More often than not, learning about classical art history means looking at art created from a Western or European point of view. You’ll learn plenty about the Old Masters and other great artists we still know and respect today, but, as a person of color, you’ll learn something else: these amazing works of art rarely include subjects of certain ethnicities.
Thanks to badass artists like Shizu Saldamando, the nature of portraiture continues to change, including more diverse faces and stories. The artist, of Mexican and Japanese descent, creates portraits that depict party scenes, relationships and everyday life in a sincere way. Whether she uses colored pencil, graphite or oil paint, Saldamando captures a bit of the essence of each subject, even while she still guards their stories.
The Los Angeles-based artist remembers drawing while “in a corner” as a child when her mom would bring her along to work. Her mom couldn’t afford a babysitter, so this gave Saldamando the space to get lost in her own imagination and find her love for art.
Growing up in the Mission district of San Francisco, she took in the murals and work of Chicano and Latino artists — as well as prison drawings.
“Growing up in middle school and high school, we’d always try to copy that style,” said Saldamando. “I did a lot of portraits of my friends in that context because I really wasn’t connected to prison art in a direct way — other than having friends or family that had relatives that were in jail. As a Chicano or Latino person growing up in San Francisco, the prison culture that was coming out of Saint Quentin during the 1990s was kind of crazy.”
Saldamando also appreciates craft. She experiments with a variety of backgrounds, including paper, bed sheets, handkerchiefs and wood.
“My grandfather did wood carving, and he would polish driftwood when he was in internment camps,” said Saldamando. “That was kind of like a nod to that history of using wood as a backdrop instead of canvas.”
The artist creates her pieces with a startling realness, familiar even. Saldamando knows their stories, though the context is hidden from viewers. “May, Post Break-up,” for example, gives viewers a hint of the subject’s pain but doesn’t reveal anything else.
A lot of Saldamando’s scenes are also familiar to Chicano and Latino communities. In “Quince on the 110,” Saldamando depicts a young woman looking out from the window of a limo. Her hair is done, her makeup flawless and her gaze confident. The collaged piece, which includes colored pencil and glittered paper, captures a fleeting moment. The quinciañera is a rite of passage for many Chicano/Latino communities, and this moment is one that can never be recreated again.
“I was just driving on the freeway and stuck in traffic and there was girl in front of me in this crazy stretch Hummer limo and that was her,” said Saldamando. “I had my camera on me, and I think this was before camera phones, this was a long time ago. I got a shot of her looking at me through the window, and she waved after I took the picture.”
Saldamando wants to capture moments like this one, times that “are really amazing and beautiful” that oftentimes “are kind of taken for granted.”
As far of the history of portraiture goes, the focus usually lies on depicting people like royal figures who paid hefty amounts for these pieces. But contemporary portraiture leaves a little room for focusing on people from a range of backgrounds. Saldamando knows there’s “so much more to add” when it comes to the nature and history of the art form.
“The Latinos that are represented seem to fall into the very vigorous stereotype of how white people perceive us to be, right?” says Saldamando. “It’s always the cholo or the house help or something like that … For me, it was really important to add to that dialogue or that limited view by depicting friends and family and being really honest about it.”
Now Saldamando’s working on an installation for “Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality” hosted by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center on May 28-29. Visitors can “make their own paper flowers to honor those that experienced the trauma of the camps.” They will then place these flowers on a “large communal funeral wreath dedicated to the shrinking generation of camp survivors who are now passing on and taking that legacy with them.”
Saldamando’s work is a reminder that contemporary art can — and should — make room for more diverse identities. By depicting “real people” in her pieces, Saldamando speaks to what makes each one of us unique, and these complex identities deserve a place in cotemporary art.