While politicians continue to debate the lives of immigrants, noé olivas is making art about them

Left: a close-up of a golden fence; Right: noé olivas stands outdoors in front of three small trees

Many Americans likely know the surface-level facts about immigration in the United States; that U.S. cities are struggling to accept migrants, the legal system is deeply broken, migrant labor is overwhelmingly exploited, and new laws continue to put migrant communities in danger.

But Los Angeles-based artist noé olivas wants folks to get up close and personal with the immigrant experience.

olivas (who keeps his name lowercase for the same reason as renowned artist and activist bell hooks) is rounding out an exhibition called Gilded Dreams at Inglewood, California’s Crenshaw Dairy Mart Gallery.

The exhibition, which will be on display through Sunday, March 31, focuses on the interdisciplinary artist’s interest in what he calls “the poetics of labor.”

It’s built around the main piece; a sculpture (Gilded Dreams, 2024) depicting a gold chain-link fence with a cut-out of a Saguaro cactus. 

noé olivias's "Gilded Dreams," depicting a gold chain-link fence with a cut-out of a cactus
noé olivas, Gilded Dreams (2024), powder coated steel fence, 96 ft. 11 5/16 in. x 6 in. x 9 ft. 5 in. Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery.

“The piece is very clearly a commentary on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, but it also references the practice of human caging through immigration detention or incarceration,” olivas told Good Good Good.

“The cut-out, while humorous, is also a real invitation to defy these systems and transform them through the practice of abolition. While the work talks about these real hardships of immigration, it also makes space for empowerment through action, leading to both self and collective liberation and healing.”

That collective liberation and healing is central to the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, a gallery which olivas co-founded with artist alexandre ali reza dorris and artist and abolitionist Patrisse Cullors.

The pillars of the art collective and gallery are “abolition, ancestry, and healing,” ensuring that all works that move through the space evoke those concepts.

In the Gilded Dreams exhibition, olivas embraces ancestry by utilizing his family’s archive of tools, like tire pieces from a mold of his family’s 1987 Ford Ranger truck.

A mold of a blown out tire makes a clay sculpture, sat atop a bed of white rocks, seen through a gold chain-link fence
noé olivas, Tire Blowout (2024), terracotta clay and white marble chips, 34 ½ x 27 x 9 ½ in. Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery.

“My work is a reflection of my family’s immigration experience. It speaks to the poetics of labor and the working class in proximity to harmful systems such as the prison industrial complex, imperialism, and capitalism,” olivas said. 

Other pieces in the collection include a performance work called The Great Spirit Will Come Again (2022) which is dedicated to the late artist James Luna, and Keep Your Head to the Sky (2024), an oil painting on upholstered burlap. This work again employs found objects and collected materials to construct a textured and layered experience.

“Utilizing an urban vernacular rasquachismo, olivas employs his family’s archive of tools, objects, and other collected materials to construct sculptures that meditate on the intended material use of these objects while also transforming them into spiritual icons capable of forging a path towards freedom,” a press release for the exhibition explained.

While these evocative works may make the audience feel uncomfortable or angry, all of them also carry with them a sense of hope and liberation.

"Keep Your Head Up To The Sky" by noe olivias shows an orange oil painting on a burlap canvas
noé olivas, Keep Your Head to the Sky (2024), oil on upholstered burlap, 40 x 50 in. Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery.

“Practicing abolition at CDM, we believe borders are harmful to our society and ecosystem,” olivas said. “I hope the future of immigration is centered on care and ends the practice of disposability of the human beings that have often left their homes because of the U.S. government’s impact on their homelands.”

The biggest conduit of optimism? olivas said it’s the connective tissue of community.

“The most rewarding part has been working with my community to make this project possible,” he said. “Working with my partner and curator Ana Briz, CDM team, my artist assistants, and my gallerist, Charlie James and his team, has been very special for me. I feel supported. It’s been very meaningful.”

As the exhibition comes to a close — but olivas continues his years-long practice of creating around themes of immigration and labor — his hope is that migrant communities find freedom. 

And as politicians continue to operate from a place of control and competition, his view of the world depicts something different.

“What always gives me hope are the children in our family and community. There is an Ifa proverb from the sacred Odu-Ifa that says ‘the doll-carrying masquerade who bears the Agba drum fiercely and repeatedly to perform rituals because of children,’” olivas said.

“When we are fighting for a world that practices abolition, we are building a better world for our children, to live a better life with dignity and respect. We are creating a kinder world that moves with care.”

Header images courtesy of noé olivas/Charlie James Gallery

Article Details

March 29, 2024 11:38 AM
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