Migrant Blueprints: Carmen Argote and the Perpetual Construction of Home | KCET
Migrant Blueprints: Carmen Argote and the Perpetual Construction of Home
The home and the imagination are at the heart of the Mexican migratory experience. Both leaving Mexico and arriving to the United States require the meticulous reconstruction of homes and the use of the imagination. As families or young males leave their pueblos or cities in Mexico, their families must adapt, sometimes filling the roles and functions of absent fathers, sons, or daughters. Migrants, on the other hand, must build new homes, planting familiar herbs in the backyard, hanging photos of family members on their walls, setting up altars to their saints of choice, while simultaneously trying to remain part of the home they left behind. As they straddle the past and the present, they envision their future homes, either in Mexico or the United States.
Carmen Argote, an L.A.-based artist, explores how her own migrant family imagined and constructed home on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Using painting, drawing, textile-work, photography and performance, she investigated her family's home in Guadalajara, earlier this year, during a three-month residency made possible in part by the California Community Foundation's Fellowship for Visual Artists. In her project "My Father's Side of Home," she focuses on a specific aspect of the migrant experience: imagination in the construction of home. Her nuanced approach to the migrant experience, a topic often explored by Latino artists, also deals with the complications of identity amid constant transnational exchange. Argote is also part of an extensive tradition of California artists fascinated by natural and built environments, making work for the gallery and beyond. Recently she was selected to design original work for the 17th Street/Santa Monica College Expo Line. With an eye trained on the shape of public and private spaces, this project, as in much of her work, investigates memory of places such as the forgotten landscapes of L.A. and her own family's apartment.
Argote's strong awareness of spatial arrangements was also influenced by her father, a trained architect. Contrary to assumptions that migrants are uneducated laborers, her father had at his disposal a degree in architecture with which he carefully plotted their future home. Although he had not been able to practice architecture before moving from Mexico with his children and wife, in their Pico-Union apartment he drafted architectural drawings, including blueprints of the home he promised his family.
A key part of her father's plan of returning to Mexico included his family's mansion, Mansion Magnolia. Once he moved back to Guadalajara, he planned on making his livelihood by administering La Mansion as the family business, which is currently used as an events hall for wedding receptions and quinceañeras. For many years, he told her countless stories about La Mansion and las tías -- her great aunts and the mansion's last residents -- shaping their presence in Argote's mind with each anecdote.
So, in February of this year, with her father's architectural drawing in hand, Argote traveled from L.A., to Guadalajara and took a three-month residency, not in the contemporary house that he designed, but in the turn-of-the-century, post-colonial, Mansion Magnolia located in Guadalajara's historic center.
"It is this need to know these other sites in Mexico that has led me to take residence here in order to inhabit Mansion Magnolia in a very real and very tactile way," says Argote.
"It just looks big," says Carmen as she walks through the main hall, "but actually it's quite cozy." The tall, carved stone pillars that hold up the high echoing ceilings might not have evoked the word "cozy." Only someone that has come in close contact with the mansion for months would describe it as such. As she crosses the checkerboard-tiled floors spread beneath the chandeliers, she points out which parts of the tiling are original and which are new, and it becomes obvious that Argote has developed a very personal relationship with the house.
In the mind of some migrants, reality flickers back and forth between the U.S. and the homeland. Pico-Union and Guadalajara merge into a hybridized notion of urbanity. West Covina and Zapopan melt into an idyllic suburban haven. Argote's father's side of home simultaneously lies on both sides of the border and on neither.
If you look at his architectural drawings, the family's house could be a residence in West Covina. Its perfect, round sun hangs in the nearly colorless sky on one of those particularly suffocating, hot days. In the backdrop, the mountains look like a hasty representation of the San Gabriel Mountains. Their ghostly silhouette can hardly be discerned behind the atmospheric layer that drapes the valley. But it is not. It's supposed to be Zapopan, an entirely different suburb to a similarly sprawling city. The two-story house has a tall sloping red roof to protect it from that persistent sun while also inviting the white light through multiple large windows. All of its architecture is outlined boldly in crisp black lines.
However, his vision is interjected by other entities. In the margin of the drawing appears a single white-barked tree. It perhaps observes how the architect's dream builds up and then breaks down. The chimney begins to dream of puffing out smoke in hardly-visible wisps. The people, nearly transparent, drift like ghosts over the sidewalk. They don't quite fit.
"I held on to these drawings because they were a visual representation of the abstract spaces that he longed for," states Argote. She used her father's architectural drawings as a starting point to explore the memory of the house they wanted to build and Mansion Magnolia in contrast to the actual sites in a series of "architectural mantas." Carmen draped these mantas, large pieces of thin cotton fabric, over the walls of her bedroom (nearly all rooms are used as offices during most of the year) and outlined the furnishings to map out the room's space and objects. She then color-washed the fabric in hues similar to those used in her father's drawings. However, unexpectedly, the coloring process altered the fabric in such a way that the outlined color blocks -- meant to correspond with lamps, wall-hangings -- were shifted out of place. These wall hangings place fantasies and realities into direct contact, observing the points where they align and where they shift away.
