Embroidering History

Multimedia artist Amara Betty Martin on her relationship to Pilsen and Little Village

Puerto Rican-American artist, Amara Betty Martin, prepares for her first solo exhibition, Rastros de Ser, and discusses her relationship to her Little Village and Pilsen communities. See more of Amara’s work at amarasmartin.wix.com/amarabettymartinart or on her Facebook page, facebook.com/amarabettymartinart/ 

Video by Lucia Ahrensdorf.

Que te Hierve la Sangre
A review of Amara Betty Martin’s Rastros de Ser
by CJ Fraley

Rastros de Ser, or Traces of Being, was Amara Betty Martin’s first solo exhibition. That being said, she’s far from an unfamiliar presence within Chicago’s Latin American art community. She’s part of the art collective Las Artelitas, a DJ under the name Rebel Betty, a photographer for protests and community festivals, and a contributor to group exhibits like the one displayed at Pilsen Outpost immediately before Rastros de Ser. This preceding show, Sketchmas 2015, consisted of dozens of homemade sketchbooks made by friends of the space. Amara’s own sketchbook is full of photography, collages, neighborhoods, chants, and poems. In a way that sets the tone for both the sketchbook itself and her solo exhibition, the first page is a solid sheet of glitter.  It’s vibrant and seems to carry life against any threat that the art’s subject matter—issues like poverty, protest, and police violence—can carry against it.

Martin’s exhibition, on display at Pilsen Outpost from March 4th to March 31st consisted of three parts, with only two remaining on display by the end of the show. The third part, a video, was taken down when the artist left for a fellowship in Oaxaca. According to staff at Pilsen Outpost, Martin wanted absolute control of the show’s presentation—she insisted on hanging her work individually and on her own. Rather than leaving the video in the hands of others, she took it with her when she left. Not only did the video accompaniment disappear, but so did some of the photographs as they were sold throughout the course of the show. Martin priced the pieces to keep them within the reach of residents of the neighborhoods she so lovingly portrays within them. While these departures did make the space seem rather sparse, its temporality was something to be enjoyed.

The subject matter of Martin’s photography varies, from a retrospective on cars in Oaxaca to the anti-police protests of Chicago and Iguala. Like the glitter in the sketchbook, they are somewhat connected to institutional darkness, but they also portray music and dance and carry with them a sense of fun.

This spectrum of photos was one of the first examples of the repetition that Amara plays with so well. The centerpiece of the photographic wall was a triptych of almost identical photos of the Saint Agnes statue. Each photo is of the same subject and from the same angle, but taken during a different season. The changing foliage in the background adds depth to the color and pop provided by the rotating arrangement of flowers surrounding the statue. The same sense of care and character could be found on the far right of the wall in a series of photos of an old white car.

On the wall of collages opposite the photographs, the use of repetition became even more developed. While individual elements like phrases, photos, techniques or motifs repeated, in no way did they ever become tiresome. “Que te hierve la sangre,” or “What boils your blood,” felt like a protester’s chant as it bled from the walls and the pages. Forty-three, the number of students kidnapped by police in Iguala in 2014, jumped out from the wall. The more that the collages borrowed from the sketchbook and used photos displayed on the opposite wall, the more the connection between their ideas and the exploration of the corners of the neighborhoods Martin explored became clear.

In fact, it was clear throughout the exhibition that Martin excels in exploring the various neighborhoods she chooses to represent. In her collage work she weaves, sometimes literally, digital and traditional techniques in order to portray each place as she sees it. When her lens cuts out a rectangular view of a street, concert, restaurant, or butcher, she sees a connection to its roots, politics, people, and food. This alone would have been reason enough to visit Rastros de Ser, but because of Martin’s expert use of repetition and mixed media, it was far from the only reason.

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