Artist Chrissie Orr began this storytelling project in Santa Fe three years ago under the auspices of the Academy for the Love of Learning. Many showings—on the backs of buses, in community spaces, at art galleries—later, and reiterated to focus on Albuquerque, El Otro Lado Albuquerque punctuates the esteemed walls of the National Hispanic Cultural Society.
In the exhibition’s introduction, lead artists Orr and Michelle Otero write, “Each participant’s voice is represented; and none is more important than the other.” As such, all the voices have equal visual and theoretical space.
Seventy participants of varying ages, races and backgrounds were given journals in which to elaborate—through text, drawings, etc.—on their “connection to place.” All the narratives are predicated on the same workshopped refrain: “I am from…” but participants’ responses are not structured nor do they solely concern physical place. These explorations result in a varied, introspective and illuminating mix of history and poetry.
The prompt garners everything from the literal (“I am from 1813 Broadway SE to 4154 Julia Lane SW”) to the culturally introspective (“I am from that kind of person who uses a tortilla like a spoon and a fork like a knife”) to the politically charged (“I am from the place of bullshit. I am from the land of greed”) to the sublimely poetic (“I am from a house that built me”). Using headphones, gallerygoers can listen to each respective participant read from his or her journal.
The visual aspect is the least impressive of this thoughtful exhibition. Orr creates glossed-over layered collages from generic blue-sky backgrounds and each participant’s writing and art. The person’s hands are then superimposed on top. The resulting uniformly rectangular images recall Lisa Frank posters or Reading Rainbow pastiches, and cheapen the real and personal documents contained therein. The actual scrawls and scribbles themselves would have made an impressive testament to the power of human communication.
But the exhibition’s subtleties more than make up for its gaudy display.
As if to drive home the complexity of history—as a concept that defies summation, quantification or classification—each participant’s work is only demarcated by his or her name (as well as whoever helped with the visual assemblage/audio). Ages, races, genders and generalizations do not exist. One must look, read and listen to find out about these people and their stories. Upon entering the building, a papered wall lets visitors tell their own stories. Equally egalitarian, everything is written both in English and Spanish.
El Otro Lado crosses many borders. The participants explore multiple meanings of “the other side,” including geopolitical, cultural and even continental divides. The stories span life and loss, old Mexico and new, race and rage, identity and other indefinites for an exhibition that makes great strides toward giving voice to the historically unsung.