolving around patriarchy.
García-Nakata uses the woman’s naked body as a way to challenge the ideologies of patriarchy. In the Latino community, specifically, it is not socially acceptable for a woman to be naked and, therefore, García-Nakata pushes these boundaries to empower the woman in the drawing by allowing her to take control of her exposure and vulnerability. In addition to her visual artwork, García-Nakata is an author and in her story, “Water Rising” (2006), she explores her difficult relationship with her father; this story potentially fuels her resistance to patriarchy in “Our Connection.” By exposing the woman’s body, she is exposing all the scars that her life battles have left on her skin. By revealing those scars, García-Nakata lets the audience know that the scars will not hold her back and that she is in control of what happens next. By avoiding the audiences’ gaze, García-Nakata (via this woman in the artwork) demonstrates that she does not accept what is on the other side of the window: societal acceptance of patriarchy. She will not look at it and she is pushing it away. Standing up to patriarchy, García-Nakata gives hope to other women in the same situation by letting them know that it is okay to stand up to societal norms and that we should not be ashamed of the scars that our bodies carry.
García-Nakata, Lorraine. Water Rising 1955. 2006. 1-12. Print.
Driven by Hope: “Diptych: The Red Shoes (right side)” (1990)
Sarah Proo, Cornell University
As humans, we use hope as a means of survival. Hope is limitless—it allows for the birth of visions and fantasies that may not exist as effortlessly in the physical world. Hope is the meaning of the red shoes in Lorraine García-Nakata’s 1990 diptych, “The Red Shoes (right side),” a 7’ x 3’ 9” charcoal/pastel on paper work.
Read more of “Diptych: The Red Shoes (right side)” (1990) by Sarah Proo
In this piece, the viewer experiences a black and white drawing of a blank faced child in a church-like dress, pantyhose, and red Mary Jane shoes. As children, our innocence blinds us from the complex realities of the lives we live. Later in our lives, through reminiscing, we are better able to understand our past.
From the girl’s centered position and focused eyes, the artwork resembles a photograph. Just as photographs are used to document one’s life and significant memories, this artwork symbolizes the rarity of her dress, especially her red shoes. The rarity of her clothing is illuminated by her surroundings: a bare wall and uneven cement pavement that connotes poverty. The image is dark, and she stands amidst two shadows that embody the structural forces of society that attempt to disguise her. Even as the child stands somewhat nervously with her hands behind her back, the allusion to the fantasy of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, by the red shoes, is suggestive of the desire to imagine despite socioeconomic restraints.
Also a writer, Lorraine García-Nakata’s poem, “My Name is Monica,” adds further dimension to the girl, her daughter, by describing Monica as a city child who takes pride in her bilingualism and whose collective mindset motivates her to please her mother and brother. In the voice of Monica, Garcia-Nakata writes, “To help other people. This is what our mother sees. We will speak two languages. We will have happy hearts” (2006). The artwork, like the poem, conveys that the message is one of testimonio because it resonates with other families, who harness an optimism to prevail. While the red shoes may be considered simple, Monica’s true source of wealth is simply her bilingualism and her culture. These pieces, then, serve as a “genealogy of empowerment” (Latina Feminist Group 2001) as Monica exemplifies that to remain strong, we must value ourselves and do so at an early age.
García-Nakata, Lorraine. 2006. “My Name is Monica.” Children Stories for Adults (I Can Eat Fire Writings)”. Unpublished MS.
The Latina Feminist Group. 2001. Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios. Durham: Duke UP. Print.