Ileana Doble Hernández and I have crossed similar paths but haven’t met yet. We both lived in Monterrey, Mexico, and Rochester, New York without knowing each other. We both left the northern state of Mexico due to the increasing violence and while she moved north to the US, I went back to the capital of Mexico. Although the chances to meet should have increased during our period living in New York, at the time we were both getting ready to leave again.
In 2019, a year after moving to Los Angeles, California, I traveled back East to work for the Contemporary Art Biennial in Rochester. One of the exhibitions featured in this event was Seeing Change at Visual Studies Workshop. It presented recently made work by contemporary artists that called for social and political change in the US. This was the first time I encountered Ileana Doble Hernández’s work. A striking image of a hand holding a bullet while making the peace sign captured my attention. In her site-specific installation titled “Mommy, what is this?”, Ileana’s goal was to transform the passive art visitor into an activist. Using the visually compelling image described above as a postcard, the artist is asking for concrete action: encouraging the audience to advocate for gun reform by mailing these postcards to US officials. At the time, it was my job to promote Ileana’s work on social media but what began as a professional virtual interaction soon became a personal connection through art.
In 2021, we started our initial exchanges virtually. After almost a year of planning, we completed this interview, hoping that our paths will continue crossing in the future. In this conversation, Ileana narrates the ways she found herself and her true calling in the arts, her actions and activism in a country that still does not recognize her officially as a citizen, and the ways she engages with the communities that like her, still don’t call themselves Americans.
Claudia Pretelin: Ileana, could you share with us a little bit about yourself and your diasporic path between Mexico and the US?
Ileana Doble Hernández: I moved to the US in 2011 with my husband, our two dogs Rocco and Lola, and our cat Nina. My family and I had fantasized about the idea of moving to another country, but it wasn’t until after 2010 that we actually started looking into making that happen. That year the political war against and between the drug cartels changed Monterrey, the city we had lived in for over a decade.
This was the place where we went to college, married, and had our first home. Almost overnight the wealthy, industrious, practically safe city of Monterrey turned into a war zone. On a daily basis the media would report shootings, kidnappings, grenades, severed heads, bodies hung from bridges, arson, explosions, and cadavers found in pits. It was too much to bear.
As a response mechanism, I started wondering what tools someone would actually need to remove a head from a body or to turn a body into pieces or ashes. Imagining the murderers at work made me sick, and just looking at the “tools” they would use made me afraid. At that time I began a series called “Life is Short, in Mexico” where I explored the human reactions to these objects by making people pose with them in front of the camera. I went to Fundidora, a popular industrial park in Monterrey, and asked passers-by to pick up a tool and pose for a series of photographs. Although they studied the tools in order to choose one, they were definitely not afraid of them, they still gracefully posed and smiled.
Ileana Doble Hernández, “Untitled I, II, III, IV” from the series Life is Short, in Mexico, Monterrey, N.L., Mexico, 2010.
In 2011, my husband’s company offered to relocate him to Boston, MA. We took it. It was hard to leave everything and almost everyone behind, but living in constant fear was also hard. A feeling that I would later experience during the worst part of the pandemic in 2020. We arrived at Logan Airport with two suitcases, three pets in their kennels, and the anxiety of the unknown.
I can say that an immigration journey is not for everyone. You have to be willing to learn and relearn everything you know. I always wonder how our life would have been if we would have stayed in Mexico and if we would have been brave enough to face the danger and overcome the fear. I miss my homeland constantly and I hope to have the opportunity to go back one day.
CP: Your professional background includes a BS in Electronic Engineering and an MS in e-commerce. How did you decide to shift your interest to Photography and Related Media?
IDH: Growing up I don’t remember having any exposure to art or art making. Almost everyone in my family works in medicine, so choosing a career without a straightforward money-earning path like art was not an option for me. In high school, I was good with computers so that’s how I chose my career. After working in IT for several years, I realized that although I had found a niche in my profession that I enjoyed, it wasn’t really what I loved.
