Latest: In Art, Migrants Weave Memories of Their Great Escape

Last year, the Guggenheim Museum displayed a major survey of the works of Gego, or Gertrud Goldschmidt, the German-born artist who fled to Venezuela when the Nazis took power. Living there until her death in 1994, the artist thrived, creating what The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter called “some of the most radically beautiful sculpture of the second half of the 20th century.”

At the TriBeCa nonprofit gallery Apexart, the exhibition “Build what we hate. Destroy what we love,” heralds the rise of a reverse diasporic culture flowing from the South American country.

Its three presenting artists, along with the curator Fabiola R. Delgado, belong to the nearly eight million Venezuelan refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers who have left the country in the past decade, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

The 16 pieces make up what Delgado calls “objects of embodied memories”: textiles made of clothing collected from displaced Venezuelans; a video installation showing family photos hastily packed before fleeing the country; an anonymously published map of migrant routes, collected in neighboring Colombia.

“There are so many artists worldwide making art dealing with migration, but there isn’t a migrant art category,” Delgado said in a recent interview. “These three artists are developing new languages to speak about this phenomenon; they don’t show faces or carry a sensationalist focus on trauma.”

Delgado, a former human rights lawyer who has lived in Washington, D.C., since 2014, said that protecting “the integrity and dignity” of migrants was important to the show.

“I wanted works which were sensitive, which didn’t abuse anyone’s personality or show anything that would endanger someone’s safety, while still not hiding the realities of abandonment and grief,” she added.

This is most evident in three photographs by Ronald Pizzoferrato. The portraits were taken in Colombia, and show refugees covering their faces with items they’d carried on their journeys; a thin mattress or a jacket with the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

Though based in Switzerland since 2013, Pizzoferrato returns regularly to Venezuela and its surrounding countries, to document refugees along varying stages of displacement. A four-minute video he recorded while following migrants on the trek across the Darién Gap — a dangerous land bridge between Colombia and Panama used to reach the United States on foot — opens the exhibition.

“I think a narrative of Venezuelan artists that is understood both inside and outside the country is finally being built through the migration,” he said in a coffee shop near the gallery. “There’s a more global reflection and, now, when I create, it’s from that double understanding. It’s one special thing emerging from all of this.”

His observation echoes Delgado’s choice to title the exhibition in reference to one effect of migrant double consciousness: preserving the memory of a place by leaving it. It’s a theme also present in works by Juan Diego Pérez la Cruz, who connected disparate lines from Venezuelan state anthems into lyrical collages, in search of a national spirit. His collages stemmed from a desire to explain to himself what happened to the country.

“It became clear that the two things which identify us are nature and violence,” he said in a video interview. “These themes now figure directly into new migrant stories, like of those crossing the Darién.”

Pérez la Cruz first left Venezuela in 2017, following a violent clash between protesters and the National Guard at the university where he taught architecture. After a brief return, during which he was able to salvage old photographs — some featured in a video installation — he moved to Minnesota in 2019.

“I’d go out with my little film camera when I was 12 or 13, and my friends were always kind of annoyed because whatever came out was what we were left with,” he said. “Now it’s a good thing I took those, because we’re all in different countries. This is what keeps us together.”

The third artist in the show, Cassandra Mayela, who weaves together clothing collected from Venezuelan migrants, said her practice, “offers people a chance to be a part of something again, to return to a community, even if metaphorically.”

She began her project in 2021, when someone gave her a uniform from their first “on the books” job in the United States, which she then cut for use in a larger piece. But as she continued to tell the stories of migrants through their donated clothes, the outpouring of catharsis and trauma became too much, and Mayela paused the project in 2023. Then came what she called “the gut-punch.”

It appears in the exhibition as “La Carga” (“The Load”), a piece reconstructed from a backpack a friend gave her during a visit to Venezuela the previous year. The bag broke apart upon Mayela’s return to Brooklyn, where she’s lived since 2014. Bearing the colors of the Venezuelan flag, it was once distributed through a government assistance program that was later denounced as corrupt.

“Once the crisis started, you’d see them on migrants, not students,” she said of the backpack. “It became a symbol of migration. These things we remember all become symbols.”

“I’ve interviewed about 250 people, which isn’t even 1 percent of the millions who have left,” she continued. “It gets heavy. The broken backpack was the sign I needed that this was material, not nostalgia.”

Her textile pieces, some of which measure up to 14 feet, and often displayed alongside interview excerpts, have brought her international attention.

In December, The Times reported that Venezuelans had become one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the city, and the fastest-growing in the country over the last five years.

Delgado thinks this will likely lead to a boom in art from the Venezuelan diaspora.

“With these numbers, there’s sure to be an organic movement,” she said. “It will probably feel very urban, because most people arriving here carry practices like graffiti or street photography with them.”

With a “Little Caracas” neighborhood brewing in Queens, Delgado believes the exhibition has opened at an apt time.

“For those not familiar with our situation, I want it to be a point of entry, and a moment of international solidarity,” she said. “And for us, I want it to be a moment of memory and commemoration. We don’t yet have a museum to the Venezuelan migrant. This is an ephemeral monument to their transiency, to let them know they’re seen and remembered.”

Build what we hate. Destroy what we love.

Through March 9, Apexart, 291 Church Street, Lower Manhattan, 212-431-5270;

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