Puerto Rican artist views race through the complex lens of the Kardashians

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Friday, January 12, 2024 - 11:58am

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Artist Luis Rivera Jimenez’s work isn’t normally about the desert Southwest, but the racial complexities of the Caribbean.

However, last year he was brought to Phoenix to be the CALA Alliance’s latest artist in residence.

Much of his work culminated in a show, "A Brief Proposal on Race and Cultural Cosplay," at the ASU Art Museum that tackled race in some surprising ways. 

The Show got a tour of it with Rivera Jimenez last year, beginning with a living room, a shelf of books — and what looked like flow charts on the wall featuring none other than the Kardashians. 

ASU Art Museum
Tim Agne/KJZZ
ASU Art Museum in Tempe.

Full interview

LUIS RIVERA JIMENEZ: This is, this is the famous Kardashian poster, right? It is a systematic analysis of the genealogy and the connections that you can find and make if you start dotting the lines between the relationships that the Kardashian clan has had kind of across music and movies and actors, right? You know, it's a interesting spread where we can come from Kim Kardashian to Bad Bunny. We can go to Kris Jenner to Chris Rock. We can kind of connect Khloe Kardashian to Elvis Presley through all this kind of weird interwoven web of connections, let's say.

So why the Kardashians, because the books on the wall over here are largely about race, right? And Indigenous history, things like that, things that you probably studied when you came to Phoenix, just do this project here and you're looking at race. Why the Kardashians?

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Well, I feel like the Kardashians are an interesting example of the reference that we can all have. Like, I feel like if race is already a very divisive, complicated kind of it, it's a theme that comes with a lot of conflict, kind of deep inside it. I feel like I'm really interested in looking for places of commonality, right?

Weird places where we can come together and maybe we don't have to talk about race as this big capital "R" big word that can seem to throw some people off. But if I can get you in the gallery and we can talk about why Kid Rock and Bad Bunny are on the same kind of poster board connected. I feel like that could be a step forward to an "in" on a conversation that maybe isn't necessarily had always about race.

That's so interesting. And what you're getting at partially in this entire project it sounds like is, is this idea that we don't want to talk about race, like we don't feel comfortable talking about it. It's the kind of thing you don't talk about in polite society, right? And you, you're trying to break that down a little bit, it seems.

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Yeah, I mean, that's kind of why I have one of the environments here. Just kind of be like a very cozy place, right? You know, this a place where you can kind of like sit down and try to talk about race.

So tell me before we move on here a little bit about your own background. You're from Puerto Rico and you came here through a grant from the CALA Alliance to, to kind of study race in a different context. Do you usually look at race through, you know, the context of the Caribbean?

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Yeah, definitely, I feel that since race is such an important part of the history of the Caribbean, the way it's kind of shaped and molded the relationship we have with the rest of the world race has kind of been like a very illuminating structure for me to think about my history and my own place in the world and how the rest of the world sees me, right?

A lot of like Puerto Rican products, you know, kind of like music and celebrities and kind of even beauty aesthetics are global at this point. And it was always really interesting for me to look at it through the like the lens of race. And I think it gave me a certain amount of tools that kind of permit me then to come to Phoenix.

And you know, if I have kind of a setup where I have some sort of verb, I have a noun, right? I come to Phoenix and I say like, well, race is a structure that's global. It's a structure that operates in ways that's unseen in Puerto Rico. It's X, Y and Z, let's see what happens when I go and investigate how it is in Phoenix, right? Let's see what other letters it is in Phoenix.

That's really interesting. OK. So let's see more. And then at the end, I'll ask you about what you found.

So you walk into this gallery and I mean, the first thing that probably strikes you is this entire back wall and a half or so here is just covered in posters with different phrases on them. Let's talk about this. I mean, can you read a few of these for us and, and talk about how you chose them?

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Oh, sure. All of these were kind of sourced during my research, right. I kind of had like a very large notes file where I would just like write these things down that I would either hear on the street. I would see them in conversation kind of in people.

I can read a couple here. There's one that I saw very quickly.

It says, "I am the spice of life."

There's another that reads, "Is your future hopeful?"

"Which one of you will tell me who I am?"

"What the ... does multicultural even mean?"

"Do you understand the pain of illegibility?"

"Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm."

Some of these are, are, are backwards. Is that right?

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Yes, some of them are mirrored. This kind of comes up in the idea that sometimes and the ways we talk about race and the ways we talk about identity are interestingly coded, right? I feel like sometimes we have these ideas of who gets to speak on whose experience, whose experience makes sense to me, whose experiences seem alien to me. And to add to that kind of layer of obfuscation, I'm really interested in also having the words and the things that are being said here, literally not be legible in an actual sense. There's an exercise that kind of comes up where to read them. You need kind of the help of a mirror or kind of the most common mirror, we have, kind of like a selfie.

Good point.

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Yeah. Yeah. So the idea is a little that you have to get some skin in the game, right? You need to kind of insert yourself in the reading of certain texts to also get the meaning of the text, right? I think one of the really interesting ones that, that people are pointing out while we were working, right? There's one here that says, "it's racist, but like chill" and that becomes a very different kind of statement depending on who's reading it, right? Who says it, where is it coming from, right?

I think that if you heard, you know, someone like me, a Black man say it's racist but like chill, there's a certain context that differs if a white man came in here and said, yeah, it's racist but like chill very different.

That's fascinating. You're getting it much more than that here. I mean, so that is getting at something bigger, right? Because you're using various forms of art, you get T-shirts here over there. There are sort of collared shirts with messages printed on them. You've got sort of objects, found objects over here, like using different materials. What are you saying with that?

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Well, I think the really important thing is that race comes at us in all kinds of ways. It, it isn't just stuck on, let's say this idea of kind of a superstructure, right? I, I know a lot of us kind of imagine this idea of a white supremacist system or a system of racism that kind of precedes all of us. And I think that we need to find more spaces to think about it on the tangible, right?

You know, what does it mean that race is a superstructure that goes above all, a lot of political and social. It means that race kind of follows us everywhere. You know, it's in our clothes, it's in the ways we talk, it's in the things we have in our homes. It's the way we dress. It's the thing that we carry with us that we might not necessarily think are racialized, but in the space we live in are 100% racialized.

Hence, the Kim Kardashian genealogy over there, right? Because she is somebody and that family is, is something that like sort of plays with race. This idea of what do I look like today?

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Of course, I mean, I, you know, we can have a long conversation about, you know, Kim Kardashian kind of setting trends and how women want to look, right? What body shapes are we trying to kind of emulate? She takes out her implants and she starts looking more like a white woman again, right? Or was she ever a white woman? I don't know, she's like Lebanese or she's Persian.

Armenian, I know that.

RIVERA JIMENEZ: Yes, there we go. I mean, that's the best example, right? You know, you're clear on what her kind of background is, and that's why I think she's a great jumping off point because the relationship you have to, her, we can talk about it. There's no one that doesn't have a space here to talk about race, right?

I think that everybody is implicated in race in ways that they are aware of and ways that they aren't aware of. And I'm looking to build a space where we can kind of everybody come together and talk about our own positioning inside race.

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