Juan Fuentes’ new installation at the Denver Art Museum takes you into a personal space; a mantle sits covered by fabric with family portraits framed in ornate golds with even images printed on silk and framed by lace. “To me, that’s comfort. That’s a safe space. Representation, and being able to see ourselves in these big institutions, is very important and is very intentional within my decision to tell this story,” Fuentes said. The intimate atmosphere mirrors the intimacy of his art.
The title of this installation, “En la Tierra, Nuestras Rodillas Dicen Verdades,” or in English, “On the Dirt, Our Knees Tell Truths,” comes from a poem by Salvadoran poet Javier Zamora. To Fuentes, the title is meant to represent the truths of people who work the land. “The immigrant experience, for the most part, here in the United States also comes with very hard labor,” Fuentes said in an interview with CPR News.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Fuentes immigrated at the age of 1 and remained in Denver most of his life. The homegrown creator’s work is part of an exhibition of 19 Latin American artists called “Who Tells a Tale Adds a Tail,” at the Denver Art Museum. Locally he has built a reputation for his instagram account, @olddenver, which he uses to capture the city’s change through time. The DAM exhibition is his way of getting even more personal with viewers than his instagram.
As an undocumented immigrant, Fuentes has done as many others like him have in order to see their hometowns these days – clicking away on Google Maps. Searching for images of ancestral streets via Google Maps has become somewhat of a modern day rite of passage for immigrant children, allowing them to learn about where their parents grew up. “Families of color, specifically immigrants, sometimes don’t have too many archived images of themselves or photo books,” said Fuentes. “Photo albums get left behind or they disappear. Migrants don’t have the luxury to carry all that.” He now takes it upon himself to document his family’s experience in Colorado, alongside others as well, through his photography.
Fuente’s section of the exhibit inhabits three walls, the first being dedicated to his family’s story of migration and what it’s like to live in Denver as an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico. Of course, this includes many photos from Google Maps. “I was exploring and experimenting ways where I can document my hometown without having access to it,” said Fuentes. The largest of the photos holds the image of an older man walking in the middle of the street in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua – his face being blurred out but still recognizable all the same to Fuentes. “The way he ties his shirt, right away I knew that was him,” he said. Though he was not responsible for taking the photo, he says that he was using it to reclaim it.
The second wall is dedicated to Jeanette Vizguerra, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, for her advocacy for immigrants in America. But Fuentes wants to shift focus towards who she was as a person, and as a mother, “Not just this heroic figure or this victim,” he explained. As for the third wall, Fuentes wanted to tell the story of his friend, a refugee in Colorado. “To me, it feels more in collaboration than it is me trying to amplify a voice,” said Fuentes. “It’s more like we can do this together.”
The exhibit is for those with an immigrant or Latin American background, along with the hope that they will find something within it to connect to. “I think it’s not very in your face about what the story is that I’m trying to tell but I think those that understand it, will get it,” said Fuentes.
“Who Tells a Tale Adds a Tail,” will run at the Denver Art Museum through March 5, 2023.