Mari Hernandez: What Remains
Mari Hernandez is a multidisciplinary artist. A career in non-profit arts organizations led her to explore socially engaged and identity-based art, as well as its contributions to human and community development. Simultaneously, Hernandez became concerned with the lack of representation of women of color in her arts community in San Antonio, Texas. These experiences deeply influenced her artistic development.
Inspired by appearance altering photographers and early Mexican-American artists, Hernandez began experimenting with self-portraiture to address questions about identity. As a co-founder of the Chicana art collective Mas Rudas (2009-2015), her self-portraits focused on Chicana aesthetic. Her solo practice is guided by these early influences, but Hernandez continues to expand her repertoire and skill base.
Selected group exhibitions in San Antonio include Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Artpace San Antonio, the Institute of Texan Cultures, Centro de Artes, and the Appalachian Center for Craft in Tennessee. Hernandez is a graduate of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures Leadership Institute and Arts Advocacy Institute, and she participated in the inaugural Public Art San Antonio Mentorship Course. In 2017, she was awarded the Joan Mitchell Foundation Emerging Artist Grant, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures Fund for the Arts Grant. Hernandez holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She lives and works in San Antonio, Texas.
DRP: Mari, where are you from and what is your photographic work about? Are the two in anyway related?
MH: I’m born and raised in San Antonio. I make photographic self-portraits exploring identity and construction of the self. I generate visual narratives and I create distinct aesthetic moods, as well as references to cultural mores and art historical movements. Acting as photographer, subject, make-up artist, and designer, I alter my identity and physical appearance through the use of make-up, prosthetics, wigs, costumes, and props. Through these narratives, I reinterpret histories and propose new ones. My sense of identity is influenced by my cultural upbringing. This cultural upbringing is directly related to being from San Antonio.
DRP: You recently had an exhibition, What Remains, at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, TX. Could you talk about the work you exhibited?
MH: The self-portrait photographs in What Remains relate to the history of portraiture and its characteristics of canonical representation. At the same time they reference the history of photography as a medium and the history of a people. These invented characters are rooted in theories of physiognomy, a pseudoscience popular at the same time as early photography. Physiognomy claimed that a person's physical features or expression were indicators of personality, intellect, and moral character. In thinking about the roots of racism, it is clear to me that theories such as physiognomy played a role in the construction of a racist society.
The title What Remains is offered as both a question and a statement. As a question, the title asks what remains to be stated, noted, written, admitted, recorded, or validated. As a statement, the title reads as an affirmation that translates as perseverance. It can be a reminder of the things that continue to exist, endure, persist, or survive.
DRP: What sort of historical elements came into play while you make your work?
MH: I take into consideration the history of art, the history of portraiture, and my personal history. My work also references the history of the Southwest, and its indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican roots.
DRP: Would you say these topics/elements play a role in the world today? If so, how?
MH: My work is an effort towards decolonization. I’m concerned with issues of representation of people of color, and my work is directly concerned with representation of women of color in the arts. In order to further understand the issues POC face in our contemporary society it is essential to look at the past and deconstruct historical narratives, which is part of my artistic process.
DRP: Your process has a lot of qualities that are Cindy Sherman-esk. Often curating your attire, applying prosthetics to alter your appearance or creating a tableau. Going back to some earlier work, Mujeres and Hombres, could you describe this approach when you create these self-portraits. What do these things represent?
MH: The use of prosthetics, wigs, costume, and props are a means to create characters or subjects. This intentional alteration of identity both pushes the boundaries of self-portraiture and references the fluidity of identity.
The physical alterations symbolize different things. For example, in the Mujeres series the women have scars on their face. These scars represent emotional, physical, and mental trauma women endure. At the same time they are healed wounds, representing strength and perseverance.
DRP: What role does gender play in the string and continuity of your work? Essentially all of your work.
MH:In addition to referencing the fluidity of identity in my work, I also reference the fluidity of gender. I am interested in challenging the roles that gender dictates in our society.
DRP: How does your personal experience inform your work?
MH: My work is often informed by a need to resolve conflicts that stem from personal experience. Making and creating is a way to navigate sensitive issues and communicate my opinions.
DRP: Could you describe, break down the particular images above? Is there a story behind the Resist Flag and the women constructing it?
MH: There is a connection between the two images. In The Preparation you see the women gathered around the sewing of the flag, they are preparing for an action. In Resist you see the flag in use carried by another woman, she is walking stoically towards something. Both of these images reference our current political times, are inspired by historical images (Betsy Ross sewing the American flag) and also reference the history of photography. Collectively they are part of a larger narrative in my work.
DRP: What are some solutions you see for POC and women of color artists today? What advice would you offer to those pursuing art or photography?
MH: One of the best pieces of advice I have gotten from a mentor is to insert myself in spaces that lack representation of POC. Representation matters. It’s not an easy thing to do, the work you take on as a POC in spaces that lack diversity and equity is heavy labor. It takes a toll on you. The work is worth it and it’s necessary. If you’re waiting for someone to hand you an opportunity or open a door for you, you may end up waiting forever. Do work that matters to you with what you have available.
To those pursuing photography, I say take as many photos as you can, take photos of anything you find interesting and stimulating, this is how I started. Being an artist and a creator is a lifetime commitment. Continuously push the boundaries of the work you do and seek out opportunities to grow and develop.
DRP: Thank you Mari.