Invisible Bodies at Penn State University

Curated by The Border Gallery and Emireth Herrera Valdés 

October 21 – February 18, 2024 

Invisible Bodies examines the intersection of migration and labor, illuminating the often-overlooked narratives of those whose bodies remain hidden in the shadows of society. Curated by The Border Gallery and Emireth Herrera Valdés, this exhibition explores the resilience, determination, and the hierarchical structures related to immigration and race in the United States. The gallery’s green walls symbolize our support for an open immigration system, allowing immigrants to contribute to the nation’s labor force. Featuring fifteen artists, this exhibition offers a variety of visions and experiences that not only challenge conventional perceptions but also address cultural identity. 

Brendan Fernandes’ Standing Leg (2014) reveals the world of “othered culture,” drawing parallels between ballet’s pursuit of an “ideal” body and the manipulation of the migrant worker’s physicality. Fernandes explores vulnerability and fragility, reminding us of the endurance required to navigate a world shaped by power dynamics. In Frozen Pendulum (2020), Luis Alvaro Sahagun assembles cardboard, beads, and gorilla glue to examine memory, pain, and labor. His meticulous process of collecting, stacking, and deconstructing cardboard offers a glimpse into the artist’s soul, intertwining his own narrative as an immigrant with that of brown bodies and their shared experiences. Michael Pribich’s Cotton Picker (2018) challenges the derogatory term used to diminish the labor of those who hand-pick cotton. Pribich’s work emphasizes human rights and environmental consequences of cotton production, urging us to reconsider the true cost of inexpensive cotton products.

In Cuba to Spain (2019), Zahra Nazari pays homage to the resilience of an immigrant family, narrating their journey from Cuba to Spain and ultimately to Queens, New York. Through vibrant colors and architectural motifs, Nazari celebrates the cultural connections that bind us, even across borders. Also narrating immigrant journeys, Julia Justo presents Tamale Vendors (2022), an embroidery work that resulted from a socially engaged project that portrays undocumented immigrants working as street vendors. Justo elevates their identities, preserves their anonymity, and highlights the repetition found in manual labor. 

Celebrating cultural identity and resilience, Lina Puerta’s Peach Tree Crop Laborer (2018) combines handmade paper with sequined fabrics, lace, and fur to explore the physical labor and hardship in industrial agriculture. Puerta’s work highlights the poetic life cycle of crops while acknowledging the challenges faced by farmworkers. Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow’s The Picnic: Harvest of The Zephyr (2018) exists as a performance that invites participants to a multicultural dining experience symbolizing unity and shared humanity. The camouflaged textile prints worn by the performers helps to suggest conversations that transcend geographic and cultural boundaries. Abang-guard (Maureen Catbagan + Jevijoe Vitug) present Little Manila Monuments (2023) paying tribute to the Filipino community in Woodside, Queens, immortalizing their contributions as landmarks. Abang-guard’s collaborative project bridges cultural production, labor, and institutional structures, emphasizing the complexity of their narratives.

Jamie Martinez’s The Flower Lady Piñata (2023) celebrates the labor of immigrant women who sell flowers on the street. These festive symbol, with origins dating back to China and the Aztec Empire, have evolved over centuries. Initially resembling fragile clay water pitchers, they now embody the resilience of immigrant women who bring color to our streets. Manon Wada’s Meiyo (2023) honors the artist’s father, an immigrant from Kyoto, Japan, by wrapping a collection of inherited tools in fabric. This act of care pays tribute to her father’s life and work, drawing on Japanese fabric traditions. In Palimpsest: Tales Spun From Sea And Memories (2022), Billy Gerard Frank narrates the life of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (1757 – 1791), a key African British opponent of slavery in the eighteenth century. Cugoano’s work, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787), marks a pivotal moment in the history of enslaved people’s contributions to English literature. 

In Take Me Back (2017) by Zac Hacmon, the artist collected dozens of used mattresses, king and queen-sized and assembled them all together. In order to create a new territory, he excavated a tunnel-like space in the mattresses. The mattress, symbolizing comfort and safety, is questioned in Take Me Back as it projects discomfort and a lack of safety. Magdalena Dukiewicz’s Object no. 15 (knife) (2023) combines a found object (kitchen knife) and the artist’s own hair. It blurs the line between utility and art, drawing attention to the objectification of women in both public and private spaces. Dukiewicz’s work becomes a symbol of resistance, juxtaposing delicacy with the cold, sharp surface of a knife. 

Bianca Abdi-Boragi’s Inverse Scepter (Theft: volume + energy = labor) (2023) is crafted from found materials, employing carving and assemblage to transform an everyday object into an unusual form deviating from its primary function. This work reflects on concealed labor, wealth, and political dynamics while evoking the essence of human dignity. Coralina Rodriguez Meyer’s Olympic 1863-2018 (Entre la Puta y la Santa), reinterprets Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) to challenge societal norms regarding race, gender, and class. Rodriguez Meyer depicts herself in a hospital during labor, reversing the roles and redefining the classical Venus painting as a “puta” on the verge of childbirth. This work explores issues of identity and the enduring impact of reproductive caste on mixed-race Latinx pregnant women. 

Invisible Bodies invites the audience to recognize and reflect on the invisible labor that underpins our daily lives. These artists provoke us to consider the historic true cost of our comforts, the objectification of individuals, and the delicate balance of hard work and dignity. 

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