Artist Elan Cadiz Reflects on Community and Considering Utopias

ANTE mag is proud to feature our first artist interview as a result of our open call, “Alchemy”, curated by Independent Curator and Founder, Wedge Studio, Douglas Turner. Artist Elan Cadiz shares her responses to our questions in this insightful and wide-ranging interview, in which she re-examines her practice in the past year+ in the wake of Covid-19’s effects on a reeling art world, means of examining space for diversity and humanity in the arts landscape and a reflection on enduring in the face of adversity. We hope you feel inspired by her reflections below, and that you spend some time to appreciate her precise and insightful practice visible at her website: https://www.elancadiz.com/

cover image: Father and Son, from “Scaffold” series by Elan Cadiz. Image courtesy the artist.

ANTE mag. Given our current ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we paid careful attention to your project “Scaffold: Equity of Treatment” which highlights how equitable communities allow us to draw from a wellspring of support, and to then harness that self-love in order to serve our role in society. Can you tell us how this series began and how you choose subjects for your portraits in this series?

Elan Cadiz. Like most life happenings, there were several things occurring at once when Covid caused quarantine last year. I had just started a new job with a not for profit called Foster Pride and was teaching weekly classes at a Foster Care space in the Bronx. I was also asked to submit to an open call for an exhibition entitled “Brooklyn Utopias”, and simultaneously police violence towards Black civilians was escalating and protests were brewing. All of these things made me rely heavily on my spiritual beliefs. I meditated and in my meditation, I decided the best way of dealing with the unknown was to surrender and focus on what I had control over. I needed to resolve my frustration with the word “Utopia”. I felt it implied that unity can only be achieved through fantasy. This frustrated me because I believe the only way we can truly take care of our planet is through peace amongst its inhabitants. For me “Utopia” became a kind of prognosis that could be realized in some form through individualized focus that meditated on an individual’s mental, physical and spiritual well-being through different forms of equitable support. This individual self-care became “the scaffold”: a term used in education to imply the support any one individual student needed to succeed. But I was missing the social capital to invest. I realized I needed subjects to represent humanity and it’s diversity. I also wanted to highlight the many people that can exist in (and impact – Ed.’s) a person’s lifetime. That’s when I started to contact people that I worked with, exhibited with, hung out with, met through social media, etc. I would send them an email, DM, text, call and explain the project and request photos of themselves that theyliked/loved or reminded them of a good memory. I wanted as much of the body visible as possible so that the scaffold can support their full form. Headshots felt more like a memorial. We are so much more than a pretty picture. From a museum security guard that paints curvaceous bodies to a vogue dancer from the Bronx, my collection of subjects became a visual representation of diverse social capital and why equity was an important component. With so many differences it was very clear that fairness within the opportunities and support given had to be configured to fit the needs of the individual.

ANTE mag. Tell us about your recent shows: where have you been exhibiting work in 2020-21? How have these exhibits helped you further develop your artistic practice during this time?

EC. Last year was quite an adventure in building and understanding the Scaffold Project. I was able to find and create opportunities for myself and as the project developed, for others. Like I had mentioned earlier, I had applied to the “Brooklyn Utopias” open call and curator Katherine Gressel chose the Scaffold Project to be a part of the exhibition. I later asked Katherine to participate in the Scaffold Project, and she was kind enough to say yes. “Brooklyn Utopias: 2020” was exhibited at the Old Stone House in Washington Park, Brooklyn, New York during the summer.Then in the fall, curator, former collaborator and Scaffold Project participant, Souleo, contacted me about an opportunity to exhibit the Scaffold Project in Styling: Black Expression, Rebellion and Joy Through Fashion at Nordstrom, NYC flagship store. This was exciting because it was not a traditional exhibition space: it highlighted the individual fashion and use of fashion to express one’s individuality and it connected Scaffold Project participants Ricky Jones and Souleo. Ricky and his stylish colorful wigs were also exhibited.

During this time I had also and accidentally became friends with (the Harlem-based curator.-Ed.s) Connie Lee. A mutual friend of ours had posted on Instagram a graffiti cleanup on 125th Street and Connie was in charge of the effort. I was so excited to participate because I had tried to clean the artwork on my own with regular cleaning materials and was unsuccessful. I was very excited to see if we would be able to clean the graffiti off the public artworks.The day was a success and we (several women and a couple of men) were able to remove all of the graffiti with brilliant cleaning wipes that Connie supplied us with. I posted our victory on social media and followed Connie in case of any other cleanups. As time moved on we realized we knew some of the same people, lived in Harlem, loved plants and art and became friends. I asked Connie to participate in the Scaffold Project and she agreed and as time went on I realized her connection to the arts in Harlem. She so kindly asked me to participate in the “Form, Paper, Scissors” exhibit at her Living with Art Salon. That was the first time a portion of the Scaffold: Equity of Treatment project was exhibited.

