UMass printmaking professor uses her art and teaching to showcase her journey as an Afro-Cuban migrant growing up in America

By Isha Mahajan

Juana Valdes, printmaking professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, acknowledges that students and faculty of color deserve a platform and a community that makes them comfortable and creates a space where students can get together to share ideas and beliefs.

“Often times, there is not enough importance put to these situations and these issues are not addressed as quickly as they need to be addressed,” Valdes said.

Valdes recalls gravitating towards making art as a junior in high school, when she was put in various creative classes. She now sees it as an opportunity to express her perception of the world.

“As a woman, as a woman of color and as an immigrant, I feel that I’m at an intersection of a lot of discriminations and push-backs of my ideas and beliefs, so I have decided to use my work as a vehicle to communicate what it’s likes to be in my position.”

“Single Drawn Line / Drummer” (2014) by Juana Valdes

As an Afro-Cuban artist, Valdes believes that artists of color often deal with the issue of visibility.

“Invisibility which is a combination of recognition as to where you can present your work and how easy it is to present your work. And all of this ties to the financial support you get.”

Valdes suggests that these issues are getting better in the art world with the progression of time; however, it is still very difficult for artists of color to arrive at a high level of recognition.

Coming from an immigrant community makes it even harder because one’s resources are often displaced in the process of relocation. Artists are often starting anew and they don’t have the resources to support their art.

“The fact that their own community does not have the means to promote their artwork pushes them to step out into the general world, which in turn makes them compete in a larger group to gain recognition.”

Throughout her work, Valdes “examines the post-colonial history of the Americas and the current representation of Latinos, Caribbean citizens, Blacks or what the current “Other” is in vogue in mainstream America,” which she explores with various mediums such as ceramics, sculptures and installation pieces.

In her work, “Color China Rags”, Valdes addresses pigmentocracy, the social hierarchy, and discrimination of people based on the lightness or the darkness of their skin color, and its impact on people’s access to resources in areas like health and education.

“Redbone – Color China Rags” (2017) by Juana Valdes

Some of Valdes’s other work focuses on the idea of migration. She believes “migration is a component of human nature – to seek out better possibilities and places to live.” Through her art, Valdes aims to bring out further recognition of these topics into the world.

When asked for advice to the UMass community, she encourages students to pursue their passion.

“Develop gritbecause the most important thing is not how talented you are or cease to be, but your ability to stay determined, to keep trying and to make room for failures.”

Valdes recalls from her time in college of a philosophy professor, who was a woman of color, that left a profound impact on her life.

“For me as a young woman at that time, it was very impressive to see this older woman as a philosopher, which is such an unusual field, having the ability to communicate her presence in class as a figure of authority. This was very encouraging to me knowing that I could also be like this.”

She feels that this left an impact on her in a way which made her confident to believe that she could be like her professor as well.

“It makes you more eager to learn when you see yourself represented.”

“In No Abstract Terms” (2012) by Juana Valdes

Valdes believes that being part of a predominantly white institution has its challenges.

“The greatest challenge is being able to express your difference, to make people understand that they should not feel threatened by that. It doesn’t need to be repressed into one homogenized ideal,” Valdes said.

“I think with diversity and difference of opinion, there are places to grow. It needs to be at a place where people need to be comfortable with it.”

 

Juana Valdes completed her M.F.A. in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in 1993 and her B.F.A. in Sculpture at Parsons School of Design in 1991. She was born in Cabañas, Pinar Del Rio, Cuba, and immigrated to the United States in 1971. She currently teaches as an Assistant Professor of Printmaking in the Art Department, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Valdes’s work can be found on her website: http://www.juanamvaldes.com/blog/

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