Juan’s family, Methow Valley, Washington, 2012, from the series, West, 17 x 22 inches, archival pigment print

West, a solo exhibition by Kathya Maria Landeros
17 March - 16 23 April 2017
Opening Reception: 17 March 2017, 6 - 8 pm

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On Kathya M. Landeros’ West

In West, Kathya M. Landeros offers her audience a glimpse into the complex construction of space, race, and the nation. Its provocative title invokes images of a mythical white American West, one framed through ideologies of Manifest Destiny, visions of wild untamed land, and narratives of gunslingers and lawmen. In more current renderings, the west invokes images of beautiful beaches, celebrity culture, and hubs of technology. What is often absent in these geographical snapshots are the everyday lives of people of color who work and live on the land on which the national mythology of the American West resides.

At the center of the photographs are the Central California and Eastern Washington landscapes. Landeros juxtaposes vibrant images of lush greenery with rolling hills of desert scrub, often set against the backdrop of seemingly endless sky. The rows of crops, flowering shrubs, and looming trees stand in stark contrast to the arid and dusty desert. In the midst of this natural landscape, Landeros focuses her lens on the infrastructure that constitutes small towns. We get photographs of uniform homes—modern “little boxes” if you will—commercial buildings, and empty store fronts. Neon light shines from a Laundromat while a working pay phone resists technological extinction. It is in this mosaic setting that Landeros captures the inhabitants that blur the borders between these disparate landscapes.

The photos in West are populated by individuals who live, work, and play in the agrarian fields that help feed the nation. Some are immigrants who have come seeking a better life, while others have long familial histories on the land. These subjects are the heart of agricultural communities and, while their work in the fields needs to be acknowledged, the photographs remind us that these people of color are more than just their labor. They are individuals with hopes and dreams, who toil for the advancement of their families and communities, but who are not defined solely by their occupation.

While the audience may not know the subjects of the photographs, their images conjure a feeling of familiarity. We glean glimpses of childhood: a boy playing with sticks, children riding bikes, a young teenage girl with her pet. We observe a couple, leaning slightly towards each other, looking back at the camera with a hint of a smile on their lips. We witness the everyday practice of standing on a street corner on the way to an unknown destination. Each of the photographs captures mundane actions that makeup the daily lives of this community.

By focusing on the quotidian, the photographs insert Landeros’ subjects into the narrative of the American West and, in the process, challenge the racial and historical construction of America. They tell a story of migration, labor, and community that remains unseen in the predominant white construction of the nation.

One of the most sanguine photos in West is the portrait of the young family posing for Landeros. Framed by the blues and greens of the sky, water, and flora behind them, the camera captures a moment of unity and joy. Through the shy smiles and toothy grin offered by the young children, the protective stance of the patriarch, and the expression of contentment on the face of the matriarch, the photo offers us a recognizable image of family. After all, what is more “American” than family? Through its visual vocabulary, the portrait renders familiar a group of people we have been encouraged to see as “other,” as “alien,” and ultimately as “not American.” It pushes us to recognize the humanity of its subjects—regardless of race or immigration status—and encourages us to identify the commonalities that exist between their family and one’s own.

In our current historical moment, the attack on immigrants has been facilitated by a discourse that dehumanizes and renders them expellable. Their history on the land and contributions to our economy are rendered invisible. Landeros’ photographs remind us that these Latinx and immigrant communities are integral parts of the American West—they are a part of our national geography. West captures the beauty and resilience of the Latinx community and reminds us of the unlimited possibilities of art to illuminate the unseen and resist historical erasures. Like the desert, these small towns and communities are teeming with life. One just has to know where to look.

-Irene Mata

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Kathya Maria Landeros is a photographer and educator whose work explores Mexican American identity and the immigrant experience. She has photographed throughout the American West in established Latino communities and in Mexico as a Fulbright Fellow. Prior to earning a graduate degree in photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she received an undergraduate degree in English literature and Hispanic studies from Vassar College.

Irene Mata is Associate Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Wellesley College, where she teaches courses in Chicanx/Latinx literature and culture. Her research interests include the analysis of gender, labor, immigration, and representation in contemporary cultural productions. Her book, Domestic Disturbances: Reimagining Narratives of Gender, Labor, and Immigration suggests a new way of looking at Chicana/Latina immigrant stories as a specific literary and artistic genealogy that more closely engages with the conditions of immigration occurring in our current historical moment.