Catherine Tafur spent her early childhood in Peru before relocating to Wilmington, Delaware. She then moved to New York to study at the Cooper Union School of Art where she earned her BFA in 1998. Tafur has since shown her work nationally and internationally and is included in various established private collections. Her work explores themes such as death, vulnerability, loss of innocence, rebirth and redemption and are informed by the experience of her youth as a queer, multiracial immigrant in American suburbia. The subjects of her work are political and personal, feminist and confrontational.
The work in Regime is engaged in the past, present, and future of the United States. Could you talk about your own relationship with the U.S.—how you view this country you live in?
I was born in Peru, and I moved to the U.S. when I was eight years old. At the time, Peru was in political upheaval because of terrorist activity from communist rebel groups. Their bombs would shake our house at night. So my dad wanted to get us out of there to provide a better life for me and my brother.
When I was little in Peru, I thought of the U.S. as this kind of magical utopia that we were moving to. This is very much your typical immigrant story. Growing up, I worshipped America, but then when we got here, my life was so different from what I had dreamt of. I grew up pretty privileged economically. Living in American suburbia, we were fairly well-off—I would say middle to upper middle class. But my experience within the homogeneity of white suburbia felt so oppressive because I was queer, an immigrant, and I didn’t speak English. And as I learned more about U.S. history, my feelings about the U.S. changed. I have a complicated relationship with America because it has such a violent history, and its founding was illegitimate. I think that the genocide and the slavery perpetrated and instituted in the service of greed have made the US what it is now, and built this foundation for a hierarchical and racist way of thinking. That culture is very much present today. It never went away. Even though America provided my family with a better life than I would have had without it, I feel a great deal of anger towards the U.S.
After the 2016 election, there was a lot of debate on escapism and political engagement when it comes to art. Do you believe artists have a responsibility to make work that deals with the political issues of our times?
I don’t like the idea of telling artists that they should or shouldn’t make any specific kind of work. I don’t want anyone to tell artists what is okay work and what is not. The only responsibility that artists have to their work is to be true to themselves and their own inner vision. Having said that, I also believe that all people, simply as caring human beings, should be politically aware and politically active, especially now. If you are those things, I don’t see how it wouldn’t come up in your artwork.
I went to a talk recently where an artist said she thought of her abstract painting almost as a secret language, and therefore a language of resistance. I found that fascinating because I would never have seen it that way. But art is never about nothing.
As for escapism versus political engagement, I think escape is sometimes necessary as a form of self-care. But the entertainment aspect has gone too far at this point. In some parts of the art world, there have been a lot of superficial things made that aren’t very intellectually stimulating or moving or have anything to do with the world besides being luxury objects. Maybe that will change. Who knows.
You've described painting as your "method of mourning." What brought you to this realization and how does it come across in your work?
My artmaking process is very slow and meditative. My paintings, especially the large ones, take a really long time to make, and I make a lot of small drawings and studies in preparation for them. Even my drawings are very detailed and involved, so they all come from a very quiet place. It’s a place that takes time to get to, where words fall away and those other visions take over in the silence. I think that’s also why it tends to come from a darker psychology. I’ve been drawing for so long that it has become my way for me to process difficult thoughts and feelings. It naturally evolved into something that helps me make sense of the world, and make sense of all the messed-up things that I’m unable to understand otherwise, all the injustice. Not that I ever get answers, but it’s a manifestation of that search. I’m a very political person in general, so I spend a lot time thinking about why so many people are suffering. And that’s why I’ve made so many images of refugees drowning, or slave ship diagrams, or whatever I’m thinking about at the time.
For you, what does it mean to be an artist in the time of Trump?
Well speaking of mourning, my father, who got us out of Peru, got cancer last year and passed away on November first. Donald Trump was elected exactly seven days later. The first thing my mother said to me when that happened was, “I’m glad Dad isn’t here to see this.” During the time that he was sick, Dad and I spoke so much about the election. He was a Bernie Sanders supporter, but he still told me, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be Hillary and it’s going to be ok.” When that didn’t happen, it was absolutely shocking to me, and my mourning for my dad got mixed up with my mourning for the U.S. I felt very demoralized and out of touch because after being shocked, I felt like I shouldn’t actually have been shocked. Trump is America unveiled. We were trying to hide all the racism, xenophobia, and nationalism, but it’s always been there. He is not this weird phenomenon that came out of nowhere. The white supremacist ideas he so openly touts are quintessentially American.