During my free time, I would spend hours at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey (MARCO), and I would be completely absorbed by the art. One particular exhibition I remember was Annette Mesagger’s multimedia works in 2010. The variety of the materials she used and her manipulation of printed images spoke so strongly to me that it was shortly after that exhibition that I decided I needed a change. It sounds too romantic, but the truth is that within those museum walls I found my path. It has been more than a decade since I saw that exhibition, but I still remember it and how it affected me positively. When art speaks so powerfully, you remember. That’s what I love the most about it, its ability to communicate.
When we moved to Boston in 2011, I had already studied photography for a year in Monterrey. My husband knew my love for art and encouraged me to pursue this passion. I was already in my 30s and going back to school at that age might not be ideal, but it was a “now or never” kind of thing. I got accepted into the P.B.C in Photography at MassArt, a challenging but also an amazing opportunity to officially become who I had always been: an artist.
CP: Since you moved to the US you have lived through two pivotal moments in the political history of this country: the Obama administration and the election of Donald Trump as president. Could you tell us how these moments have informed your work as a politically engaged artist and transformed your experience as an immigrant?
IDH: Oh, how I miss the bubble I lived in during the Obama years! Ignorance is bliss, they say, naivety too. I used to blindly admire the US and what the “American Dream” represented. There’s still room for admiration, but after 2016, I’m definitely more realistic about my own expectations. That year was also my first experience with the presidential election process in the US and it turned overwhelming at times.
In Mexico we say, “Cada quien cuenta cómo le fue en el circo!” Obviously, I talk from my own experience, and my experience in the US has definitely fluctuated over the years. It is sad and bizarre how things have changed so quickly, for sure. I constantly think about how things would have been if Hillary Clinton had become president, especially with the handling of the pandemic. My father passed away in the fall of 2020, three months after getting Covid. Would he still be here if Hillary had become president? I’ll never know, but this is something I’ve been exploring in my work series Bad Fortune: chance, context, platitudes, and the people who make decisions for all of us.
For me, art has been a way to express myself, and I am an opinionated person! It was after the 2016 presidential election that I decided my work should be purposely political, drawing from my nuanced experience as a disappointed foreigner. In 2017, during my time in grad school at RIT, I realized that my practice was also a form of activism. Art allows connection and can help shift ideologies. I strive for my work to do so.
I also believe that art should be for all people. Andy Warhol said, “I don’t think art should be only for the select few, it should be for the mass of the American people.” I partially agree with that statement. In my opinion, his vision was short. There are more than 40 million immigrants living in this country, including our Latinx community, but we don’t always identify as Americans. Sometimes it feels excruciating not to be represented and this lack of representation creates all kinds of problems and contributes to white privilege and racism. Hate crimes and the increase of white nationalist groups are a deep resistance to recognizing the US for what it is and has always been: a multicultural nation, or as I call it a “mixed media artwork”.
CP: In your practice and activism, you are particularly interested in gun restrictions and gun-control legislation. With projects like “Mommy, what is this?”, “Your fucking right is my biggest fear”, and “Extreme White”, all of them developed in 2018, your work becomes a call for action, a way to engage with your audience in hopes for change. Could you share with us how gun-control and gun legislation became important to you and your work?
IDH: It grew on me, and it was the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day of 2018 that made me take the decision to focus on gun violence and its effect on children.
My first experience with the gun violence epidemic in the US was the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012. I was walking back to MassArt with a group of classmates after having pizza when one of them looking at his phone said, “Another mass shooting, a school in Connecticut.” He said these words with surprise but not with worrisome, and I remember thinking he was used to this kind of news. I wasn’t. I felt worried about it and I started learning more about this problem. Although I was attending school at the time I didn’t feel safe. My deep concerns about gun violence started a couple of years later when I became a mother. Would my child become a statistic? That’s a terrifying thought.
