“Intercambios” pays homage to death and memory

The collaborative multi-artist exhibit will run at the Ruth Davis Design Gallery at UW-Madison through April 10.

The collaborative multi-artist exhibit will run at the Ruth Davis Design Gallery at UW-Madison through April 10.

Header Photo: The entrance to the exhibition “Intercambios: Art, Stories, & Comunidad” at the Ruth Davis Design Gallery is shown. A red wall with white text provides an introduction to the exhibition in the foreground. Behind it are an assortment of richly detailed, colorful textiles suspended from the ceiling. Photo by Hannah Keziah Agustin.

Somewhere between Oaxaca and Madison, Intercambios: Art, Stories, & Comunidad was birthed. The exhibit, running through April 10 at the Ruth Davis Design Gallery in the UW-Madison campus’ Center For Design And Material Culture, uses vibrant handspun tapestries, interactive multimedia installations, and intricate embroidery on hand-dyed rayon to pay homage to past loved ones. One particular ritual dealing with loss, Day of the Dead, serves as a focal point for many of the pieces.


Taken as a whole, the show is a documentation of the complex exchange between craft and culture, and a reckoning with migration’s ability to rupture and cultivate histories. An international collaboration by 10 artists from different parts of the Americas, Intercambios wrestles with the existential questions of death, time, and memory. In doing so, the fully bilingual exhibition shows the byzantine allure of life, even in its temporality.

It all started three years ago, with a conversation between Madison-based artists Dakota Mace, Carolyn Kallenborn, John Hitchcock, and Roberto Torres Mata. Kallenborn has been working with Oaxaca artisans for over 15 years. Mace and Torres spent a summer working with artisans as graduate students and have since been in touch with the local art community in the region. “[We] wanted to create an exchange of different art practices,” Mace says, inspired by conversations with Zapotec weavers in their shared histories as Indigenous peoples. This led the group to invite into the conversation Oaxaca-based artists Miriam Campos, Alvaro Torres, Virginia Alvarez Juárez, Erasto “Tito” Mendoza Ruiz, Moises Martinez Velasco, and Ana Paula Fuentes.

What began as Zoom chats at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic evolved into long-distance exchanges of artwork and eventually an exhibition rife with the richness of intersections. Mace and Ruiz worked together on “Shared Histories,” an art piece made of cotton, wool, beadwork, and glass which explores the connections between Diné and Zapotec culture to show the relationship of Indigenous experiences and trauma. Mace says, “The fabric has a unique history that is felt and this is passed down from generation to generation.” In both cultures, death is celebrated in the context of family and community, allowing for memories to live on even when someone has passed away. Working with textiles and family photographs, Mace cultivated a deep reverence toward the history of making. “Our histories are erased and our work is commodified,” Mace says. “[Indigenous art] should not be seen simply as a static entity but as one that is thriving.”

“Shared Histories.” Photo by Dakota Mace.

For the multisensory installation “WATER/AIR/LAND,” Hitchcock, Torres, and Mendoza came together to show the relationship of the community to the land. Because natural elements are important to Indigenous cultures, this altar of electric guitar riffs, a visual journal filled with pages of lines and color, and a bright neon sign illuminated in front of abstract imagery gives honor to the land, which is believed to be inseparable from the self. “Signage is a component of the space we live in. It colonizes the mind,” Hitchcock says. With this in mind, the video component of this piece—which flashes glimpses of endless sky and sprawling fields—can be understood as an offering of praise to the earth that holds all of us.

“WATER/AIR/LAND.” Photo by Hannah Keziah Agustin.

In “Marking Time,” Kallenborn, Fuentes, and Campos created a space where a human’s lifetime is juxtaposed with the life cycles of nature through a projection of images. When compared to a mountain, a human lifespan is mere vapor. When compared to a flower, it is practically eternal. To embody the transience of life, guests are invited to sew in their marks on an exposed piece of fabric, which, when stretched out, is 10 feet long. Whenever a space is filled in, the sections exposed will be changed, symbolizing time’s moving nature. Fabric cutouts of a human figure, a bird, and a flower are left out for visitors to write on and stitch onto the cloth. “You’re leaving this idea that is ephemeral like shadows for others to read and reflect on,” Kallenborn says. “It’s also a reminder for yourself to remember.”

“Marking Time.” Photo by Dakota Mace.

During my own visit to the gallery, I sat there with a needle in hand reminiscing about the losses of the past few years, when many have had to stare death in the eye because of the pandemic. I wrote on my cutout, “Remember love.” To respect loss is to honor the space of memory. It involves making space for grief, out of love and reverence for the ones whom we no longer have in our midst. 

“Each of us looked at death in a very different way, but community was its unifying element,” Hitchcock says. The multiplicity of perspectives present in this exhibit reminds us that we are not alone when we grieve. We have a community coming alongside us in our mourning. This is what Intercambios offers—a company for ache. It is a testament recognizing that even when those we love are no longer in our presence, they live on in traditions, in beliefs, and in relics of memory passed on like heirlooms through the stories shared.

Upcoming events tied in with Intercambios include a printing demonstration by Roberto Torres Mata on February 18 from 5 to 6:30 p.m., a live performance by John Hitchcock and Alvaro Torres on March 17 from 2 to 4 p.m, and a virtual gallery walkthrough featuring the exhibiting artists on April 8, from 12 to 1 p.m. For more information about the events, please visit the Center For Design And Material Culture website.

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