Hanging from the ceiling of Karen Navarro’s studio is a photographic portrait of a young woman printed in strips onto horizontal wooden slats strung together to create a mobile. Each slat in this kinetic photographic sculpture seems to have the freedom to rotate independently. So, while the actual image remains the same, the viewer’s perception of it is subject to change.
This mobile is a piece in the artist’s ongoing series, The Constructed Self, for which she cut and reassembled photographic portraits to build collages and sculptures. Navarro, an Argentinian artist, based in Houston, Texas, has created these dimensional portraits, with pieces that can be rearranged and displayed in a variety of ways to express the relationship between identity and perception.
In this interview for LensCulture, she speaks to Liz Sales about her inspiration to make work addressing identity, the material nature of her working process and changing sense of self.
Liz Sales: I’ve enjoyed following your work over the past several years and I am interested in learning more about your newest series, The Constructed Self. Can you tell me a bit about the origins of this body of work?
Karen Navarro: This project is an extension of my ongoing exploration into self-representation, which started with my previous body of work, El Pertenecer en Tiempos Modernos (Belonging in Modern Times). For that project, I was thinking about social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, and their role in how we present ourselves.
So, I created collaged portraits, in strips, circles, and cubes at varying dimensions, as a way to represent the layers of distancing that people use when constructing an online persona. I also embossed them with the top 100 hashtags at the time of their creation to manipulate the texture of the surface of the image and reference tribal tattoos, which like hashtags, signify belonging to a group. I felt I needed to use more materials to address the complexity of identity and perception further. So I started working on The Constructed Self.
LS: What do you mean when you say you needed to use more materials to address the complexity of identity and perception?
KN: El Pertenecer en Tiempos Moderno was a little more sculptural than the conventional photography I had previously been doing. So, I wanted to move further in that direction and find ways to push the boundaries of photography. With The Constructed Self, I am adding wood, resin and plait and I am really disrupting photography’s flat surface by cutting and reassembling images to build three-dimensional objects. And in doing this, I not only play with visual perception but also with our perception of identity, because both are constructions.
LS: Would you elaborate a bit on your thoughts on the concept of identity and how you manifest these ideas through your work?
KN: For me, identity is a social and cultural construct. How we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others sometimes differs. For example, I am from Argentina and not that long ago, I found out that I am of indigenous descent on my father’s side. This has changed how I perceive myself, it has made me proud and sad at the same time for not having had access to my ancestor’s culture.
We all know that Indigenous Peoples have been marginalized and under-represented since colonialism. This dominant Euro-centrist hegemonic vision narrative influences the lens through which we perceive others and how we are perceived. However, I am a believer that we can decolonize our way of thinking to create a more equitable and fair world.
Like a puzzle, my identities intersect, coming together to construct my multiple sense of self. For this reason, I made each of the works in this series so that the pieces can be rearranged to create a new piece, just like we can change as people or present one of our multiple selves in different situations. Although I do not appear in the pictures, I see the works as self-reflective, and my process becomes a form of meditation that reflects my efforts to reconstruct and to make sense of my own identity.
LS: How do you select the subjects who do appear in your pictures? How do you work with them?
KN: As an immigrant and woman of color, I like to use my medium as a tool for representation, so I choose to portray a diverse range of people from every background in my work. I typically find my models by putting a call out on social media. Social media allows me to reach a wide range of people that otherwise I would not reach. When I shoot my subjects here in my studio, I pay close attention to every detail. I am meticulous and I arrange all the elements: the lighting, the composition, and the color scheme in a sketchbook beforehand. Although, while shooting, I allow myself to experiment too.
LS: Yes, you have such a strong sense of color! I think that’s one of the reasons your work has consistently drawn my eye, both in person and on social media. Can you speak to your interest in color theory?
KN: I think it comes down to a combination of sensibility and practice. When I was in college, the head of my department told me to redo all of my work for an annual subject, which was called Expressive Mediums. She said I did not understand color. So, I redid an entire year’s worth of work in two weeks, and I still barely passed. However, after years of art-making, putting one color next to another and trying to understand the effects colors have on each other, something clicked into place in my mind. Now, I am very comfortable using bold and compelling color combinations to make the work seductive and to invite the viewer to ask questions.
LS: That was precisely my experience of The Constructed Self. I was seduced by the colorful objects you had created and wanted to know more about the concepts behind them. What do you think might be next for you?
KN: I am planning a project inspired by the recent instances of social injustices in the United States and my experience as a brown immigrant woman. For this project, I opened a call on Instagram to collect a diverse range of images of skin tones. At this moment, I am working with the skin tone images submitted by participants in the United States. I plan to use these photographs combined with language, and U.S. Census data to create work which will touch upon topics like belonging, migration, and collective and personal identity. Through data interpretation and personal meditations and reflections around race and power, I want to reclaim a space for the minorities who have long been marginalized and underrepresented.