I think my audience sometimes forgets that I’m an immigrant and what that conveys. I can’t vote. I’ve been living in this country for over a decade. I pay taxes and I’m ruled under its laws. Nevertheless, I’m blocked from exercising a basic right. This inability is what compels me to create the political work that I make, especially about guns.
Sometimes I worry that people take my work as a plain criticism of the American way of life but it honestly comes from the need for change. Clearly, when gun violence is the number one cause of death for children, it means that things must be changed. Involving the audience in participatory installations allows me to better share my perspective because they go from “this is her opinion” into “we are all responsible for this.”
CP: Particularly through your project “Mommy, what is this?” (2018), audience participation allowed you to mail more than 400 postcards to US elected officials, advocating for gun control. Could you talk about this project, some of the biggest challenges of showing this work, and have you received any official response?
IDH: When I started working on “My Dear Americans” at RIT, I knew I had a lot to learn, not only about gun violence’s facts and statistics but also about American history and culture, including gun culture. If I was to embark on a project of this magnitude, I had to study my subject and create artworks that were compelling enough so my perspective could persuade people.
During my research of history and the way advertising communication usually permeates politics, the use of propaganda from WWII became particularly interesting to me. This was something I could try to adapt to this project because of the way propaganda works, as an attempt to convince viewers of a certain belief or to take a specific action.
During the last semester, we were working on designing postcards for the exhibition as takeaways. The use of traditional mail for advertising purposes, in the form of postcards, to sign up for magazines, services, etc, it’s something very American. In Mexico I never received the amount of mail I receive here! It came together in my mind and I decided to have the postcards as an installation instead. I wanted to turn gallery visitors into active participants and advocates for the cause. As citizens, they could reach out to their elected officials and ask for very specific and needed actions in regard to gun control.
My thesis installation was designed to move people into taking the action of filling up a postcard. The inclusion of a participatory installation using “Template (96 die each day due to gun violence in the US),” and an immersive installation of “Your Fucking Right Is My Biggest Fear,” also required the audience to engage. I don’t know if the people who have signed postcards have received a response from the elected officials they addressed the postcard, but I haven’t received a response and I don’t expect one. I’m not a citizen of the US.
I’m glad that my work can be used as a vehicle to advocate for this cause, but the biggest challenge is to witness how things don’t change for good. With each mass shooting that makes it into the news I receive requests for postcards, and then, the requests evaporate, until the next one. I know there was a bi-partisan initiative recently signed, but we all know that’s not enough. Moreover, we all know that all can be thrown away until there isn’t proper legislation about the use of guns and a revision to the second amendment. In “Template (96 die each day due to gun violence in the US)” I took a letter from Obama to the parents of a late soldier but modified it as if it was a template intended to write a letter to the relatives of a gun violence victim. The letter is signed by “We The People”, alluding to the constitution and to the responsibility that all citizens of this country have to this situation, independently of preferences and beliefs.
CP: In one of your most recent series, “Bad Fortune”, a project you developed during the pandemic, you pair images of political figures in the US with messages from fortune cookies. These images create a sarcastic juxtaposition between key moments in US politics with text that addresses the political theater that unfolded during Trump’s presidency. Could you talk about the process of creating this body of work and the forms that it has taken since you started it?
IDH: Bad Fortune started at the beginning of the pandemic, because I had time at home to clean my studio boxes. I had to do something to process the moment we were living through; otherwise, I would become insane.
In 2019, after I graduated from RIT my husband was relocated to Maryland. With my work as political as it is I was very excited to be close to D.C., and then 2020 happened! Everything was canceled and closed, it was impossible to join communities or meet new people. We spent weeks inside, and I stopped making work for a while. Life was happening through our screens, full of images of politicians and public figures whose decisions and tweets marked our future.