According to Argote, the mantas, like her father's drawings, are meant to be carried, like maps, across distances. "The intention was always to eventually separate the wall hangings from the room, allowing me to take a visual representation of Magnolia with me to Los Angeles."
Every mansion must have its hauntings. And Argote as a ghost is very direct, seeking contact with her great aunts, las tías. She invites them out to play and sometimes she dares them. She chats with their portraits, observes their paintings. Sometimes she strolls through the halls and rooms, lays her body out on the tile in the nude.
In her photographic group entitled "Las Tías," she not only measures surfaces against each other, as she does with the furniture and mantas, but brings them into such intimate contact that they merge into each other. These photographs consist mainly of slow-exposure nudes in which Argote's blurred, translucent body moves through various rooms and patios of the house, like the traces of a ghost caught on digital film.
She interacts so closely with the Mansion's architectural textures that she seems to fuse with the house itself. "I was thinking about touching surfaces and using my own body in a painterly gesture to merge past and present. The blurred nudes express the process of layering histories of women," she explains.
Through these contacts and by moving through the house, she came to understand how much La Mansion was a place for women. While the high, thick, stone walls protect its residents from the presumable dangers of the city streets, it also isolates them from movements and changes of the world outside. "The architecture makes you feel safe, but also afraid of the city," observes Argote. Essentially, La Mansion's architecture allows time to freeze within its walls.
Las tías were as much a fixture of Argote's transnational imagination as the buildings her family imagined and remembered. Their presence was similarly constructed in a decades-long series of stories. Las tías knitted, painted religious scenes and prayed as devotedly, as could be expected by a pair of widowed sisters. They lived with, and cared for, their father in La Mansion until his death, where they both continued living, inseparable, until the late 1970s. In their prime, they traveled to Europe and stayed in trend with the latest fashions. One of their favorite songs was "El Vals de Alejandra" (the Alejandra Waltz), which was popular in their youth. The song was written in 1907 by composer Enrique Mora at the request of a lovestruck teenager for the beautiful young Alejandra. The girl loved the song (but sadly not the gallant boy), and it quickly became a great hit across the country, and continues to be a popular Mexican waltz.
When one walks through the halls of Mansion Magnolia, one can almost still hear the waltz playing on the old piano that once belonged to las tías and where they taught Argote to play it as a child. Argote walks the halls, the patios, meanders through every room, observes every detail in the walls and the furniture. She gazes into the portraits of las tías to meet their intense gaze, which people of other times almost always seem to have possessed.
At 8 a.m., "El Vals de Alejandra" plays on the piano, rousing a group of artists from their sleep. Only half awake, it would not be difficult to believe that it was the ghost of las tías playing their favorite waltz and not a professional pianist hired by Argote. After all, just the previous night, she'd performed the kind of art ritual that might have invoked their spirits. Dressed in 1930s fashion, Carmen performed a ceremonial cake-cutting of a replica of a white lacey bed. Above her solemn party, a large painting of The Last Supper by one of las tías, framed the scene.
In a 24 hour event called Insula, Argote broke Mansion Magnolia's isolation from the city by inviting local artists, curators and critics to partake in her performances and installations in La Mansion. Together, they perforated the frozen time by using las tías' furniture, table cloths and other housewares to install their own overnight residency structures. In other words, they built fort-like structures for an art-party sleepover. "[By] being isolated together within the space, as a group...we could collaboratively experience the influence of the architecture on our creative process."
Moreover, Insula continued to investigate the tension between La Mansion's private and public identities as both a former residence of las tías (and a three-month residence for Argote), and a current events hall rented on weekends for semi-public parties. In her "Events" series of photographs, Argote presses further into this tension by becoming not only a good party-thrower, but also a discreet party-crasher. At quinceañeras and wedding receptions, she becomes the quiet little entity that no one invited. Yet, there she is in the photos, caught mid-cumbia on digital film again like a fun-loving ghost.
These photos explore La Mansion's blurring between residential and commercial space. What was once a private residence that housed and protected high-class ladies, is now a public space that can be rented for weddings and quinceañeras. Boundaries between private and public space that were once so strongly marked, have dissolved into a blur. Argote's residence in La Mansion highlights this blur in between.
"This relationship between public and private and between the adaptation of the residential into the commercial and back into the residential has become an expression of my parents and of my own immigrant experience as we have adapted and changed to live our lives with multiple cultural influences housed within one another. This connection between Mansion Magnolia and its transformations and between my family and our adaptations has become an area of interest in my investigations in relationship to identity," states Argote.
For many migrants and their children, adapting identities is at the heart of their experience in the U.S. Among construction workers, truck drivers, table servers, cooks, nannies, housekeepers, janitors, one will find men and women that were once in their country of origin: teachers, doctors, scholars, engineers, and in Argote's father's case, architects. And like most hard-pressed families, La Magnolia has had to withstand adjustments, transformations despite of, and because of, its architecture. Moreover, it has come to represent a promise of reclamation of a former glory. The old drawings, blueprints, songs still exist, speaking of this past and promised future, as if it were a home and an actual place within reach. But Argote's mantas and photographs are new kinds of maps that reach for a place that shifts and blurs. They are blueprints for a home in perpetual construction.