WILMINGTON — Renzo Ortega creates art to pass it on.
“That’s when it comes to life,” he told a crowd of 20 or so visitors at Cameron Art Museum Friday morning. “Painting is my life’s mission; artworks are historical documents we leave behind during our life journey, and I believe that when the artist is not physically present anymore, the pieces come to life.”
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Ortega, an MFA graduate from Hunter College, is one of six artists whose work is now on exhibit in CAM’s latest show, “Lugar de Encuentros/Place of Encounters.” It will be on display through Jan. 14, 2024.
The Peruvian artist transforms large-scale raw canvas into colorful cascades of emotion, punctuated by imagery and symbols of music, food, politics, theology, literature and more. All represent impressions made on his life, as he emigrated from Lima to New York City more than two decades ago before relocating to Carrboro in the last six years.
“My artistic voice is someone who first thought of moving energy that crosses geographies and generates bonds, forming communities from America’s intrinsic heritage, and the changing process,” Ortego said.
CAM began putting together the exhibit in 2021 and decided to choose Latinx artists from various backgrounds and countries who were working in North Carolina.
“Post-pandemic we were really thinking about representation in our exhibitions,” interim director Heather Wilson wrote in an email to Port City Daily. “We wanted to find those places where we encounter our shared humanity in their works, and where you encounter what makes us all the same – and what makes us different.”
CAM collaborated with statewide galleries, museums and the North Carolina Arts Council — of which Ortega was a 2018-2019 fellowship recipient — to cull the collection. Wilson said the goal was to highlight experiences and different points of view centered on migration and resettlement.
The issue couldn’t be more timely as pandemic-related asylum restrictions expired Friday in the U.S., with the Biden administration enforcing new policies to crack down on illegal immigrants seeking safe refuge at the U.S. southern border.
Ortega, who was undocumented upon moving to the states and became naturalized, said the transition to North Carolina was tough from the multinational ethnicities present up north.
“In New York, we have politicians and representatives and people in the city that look like us,” he said. “In North Carolina, probably in the next 15 or 20 years, we will have to progress.”
The Latinx community statewide has risen from just over 1% of the population in 1990 to 10.7% in 2020.
For Ortega, the discussion surrounding diversity and inclusion is important to have. Yet, he was clear it should move beyond simply devising departments in corporate America or at institutions to celebrate once-a-year events, such as National Hispanic Heritage Month every fall.
“It’s not just checking a box,” he explained. “That’s just not enough. We are more than that; we contribute more than that. We are not a decoration.”
When Ortega arrived in the South, he said he experienced culture shock, despite moving to a liberal town in the Triangle. One day while visiting a park with his son, who is blond-haired and light-skinned, he recalled being called the “babysitter” by two moms on a playground.
Another time while performing his first concert in town — Ortega is a musician who plays techno cymbia and punk rock — he said he was taken aback by the audience when he began playing guitar and singing in Spanish. Ortega only performs in his native tongue.
“Two people approached me and said, ‘Hey, can you play ‘La Bamba’?’” he explained. “I really appreciate the efforts of the people for listening and am very thankful for that — thankful for the opportunity of this exhibition — but we can make it better.”
Sixteen of Ortega’s paintings span the last two decades, from 2000 to 2020, blending hints of impressionism, surrealism, abstract and lo and hi art. He highlights his cultural heritage and how it melds into life in the U.S.
“A Peruvian in New York,” done in acrylic and charcoal, shows a New York City subway map overlaid with his self-portrait.
“Vida” is a representation of the Tar Heel State, an abstract featuring fragmented indigenous images and shapes, as well North Carolina’s state bird, the cardinal, and an homage to farmland, in particular corn.
It’s the most widely cultivated crop throughout the Americas, with the U.S. and Brazil the top-producing countries in 2022, as well as China.
