Fabiola Valenzuela won Best of Show in Gallery 76102’s juried 897 Square exhibition, and cake is her response to the gallery’s offer of a solo show. Her earlier winning entry was a 2015 tableau installation titled Things We Learned from My Mom, and her new body of work for the current show continues the exploration of her familial ties from her perspective as a first-generation American born to Mexican immigrant parents. In her exhibition statement, she states: “As generations pass within families, our history as a nation and cultures are forgotten. We lack empathy for those that have paved the path, and for those just beginning to make one, for their own families. Within this body of work, I reflect on my own family history in an effort to better understand myself and our history as a nation.” Valenzuela incorporates her signature media in this installation, utilizing old photos, fabric, embroidery and video.
Valenzuela references her parents’ experiences going through the naturalization process, learning English, studying for and taking the civics test and eventually becoming American citizens. “What really inspired the installation was what happens prior to the test/ceremony and what happens after it is all over,” she writes. The core idea for the installation cake—the presentation and consumption of actual cake at the opening and closing receptions—was initially inspired by family photographs of her father cutting into an American flag cake at a congratulations party thrown by his coworkers when he became a citizen. She remembers as a child playing with the tiny flag her dad was given during his citizenship ceremony, and at the time, thought his coworkers’ party with the flag cake was a nice gesture. “But now as an adult, I feel that is absurd. Why is that my father had to take this test and have to prove himself that day and continue to have to prove himself even after the test? The cake was this sweet fantasy society feeds us. The American Dream fantasy. The hardships don’t end once you have that certificate.”
Valenzuela learned about her mother’s citizenship experience from a folder of papers she had kept that contained study questions and answers, practice tests, her citizenship certificate and a congratulatory letter from President Bill Clinton. “I was in shock of his definition of what it meant to be an American. His word usage, this odd sense of pride that comes with it bothered me.” From this information and other internet research, Valenzuela formulated the idea of using edible image transfers on the cakes that attendees would consume that display new citizen welcome letters from presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, along with the INS questions and answers on the citizenship application. At the exhibition opening, her father cut the first piece, then other attendees cut their selection of text from one of the five cakes.
Valenzuela: “I wanted the viewer to literally take in what is being fed to us as a country. The action of having your piece of cake and reading that each president has a different definition of what it means to be an American is what I wanted the viewer to reflect on. What happens when the cake is gone? What happens when the party is over?” The artist further undercuts the notion of party festivities and her rejection of patriotic colors with her inclusion of a video titled no es fiesta which translates to it’s not a party. In the video, the artist, off-camera, fights against red, white and blue balloons and party streamers, vigorously batting and tossing them in the air.
Valenzuela incorporates needlework in several artworks. Bandera I and Bandera II are sewn fabric “flags” pieced together from scraps of the uniforms worn by her father and mother during the many years they worked, respectively, as a car mechanic and school custodian. “The colors, the worn-out patches of fabric and thread hanging out express my parents’ hard work for our family and country.”
Embroidery is key to framing the messages in the show. “Embroidery is almost like painting to me. I am familiar with the texture and how to manipulate it in different ways. It is also therapeutic for me to do… I really enjoy the hands-on approach to materials like fabric, thread, and yarn.” Embroidery is used to reproduce questions on paper party napkins from the citizenship application, some of which Valenzuela thought were intimidating. Part of Valenzuela’s exhibition statement is embroidered on the serving table’s red tablecloth: “My parents worked hard to give my siblings and me the best experience here. We all speak English, have an education, and live comfortable lives. It has become easy to settle into a white picket fence idyll. Our textbooks, the media, and politicians spoon feed us the sweet fantasy of the ‘American Dream.’ What does it mean to be an American? How could one person be more worthy of being an American than another?”
Valenzuela says that the show was in part a response to Trump’s idea that immigration should only include the “good ones”… . “My mother has fear about deportation and she is a citizen. Now imagine those that are not? We can’t let one man’s view of immigrants scare us or intimidate us. That is what they want. We must be louder every day and share our stories every day.”
Fabiola Valenzuela at Gallery 76102, Fort Worth, through May 31.