Artifacts + Fictions: An Interview with Pete Hoffecker Mejia

100x156x20, wood, metal, paper, scouring pads, Guatemalan textiles, woven serape blanket, net, thread, stain, plastic stencil, acrylic paint, air filters, found items, artificial plants, 100 x 156 x 20 inches

100x156x20, wood, metal, paper, scouring pads, Guatemalan textiles, woven serape blanket, net, thread, stain, plastic stencil, acrylic paint, air filters, found items, artificial plants, 100 x 156 x 20 inches

By Bernardo Diaz

When Christianity arrived in the America’s, the church attempted to convert the indigenous peoples that greeted them. Those who resisted that conversion were met with violence, and more often than not, death. Many accepted that conversion which resulted in a present day Latin America where almost 81% of the population identifies as Catholic and the rest as a combination of various denominations of Christianity and other world faiths; 40% of the world’s Catholic population resides in Latin America alone. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the intentions of the European conquistadors were only partially successful. While these indigenous populations accepted the rites and rituals of a new faith, it was not at the cost of losing the existing systems of faith and worship that had long been established within their own cultural practices. The result is a modern day religiosity composed of beliefs and practices that pushes both Christian and indigenous faiths, icons, and rituals toward the emergence of a hybridization born out of consequence rather than intention.

Hoffecker Mejia’s work and exploration take colonization and dominion as a given and instead focuses its attention on the processes of hybridization that take place as the consequence of our colonized histories. Within this precarious moment in our human timeline, where tensions are high between those who have benefited and those who have lost from the reverberations of colonialism’s legacy, Hoffecker Mejia’s work frolics along, poking fun at certain platitudes that have and continue to warn the dominant culture that given the opportunity, the roles could reverse at any given moment. His retablo-like compositions allow Hoffecker Mejia to participate and control an exploration of the aforementioned processes as a simulation of these consequential hybridizations. At a point in our history when we are demanding the de-colonization of our institutions and fiercely debating the follies of cultural appropriation, Hoffecker Mejia’s compositional strategies and material choices allow one artist access to a process where power can be exchanged or neutralized between oppressors and oppressed. It is only when these mechanisms are revealed that it may start to become second nature to understand and act upon one’s own conditions.


What role does nostalgia play in the conceptualization and materialization of your work?

Growing up, the only items from Colombia that I had access to were weavings, wooden sculptures, and pieces of hand-made furniture. They were extremely important to me because they were from the place of my birth, which as an adoptee growing up in the US were somehow imbued with a strange, heavy power. So from the beginning, I connected to visual art as a means of transmitting information of cultural identity, while being painfully aware of the slippage and gaps that dislocation and estrangement create.

39x72x12, wood, glass, cardboard, plastic, acrylic paint, oil stain, tape, patterned textiles (Guatemala), woven wall hanging, artificial plants, 39 x 72 x 12 inches

39x72x12, wood, glass, cardboard, plastic, acrylic paint, oil stain, tape, patterned textiles (Guatemala), woven wall hanging, artificial plants, 39 x 72 x 12 inches

In fabricating this space to compare, contrast, and mediate cultural information, nostalgia certainly plays an important role. My research looks at the visual culture of indigenous peoples of the Americas, with a focus on motifs of pattern and banding. I pay particular attention to Latin American woven wall hangings, mochila patterns, and pre-Columbian work of the Muisca and Tolima peoples. I also look at the reductive visual representations of indigeneity I see around me. There is a persistent effort by dominant culture to commodify and sanitize an otherness, which romanticizes, and/or negates histories. Examples abound in retail clothing and home décor. I am partially focused on the strategies that work to marginalize otherness, such as caricature, conflation, and exotification.

40x23x6, wood, plastic, stain, acrylic paint, ink, 40 x 23 x 6 inches

40x23x6, wood, plastic, stain, acrylic paint, ink, 40 x 23 x 6 inches

Despite the importance of academic research to my practice, artifacts from my Columbian heritage, the weavings and woodwork, have a deeper and more personal influence upon my art. Their forms continue to inform and infiltrate my work. These artifacts display color palettes and design elements of Columbia in the 1960s and 1970s, an era when American consumer culture and counter culture embraced a more globalized aesthetic.

