Writing Obituaries for the American Dream

The Dominican artist Lizania Cruz discusses her latest work included in El Museo del Barrio's new triennial, "Estamos Bien: La Trienal 20/21."

by Sebastian Meltz-Collazo
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Aug 14 2020, 9:30am

On a recent Thursday afternoon, I logged into a Zoom call with over 30 other people, but instead of the now-familiar Brady Bunch-like gallery of faces, only four people were “looking back.” What at first felt like spying on someone else’s yearly corporate review, was actually the launch of El Museo del Barrio’s first wide-scale survey of Latinx contemporary art, titled Estamos Bien: La Trienal 20/21, or We are Fine: The Triennial 20/21. (While the first thing that popped into my head was Bad Bunny’s post-Hurricane Maria song “Estamos Bien,” the triennial instead borrows its title from another Post-Hurricane Maria work, Candida Alvarez’ 2017 painting, Estoy Bien, which, like the song, alludes to the “resilient and obliquely sarcastic response to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.”) Specifically we are there to watch the Dominican artist Lizania Cruz reflect upon what it means to live the “American Dream,” as a Latinx currently living in the US, alongside Rodrigo Moura and Susanna V. Temkin, the chief curator and curator at the Museo del Barrio, respectively, as well as guest curator for the triennial, Elia Alba. Kicking off the triennial is Cruz’ participatory work titled Obituaries of the American Dream, invites audiences locally and abroad to share when and how the American Dream died for them. As a growing collection of anti-eulogies, alluding to the newspapers honoring the names of the thousands lost during the pandemic, each person’s narrative sheds light into their own experiences with the pursuit of happiness, whether it be through systemic racism, unhinged capitalism, and the failing rhetoric and policies backed by American Exceptionalism.

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“For me it’s been a learning process to move here [to the US] and to clearly understand the roots of how this country was founded; the racism, the anti-immigration policies, who gets access to what,” she tells me the next day over Zoom of her own submission to the project. “As I’ve learned these things, I realized that these aspects of American life were symptoms of a terminal cancer with no cure.”

She adds, “It was a matter of time for it to hit, and then came Covid.”

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Lizania Cruz. Photo Guarinex Rodriguez

Amidst living in this “in-between time,” Cruz has realized that value can no longer be determined by what she does in a year but rather how she lived in a year—steering away her sense of validation from her projects, to the community around her. “Every small talk I’d have in New York was usually around work, what the next step was. But when I ask someone ‘What’s up?’ these days, it’s really ‘How are you feeling today?’”

“I’m very obsessed with history. So I’m thinking, 20 years from now, someone is going to look at my work in relation to what was happening back then (that being right now)—in relationship to COVID, to 45 being re-elected, and the wealth gap increasing, which all make the American Dream much more difficult to attain,” she explains. “I’m always trying to bring people into the work. You could be a passive viewer and still have something change in you, hopefully. But once you participate, something happens within your thought process, and you question your own habits while seeing it in relation to others. I want to believe that there’s a bigger space to create consciousness in doing so.”

As she has realized this through her own work, it is apparent that La Trienal has also taken into account the various forms of systemic failures affecting the Latinx populations in the US. And as these have recently gained more visibility through the ongoing pandemic and the protests as catalysts, these actions as projects strive to stand the test of time during a moment in history where museum goers can’t go to the museum just yet. “We wanted to take part in the Latinx conversations occurring. We feel there’s so many regional identities as to what it means to be a Latinx artist today that we wanted to explore all the works taking place across the country through this framework,” Tempkin explained during the triennial’s launch Zoom. Originally planned for Fall 2020, the show has been reconceived and expanded as a yearlong initiative in light of the pandemic and the civil unrest that has blanketed the nation. As a second part to the project, Cruz will be producing a newspaper with the collected obituaries that she hopes will be distributed in 2021, when in-person exhibitions are scheduled to open. She will also host a livestream “ideathon” to collectively co-write a new version of the American Dream. For everyone.

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El Museo del Barrio
lizania cruz
estamos bien triennial