Meet Brenda Torres-Figueroa, the Boricua Navigating Historical Challenges and Latinidad Through Art

Brenda Torres-Figueroa BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Performatum.

When the interdisciplinary artist, educator, and curator Brenda Torres-Figueroa made her brave move from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Illinois, she only packed four items: a framed picture of the sky taken after Hurricane George (1998), a heart-shaped music box, a container half-filled with dirt from her parent’s backyard, and a couple of underskirts that once belonged to her aunt and grandmother.

Torres-Figueroa’s life experiences have fueled and inspired her innovative art exhibitions and life’s work. She is currently working with educational programming design at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and developing the third part of her exhibition series, “Dressed as Home and Refuge.”

But, what is truly the meaning behind her distinctive art pieces and exhibitions? BELatina News had the pleasure of speaking to her about her journey, how she uses her art to navigate the intersections between identity and memory, and the challenges she’s had as an Afro-Latina in the art world. Let’s explore her mind.

I’ve read in previous interviews that you have experienced Latinidad and colorism. Tell us about these experiences and how you use your art to navigate these serious issues. 

I use art to investigate and navigate the intersectionalities between identity, nostalgia, domesticity, invisibility, and the embodiment of memory—for example, the appropriation of the enagua (half slip). Enaguas are presented in my work as a metaphor for protection, decency, and invisibility, but also politically. We cannot talk about enaguas without talking about decency, without talking about worthiness, and without talking about the damage. The idealization of this garment is not only visualized as protection but as perpetual implicit violence towards women’s bodies and the insistence of invisibilizing them. If we add, mix or layer the race and class components, systems that perpetuate “modesty,” silencing, and invisibilizing, we still have many meanings to unpack. 

One of the most important memories connected to my work involves my grandmother saying, “Hay que mejorar la raza.” As a visibly dark-skinned woman or Afro-Latina, the expectation was to be as light as we could be or assimilate to idealizations of beauty, sexuality, health, even at the expense of erasing my ancestors and their past. Our past.

What inspires your performance art and visual concepts?

Many times it is not even heavy stuff. But things that are left unsaid. From the intimacy of my home… light, plants, silence, solitude, the ocean. To the chaos of a city and public spaces and still being unknown. Most of the things I connect with are memories, but also stories and times in the past. I am obsessed with everything old, repurposed, and reappropriated. I also love using the colors white, ivory, and red; and materials like lace, embroidery, handmade paper, and heavily handwoven fabrics. Culturally, white generally symbolizes purity, communion and it is used through many rituals. In my work, white is also a metaphor for grief, death, and transformation. Photography is also incorporated as documents, both literal and tainted. 

How do your garments challenge societal perceptions in Homelessness Performance (2002-2020)? What inspired this performance?

Homelessness speaks of the invisible and invisibilized. This garment embodies the historical violence against women’s bodies, from enslaved women to those who had forced hysterectomies on the Island. 

As a Latina, how do you overcome challenges in the art world? 

I believe that my work is in the process of overcoming historical challenges that perpetuate gatekeeping of the art world, from the invisibility of black Latina artists to the over-representation of white Latinos in leadership positions and institutional directives. The challenge is also about the worthiness of the stories and who is chosen to be placed in a larger or centered narrative or context.  

As a black Latina artist, my responsibility relies on understanding the coded history we shared from colonization, resistance, and transformation. It’s my responsibility to ensure that future generations are able to map and connect all histories and stories as equally important. It is also my responsibility to ground /center myself in the work that needs to be done in my communities.