Belonging in Atlanta: Alumni Jessica Caldas and Wihro Kim Reflect on their Participation in the Current Exhibition, “Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn from Atlanta”

Posted On July 26, 2019
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Inclusion in a museum exhibition is not an easily attainable career milestone for a successful mid-career artist, let alone an emerging one. This June, Michael Rooks, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum of Art, made that a reality for six artists, two of whom are recent graduates of the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design. Comprised of multi-national artists—some first and second generation immigrants and a DACA recipient— Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn from Atlanta focuses on artists whose work touches upon issues related to place, identity, belonging, and heritage.  

Wihro Kim (B.F.A. 2016) and Jessica Caldas (M.F.A.. 2019) have spent the last month of in the studio and the museum, making work for Of Origins. Rooks selected Caldas, Kim, and the others for how their “distinct voices, diverse perspectives, and personal experiences represent worldviews informed and enriched by their cultural heritage,” and, he added, “For the bond they share as members of a diverse creative community in Atlanta.” This exhibition, which is the third installment of the museum’s  motion to curate and collect work by Atlanta-based artists, brought in a smaller group of artists, allowing Caldas and Kim to cover entire walls of the museum in layered installations. Though both have shown large-scale pieces before in gallery settings, the High exhibition has inspirited development their concepts and styles. 

Caldas, whose work tends to be narrative, personal, and drawn with evocative colors, veered away from her usual content that serves as an extension of her activism in women’s rights. Her work portrays United States-Puerto Rican citizen relationships, depicts the meeting of her Puerto Rican grandparents in New York City, and represents her own multifaceted identity through the exploration of this dual heritage. 

Kim continued his recent trajectory of larger production, installing panels of paintings and drawings in a mural-sized construction of abstracted and interwoven interior spaces and landscapes. His work in the past year has arguably increased in abstraction to represent how we “grapple with concepts of time, perception, and memory,” or in this show, identity too. 

We interviewed alumni Jessica Caldas and Whiro Kim to talk about their work in Of Origins and what it meant to be a part of this seminal show at the High Museum of Art.


WSAD: You both created work specific to the show. What was the inspiration?



WK: The inspiration for the work in this show is in line with what inspires most of my work, which is a kind of questioning of the surface of the world. I wanted to create an image that could be questioned, whose understanding is tentative and shifting.


WSAD: How did the conversation with Rooks begin for this commission?


JC: Rooks was very interested in the immigrant experience, the struggle and trauma that is a part of that experience. We talked about how  complicated that is for Puerto Ricans, who are technically American citizens but face a sort of second class citizenship without full rights or representation. This has proven detrimental to the people of Puerto Rico time and time again, but especially with the current presidential administration. 


WSAD: This exhibition focuses on identity and the idea for it was sparked by “national debate and dialogue around immigration reform.” The show celebrates the diversity that  distinct perspectives in Atlanta (and more specifically those of artists) have to offer our shared, urban culture. Does an artist have a calling/obligation to share their perspective?


WK:I’ve always found it difficult to be very conclusive about things, especially something as shifting and unknown as my own identity, let alone the identities of others, even those whose identities may closely resemble mine. For the work in this show, and indeed all my work, I simply try to portray inquiries that feel sincere to me and might move me towards empowerment. It is my hope (belief?) that doing so will lead to a more sincere and nuanced understanding of who I am, and who my people, whoever they are, are.

WSAD: Have you seen any lines of dialogue happening between the pieces in the show? 


JC: Definitely. For a lot of the artists, the conversation of liminality in identity seems to be crucial. This idea of being here and there, but not really all here or all there at the same time. This is a common immigrant or migrant experience, especially for 1st and 2nd generation folks who may not be raised totally in one culture and who end up with a mix of all sorts of cultural influences in how they live their lives. For me personally, I have always felt an intense pride but also real distance from being Puerto Rican. 


WK: There is always dialogue between work that shares space. In this show, it is interesting to see the range of approaches to dealing with this issue Of Origins, from the didactic to more emotional, spiritual, and/or psychological inquiries of such. It is enlightening to look at the works in comparison to one another, and use the different understandings/approaches to shed new light on each other. I like to wonder how each work address that theme, then hold those individual answers against one another.


WSAD: What is something this exhibition does well?


JC: I love how different each approach to “drawing” is. There’s very traditional approaches such as graphite or charcoal, but also unique was of deciding what is and isn’t drawing.


WK: I think this show is great at fostering a sense of community amongst Atlanta artists and making us (the artists in the show and those who identify with us) feel as if our voices do wish to be heard.


WSAD: What has set this experience apart from other exhibitions or opportunities? 


JC: It’s the High Museum,  so it feels like a big deal. The amount of people who will see the work far outnumbers anything I have ever done. 


WSAD: How has your work changed since graduating GSU (or Jessica, in your case, in the past year)?


JC: I tend to trust myself more, even when I am anxious about my work.


WK: One thing I have noticed is that I am becoming far more liberated in the decisions I make in my work. I love the structure of classes and student-teacher relations, but I thrive in a different way when I am self-directed.

——————————————————————————————–The exhibition,  Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn from Atlanta, features six Atlanta artists who address issues related to place, belonging and heritage in their work: Jessica Caldas, Yehimi Cambrón, Xie Caomin, Wihro Kim, Dianna Settles and Cosmo Whyte. The exhibition will be on view at the High Museum of Art Atlanta  through September 29, 2019. For the full press release, visit here.