For international women’s day, we got to talk with Michelle Angela Ortiz, a Philadelphia-based visual artist/ skilled muralist/ community arts educator who uses her art as a vehicle to represent people and communities whose histories are often lost or co-opted.
Check out the interview below
Tell us about yourself, what’s your story?
I am a child of immigrants
I am the strength of the women that came before me
I am the community- broken, forgotten and ignored
I am the community- beautiful, transformed and illuminated
I am a small woman that creates big things
I am a catalyst for change
I grew up with feelings of being other, of belonging and not belonging. I struggled with issues of class and race. I am a child of immigrants (Colombia and Puerto Rico); I come from a tradition with strong oral histories that were not written down or visually represented, and risk being lost. For these reasons, my work as an artist takes place in communities where history has been lost, stories have not been told, and individuals have felt powerless to create change. Through my artwork, I aim to represent the people who create the spirit of the space that they inhabit, reveal their faces and keep alive their stories through my images.
In the constant daily bombardment of images in the media we seldom see ourselves or have the opportunity to define and declare ‘THIS IS WHO WE ARE’. Being Latina goes beyond the language and cultural traditions; it encompasses the immigrant experience and it’s impact on the family dynamic, it means being aware of the socio-economic inequalities that exist within our communities, it is acknowledging the shifting of our identities in this country and the feeling of belonging nor here or there.
For these reasons, I make art that is deeply rooted in our stories of our community, art that is socially engaged and that contradicts and challenges the economic and social power structures that we live in. There is power in presenting images that are a reflection of who we are and demand that our voices and stories are heard and valued.
When did you start doing public art? How come?
As an artist, knowing about Marcel Duchamp is as important as knowing about my grandmother’s struggles. I believe that the walls in a neighborhood are as important as the walls in a gallery or museum. For these reasons, I have focused my art practice in neighborhoods and public spaces that are outside the gallery/ museum setting.
For over fifteen years as a visual artist, community arts educator, and highly skilled muralist, my creative process continues to be embedded in claiming and transforming space in ways that affirm or challenge people’s experiences in that space; and providing the opportunity to create a dialogue through art around the most profound personal or community issues.
Artists play an important role in communities and movements that advocate for social change.
As an artist working in communities, I am aware that I am still an outsider entering into another world. When I begin a process with the community, I am clear about my intentions and I would never ask a question that I am not willing to answer myself. Possessing artistic skills is not enough… to engage communities it is necessary for the artist to be skilled in facilitating difficult dialogues, identifying themes, translating themes to visual representations, and doing this with integrity and respect with the community.
Although it’s hard to measure, the process, the collaboration has a real impact on the people involved and beyond that, it impacts the people who see themselves in the artwork present in that public space. A single artwork is not going to bring about world peace but it can create a safe space for someone to speak up for the first time, to make a mark about their experience and their lives with no judgment, and to have the opportunity to collectively transform public spaces as a platform to present a visual affirmation that honors and values their stories.
This past year you got to do a big installation at Philadelphia’s City Hall, tell us about what you did and how you decided on that work?
My installation at Philadelphia’s City Hall is part of my “Familias Separadas” project. The project is a series of temporary site-specific public art works that marks locations and document stories of immigrant families affected by deportations. The first set of public art works were installed in the city of Philadelphia in October 2015 and were a culmination of over a year’s work I developed with undocumented families and youth from Juntos. My large installations were also a part of the Mural Arts city-wide Open Source citywide exhibition which included works from fellow artists Shepard Fairey, Swoon, Momo, JR, and others.
The piece entitled “Eres Mi Todo (You Are My Everything)” is an image of Maria placed in the actual center of the city. I painted the image of Maria and her daughter which was then digitally enlarged and installed in a painted compass (The Compass Rose) that marks where north, south, west, and east meet. The compass is a symbol of the act of searching and migrating which connects to the immigrant histories that continue to thrive in our city. Placing the image of Maria on the compass, in front of the William Penn statue, in the center of the city was my way of elevating Maria’s story and demanding attention and creating awareness of the effects of deportation on undocumented families.
“Eres Mi Todo” are the written words from Maria’s husband who is currently incarcerated. Maria’s husband lived in Philadelphia and is in the process of deportation. He attempted to cross the border again to be reunited with his family. He was caught by ICE in Texas and now has 6 months left to his 3 year jail sentence in California. Once his sentence is over, he will be sent back to Mexico. Maria continues to live in Philadelphia and has five children that she is taking care of. She speaks about the difficulty of making the decision to stay or leave to Mexico to be reunited with her husband.
