When Angie Hinojos Yusuf exhibited her lit sculpture work “Adelita,” depicting one of the women soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution, a mother and daughter approached. The daughter was around five years old, Yusuf remembers, and from afar the air carried their voices as they sang “La Adelita,” the Mexican corrido that told the story of a woman who followed Madero, madly in love with him while also fighting in the revolution.
“They looked at it; they looked at each other; and they walked off, singing. Nothing has to be said sometimes — it’s just there,” Yusuf said, recounting the memorable moment.
“We are not always represented in our classes; we don’t always have teachers that look like us or have a similar background, so I would like my pieces to offer a glimpse of the contributions, the beauty, the depth, the meaning of my culture. To me, that is really important,” Yusuf said.
When the mother and daughter pair recognized and acknowledged the story of Adelita with their song, it was an exemplary moment for Yusuf. Without words or posturing, her piece had been a mirror for the little girl.
Yusuf’s public art pieces are all around town. Whether in Seattle neighborhoods or in east King County, you’ve likely passed by them. Recently, she erected statues donning face masks in Kirkland in a campaign for covid awareness.
Yusuf’s art is rich with the bright pigments and patterns of murals in Mexico, reflecting her vision for community members to see themselves in public spaces — especially Latinx people — to be represented and to unapologetically occupy space.
Yusuf works in a variety of mediums — 2D paintings, 3D sculptures and public art — as well as smaller-scale moving automatons, which she affectionately calls “crankies” because of what propels them to move.
The way people occupy and interact with spaces is an important tenet in Yusuf’s approach as an activist and creator of public installations. Yusuf considers herself obsessed with how spaces feel and what kinds of interactions they inspire. She says this is influenced by her background in architecture and her exposure as a child to the study of humanities.
Yusuf’s father was a humanities professor who taught the Spanish language, Latin American literature and art. Her parents soaked her in a liberal environment of intellectual curiosity and questioning; all topics were open for discussion.
“My parents always said ‘Always question.’ Always go find the answer out for yourself. Don’t listen to somebody else’s answer,” Yusuf said. That ravenous curiosity has continued into adulthood. Yusuf tirelessly researches and reads when she is creating new pieces.
When her father took her to visit San Francisco and San Jose — the places where he first lived after immigrating to the United States — something clicked for Yusuf. The murals her father showed her seemed to communicate multitudes without a single word. It was accessible, captivating and inviting.
Fast forward: Yusuf went to architecture school. She loved working with her hands and the tactile work of designing and making something. While there are many branches of architecture, it was the human element that captivated Yusuf most, and she increasingly questioned how to create a space that is warm and comforting — and inclusive.
Traditional art galleries are just one example of how a space can be exclusive and alienating. Galleries serve a white-raced, sterile public; Yusuf specifically points to expectations around dress and demeanor, as well as how gallery spaces are unwelcoming to children and to culturally-specific interactions, and to liveliness in general.
In contrast to the sterile gallery environment, Yusuf aims to create spaces that embrace people, calling out to elders, young people and all the generations of a community. Yusuf and others birthed Centro Cultural Mexicano in Redmond, Washington, with exactly that in mind.
Centro Cultural Mexicano
Rather than trying to fit into a gallery culture that is unwelcoming to all kinds of communities, Yusuf says she notices more people wanting to create spaces molded from their own homegrown criteria. “I think that what I am seeing is people from other communities — people of color, immigrants — I am seeing that there is a drive to create those spaces that we want to see,” Yusuf said.
Yusuf helped open Centro Cultural Mexicano in 2018. It has become a cultural hub for Mexican and Latin American people.
In her 20s, Yusuf dreamed of creating something like the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, a place that felt welcoming and representative of her experiences. Centro Cultural was that dream realized in partnership with the center’s executive director and other staff.
Yusuf says there was a huge need for a space like this for the Latinx community on the Eastside. Many people ask her “why Redmond?” because they assume there isn’t a sizable Latinx population in the area. That is exactly why Yusuf says the Eastside location is important. “We Exist. Our kids are in school here. We are neighbors. We own businesses. But we are really invisible.”
Before the pandemic, the center regularly offered cultural programming, and it was free of cost to allow for the most accessibility. In addition to cultural and arts programming, the center prioritizes civic engagement. Sometimes they invite state representatives and provide translation services so that representatives and community members can share in dialogue.
One of the most amazing things that happened, Yusuf said, was how other communities have come to share in the space as well. It is open to anyone who wants to be creative and connect. “It’s become like a magnet,” Yusuf said of how Centro Cultural Mexicano has also become a place in service of other needs of the Eastside’s immigrant people as well as LGBTQ people in the area.
This space is thoroughly welcoming and warm and caters to the needs of people who might otherwise feel pushed away from a more traditional gallery or cultural institution.
Interconnectivity and interaction
Yusuf dynamically infuses her work with Mexican culture, including folklore and the current experiences of people with intersecting Mexican American or immigrant experiences. But even beneath that, Yusuf’s work is based on the principle of interconnection.
“We are interconnected with nature — we are interconnected with every living thing on this earth. We have a responsibility and a stewardship for each other and for everything,” Yusuf said. Every piece she creates grows from the wonder she has for these connections.
Atop this, Yusuf presents stories and narrative. Her creative process involves intense time periods of research, reading and sometimes walking in neighborhoods where her artwork will eventually stand to take in as many influences as possible. She thinks deeply about how the stories she depicts can connect to people across time and space. In Ballard, Yusuf has an installation titled “Flow” along the waterway. To follow the theme of water, Yusuf depicted the Maya god of rain, Chaac, in the piece.
At a garden plot in Rainier Beach, Yusuf painted portraits of community gardeners, talking to the elders in the garden to get their stories. The final portraits depicted each gardener and a collage of their favorite produce and plants to grow. Without using any words, Yusuf was able to convey the deep connection between gardens, neighborhoods and the people who tend to them through the portraits.
Often Yusuf has an interactive component to her public installations, breaking the fourth wall between passers-by and what might otherwise become a static decoration.
“Those kinds of things leave an impression and they make kids and adults part of the piece rather than just someone passively looking. It makes them — actually brings them into the sphere,” Yusuf said.
Public art, for Yusuf, is an invitation to educate — to jog the imagination with curiosity. That process first starts with claiming space unapologetically. After all, so many communities of color have literally been denied space and have not been seen throughout the world’s colonialist histories.
“I want people to start to think and just see that there are so many — there is such a wealth of different cultures, of contributions and creative thinking that comes out of all the cultures that make up our country,” Yusuf said. “So, this is a way to stake a claim and say, ‘You can’t ignore us. We are not going away. And also, come on, join me; let me hear about your experience’ so it’s not done in a contentious way, but it’s done in an open arms way.”
When Yusuf shows her work, the feedback sometimes surprises her. People will reach out, “And what they will say is, ‘This piece, it means something to me because I never saw this anywhere and that is part of our culture, and I can see it and I can feel it, and we are never represented,’” Yusuf said. It’s not necessarily that the people who reach out to her are Mexican or Latinx. Often it is people from other cultural groups — Indian and Pakistani, for example — who reach out to say Yusuf’s work reminds them of home.
“People from other communities say ‘Thank you for telling a story. It’s not necessarily my story, but it is my story,’” Yusuf said. “That is meaningful.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at [email protected]. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more of the Nov. 18-24, 2020 issue.