"You can come to almost any country and go clean someone’s house. When you go into the workforce, the ability to be a domestic worker or cleaning lady is a very important means of survival. In the United States, there’s a history of maids putting their kids through college,” Juana Valdes told Pasatiempo, explaining a thematic aspect of Colored China Rags, one of two pieces she is exhibiting at SITE Santa Fe. The rags are made from bone-china slip, into which Valdes dunked fabric that she then shaped, dried, and fired in a kiln. The collection of six bone-china rags in SITElines is a selection from a larger project that connects the ideas of domestic work, skin color, motherhood, and caretaking.
Valdes is Afro-Cuban. Her family moved to the United States in 1971; she grew up in Miami and later moved to New York City, where she lived for 20 years before teaching at a university in Florida. She now teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At a residency in 2012 at the European Ceramic Work Centre in the Netherlands, pursuing her interest in pigmentocracy — the tendency to discriminate against people with darker skin tones, even within communities of color — she developed a way to add pigment to bone china, which tends to be white or pale gray.
“Anywhere you go from light to dark, the darker-skinned people are discriminated against,” she said. “This happens in China, this happens in India, this happens in Italy, between northern Italians and southern Italians. With light skin you can work in the front of the restaurant, but with dark skin you work in the kitchen. If you’re from the islands, it has the added idea of social class. My work looks at how much of that comes along when you migrate to another country, and what stays behind.” Sometimes pigment is added to make the bone china black, red, or blue, but Valdes was after subtler gradations. Through a process of trial and error, she came up with dozens of shades. The finished cleaning rags, which at first appear to be fabric carelessly draped on hooks, are precisely draped pieces of ceramic that recall the folds of clothing and drapery in Renaissance-era paintings.
Valdes’ second piece in SITElines is Pulling at Me — a Thread, 2015, a series of nine wooden panels on which she manipulates the phrase “It’s about hanging by a nail, by a thread, by the skin of your teeth,” until only “It’s your skin” remains. “It’s the same words, but I’m editing and recontextualizing language until I can make it say whatever I want it to say. I’m dealing with the situation that is unseen, that is more psychological.” The words, which were generated by a laser engraver, are difficult to read because they are white on a white background, slightly textured and raised, to imitate the scarification of skin. “You’ll want to touch it,” she said.