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Artist Spotlight: Angelica Calderon on home, balance, art

After I walked into the Center for Latino Arts and Culture (CLAC), the first words Angelica Calderon, a Mason Gross School of the Arts junior, said to me were, “Do you want something to eat?” A few minutes later we were sitting across from each other sharing a plate of Mangú, a traditional Dominican dish. 

The Dominican Republic, and the island of Hispaniola as a whole, are crucial locations regarding Calderon’s practice as an artist. She’s majoring in visual arts with a concentration in photography. Her work ranges from zines to sculpture, with an eye always trained on expanding her capabilities. Much of Calderon’s work is political in nature, but it’s extremely personal as well. It’s informed by what connects the Caribbean, the Bronx, Mangú, Miles Morales and more: The care and concern that comes with what she calls home.

JL: Are you originally from New Jersey?

AC: No, I was born and raised in the Bronx, New York.

JL: What do you do here at the Center for Latino Arts and Culture?

AC: I’m a work-study student here, I’ve been working here since sophomore year. When it comes to work-study programs people just assume that it’s a good way to get money, but I intentionally wanted to work here so I could be in touch with my identity, be around people that I normally don’t see in my classrooms but are a huge demographic for where I was born and raised at. It’s kind of like a home away from home. 

JL: Let’s talk about Mason Gross for a second, what classes have inspired you most?

AC: All of my photo classes. There was this one media class I took freshman year, and it consisted of video-making, understanding editing for video in a more conceptual way. I was always interested in documentary and photography, and they intertwine so well. Video is just images moving, so I found deep interest in that and how I can incorporate that in my interdisciplinary practice. 

A random class I’m getting into now is sculpture. I’m in a more contemporary-based medium, so with sculpture being so traditional but at the same time works well and actually benefits the interdisciplinary practice I’m trying to go for, it’s been a huge help and something outside of my comfort zone that I really appreciate.   

JL: Can you put ZAZA Uptown into your own words?

AC: ZAZA Uptown is an art collective-slash-curatorial platform-slash-whatever the hell it’s gonna become with my friend back at home. She’s also from the Bronx, we met each other back in 2015 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She’s a year older than me and we were just speaking about the undertones of racism and elitism, all the “-isms” within a higher education institution. 

We saw those undertones being very subtle in a classroom setting. So as Afro-Caribbean women, we obviously didn’t see “us” as classmates. As a lesson plan, we didn’t see none of us. We’re always interested in creating something. Me and her have this sort of sisterhood and she’s half-Haitian, I’m half-Dominican — that division that’s been happening for years between Hispaniola. 

We kinda wanted to merge all of these similarities but also these differences we have. She’s still in New York, she goes to NYU currently and with me being here, we wanted to bring that into a narrative. We were just thinking about the modern Caribbean woman, modern Afro-Caribbean women, how displacement has been such a huge legacy for Afro-Caribbean people and the fact that Afro-Caribbean people are not represented enough through art. 

JL: Touching on the “-isms” of higher education, trying to figure out the joy of learning my craft and the disappointment of not being represented in the classroom has been very interesting for me while studying music. So how is that experience for you, saying, “I’ve enjoyed many classes here, but I also feel very disconnected from what feels like home in a lot of ways?”      

AC: Oh my god, that’s so hard. Well, it’s not so hard, there’s just so many layers. So you’re asking how does that make me feel? 

JL: Essentially, like, how do you weigh that balance? Because it can be infuriating, but you can also enjoy your work. 

AC: Yeah, I mean the one thing with art school, and I emphasize this a lot with people, is how art school is already automatically assumed to be like liberal or progressive – even though liberalism is not that great of a thing anyway, and progressive, that’s kind of too idealistic for the way these institutions are set up – which isn’t the case at all. 

When I’m in Mason Gross for a long period of time, I feel like any art student. You become jaded of your work. But at the same time, there’s layers to everything. The same thing with my identity, me being a woman, me being Black and then me being an art student. 