There’s a sense of urgency now for artists. Culture is what defines our society, so when you look at Trump and when you look at what we’ve done to ourselves, I feel like we’re in crisis. What does it mean that our culture has allowed this to happen? What does this say about our beliefs? What does it mean when we really have not come far at all? We are cruel. Our culture is cruel at its core, and art makes me face that. It’s difficult to try to express that in the work, but I think that’s the thing I have to face, and that’s what art does—we are the consciousness of our society, and through art we define who we are.
What are your hopes for the political future of the U.S., and what role do artists play in achieving them (if any)?
Well there’s what I want and then there’s what I think is realistic. I want single-payer universal healthcare. I want women to get paid the same amount as men. I want a Planned Parenthood clinic in every town all across America. I want free abortions available on demand without apology. I want a black trans woman president. I want an end to mass incarceration. I want impeachment of the entire administration. I want scientists in government. I want to end poverty. I know most of this is a dream. There’s just so much I want that feels completely unreachable at this point. I feel so out of touch politically after Trump’s election that I just don’t know what’s possible anymore. I was politically active long before Trump, and we fought to push things to the left but everything went backwards to such an extreme, and I really didn’t expect it. But I should have.
When it comes to art, I think people get mixed up with what art can or can’t do, and what its role is. I don’t think anybody really knows nor can it be so narrowly defined. Every other week there’s a talk on art and activism or art and politics. I can only define what my own work sets out to do and let others do the same. My work isn’t activism, it’s not advocacy, and it’s not anywhere near what lawyers and activists do, and we need them desperately. My art is something else. It has more to do with thought. Art touches more on beliefs and people’s consciousness, it invites people to be more aware of their thoughts and feelings about things. It’s culture. And culture defines our values, beliefs, and collective identity.
You have experience working with blue chip artists, like Eric Fischl. What is this experience like and what have you learned in the process?
Eric is wonderful! I have a lot of respect for him and his work. Working for him has demystified the upper echelons of the art world a bit. There’s so much trash-talk about that art world and the commodification of art, and I think rightfully so. But there are still so many great people who truly love and believe in art and care about artists.
Why is the accessibility of art a necessity for you?
I consider myself anti-capitalist, so I really hate what happens with the treatment of art as a luxury item, but I also know that there are people who participate in that aspect of the art world who do have a genuine love for art and value it highly. It’s the cultural hegemony of capitalism that has made it so that we don’t know how to express our love and need for art besides putting a high price tag on the work and making it compete in a hierarchical market. To many artists it is almost the opposite of “valuing” because we want our work out there and for as many people to see as possible. We want to make those connections and such ridiculous prices and hoarding of work make it less accessible to many. I have a lot of mixed feelings about certain aspects of the art world in general. Artists feel this ridiculous need to make stuff and we don’t know why. People have tried to explain this and have written extensively about it, but nobody really knows why. We have a need to be heard or be seen. I don’t know what drives that at all. Sometime I feel we’re just born this way, like being gay. You’re just born with this need to make art and show it to people. This impulse must be about making a connection, but it’s such a strange and roundabout way of making a connection. You make the object, and then the object is seen by somebody else, and somehow through the object, that person gets closer to this thing you have in your head. Nobody knows what to do with this experience in this capitalist consumer society that we live in. We only know how to sell things and buy things. We know about investments. So when it comes to art, the true experience of art is difficult to integrate into such a system, and that’s why a Basquiat painting will go for so many millions, because there is value in that experience, but nobody knows how to express that now. Money says nothing about how important something is.
What does community mean to you?
Community is who you surround yourself with. I have my feet in different communities. There’s the art community, and then there’s the LGBTQ community. I’m always a little suspicious of the word “community” because so often I hear, “this community thinks this. The gay community doesn’t want this. Artists don’t want that,” and it’s not like we all have one brain. But we all need to connect and to take care of each other. We all need people we have something in common with, or even share an identity with. It’s just necessary for us as social animals.
Why is it important for you to be part of an artist community?
Nothing sparks ideas as much as other people’s ideas. Part of it is seeing what other people are making and part of it is talking to other artists. I love studio visits. I love hearing and seeing how people think. Sometimes I look at something and think it means one thing and then I talk to the artist and learn it was something completely different, and I love it when that happens. I love when artists come into my studio and start saying something about the work and I think, “Wow, I didn’t mean that at all, but that’s kind of cool you went there!” I simply love how artists think. I like that I’m not the only one who does this.
Interviewed by Madeleine Le Cesne