“In 1994, at the age of 16, I immigrated to Wisconsin to pursue educational opportunities. I confronted some great obstacles: come to terms with my sexuality, learn to speak English, and to integrate into a new culture. I soon found myself self-exiled for being gay and also avoided by the community with which I shared cultural roots” – Rolando Cruz, photographer/artist from Buenavista, Michoacán, Mexico, now lives in Madison
Tell me about yourself. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? How’d you get to Madison, Wisconsin?
My name is Rolando Cruz. I was born in Buenavista, Michoacán in 1978, and I grew up in a remote mountain village in central Mexico. When I was a kid, I confided in my imagination and dreams to venture around the world. This inspired my deep spiritual beliefs in nature.
I grew up in a traditional Catholic household. I would spend hours exploring the natural world, attempting to merge the God that I saw manifested in water and in the leaves, in the clouds and the sky, with the God that I came to know through biblical study. I learned at a very early age that I was different. I had to learn the purpose of my existence without self-judgement, and to learn what it meant to be once being myself was no longer an option. In 1994, at the age of 16, I immigrated to Wisconsin to pursue educational opportunities. I confronted some great obstacles: come to terms with my sexuality, learn to speak English, and to integrate into a new culture. I soon found myself self-exiled for being gay and also avoided by the community with which I shared cultural roots.
How long have you been doing photography?
Despite all of my obstacles I graduated from Delavan Darien High School in 1997. Two years later I moved to Madison and began teaching myself photography as an outlet for expression, developing my own unique artistic style. But, in reality, everything began when I was a kid, during the afternoon walks I would go on with my mother. In contrast to most people that simply observe the world around them as it is, I saw stories in everything; including the simplicity of a leaf rolling across the street. I took a photography class in high school and soon discovered that an image can be transformed into windows. Many artists use a brush, some use music, some a sewing needle. My medium is a camera.
What themes do you explore?
My area of investigation focuses on the concepts of identity and perception, challenging spectators to explore and confront their emotions and subconscious prejudices. Giving a voice to feelings is my primary theme.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Life, the simple gesture of an ordinary every day occurrence. For example, looking at myself in the morning and seeing my own reflection looking back can be an inspiration. Not because I’m looking at myself, but because I know the full sequence of events that have led up to that moment and the infinite possibilities that derive from this point forward.
What techniques do you use? What’s your style?
I don’t have a technique. To me the art is the idea and how one can convert an idea into something that you can touch or see. That’s the most important. There’s no limits to what I can use. What interests me is the process. I’m not interested in the material and I’m not someone who studies art. Some professors ask me where I studied. I answer them that I never did.
What do you hope to communicate through your art?
As an artist, I like to create work that neutralizes the human experience beyond how one looks at themselves. What is it that makes you Italian? What is it that makes me Mexican? What is it that makes us what we are? The color of our skin? How we talk? Our accent? Or how we feel? At the core of life is my belief that everything is, at its source, a matter of feelings. Beyond flesh or the identities created by social demand, gender, culture or religious beliefs.
In my last exhibition people told me that I was Muslim, or Indian. I asked myself where they got this information without getting to know me. It’s clear that what one sees on TV and reads in newspapers every day is going to have an influence in how you view somebody. The problem lies when one creates someone’s identity based solely on these things. If we think about it on the societal level, that’s our problem. I believe that if you and I look at each other on the street, we’re going to think different things of one another, and then we’re always going to think something else after talking to each other for a while. Maybe something completely different! The problem is that, generally, we don’t have these conversations. We assume that we can know somebody based on what we read about them in the newspaper, or the stories that we hear. Well, as an artist, I want to make people ask themselves this question, “Where does my knowledge come from?” Because we don’t do it, we’re a lazy society, and only people willing to ask this question can change the way we think. And to me, as a human, It’s more important than anything else to raise this question. I think that a learning process can only be created by instilling consciousness in people who then begin to question.