“It’s a worldwide source of food,” Ortega said, pinpointing it in multiple paintings, such as “Voyage,” also highlighting other recurrent emblems in his work, such as snakes and hands.
Aside from the representation of religion and blessing, hands also stand for strength and hospitality. Yet, for Ortega, who is fluent in Italian and speaks animatedly with his hands, they’re a way to connect and converse despite language barriers.
“Hands are a multilingual way of communication,” he said. “My English is rough, but if we were in a situation, say, at a party and I did this [he made a cut-it motion across his neck], then you would know what I was saying — time to leave.”
Other paintings showcase hands cradling a child, playing guitar, and one holding a reptile.
“What does the snake represent?” one audience member asked, as Ortega walked through his collection Friday.
She particularly was speaking to “America,” a painting that features a woman, caped in red and decorated in gold, holding an ancient level, like a pendulum swaying. The ocean is rising on either side — to represent both the Atlantic and the Pacific — with the snake slithering from below.
“What does it mean to you?” he asked.
“Fear,” she responded.
“Yes,” he said, spiritedly. “We have fear entering our space sometimes. This painting is about balance — finding balance on our continent because we have been hating each other since the beginning.”
Feedback from viewers added more weight to the conversation. One person noted the hands holding the pendulum looked like they were bleeding. A smile moved across Ortega’s face.
“That was not what I intended,” he said, “but that’s beautiful.”
He referenced “polysemy” — when signs have multiple meanings — as part of the artistic process. The art work becomes the viewers once on display and what they take away creates a new context, which builds stronger relationships between people. It’s that bond that Ortega strives to foster.
“This interaction starts in my artist studio and reaches maximum splendor when the art is in view,” he told the audience. “With painting, I channel and communicate narratives.”
Fetuses also are highlighted in at least three works. While someone suggested it a timely representation as abortion rights conversations heighten across the state, Ortega — clarifying he was for a woman’s right to choose — said it was more about rebirth.
“This newborn can be me,” he suggested. “This newborn can be what they’re bringing to this new life, their contributions, this newborn can represent faith and hope.”
Passion is not remiss in the artist. It’s also apparent in his palette of bright pink, green, orange, blue and yellow hues showcasing electric vitality. Ortega called his work a combination of small town life and urban chaos.
Darker images containing fire and the underbelly of violence and authoritarian rule are contrasted in light grays and dark burgundies. It’s apparent in one piece showcasing a church in flames, built on top of an indigenous temple.
“For us, Native people, Native Americans, the representation of the Catholic and Christian church brings a sense of fear, violence, and death,” Ortega said.
Communities in Peru have Roman Catholic traditions mixed in with Incaic practices. The Incas — South American Indians — were the largest empire in the 16th century, from what’s known present-day as Columbia to Argentina. But the Spanish conquerors came in, decimated the empire, colonialized the land, and converted the people to Catholicism. It also forced out idolatry, replacing local deities and icons with saints and the cross, in effect removing entire customs.
“So my entire people were punished and wiped,” he said.
Ortega made a utopian suggestion to break down all borders across the Americas and progress into an accepting society of beliefs and cultures that can work and live in a “multi-region.” Or at least he implored his viewers to consider the notion.
“We’ll start to see each other as brothers and sisters and family because that is the only way we can get along,” he said. “Each of us, it doesn’t matter what your religion or color or background is, we color this invisible suitcase that is our intrinsic heritage.”
CAM is hosting a free community day on Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., for “Lugar de Encuentros/Place of Encounters.” Works by Ortega will be on display, as well as from Nico Amortegui, Cornelio Campos, Rodrigo Dorfman, Mario Marzan, and Rosalia Torres-Weiner. Torres-Weiner will have her Red Calaca Mobile Art Studio open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for activities.
As well “Traer a Luz/Bring to Light,” photography from brother and sister Dayana and Diego Camposeco, will be open to explore.
There will be salsa dancing, Spanish-language tours at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., food trucks and dance lessons.
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