2021 began very strong for me and I was able to have two solo exhibitions of the Scaffold Project. Firstly at Adelphi University, curated by Jonathan Duff, and secondly at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey curated by Mary Birmingham. I was also so fortunate to be a part of 4 group exhibitions in 2021. Altered Grain, at the Stay Home Gallery in Paris, TNLove This Time, The Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership/ FOKUS, NYC& Giving Light: An Art Antidote to Gun Violence, Bronx Art Space,

I was introduced to the Stay Home Gallery, and Kaylan Buteyn’s Artist/Mother podcast through friend, artist, mother and Scaffold Project participant, Anna Ogier – Bloomer. That connection gave me formal experience as an Artist-mother-mentor, which was an enjoyable and enlightened experience that I plan to revisit and develop. I have so many stories of ways my appreciation for those around me brought positive experiences into my life. Through all of this I’ve learned the importance of checking in with friends and acquaintances, follow-up, sharing what I’m working on, sharing ideas, sharing opportunities and practicing thankfulness.

“Autumn” The Scaffold Project by Elan Cadiz. Courtesy the artist.

ANTE mag. You have created artwork for shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; El Museo del Barrio in Harlem, NY; Art in Flux, Harlem, NY; and the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum in Mt Vernon, NY – among other sites. Can you share how you approach working with a site and how you translate concepts into site-specific work?

EC. I was commissioned by the Studio Museum in Harlem to create bouquets of flowers using museum paraphernalia for the First Lady’s luncheon with host Michelle Obama in 2013. I wanted to clarify that, because I did not exhibit artworks in the Studio Museum as an artist. I was more like an artist consultant hired for a very specific event. I exhibited at El Museo del Barrio as part of Uptown: Nasty Women/Bad Hombres exhibition in 2017 but was also commissioned to design/decorate drinking glasses as part of a raffle prize for their 2017 Gala. In all of the projects that I’ve taken on it’s important that the first connection is community. Most if not all of the work I’ve done touches on where I live & where I’m from, which is why I use the word domestic in my artist statement. I’m referring to all aspects of the word. I always look for the familiar and then allow that understanding space to define or redefine itself more thoroughly through observation and engagement. Spending time with collaborators and the spaces they/we occupy helps me to understand my task fully. I also almost always use whatI have easy access to. My goal is to utilize whatever a space has in abundance and like the Children’s book, Jacob Had A Little Overcoat by Simms Taback, make something out of nothing. Only nothing is the abundance of something that had been deemed “nothing” or overlooked.

ANTE mag. You note in your artist statement that you see yourself as “ a cultural interpreter and visual documentarian.” How did this become a key feature of your artistic practice and in what ways does it determine how you approach a new body of work?

EC. It wasn’t until quarantine and my separation from the continuous hustle and survival in New York City that I was able to understand what was important to me and my artistic practice.

In reflection, I realized that I existed in many different spaces. For example, I see myself as an artist but I’ve also been an art educator for 20 years, a mother for 18 years, a wife for 17 years and an ex-wife for 3 years. I was born and raised in NYC as well as my parents but their parents migrated here. My father’s family is from Puerto Rico and my mother’s side from Georgia and other Southern states. In 2016 when I got my DNA evaluated I learned I was connected to so many parts of the world. All of these things made me realize that the purpose of my work was to always teach what I learned and to make my art accessible for anyone to engage. As a Black, Latinx woman with a very mixed heritage, I was born an oppressed person with particular freedoms. In understanding my environment and the people in my environment, I hope to maximize my freedoms and liberate others through Visual understanding and disclosure.

“Spitz Pharoah” The Scaffold Project by Elan Cadiz. Courtesy the artist.

ANTE mag. You frequently up-cycle or re-use materials in your project – for example, the Shizen Pastel Paper you incorporate in your Scaffold series is handmade in India from recycled paper, while the Harlem Wanishi Sukkah you produced in 2019 utilized community donations. How does this aspect of using sustainable materials inform your work?

EC. Sustainable materials are familiar. And as I mentioned in question three I usually begin with the familiar because it’s what I know. I think there is something that can be understood in all the work I do, be it the use of home as an archetype, human specific item/object(s) that can be found inside or outside a home, or a photograph of my changing community and it’s people in different stages of its existence … sustainable materials add a universal understanding and extended narrative to my pre-existing intention, widening its significance. Besides I’m doing my best to be a respectful and responsible Earthling.

ANTE mag. Finally, what projects do you have coming up that you can share with us?

EC. My biggest news is the culmination exhibition of SCAFFOLD: Equity of Treatment project Over 150 Scaffold Project portraits on view at the Royal Kente Gallery in Harlem, NYC from May 2nd – May 30th. I am beyond excited to have all the portraits in one space and in my community.It’s a dream come true for me. I also plan to slowly create a book that can represent its intention, as well as the participants. The goal is that the book be a shared authorship between all participants that want to contribute to the book. That will take a year or two to develop. As for the exhibition, it will be the last time all of the portraits will be together because afterward depending if any of them sell that money will be split with the gallery, the participant, and me and whatever is not sold will be given as a gift to the participant in the portrait.

Not everyone wants their portraits, so for those who don’t I’ll be keeping them but this will be an agreement between me and the participant and the first and last time to see all of them in a space together. For me that’s very exciting because although I love the project is quite exhausting on my body and my mind. I’m looking forward to letting it go and allowing it room to develop into whatever it needs to be. And whatever it becomes I hope it supports the importance of people, social capital and how together we will always be stronger.