A spirit of nostalgia and interest in vernacular design also influences my choice of materials, like stained wood, and a modernist visual language. Stained wood evokes a design aesthetic I grew up with. Wooden framing also recalls personal experiences of building and working with my father, a skilled carpenter and contractor. My father, a university music professor, is also an avid collector of Jazz records. While listening to his collection as a child I would study the album covers, many of which bore full color, glossy illustrations of modernist paintings and sculpture.

I associate this use of lumber and found items, which is combined with sometimes naïve or intuitive fashioning techniques, with ideas of auto-construction, or self-construction. This references both the works’ facture and its conceptual structure. The idea of self-construction or identity construction is explored, as well as creating a physical space, a third space, to investigate unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation and relational identity. As a post-colonial examination of the intersections of cultures, a third space allows for “new areas of negotiation between meaning and representation.”[1] I am attracted to many of the ideas of third space theory and how they address liminal space.

I create parallels and false equivalencies by placing modernist geometric abstraction in direct proximity to indigenous motifs and facsimile. Cut color-aid paper gradation studies, derived from Josef Alber’s color theory exercises at Black Mountain College, echo and dissolve into the patterns of a Central American blanket. Their interrelationship exposes implied hierarchies and power differentials: one being regarded as study entrenched in academic visual research, and the other being seen as an uneducated people’s art, or folk art. In many ways this sort of interplay is happening all over the compositions, and it works to partially disintegrate that air of sentimentality, or nostalgia. At the very least, the role of nostalgia ends up being somewhat diminished in lieu of the larger conversation.



Could you elaborate on the “slippage and gaps” against your proximity to your origin / place of birth? What is lost / gained from this proximity?

There is an obvious geographic gap between the country I was raised in and country of birth, and there is also a resulting cultural estrangement. This creates a positionality in which the imagery and symbols of dominant culture in media speak louder than any absent cultural information. In this situation an individual is confronted with cultural information primarily through this post-colonial gaze, or the eyes of the dominant culture. There is a similarity here with a concept W.E.B. Dubois terms “double consciousness,"[2] in that one is very aware of the marginalization occurring, which undermines and infiltrates one’s attempts to understand oneself. The ‘gap’ refers to this dislocation and to seeing from multiple perspectives. Though I have spent a great deal of time in my life researching materials from Indigenous cultures of the Americas, and for often deeply personal reasons, I am not engaged in any sort of faithful recreation of objects from an ancestral past any more than I am involved in some sort of direct memorialization.

26x32x22

26x32x22

Through research alone I am very often confronted with fragments of a story, aspects which can get at an anthropological or ethonographic focus or truth, but not the lived-in immersion, in its historicity, and real world cultural connection. The study of culture is a hollow substitute for being immersed in that culture. I am conscious of the divide this estrangement has created, and the work is engaged in the mediation of this distance. There are screens, blinds, fences, barriers, multiple layers of information, patterns created from scouring pads, and other components which allude to obstructed, whitewashed, or marginalized histories. In this manner the work is entangled in issues of representation of personal and collective identity.

Slippage occurs in the handling of these components. High art and low, the historical and ahistorical, the found and the fabricated, caricature and the sincere, all collide and collude. I explore the blurred points of contact resulting from this estrangement. I examine the reconstruction of place and identity, myth and memory, the hierarchies of representation, strategies of ‘othering’, and identity construction and rearticulation.

 

75x168x30, wood, concrete, cardboard, bone, burlap, dresser, acrylic paint, oil stain, found items, cast aluminum, tape, yarn, wheel, artificial plants, 75 x 168 x 30 inches, 2017

75x168x30, wood, concrete, cardboard, bone, burlap, dresser, acrylic paint, oil stain, found items, cast aluminum, tape, yarn, wheel, artificial plants, 75 x 168 x 30 inches, 2017

What artists influence your work and how does this influence manifest itself in the objects you create/compose?

An early strong influence was the work of artist/theorist Joaquín Torres García. He expanded the modernist dialogue to include Latin American and Indigenous sensibilities through his rather utopian notion of Universal Constructivism. The combination of European modernist geometry with pictorial aspects inspired by indigenous cultures of the Americas really resonated with my personal experiences.

I also appreciate Hélio Oiticica, whose work was a beautiful entanglement of formalist aesthetic and issues of social transformation. Many of his pieces display a dialogue between painting and sculpture, which I am also engaged in, and of course the use of ‘anthropophagy’ or cultural cannibalism, the practice of devouring and transforming thereby making something external uniquely yours. I would be negligent not to mention the artist collective General Idea, who seemed to further ‘weaponize’ modernism or subvert modernism as an agent of social transformation.

