Interview with Jose Torres-Tama

Caliente/Hot is the latest show at the New Orleans Photo Alliance gallery and we were fortunate to have the show juried by internationally acclaimed writer/visual & performance artist Jose Torres-Tama. Interviewed here by Ann Marie Popko, Jose shares some insights about jurying the show and also informs us about his own work.

1. How do you describe your initial reaction to the pool of submissions for NOPA’s Caliente/Hot?

I was on the road performing in Alaska last March when Mark Sindler, President of NOPA, approached me with the idea of being the juror for a show called Caliente/Hot. It was a bit ironic because I was surrounded by a few feet of snow in Anchorage. However, I found the theme intriguing and appropriate for a summer show in New Orleans. When the submissions rolled in, the first files I opened were Dede Lusk’s surreal photos of mannequins in night window displays. They were haunting and seductive. Next, I saw Francisco Aracuate’s sepia-toned horizontal landscapes of collaged urban scenes, and they were well composed and enigmatic. Then, I opened Ana Mejia’s dramatic stills of prisoners and Abdul Aziz’s image of a wounded soldier in the Middle East, and it was evident that the entries were of a high quality, with a diversity of artists responding to the theme.

“El Conflicto Armado/The Armed Conflict” by Ana Mejia

2. You have been involved with visual art for many years…is this the first time you have juried a photography show?

I have lived in New Orleans since 1984, and I have had the privilege of engaging in all manner of art activity on various levels. In ’93 and ‘94, I curated two group exhibitions called Latin Perspectives I & II featuring Latino artists at the Contemporary Arts Center and the now defunct Bienville Gallery respectively. More recently in September of ’07, I organized a show of four New Orleans photographers for a Vanderbilt University exhibit, but this is the first time I have served as a juror. It is an honor because the Photo Alliance has had a number of distinguished jurors for previous exhibits, and NOPA has become an important artist-run organization in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Seduction” by Dede Lusk

3. The title of this show is bilingual and you often incorporate both Spanish and English words into your performance art…is this why you were attracted to this exhibition?

The hip bilingual strategy was Mark Sindler’s concept, and it attracted me instantly because it seems to reflect a bilingual direction that we should be progressing towards. Everyone in the United States would benefit greatly by speaking at least another language, and Spanish was the first European language spoken in the Americas. Conveniently, we forget that the entire Southwest from Texas to California (including Nevada, Arizona, and Utah) was once part of Northern Mexico. These territories only became part of the Union after the Mexican American War, and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo in 1848. Also, Louisiana was under Spanish rule for four decades from 1763 to 1803, and in New Orleans, the vestiges of its Iberian history are evident through streets names like Galvez, Gayoso, and Perdido, which means lost. City Hall is actually located at 1300 Perdido Street, and it is probably the premiere reason why so little is to be expected by the bureaucrats feigning to lead from this address. Also, New Orleans is one of the most uniquely Latin cities in the country, and it should be at the forefront of dismantling all foreign language fears. Ideally, our city should be tri-lingual, English, Spanish and French.

4. When and how did you start your career as a performance artist?

My studies were in the visual arts and creative writing, but as I was developing my artistic vision, it evolved naturally from traditional drawings and paintings to mixed media works, to installations with live art elements, and to my hybrid brand of performance art, which is informed by movement, rituals, film, soundscapes and exaggerated characters. My first solo exhibit in New Orleans took place at the Bienville Gallery in 1991, and it included large mixed media drawings as part of an installation which explored a variety of political themes such as censorship, gun worship, and the media propaganda of the first Gulf War. During this time, I was also actively involved in the underground spoken word and poetry scene here and eventually debuted my first multimedia solo at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1994 as part of The Live Arts Festival. Also, I performed in the first ever DramaRama event that same year, and served on its artistic steering committee from ’95 to ‘96.

José Torres-Tama, Writer/Visual & Performance Artist
Image from “The Cone of Uncertainty: New Orleans after Katrina”
Image: Pamela Thompson

5. As a successful visual artist, do you have any advice for artists who want to get their work into museums?

My mentor Ben Jones, the renowned African American visual artist, would recommend, “Do the work and then let people know about it.” So, you have to be engaged in making work that excites you while developing a personal and eclectic aesthetic vocabulary. Then, you have to learn how to navigate the monster called the art world, which offers even greater challenges than making the work. Also, artists need the support of institutions and collectors. I have been quite fortunate to have a handful of collectors for my drawings, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art has literally pulled my work from the art closet and thrust it into greater prominence with their support over the past seven years. In performance, the National Performance Network catapulted my work onto the national and international stage in 1994, and since, I have been touring my multimedia solos across the country and across the Atlantic. Most importantly, you have to be committed to your vision and obsessed with making the work, a healthy obsession that is.

6. Do you have a motto or mantra that you follow in your creative life?

Make art that matters to you and your community. Make art that speaks about the unspoken. Make art that seduces with craft and content. I hold steadfast to a belief that artists can serve as the conscience of our times, and I aspire to forge a divine marriage between experimental form and political content, which will hopefully serve as an exemplary artistic imprint of a conscious life.

7. If you weren’t a performance artist, what would you be doing?

I would be happy to concentrate on more art making and writing. Since the storm, the one creative act that has kept me sane enough to deal with the lies that have submerged this country for the past eight years has been writing in various forms, essays, poetry, and performance monologues. I have written a number of post-Katrina radio commentaries for NPR’s Latino USA, and they have aired them locally on WWNO. Over the past four years, writing has saved me from deep despair. Recently, I finished a group of short stories called Red Hours Inside Nocturnal New Orleans, which chronicles my life before the storm and the debauchery that is intrinsic to this Babylon by the bayou. If I were not inclined to any artistic expressions, I would probably study languages and travel more with my beautiful little family.

8. What are you currently working on? Any upcoming shows/projects/news?

This spring, I received a Creation Fund award from the National Performance Network for the commissioning of a new solo piece called Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers, which documents the rise in hate crimes against Latinos and the current criminalization of immigrants. I have three commissioning theatre partners, and they are Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington D.C., MECA in Houston, and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. Aliens will debut in the fall of 2010, and I am beginning to work on the script. This October during Art for Art’s Sake, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art will debut the catalog for my exhibit called New Orleans Free People of Color & Their Legacy, which opened at the museum last January. This publication was made possible through a generous grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York, and it documents the pastel portraits of Creoles of color that I have developed for the past seven years.

The show is one of the Ogden’s traveling exhibits, and the plan is to tour it to other Louisiana museums and across the South. It is a visual history project that explores the complex racial mixing that occurred in New Orleans, where a free people of color of African, French, and Spanish descent were born into freedom during the slave era. The portraits shed light on prominent Creoles who were engaged as activists in pre-Civil War times. Nowhere else in the slave South did you a have a free people of African descent who were educated, owned property, and were able to contest racial injustices because of their hybrid identity, and the privilege of freedom when others were enslaved.

9. Was there any advantage to jurying a show about heat during the summer in New Orleans?

The summertime heat in New Orleans is hallucinatory, and many of the works in the show thrive on a magical realist vision akin to the peculiarity of our lives in this recovering mini metropolis. I think it makes for an appropriate time to consider organizing a show about heat, and I look forward to seeing all these caliente images together in one room at the NOPA Gallery.

For more information about Jose’s work, visit www.torrestama.com

Caliente/Hot runs from August 6 through September
New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery
1111 St. Mary Street, NOLA
www.neworleansphotoalliance.org