In this Creative Conversation, Ro Garrido and Katherine Toukhy discuss their studio practices, the process of assemblage and disassemblage in relation to self, history, and agency, and how reconfiguring fragments can push us towards personal and political transformation.
I’m thinking about what it means to “fall apart”, especially in the context of assemblage/disassemblage. As a creative tool, I feel like “falling apart” has allowed me to work with what I have, which are often pieces, never a whole, really. On an emotional level, falling apart is hard, to say the least, whether it’s triggered by an event or more longstanding emotional distress. Yet in both instances, I would say that falling apart is always revelatory. What do you think about working with “pieces”? Do you think there is something to be revealed through this “broken-ness”?
I think about the different connotations when you say you are “falling apart,” which denotes a passive state; and “breaking apart” or “deconstructing,” which denote active states. I know for me, that once I started tearing apart paper and old drawings or canvas, it felt really right. Then I wanted to put things together again in a new way, outside of the four edges of a frame.
The word rupture is swimming in my head right now. I feel like it relates both to “falling apart” and “breaking apart”, as in both are essentially disruptive. While I agree, that “breaking apart” is possibly a more active process, maybe a more intentional one even, I think there is a certain power in the vulnerability required in the “falling apart” process. This also brings up a question about agency, where it lies in our relation to these ruptures, about the ways in which we consent and do not consent to this sort of breaking.
There’s a difference between talking about breaking apart emotionally or psychologically, which often isn’t within our control—and doing it in our art process—which is in our control (most of the time!). I think that the tearing apart of images and ideas which take over our cultural landscape and our imaginations is very much an active thing. It is a way to reorder the world and shape outer reality. Though it may come from an internal state of rupture and vulnerability Can you say more about what kinds of images you deconstruct in your work? What types of materials do you assemble and disassemble?
I started working with old family photographs mostly because I was surrounded by them, almost overpowered by their imagery. Through digital collage, I found freedom in my process in a way that working with my hands did not allow me at that time. The ability to digitally manipulate my material, to assemble and disassemble in this manner, allowed me to do incredible things like cut myself in half and put myself back together again. I could create a dozen versions of myself and they could all co-exist somehow. I could reorder these images and the histories attached to them, if only for a moment. Now as I’ve moved onto more sculptural mixed media work and find myself disassembling / assembling material in a physical manner, often on my studio floor surrounded with piles of scattered cut fabric, I feel like my creative process has been challenged in a necessary way. I’m still working along the same themes of memory, intimacy, and loss, still exploring private (or domestic) and public space, so it feels like I’m still building on the same conversation but have new material to work with. It feels like a progression that has slowly brought me to grips with my (familial, community, political) environment and has made me think more deeply about the kind of impact I want to shape in the world.
Recently, I’ve also been working on the floor and wanting to go more sculptural. Like in your studio, there are random pieces of fabric with intricate patterns and prints that I sometimes trace or print onto paper. Some of them are crocheted pieces made by women in my family. These find their way into fragmented female figures that I am making. I think of them as an endless series of manifestations of this person who carries all kinds of histories in her, far beyond herself. I think she is trying to find a way out. And sometimes in the bigger pieces, her body gets intertwined with what looks like land. There are connections between land and body, trying to free their ghosts. Because I’ve been concerned with the histories that carry emotional weight and are often unspoken or too big, like histories of war and violence that affect all of us—especially as U.S. citizens—military figures started to populate the work. I always wonder “What got us here?” to the kind of world where we’ve had to suppress so much of the real violence that happens every day just to keep certain powers-that-be very well fed. So I think that layering all these types of patterns and fragmented figures is also a way to reckon with the past and try to acknowledge these histories, in order to find a different way. A sense of total newness or an ahistorical sense strikes me as very American, and as a tool that is used to dominate and colonize.
How do you think this way of working, of trying to fit together and reorder all these pieces, relates to our positions in immigrant families?
To be honest, I feel like I only know how to work with fragments and this is how I’ve related to history as well. Growing up, my mother revealed very little about our family’s history, even though I knew that I was born in Peru and that we were not from here. It’s taken a lot of digging to learn about my family’s personal history and a lot of growth on my part to be able to contextualize that within larger histories of migration from Latin America. Clearly though, U.S history is incredibly fragmented in the way it has been constructed within dominant culture, erasing much of the U.S’s violent history, along with histories of colonization, imperialism, and war, in particular. Yet while history or the past may be hard to reckon with, like you mention, I don’t think the response should be to sever ourselves from it; I think doing so would only break us further. The invisibility or erasure that I experienced as a child of immigrants made it really easy for me to disconnect from history when I was younger and made it really hard for me to value the pieces that I had managed to recover. The truth is no one wants to feel broken, but what I was able to do through becoming more politically conscious was that my broken-ness felt meaningful. It had purpose.
To feel fragmented, and not really be able to identify why, is great for keeping the status quo in place. Once people start to identify and name the powers that create this kind of fragmentation, and have languages through art, culture, and psychology, to expose it, they can unify to build something different together. It’s taken a lot of digging on my part as well to learn about the global patterns of domination and control that have shaped what is now called the Middle East, where my family is from. I heard a talk given by Junot Diaz in which he mentions that immigration is a kind of trauma, and many deal with that through silence. I also connect this to the lack of language around racism in our country. If we can barely talk about it, as people born and raised here, then it’s hard to expect our elders, born and raised elsewhere, to give us a language with which to face it. In many respects, we have to forge our way ahead. This leaves the first generation looking to assemble the broken bits, or struggling to cut off pieces of ourselves to fit into a dominant narrative and assimilate, or breaking down those aspects of the dominant narrative that leave no space for who we are and our mix of identities. I feel like it’s in that last option that there is the possibility of political reordering, first re-imagining the world, then organizing with others to actively demand it and shape it.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Ro Garrido is a self-taught, interdisciplinary artist whose work grapples with themes of memory, intimacy, and identity. Through collage, mixed media, sculpture, writing, and performance, Ro seeks to build a practice that communicates in various ways. Read The LP interview with Ro here, and visit Ro on the web at rogarrido.com. Also, check out Ro’s earlier Spin Cycle post, Uncovering Emotional Landscapes in Community.
Katherine Toukhy is an Egyptian American artist based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Her work has been shown in various exhibition venues, such as the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, and galleries in Brooklyn, Boston, New Jersey, and Buenos Aires. Read The LP Interview with Katherine here, and visit her on the web at katherinetoukhy.com. Also, check out Katherine’s earlier Spin Cycle post, Environmental Justice from Local to Global.