Tuesday, July 12, 2011

EXILE & UTOPIA: Aaron Johnson-Ortiz shows his work

On Saturday, July 9, 2011, Aaron Johnson-Ortiz shared his work with local friends at his open studio in his home. Aaron is the Y's Community Engagement Coordinator through AmeriCorps, but is also a photographer, artist, and is working on an accompanying creative non-fiction novel to this exhibit.

He describes "Exile & Utopia" as:
...a semi-fictional illustrated novel that traces the journey of a group of exiled Mexican journalists in the early twentieth century. The journalists escape repression through the American South and Midwest, connect with local organizers in St. Louis, Missouri, flee to Canada on the railroad through Champaign, and attempt to launch an ultimately failed revolution in Mexico from El Paso, Texas.  A century later, "Exile & Utopia" retraces this failed precursor of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 with photographs of the erased historic sites where the group hid and worked, a narrative based on intercepted correspondence and private detective notes, and abstract drawings that chart the growth and constriction of the movement. 

His home exhibition was an extension of his persona in a way that normal gallery shows can't accomplish, lending a realness and visceral quality to the body of black and white artwork. Trees and a brick chimney were the only visible color against the walls of the room, and that only appearing as a backdrop through glass windows. The painted walls and floor had a nonchalant, white-washed effect that framed each printed work with age, texture, and grace. The black line drawings over many-veined city and railroad maps were mitochondrial and organic while also displaying the type of entrapment that was clear in the text of the art's direct political message. The large-scale photograph prints were grainy like newsprint, interspersed with the hand drawn maps. The works were numbered so any viewer might experience the flow of artworks much as Aaron experienced the journey along the same path as the journalists he trailed. Even if viewers of the exhibit were three times removed from the original event, there was just as much a sense of primary source, gritty voyeurism (through photographs of the locations where the journalists lived or died) as abstract sense of a larger voyage in which anyone can participate by walking, watching, or simply being surrounded in that white room. I can't wait to read the book.

Aaron grew up shuttling between southern Mexico, where he worked as a volunteer artist with Zapatista cooperatives, and the American Midwest, where he participates in immigrant rights' movements.  His work retracing the exiled precursors of the Mexican Revolution in the United States was born of a desire to retell and reactivate the long but erased history of solidarity and common struggle between the two regions.

At the Y, he works with student groups like La Colectiva to support immigrant and undocumented rights. Among many other projects and workshops, he has organized ACT LAB (Activist Laboratory), a pilot program held in the spring semester of 2011 that introduced emerging student leaders to methodologies and traditions of activism. ACT LAB workshops emphasized interactivity rather than lecturing, and engaged students in a wide range of social justice and environmental issues. He has also organized and arrange the Immigrant Helpline (217-417-5897) to assist local Spanish-speaking immigrant with translation and help finding resources. 

A Flickr photoset of Aaron's open studio show is available here.

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