75x70x32, wood, metal, paper, plastic, found items, woven items, printed fabric, metal drum lid, artificial plant, stain, acrylic paint, 75 x 70 x 32 inches

75x70x32, wood, metal, paper, plastic, found items, woven items, printed fabric, metal drum lid, artificial plant, stain, acrylic paint, 75 x 70 x 32 inches

The artist James Luna was and is a great inspiration. He put a post-colonial critique of indigenous representation in contemporary culture front and center in his practice, which never seemed heavy handed thanks in part to his sense of humor and thoughtful approach. I am also influenced by Chicano artist Richard Lou. His work deals with power dynamics between marginalized peoples and dominant culture. Brad Kahlhamer’s work and history speaks to me as well. He is also adopted, so I appreciate how he has dealt with issues of authenticity and indigenous identity. Jeffrey Gibson, Alejandro Guzmán, Rico Gatson, Jessica Stockholder, Rachel Beach, Bill Walton, Hernán Ardila Delgado, Tomashi Jackson, Juan Pablo Garza, Rachel Debuque, ASCO collective, Sarah Sze and Leonardo Drew are all artists whose work I greatly respect.

 

What's are some other origins of influence in your work that may not be directly connected with what could be generally viewed as “the art world?”

The origins of the work are indebted to a certain digestion of indigenous art of the Americas, but also from their conflated representations in mass culture. I am concerned with cultural appropriation in retail stores, such as Urban Outfitters, World Market, Pier 1 Imports, Hobby Lobby, and Michael’s. I also get a great deal of influence from researching critical race theory, ‘otherness’ studies and post-colonial studies. I am influenced by readings from authors such as Bell Hooks, Vine Deloria, and Philip Deloria, Lisa Marie Cacho, Gloria Anzaldúa, Karen and Barbara Fields, Thomas McEvilley, and Homi K. Bhabha. As a youth I was heavily immersed in graffiti culture and that experience influences my composition and aesthetic.

 

55x60x60, wood, oil stain, acrylic paint, Abacá rope, jute twine, canvas, burlap, 55 x 60 x 60 inches

55x60x60, wood, oil stain, acrylic paint, Abacá rope, jute twine, canvas, burlap, 55 x 60 x 60 inches

Can you speak to the direction that your work is going in now, specifically, to the work that appears to open itself to a more immersive viewer experience?

I am currently seeking out and manipulating materials that signify processes of erasure. Cut serape blankets and molas, for instance, speak to themes of dislocation and geographic discontinuity. At the moment, I am sewing multiple dust mop heads together and the results become a distorted mirror of Latin American wall weavings. This may be a departure from previous work, but it seems appropriate in current political climate to address the two-dimensional portrayal of Latin American immigrant’s primary value being their contribution the labor force. This sort of narrative denies the multi-faceted ways in which Latin Americans have enriched, and continue to enrich this country.

The scale of the work is increasing, and I am pursuing room-sized installations to close the distance between object and spectator as a means of implicating the viewer in broader cultural discourses and historical processes.

I am also attempting to make work to be placed outdoors. As noted previously, graffiti culture has been an unspoken influence in the work. Graffiti re-territorializes space, and in the context of settler colonialism, using the tactics of graffiti to inject the work into the public sphere has the capacity to transform a banal, neutral space into one of critical investigation.

Lastly, I hope to continue in the role of arts educator, which has been one of the most enriching aspects of my graduate career. Working with students in exploring their ideas and building the technical foundation to apply those ideas is incredibly rewarding. I learn through teaching and it keeps me actively engaged in the field I enjoy and am passionate about.

48x64x11, wood, woven blanket, screens, scouring pads, macramé hanging, plastic, patterned bandana, acrylic paint, oil stain, 48 x 64 x 11 inches, 2017

48x64x11, wood, woven blanket, screens, scouring pads, macramé hanging, plastic, patterned bandana, acrylic paint, oil stain, 48 x 64 x 11 inches, 2017


[1] Jonathan Rutherford, "The Third Space" Interview with Homi Bhabha in Identity: community, culture, difference (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1998): 211.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" in The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903).