Organizing and art in the heart of New Orleans - Define American

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Organizing and art in the heart of New Orleans

Karla Rosas and Fernando Lopez: New Orleans-based visual artists documenting their community in all its complexity.

The first year of the Define American Undocumented Artist Fellowship concluded on November 30, breaking new ground on the type of support available to these artists and the amazing work they can produce individually and in collaboration with their local communities. We are beginning the new year by reflecting on the work of the incredible artists in the program and sharing stories of their partnerships with community-based organizations.

Karla Rosas and Fernando Lopez decided to apply for the Define American Undocumented Artist Fellowship as a team. Coming from creative and organizing backgrounds, they wanted to collaborate on a larger project than either had previously attempted. Born in Mexico and living in New Orleans, Louisiana, they explore similar themes from different perspectives and artistic mediums.

Karla is a storyteller and self-taught visual artist working in a mixture of digital illustration tools as well as traditional inks, markers, acrylic and gouache. Tired of media tropes of helpless and passive immigrant mothers, Karla uses her art to tell stories about migrant women that she wants to hear — stories about being powerful, young, defiant, sexual, angry, joyous and sometimes petty.

Fernando is a photographer and documentarian whose work focuses on the human struggle for justice, equity and dignity. Fernando’s photography is informed by an indigenous migrant perspective, honoring the culture, beauty and struggles of his surroundings, and capturing the dignity of Black and Brown life in the United States. Focusing on powerful details, he documents and uplifts the unfolding history of a Black and Brown New Orleans.

Together, their collaborative multimedia portrait series Caras Vemos, Corazones No Sabemos (The Faces We See, The Hearts We Don’t) spotlights key members of the New Orleans community who are shaping its history from the bottom up and represent the corazon or “heart” of the city. The project aims to both document the histories ignored by mainstream narratives of New Orleans, and also honor the beauty and full personhood of the individuals who are a part of these histories.

Fernando and Karla chose to profile five individuals from three New Orleans community-based organizations they had previously worked with: New Orleans Worker’s Center for Racial Justice, Take ‘Em Down NOLA and Another Gulf Is Possible. All three organizations work to bring justice and equality to the city of New Orleans, especially for communities of color. Although the individuals profiled are community organizers who work tirelessly for their communities, Karla and Fernando intended not to focus on each person’s explicitly political work, but to highlight them as people — their personal histories, memories, fears, joys, motivations and inspirations.

The process for creating the individual profiles included shadowing each organizer through a day of his of her life and sitting down with him or her for an extended recorded interview. Fernando photographed a formal portrait, which Karla then painted and decoupaged to include aspects of their “heart” and love for New Orleans that came through in his or her interviews. The resulting art pieces are stunning portraits that represent both the faces and hearts of these outstanding New Orleanians.

To increase the impact of this ambitious project, Karla and Fernando then applied for an additional grant from Define American, which they were awarded, to host an event honoring the profiled activists and bring together in celebration the communities they each represent. So often, many community organizers and the vital work they do for their communities go unrecognized and under-appreciated. By representing and uplifting this impressive group of organizers and their love of the city, Fernando and Karla have refused to let that happen. 

The Undocumented Artist Fellowship is made possible through a grant from the Kresge Foundation. Read about more artist fellows! Want to see more great work? Support our 2020 artist fellows by donating today!

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