Amber Robles-Gordon’s Anti-Colonial Quilts and Personal Stories at the American University Museum at the Katzen Center


Amber Robles-Gordon’s Anti-Colonial Quilts and Personal Stories at the American University Museum at the Katzen Center

An artist’s visit to his mother’s birthplace in Puerto Rico awakens him to the complexities of immigration and family – and the questionable socio-political actions and inactions of the US government in its remote territories. Our reviewer Andrea Kirsh is moved by Amber Robles-Gordon’s powerful collage works and double-sided quilts. The show ended on December 12.

“Y mi bandera vuela mas alto que la tuya”, 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas, 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Amber Robles-GordonGrade one classmates in Arlington, Virginia bullied her because she spoke Spanish, so she learned to talk to her mother in English. It was not until middle age that the artist finally visited her mother’s birthplace in Puerto Rico. Successions: Crossing American Colonialism, his personal exhibition at American University Museum at the Katzen Center (August 28 – December 12, 2021) in Washington, DC was the product of that initial trip and his return for a six-week residency on the island in 2020.

The exhibition presented two bodies of work. The first, “Place of Breath and Birth” is a series of ten vibrant collages on canvas, all 18 x 24 inches; two, represented by large scale pigment prints. The collages are constructed from masses of tiny images cut out of paper; even the bands of color that form their backgrounds are assembled from tiny colored fragments. And there’s a very personal rhythm – like a distinctive brushstroke – to the way Robles-Gordon arranges the fragments.

Another Robles-Gordon personal language appearing in the fragments is inspired by multiple cultural traditions and non-Western images from magazines and photographs. These fragments are used as elements of structuring and framing, incorporating the artist’s drawings of detailed and decorative geometric patterns, spiky. A small piece of jewelry or the occasional charm adds surface texture, as does the profusion of tiny sparkling pearls that outline the central circular shapes of each collage. The pearls and vivid colors capture the intense light of the Caribbean sun and give the series a festival quality.

Robles-Gordon draws her images from photographs she has taken in Puerto Rico or found elsewhere that evoke her lush and intensely polychrome surroundings – both natural and human. During her time on the island, she was fascinated by rubber trees and palm trees, coconuts and mangoes, street murals and public art. The titles of the individual collages suggest the range of subjects that were aroused by his visits: “Observation of influencers: Taino culture and heritage, climate and machismo”, “For berries and bioluminescent turtles”.

His long-standing interest in New World spirituality and syncretic religious practices inspires aspects of the collage format, which the artist compares to personal altars. The imagery of fruit and flower offerings, flickering candles and the crystalline shapes of his drawing run through the series and reinforce their spiritual associations. She includes photos of herself – both earlier and contemporary images – in several collages, and there’s no doubt that the series itself is a journal of self-discovery.

Abstract collage artwork with a Venn diagram in the center, which features a dark-skinned woman with dark curly hair posing in front of a painting of Jesus Christ in one circle and the same portrait of Jesus Christ in the other, but in this version, the face of Jesus is covered with a star;  around the Venn diagram are colored bands containing religious images.
“Reflexiones sobre el yo, la virgen maría y el colonialismo”, 2020. Mixed media, collage on canvas, 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Sharp Anti-Colonial Criticism Quilts

While the collages capture Robles-Gordon’s connection to his ancestral culture in the form of personal spiritual reflection, the second part of the exhibit responded to his developing political understanding of Puerto Rico’s position as American territory. The works are a public forum in which to teach, encourage discussion, heal, and begin to build a congregation of territorial residents. Six large double-sided appliqué quilts hung throughout the high-ceilinged gallery. The installation, which gave its name to the exhibition, was titled “Successions; Crossing American Colonialism. The quilts include dense references to stories that have yet to be recognized and the dark undersides of American power. Their format interweaves conventional emblems of history and patriotism with the domestic craftsmanship of quilting, the male pursuit of territory and power with a female tradition of healing.

On one side of each quilt, Robles-Gordon addresses political history, with references to each of the flags or seals of American territory, as well as the exploitation of its indigenous peoples for the purposes of medical experimentation, support military and economic interests; on the other side, it is building an altar dedicated to healing the damage from historical exploitation and the racism that underlies it. Both sides have central medallions; these are greatly enlarged versions of the circles in the collages and refer to the circle as a fundamental religious image and form of celebration – the healing circles and ceremonial dances. The healing altars are constructed with the same spiky geometric pattern that Robles-Gordon used in the collages, and all have hieratic and symmetrical designs. Here, they suggest abstract figures of deities, and their motif refers to a variety of Afro-Diasporic and non-Western decorative stories seen in painting, textiles, and ceramics. Although painted, they appear to be chalk drawings on a black background, suggesting religious images in various cultures that purport to be temporary.

The timing of Robles-Gordon’s residence in Puerto Rico reinforced his understanding of the disparity between US government support for the island after the extensive damage from Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, and the level of emergency relief in the event. disaster that Americans expect on the continent. This understanding, in turn, led to his interest in the American territories as a group; US-dominated areas with the highest percentage of poverty, where the government has exploited resources and established strategic military bases, regardless of the locals – all people of color, who are largely, only nominally , US citizens. Rather, the territories function like American colonies.

Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands are unknown to many in the Americas. Few Americans know their residents are US citizens with the right to vote, although they are not fully represented in Congress. Robles-Gordon included Washington, DC, his current home, among the territories because its residents also fall under US jurisdiction but do not have a fully empowered congressional representative.

Robles-Gordon used the bullying of her childhood to encourage understanding of her own cultural traditions, and it is characteristic of her long career as a teacher and art producer that she did not react to the story of territorial exploitation with rage, but with honesty. , offering understanding, teaching, and healing as the foundation on which to advocate for social justice in outlying parts of the United States and in powerless communities internationally. The sense of spirituality and the orientation towards a better future permeates his work as much as his personally developed language of forms and patterns, the use of recycled materials, the passionate polychromy and the fusion of visual traditions.

Amber Robles-Gordon, “Successions: Crossing American Colonialism»Is now closed. It was visible at American University Museum at the Katzen Center in Washington, DC, from August 28 to December 12, 2021.

Collage of abstract works of art that use symmetry and intricate line drawings, giving the impression of a plan, but energetic and full of life and plant images.
“The eternal altar for abandoned women and abandoned souls. However, the choice must always remain his / El altar eterno de las mujeres abandonadas y las almas renunciadas. Sin embargo, the elección siempre debe ser de ella. », 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas, 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.


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