Christina Fernandez: Multiple Exposures

Christina Fernandez (born 1965, Los Angeles, CA; active Los Angeles), 1927, Going Back to MoreliaChristina Fernandez is a Los Angeles–based artist who has spent more than thirty years conducting a rich exploration of migration, labor, and gender through her photography. On view at Art on Hulfish this spring, Christina Fernandez: Multiple Exposures traces the development of the artist’s work from the late 1980s to the present. The following exchanges between Fernandez and Roberto Tejada (2007), Susanna V. Temkin (2020), and Joanna Szupinska (2021) are excerpted from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.

SVT: Tell us about yourself. How did you first decide that you wanted to become an artist, and when did you begin working with photography?

CF: I’m a native Angeleno, born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. My parents were Chicano activists and basically raised me on the picket line. I spent weekends at protest marches or in Delano with the United Farm Workers (UFW). It trained my eye to see injustice, things that needed fixing. I grew up with empathy for others and an awareness of where I come from.

Christina Fernandez, Transporting Produce, Outskirts Phoenix, Arizona, from the installation María’s Great Expedition, 1995–96. Framed photographs, 40.6 × 34 cm each. Pomona College Collection, Student Directed Acquisition Fund. © Christina FernandezThere were multiple artists in my family. I had an uncle, Robert Gonzales, a Bay Area abstractionist, and another uncle by marriage, Dan Concholar, who was part of the Black Arts Movement here in Los Angeles. I declared I was going to be an artist when I was about six or seven years old. I was interested in painting and drawing and working with my hands. My mother sent me to art school, a Sunday afternoon painting class.

In the mid-1990s I went to CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], where I took a photo class with Kaucyila Brooke, a meaningful educator for me. I realized that there’s an immediacy with photography, and I liked the phenomenon of working with light and film. I used the materials to make light paintings, photograms. And I experimented with combinations, like exposing photograms to negatives. At that time I was still thinking like a painter using photography. I pushed the medium using light.

At CalArts I spent a lot of time studying with Allan Sekula and looking at the New Topographics photographers—obviously I owe a lot to Lewis Baltz, right? I wanted to apply those principles to where I was living. I started playing with the idea of landscape and what defines a landscape.

RT: Were you thinking about other women photographers and photo-based artists who use performative modes to assume an identity that is and is not them at the same time?

CF: I was looking at Hannah Wilke, Cindy Sherman, and especially Eleanor Antin. In terms of working with text and photo, I was thinking about Carrie Mae Weems’s work, though her text is more minimal and makes a more direct reference to the photograph itself.

[For María’s Great Expedition (1995–96),] I conducted interviews with my grandmother, grandfather, mother, aunt, and other people who knew my great-grandmother and organized the material to contextualize her life within social and political histories. I wanted to show that what she was doing was rather phenomenal in terms of a being Mexican and being a single woman raising a family during that time.

The evolution of this series started with Chon Noriega asking me if I would like to produce something for an exhibition [From the West: Chicano Narrative Photography] considering the Southwest through narrative photographic approaches that he was curating for the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. It was a perfect opportunity for me to do something about my great-grandmother on my mother’s side—my grandfather’s mother. Initially I thought I’d appropriate family pictures to tell her life story, but we only had one or two photographs of her. I had been told many times that I look like her, and her name was María and my middle name is Maria, so I decided to be the stand-in for her.

I researched what people looked like at that time, what they wore, what kind of things were used in daily household work. And I thought, well, I just don’t have the budget, nor the time, nor the desire to be completely historically accurate, so I better think of another strategy. I decided to use anachronism, which enabled me to include a little bit of a joke within each image. Throughout the series I include references to contemporary culture and immigrant culture.

Christina Fernandez, Untitled Farmworkers, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. © Christina FernandezSVT: Can you explain the original context and previous iterations of Untitled Farmworkers, which you’ve recently revisited?

CF: The first iteration came about in a New Genres class taught by Chris Burden during my undergraduate years. César Chávez had gone on a hunger strike, and the UFW was raising awareness about the deaths, injuries, and illnesses of farmworkers due to pesticides, labor disputes, altercations on the picket line, sabotage, and tampering with people’s cars, things like that. I typed information about these incidents on three-by-five index cards and brought a bunch of dirt into the room at UCLA that we used for performances and installations. I piled the dirt in my vintage Mercedes, stacking that old car with bags of dirt. I brought it into the room and planted the cards as a performance piece. That was the original installation: rows of dirt in a “white cube” room, on the ground, neatly swept together and made into rows. Some of the students had strong reactions.

In graduate school at CalArts,I decided to revisit the installation to translate it photographically. I photographed my brother putting the index cards into soil, and I arranged five-by-seven photographs in a grid pattern.

I am finally ready to revisit the project, as the issues faced by farmworkers unfortunately are still relevant. In addition to pesticides, injuries, and exhaustion, now heatstroke has become a big problem because of global warming.

Christina Fernandez, TV’s, 2006, from Sereno. Archival pigment print, 54 × 54 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Luisotti, Los Angeles. © Christina FernandezJS: You have expanded your photographic practice geographically—first to the outskirts of Los Angeles and then further inland, toward Riverside and beyond. What compelled this expansion?

CF: Being a mother has influenced and strengthened my practice. I moved to the suburbs in 2012, and I took a ten-year hiatus to raise my son. I continued producing work but was not as actively involved in exhibiting—my world had changed. My child has expanded my worldview and interests. Being a single mother to a son has put me in positions and roles I often felt uncomfortable with, but his love for the outdoors and adventure has led the way.

For the past six years, we have gone off-roading on countless short and long adventures into places only a four-by-four vehicle can get to, places I would have never encountered otherwise.

Christina Fernandez: Multiple Exposures is curated by Joanna Szupinska, Senior Curator at the California Museum of Photography, and organized by UCR ARTS. Chon Noriega, Distinguished Professor of Film, Television, and Digital Media at UCLA, is curatorial advisor. Exhibition design concept by HvADesign, New York. The Spanish-language translations are by JD Pluecker and Carolina Villarroel. The traveling exhibition was made possible by grants from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Support for the publication was provided by AltaMed Health Services, and Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

Art on Hulfish is made possible by the leadership support of Annette Merle-Smith and Princeton University. Generous support is also provided by William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; J. Bryan King, Class of 1993; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; Julie and Kevin Callaghan, Class of 1983; Annie Robinson Woods, Class of 1988; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; Tom Tuttle, Class of 1988, and Mila Tuttle; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; the Len & Laura Berlik Foundation; Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; Palmer Square Management; and Dean and Jill Mitchell. Additional support for this exhibition is provided by the Humanities Council, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Program in Latin American Studies.