Federico Cuatlacuatl began making art when he was 7 years old. It was a “survival instinct” that kicked in when his family moved from Cholula, Mexico, to Indiana.
“I knew like, two words of English, and I needed a way to communicate that I felt sad and depressed, and that I missed home, and that I didn’t feel good,” says Cuatlacuatl. Because he couldn’t express those feelings verbally to most of the people around him, he developed a visual language for it.
By high school, Cuatlacuatl was an active, prolific artist. Making work was a continuation of that survival instinct that kicked in when he was little, he says. Growing up undocumented, he knew that he had to work “toward something that would one day be fruitful,” he says.
“And that was my chance: to be an artist.”
Now, Cuatlacuatl is living and working in Charlottesville and teaching art classes at the University of Virginia. He works in a variety of mediums—illustration, animation, painting, installation—and throughout the month of April, as the Tom Tom Festival artist-in-residence at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, he’ll exhibit some of his own work and lead a number of community art projects.
“I can’t sit still,” Cuatlacuatl says, half-jokingly, as the reason for why he works in so many different mediums. But there’s much more to it than that.
An artist’s flexibility and fluidity is crucial to how he functions within his community, says Cuatlacuatl, and for his own artistic practice, community is paramount. “An artist can function, and must function, in a community, and must respond alongside a community,” he says. “I always like to emphasize that my work is not personal. My work is not talking about my narrative, or me personally. But it uses my narrative to amplify that there [are] thousands of cases like these.”
Broadly, his work focuses on a number of issues, including immigration, recognition, and celebration of indigenous communities, and cultural sustainability. We talk a lot about environmental, social, and economic sustainability, and not enough about cultural sustainability, says Cuatlacuatl. “Culturally, we’re so diverse and so dynamic within our own communities, that we have to understand that, and we have to bring that into the conversation of how we are collaborating and becoming a collective community.” In order to sustain a culture, its traditions must be acknowledged and practiced.
Cuatlacuatl was in the car, on his way to town to begin his professorship at UVA, the weekend of August 11 and 12, 2017. When he arrived, one of the first things he did was respond to the tiki torch march on Grounds —a major trauma for his new community. He deconstructed a tiki torch and made it into a kite, which he flew as a form of peaceful protest against the ideas the torch-wielding neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched for. It was his way of demonstrating that, “with tradition and culture, you can really shift conversations around, literally and also culturally,” he says.
Kites as a form of peaceful protest are the basis of Cuatlacuatl’s “Desencabronamiento” exhibition, which opens Sunday, April 14, at The Bridge PAI. It will feature a variety of kites, all of them traditional Mexican forms, which Cuatlacuatl learned from Mexican master kite maker Pedro Cuacuas. The kites are white, rather than rainbow-hued, to express peace.
Cuatlacuatl expects the sight might conjure up the image of waving a white flag, an action that holds different meanings in different cultures. In the United States, the action of waving a white flag indicates surrender. In other cultures—including Mexico—waving a white flag, or in this case, flying a white kite, means peace. “Let’s talk, let’s enter into dialogue.” Cuatlacuatl’s inviting the latter.
The exhibition title, “Desencabronamiento,” translates literally to “the process of getting un-pissed off.” Cuatlacuatl chose that title because making these kites has been cathartic for him, and he hopes it will be to everyone who gets involved, including the local Latinx high schoolers who are building some of the kites along with him.
The flight patterns of the kites will be 3-D mapped and made into an animation that will live online. And, along with those Latinx students, Cuatlacuatl has begun work on a mural in the Hogwaller neighborhood, one that will celebrate indigenous communities of many kinds in Virginia. “I think we often forget that we are occupying native land,” says Cuatlacuatl, who wishes there was more acknowledgment of the Monacan Indian Nation—the traditional custodians of the land we now call Charlottesville—and other indigenous peoples throughout the area. And not just their past, but their present and future, too.
The social practice of art is an important agent for social change, says Cuatlacuatl. “I really see social practice as a more powerful way of approaching concerns and issues. You can directly work with communities, confront the issue, and possibly propose advances…shift things around,” he says. “Rather than making things, I’m more interested in making things happen.”