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From the moment we take our first breath to the dying exhalation of our last, we explore our individual identity in a larger world. Artists have wrestled for centuries with the deep desire to know who they are within societies that often see individuality as something to be ashamed of instead of celebrated, something to be contained rather than expressed. As a biracial artist, Sarah May knows firsthand the struggle of finding her unique voice within a local culture of racial profiling and stereotyping at quick glances. May’s exploration of self-identity is illustrated in her retablos-based art series entitled, Identity Retablos, featured May 16th – June 10th at the Mestizo Gallery in Salt Lake City.
May is an artist, photographer, curator, and writer based out of Salt Lake City. After graduating from the University of Utah with a BFA in Photography and Digital Imaging, she has concentrated her work in cyanotype, film, narrative photography, and curating fine art exhibits. The motivation for the retablo series comes not only from May’s own journey for self-identity, but also from conversations with friends and family who share her Latin heritage. She highlights this heritage by using the traditional folk-art form of retablos to explore individual identity. In Hispanic cultures, traditional retablos hung over home altars and would generally depict Catholic saints, but May’s retablos pay an almost religious admiration to self-discovery and individuality, employing black-and-white snapshots of herself, family and friends, and iconic objects that reflect her Latin heritage as well as her American lifestyle. Her choice of black-and-white images framed in a wooden box bring a reflective nature to the pieces by acting as picture frames of snapshots from her life and the lives of those who want their single, unique voices to be heard. In a press release by Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts, May comments about her inspiration for her retablos-themed series, “As a person who has been stereotyped and racially profiled, I wanted to explore my identity as a Latina, a woman, and being biracial, while acknowledging the perspectives and judgements given to me at a glance.” The press release also mentions her “retablos-inspired boxes” symbolizing “the identity and soul of herself, and those who have more to their story than a first glance.”
In one box, a middle-aged woman is photographed in casual attire in her kitchen. A handwritten note reads, “I gave up everything I had to come to this country. I gave up the life I admired to become something more. My family is my everything.” The items surrounding the photo and note are ties to things left behind: a wooden spoon, a spool of thread tied around a brown medicinal bottle, and dried peppers from a home garden. But a final item, a family portrait, is not something left behind, but something she left her country for, a better life for her family.
In another, a young woman in a white-and-black striped dress sits on a leather couch, hands clasped in her lap, knees closed together, long black hair hanging down over her shoulders. A note hangs under the photo, the scribbled text says she wanders “between the world they define me forFOR ME?…” and the world she’s trying to find. A broken eggshell with a lightbulb rests in the right corner, and a small vase with red feathers sits in the left next to a locket with no chain. The red feathers in the small blue vase symbolize the culture the young woman is defined by by being separated by the birth of a new identity, one that will light her path to self-identity.
A third seems to bring the pair of works together. A middle-aged woman is seen from behind, in the kitchen. A second photograph, superimposed on the first, shows two young women in clothes that date them a generation back. “I see a glimpse of the life my mother left behind,” the note below reads, as the young woman presumably imagines her own self at the age she sees her mother in the old photograph.
Elegant, simple, and powerful, May’s series of retablos-based pieces narrate the complex relationship between biracialism and discovering individuality while still holding true to a heritage that is constantly under attack by those who choose to see the stereotype as being the only trait of an individual when, in reality, we all have taken steps off the beaten path of our family that came before us. Sarah May has taken the step away from just being “Latina” into a path that shows not only her unique talents, but the individualism and variety that truly resides in culture and heritage.
Sarah May, Mestizo Gallery, Salt Lake City, May 16-June 10, opening reception May 20, 6-9 p.m. 801-361-5662.
This review appeared in the May 2016 edition of 15 Bytes.
Evan Waechtler is a senior in the English Creative writing program at Utah State University with a focus on poetry. He is currently working on a chapbook that explores mental illness with an emphasis on clinical depression, Hope Avenue.