I am these identities that are stigmatized already, and already judged so I feel like it hits you harder when you’re a person of color trying to be an artist. So, it gets hard because we’re part of a low percentage in terms of the population of this art institution.

A way for me to find that balance is to reach into the outside because just being a universal art outsider, I feel like I always have to find a way of thinking outside the box. 

That’s why I work here (CLAC) and why I try to be involved on campus as much as I can or reaching out to people at home, that’s the reason I created ZAZA. I have such a strong interest in what ZAZA is made of and I don’t think I can find it here (Rutgers) but I can find someone who feels the same way. I just wanna put myself in those spaces to represent a community that’s not always represented, but at the same time let people know that I am present. So I try to be as present as obnoxiously as possible. 

JL: To step back for a second, which artists, writers and thinkers have been your primary influences?

AC: Kendrick Lamar for one. There was this Afro-Cuban printmaker, her name was Belkis Ayón and she had screen prints of this underground Afro-Cuban brotherhood, and she mixed that society with her own family. She was just trying to mix spiritualism with this brotherhood society she was so connected to with her family. 

I like that documentation and that merge of spirituality and family. I feel like that’s really big within the Caribbean community and that’s something that I’ve been drifting towards a lot. She passed at a really young age, but ever since seeing her work as one of the few Afro-Caribbean artists to embrace her Blackness, I really appreciated that. 

LaToya Ruby Frazier, she taught at Mason Gross years ago. She came back last year, and I had to meet her. She gave me a  hug and I was like, “It’s lit I’m already satisfied with my life now.” 

My parents grew up in the 90s, they’re young. Just their music taste and the Bronx is a huge influence in my work. That’s a place I wanna talk about because I feel like that place is displaced and the people are becoming displaced due to gentrification. So my parents, the Bronx, Nas, James Baldwin … who else? Tame Impala ...

JL: People love Tame Impala … 

AC: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know I’ve just had this thought in my head, like I’ve always wanted to see a Black indie protagonist. That’s something I want to bring to life in my own work. I just hate that there’s like …

JL: The aesthetic is set in stone for what “indie” is, and it’s so often not Black. 

AC: Yeah, and it sucks that this genre, the plot of a Black protagonist always has to be traumatic, there’s like no love. You think of Black individuals, you think, “Okay, something traumatic needs to happen, someone’s gotta die.” Like, no one can just fall in love, no one can be a 20-year-old. 

Miles Morales, that movie … I’ve been reading Miles Morales comics since I was in high school. Just watching that film ("Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse"), even though it should’ve been live-action but whatever, but seeing that movie has been, like, a really good gateway for artists and writer and directors. When I saw Miles I felt like he was the closest character I could relate to personality-wise. 

He’s just a dope kid who likes listening to music he wasn’t supposed to be listening to, and him going to school and seeing that dynamic of a Puerto Rican mother and a Black father, I could definitely relate to. He’s been a huge influence. I’m trying to use him as a foundation for my thesis. I dead*ss wanna be him for Halloween. 

JL: ZAZA’s focus on Hispaniola is interesting, because for all the similarities between the two countries, there are also worlds of difference. Do you plan on addressing that, and how so? 

AC: The history just blows my mind … So I guess particularly how we want to show that in our work is trying to talk about and educate ourselves and others, our readers. We also want to emphasize this anti-Blackness and the idea of colorism between Dominican people against Haitian, which makes no d*mn sense, because we’re all Black as hell. 

I guess we want to narrate the privileges that one might have over the other and also the fact that we’re half of these two divisions. There’s also the division we have as being New Yorkers, particularly from an underrepresented borough. There’s the fact that we’re not actually natives of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, so we’re trying to look in as outsiders. We’re trying to navigate this division that has happened due to racism even though we’re from the same exact land. 

JL: Any closing statements?

AC: Support Black artists, and don’t get mad when they ask you to pay for their art. Yeah, support your friends and make them feel loved. 'Cause the state of this world is alarming.

JL: You’re being very nice by keeping it at just “alarming.”

AC: Yeah, I could say a lot, but you just can’t put it all in the newspaper.

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