My last exhibition was about the process of being an immigrant until living the American dream. Lot’s of people in this country don’t realize the process that any immigrant has to go through to achieve what they’ve had given to them since birth. What infuriates me the most is when a politician on television makes it seem as if the process is so easy. Like all you have to do is fill out some paperwork and that’s it. No, this takes years and costs thousands and thousands of dollars. People don’t know this and don’t care because they believe what the politicians are saying, just because they’re politicians. The Latinx community should also take better care of people who are fighting to get documents. Latinxs who already have citizenship are no longer affected by this, but it’s important that they place themselves in the place of Latinxs who are still fighting. What’s the responsibility of those, such as myself, who were undocumented before and are no longer? I think that it gives them a voice, as I’m trying to do. Many of us don’t do it, and we’re critical among ourselves. For me it’s a pleasure to represent all of this, and I feel proud to be able to look at life through these eyes. I want people to feel connected to my art, to me, and to humanity in general. To reconnect with themselves as Mexicans, Americans or whatever they please. The marvelous part about art is creating spaces because it allows people to ask questions that they can’t ask in other circumstances.
To me, the most beautiful part about life is observing change, being part of change and dreaming about change. It’s not easy, but changes are not easy. Lots of people don’t like change. I embrace change! Education is so important, whether it’s reading a book, or a newspaper. To pay attention to what’s around means to grow and enrich oneself as a human being. Art is culture and it represents what’s going on right now. We as artists are the scribes of history! Art pushes people to feel uncomfortable, because that’s the only way they’ll grow. A lot of the time what happens in our lives is uncomfortable, but we need to embrace it. That uncomfortable event had to happen so that other things could happen afterwards.
When someone looks at my art they’re looking at me in a very intimate manner, connecting intimately without knowing it. Looking at a work of art means breaking barriers, and testing physical and psychological emotions. It means starting to search for a connection to understand how this artwork is part of the person who’s looking at it. It’s a private connection that doesn’t happen in everyday life, especially in American society. Here there’s all these rules that make people be afraid of everything, especially what’s new. Because of this I want my art to allow people to not be afraid and to feel free to ask.
In what sense is art, and not just your art, connected to contemporary society?
The environment in which we live in, in many ways, is just one aspect of the world inside of us. We know that creativity can transform societies. Art and culture, the personal and the political, are intricately woven together. For that reason, as artists, we play an essential role and possess a great responsibility. Not only for our profession, but also for ourselves and for those we represent.
Your last exhibition was “America:The Borders Within”. How many of these themes personally affect you? What do you think affects a city like Madison? What other type of art did you use besides photography?
“America: The Borders Within” was an especially important exhibition to me. Not only did I interrogate current political themes about identity, human displacement, and perceptions towards ‘undocumented’ people. I also represent my journey as an immigrant in this country through a series of self-portraits, textiles, and sculptures. To begin from the title, “the borders within” aren’t geographic borders, but the borders that society has created that are not seen, just felt. The bar-code that characterizes the inscribed ‘America’ is the symbol of these frontiers that become barriers and identify human beings through a code.
Are you working on any new projects right now? Do you plan on exhibiting “America:The Borders Within” again?
I’m currently working on a new exhibition for the fall. The exhibition that I have in mind is political. It’s political in the sense that it makes you think about the function that men and women serve in society. It begins to cross the line regarding sex. We all do it and nobody wants to talk about it, especially in the United States. Well, a topless chest can be pornography. What’s the line between pornography and art? How does one decide where this line is crossed? To transition is a political question, but it’s all part of the process of life to me.What difference is there between a man that wants to be a woman and gets gender-reassignment surgery or a piece of clay that’s transformed in a sculpture? The form is changed, not the substance. The soul remains the same. What is it that gives you the idea of what is a woman or what is a man? This makes you think, it makes you uncomfortable.
Something that characterizes my art is that the model in the photos is part of the exhibition, and will also be present in the exhibition. I want them to be aware of what the people in attendance are thinking of them; for that reason I always cover half the face of the model. Generally I cover their forehead and eyes, and part of their nose. Only then are the compliments that people give me sincere. There’s also art in this. I’m really excited for what’s to come.
“When I was a child I spoke a foreign language. When I was a child I dreamed with Lands in faraway places and danced with the dreams of the others”
Poema por Rolando Cruz