Laura August joins the Rubin Center and builds on a program that nurtures connections between art and artists in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.
After a decade of independent curating, writing, and moving between the United States and Central America, Laura August, recently appointed curator at the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas at El Paso, is excited to be grounded in a place.
“My office is a half-mile away from Ciudad Juárez, where the border wall cuts a weird and porous line between these two cities,” says August, who frequently looks out the window while speaking with Southwest Contemporary over Zoom. “I’m learning that [El Paso and Juárez] are deeply entangled with one another, but in different ways than they were, say, twenty years ago.”
Previously, August received the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and completed her PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. She was a Core Critical Studies Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and an inaugural Mellon Arts & Practitioner fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.
August’s 2020 exhibition To Weave Blue: Poema al tejido at the Martha and Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art at the University of Memphis was the first show of contemporary Maya conceptual art in the U.S. Through it, August says, “We were thinking about how forms of writing might unsettle forms of exhibition-making that are premised on capital H History, capital K Knowledge—these categories as they’ve been understood from a Europe-centric position. I’m interested in how exhibitions might learn from writing, from weaving, from ceremony, from shared meals… from other spaces and other forms.”
August’s strength in curation comes from her practice as a writer. In her essay “On interpretation,” she captures the unavoidable faux pas of translation but then shifts to the beautiful moments that can happen when one is forced to rebuild one’s vocabulary. August’s acknowledgment and openness at a time when she had less certainty demonstrate a kindness that she takes with her wherever she goes.
“I think a lot about invitation because I work with communities of which I am not necessarily a part, in places I am not from,” says August, who, years ago, received an invitation from several Guatemala City artists to participate in conversations and listening sessions. Since 2014, she has worked between Guatemala City and Houston, which she says are “surprisingly similar cities in their relationships to disaster, to ecological collapse, and to failures and absences of infrastructure.”
Learning, participating, and, perhaps most importantly, giving herself the time to let life, ideas, and art connect, make August’s projects so compelling.
“El Paso and Juárez are a kind of nexus point for so many national and international interests and curiosities,” says August. “And, it’s a fascinating place to think about all the questions I enjoy thinking about: landscape, conservation, community, translation, the movements of people, and of nature.”
“It has a relationship to the cultures and experiences of the Southwest, which means that there’s quite a different conversation happening here than the conversations about art that are happening in Houston or San Antonio, for example,” she adds.
In her essay “Abrazos and the blues” (which can be read in English and Spanish) that accompanied her 2017 exhibition Acts of Aggression, August describes how it is “about how we connect with each other, how we break those connections, and how we define and redefine our chosen intimacies.”
Acts of Aggression explores the complexity of relationships. Her willingness to engage with what cannot be distilled to a pithy phrase is what makes August such a meaningful addition to the Rubin Center. She’s thankful for the Rubin Center’s team, which is entirely comprised of artists, and a director, Kerry Doyle, who approaches the work from a human rights context, explains August. Previous to the Rubin Center, Doyle directed Annunciation House, which, according to its website, “offers hospitality to migrants, immigrants, and refugees in El Paso.”
Throughout its existence, the Rubin Center has worked with Teresa Margolles, Mark Bradford, Adrian Esparza, and Regina José Galindo as well as commissioned Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Border Tuner. As part of this installation, Lozano-Hemmer placed searchlights in El Paso and Juárez. Participants could move the beams of light using a dial and when the lights intersected in the sky, a channel of sound opened between the two light stations.
The loss and grief of the pandemic are realities that August doesn’t avoid. With the backdrop of the social and racial injustices in the U.S. and the ways those systems are built into the art world, August expresses a genuine commitment to work toward change.
“I see artists at the forefront of those conversations, challenging institutions to be better, and to do better, and to acknowledge their missteps, particularly around their relationships with communities that have been excluded from art spaces for so long, and particularly around the ways they develop work environments in line with their values,” says August. “And, as always, I think institutions that actually seriously listen to artists, seriously address these major criticisms of their role in the world, seriously consider how to make safe and supportive workplaces, seriously question the exclusionary and racist value judgments they are built on, can find innovative ways to turn that ship around before it sinks. At least, I want to hope they can.”