Deportations have separated over two million families in the last four years. Many times women have been forced to choose between their children and the father of their children. In 2013, 94% of all deportations were men, forcing many women to become single mothers and driving immigrant communities deeper into poverty. I believe it empowers others when we realize the courage and strength of women like Maria. Maria’s story is the story of thousands of women that are struggling in keeping their families together and she should be heard.
The other work that really grabbed our attention was outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office, what was that project like?
I listened to an audio interview conducted by Juntos of Ana, an undocumented mother from Guatemala who was detained at the Berks Detention Center. The Berks County Detention Center is a county run prison located twenty minutes outside of Pennsylvania which currently incarcerates immigrant families, with children as young as two weeks old being detained. The center has recently had their license revoked by the state due to a list of abuses against the detained undocumented families. After spending almost a year in Berks Detention Center, Ana and her daughter were deported back to their native country of Guatemala. A judge declared her deportation unjust and ordered that they be brought back to the United States to fight their deportation.
“Somos Seres Humanos, Arriesgando Nuestras Vidas, Para Nuestras Familias Y Nuestro Futuro” are Ana’s words from her interview that deeply resonated with me. Her words were so honest, poetic, and powerful that I decided to place them in front of the Immigrations Customs Enforcement building. I was strategic in choosing the locations of each one of my installations and the ICE building was first on my list of locations when I thought of this Project. I felt that Ana’s words needed to be translated in English to communicate clearly her message to passerbyers but most importantly the ICE agents working inside the building.
The permissions to place the artwork on the street from the City were secured through my continued persistence and the support of Juntos and the Mural Arts Program. I facilitated two art making sessions with the community where we created the 90’ long stencil of Ana’s words.
On Monday, October 12th, 2015 (Columbus Day), over 30 volunteers, undocumented families, community members from Juntos to install Ana’s words ‘WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS, RISKING OUR LIVES, FOR OUR FAMILIES AND OUR FUTURE” in front of the ICE building in Philadelphia. See the video here.
The ICE building is a place that instills so much fear in our communities. It was inspiring to the volunteers in solidarity with the undocumented families who were fearless and working together in placing these words that connect to us all. This action will always be a significant moment in my life.
Do you have plans for what’s next? Where do you want to take the work from here?
My plans are to expand my “Familias Separadas” project to other cities. The project began in Philadelphia and my goal is to continue to highlight the stories of the effects of deportations and detentions specifically in the northeast of the United States. I am currently searching for funding and working with Juntos in identifying organizers and local artists to expand the project.
Right now, I am leading a mural project in Havana, Cuba as part of my artist residency through Meridian International Center. Cuba is one of 9 countries selected for this cultural program supported by Meridian and partially supported by the U.S.Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This is my second project with Meridian (see my work in Honduras in 2015 here.)
I am among the first group of American artists conducting this type of cultural exchange in Cuba. This project is paving the way for future cultural exchanges especially during this delicate time with both the U.S. and Cuba dedicated to rebuilding their ties. I am training local artists and working directly with community members in the development of 4 murals that will be painted in the historical Parque Maceo in Central Havana. The murals are located in a public space that will continue to be activated with exhibitions and events from the nearby cultural center and project partner- Casa Cultural de Artistas Creadores.
There are some ideas I am working on for the upcoming DNC in Philadelphia around the issues of immigration. Whether it is a mural or temporary installations, every project takes me to the next idea and challenge. What is most important to me is continuing to transform spaces and create a platform for our stories to be amplified.
How can people find out more and follow your work
Michelle Angela Ortiz is a visual artist/ skilled muralist/ community arts educator who uses her art as a vehicle to represent people and communities whose histories are often lost or co-opted. Through painting, printmaking, and community arts practices, she creates a safe space for dialogue around some of the most profound issues communities and individuals may face. Her work tells stories using richly crafted and emotive imagery to claim and transform “blighted” spaces into a visual affirmation that reveals the strength and spirit of the community.
For over fifteen years, Ortiz continues to be an active educator in using the arts as a tool for communication to bridge communities. As a highly skilled muralist, Ortiz has designed and created over 50 large-scale public works nationally (PA, NJ, MS, NY) and internationally. Since 2008, Ortiz has led community building and art for social change public art projects both independently and through the United States Embassy as a Cultural Envoy in the Oceania, Europe, and North, Central, and South America.