I had been going through the things I had saved “to make art one day”, and found the fortune cookie strips. By reading them all together, I realized that most of them could have different meanings, depending on the context in which they were received. In grad school, I was obsessed with the work of Barbara Kruger. Pairing images with text is something I admire and I was planning to pursue it one day.
After watching the infamous interview of Trump where he refers to COVID as “the China virus,” I remembered reading how fortune cookies are not actually from China. I went back to the fortune cookie strips and found “Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday”. I also remembered how concerned I was when Donald Trump became president. So this message and the screenshot of that interview belonged together.
I’ve continued working on this project. It has been a matter of pairing strips and images. I love the serendipity of this process because it means I have to find the strip that perfectly matches an image, according to my own views. All the strips you see in these images are the real deal, I don’t create or modify sentences. I take them as they are and sometimes it surprises me how good of a match I can make. Bad Fortune has become an ongoing series intended for public display, as finding these works in the street reinforces the idea of chance and makes them a statement.
CP: What projects are you currently working on?
IDH: Since last year I’ve been participating in events during my residency at the Boston Center for the Art and am preparing for the Art Book Fair in November. I’m also working on creating more participatory artworks for my first solo exhibition at a museum (more to come!) and designing a book of my street photographs, which I’m going to call “Los Gringos” (with all due respect!). A take on my view of America, as Robert Frank did with The Americans.
Since 2020 I’ve been collaborating with artists Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib on Imaginary Lines. This multifaceted project includes writing workshops with people who have crossed the US/Mexico border. Their testimonials and written stories have been adapted into a short film, and an immersive installation is also planned initially in Philadelphia, PA, and consequently in other cities. This project is important because it comes from the voice of real people, telling their challenges of migration in their own words. Furthermore, Imaginary Lines also sheds light on the environmental impact of the border wall and the situation of the National Butterfly Sanctuary in Mission, TX, which will be destroyed if the construction of the wall continues. Last October we used our last resources to travel to South Texas to shoot at the border. We need additional funds to keep going. If you would like to help, please reach out! Soon after we visited last year, the National Butterfly Sanctuary was forced to close intermittently because of threats from anti-immigrant white nationalist groups and other Trump supporters. The lawsuit of the National Butterfly Sanctuary against the wall’s builders is ongoing, they also need support. Imaginary Lines will help broadcast their struggle.
CP: Other than photography, what’s your favorite instrument of memory?
IDH: Objects! The first type of photography I did and my favorite thing to photograph is still life. I like creating meaning through the representation of a lifeless subject, which I can manipulate to my specific needs but which represents something different for the viewer. I’ve always been fascinated by how we attach meaning to objects, memories, and feelings. The tools of “Life is Short in Mexico” are an example of how I saw these objects with a very specific emotion, different from other people.
CP: Thank you, Ileana!
Ileana Doble Hernandez is an immigrant visual activist from Mexico, her socially conscious practice includes photography, video, installation and new media. Doble Hernandez is an alumna from the top-rated MFA program in Photography and Related Media at Rochester Institute of Technology and from the Post-Baccalaureate in Photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. An artist and an activist, Ileana believes that art has the power to make people care, she uses her practice to promote harder gun reforms and the fair inclusion of immigrants within the American society. Through her postcards installation “Mommy, what is this?” and her own networking efforts, more than 400 postcards have been mailed to U.S. elected officials, advocating for gun control. Since 2020 she’s been collaborating with Imaginary Lines Project, an ongoing socially engaged artistic endeavor that allows people to share their immigration journey through the U.S./Mexico border. Ileana’s works are part of public and private collections and have been published and exhibited in galleries and museums in North America, Europe and Asia. Due to her artistic and academic achievements, Ileana is the recipient of several awards, including the 2019 RIT College of Art and Design Outstanding Graduate Student. During summer 2021, Ileana joined the Leadership Institute Fellowship Cohort of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC), and the Studio Residency at the Boston Center of the Arts. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, their son, their dog and their cat.
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