“Artists have always been on the front line in history for major political movements,” says Ken Castaneda—a sentiment that echoes louder and louder with every news notification about Trump’s disastrous administration. Yet, at such an emotionally taxing period in our country’s history, we’ve also found solace in the work of artists on the frontlines. Within this delicate, vulnerable space, Castaneda, who’s a senior photography and video student at the School of Visual Arts, exists and thrives.
In his new series, Frontera Familiar, the 21-year-old artist has focused his lens on what it means to be a queer Lantinx in Trump’s America. In a project spanning two years of archival images, Castaneda’s photo series, which translates to Border Family, Family Border, or Familiar Border depending on “your own choice of translation,” deconstructs his own identities and those of his parents, whose immigration journey shaped his childhood.
“I’m inspired by all the strange moments that present themselves on my daily adventures, whether that be getting groceries at my local store with my dad and witnessing birds flying around or finding a literal ‘Silver Lining’ in the sky,” Castaneda says. “These moments, paired together, create a new narrative and a new history about nationality, about queerness, about obstacle, myth, fact and fiction, public and private, and what it means to be an ‘American Family’ in 2017.”
Through his camera lens, Castaneda ultimately came to terms with his sexuality and, last October, made the decision to come out to his parents. “Using self-portraiture [was] the only way I knew how to bring up a conversation about sexuality, desire, intimacy, and loneliness without saying words,” he says of his earlier work.
“I wasn’t giving them the chance to understand me and that led me to try and push them away from my personal life,” he says. “The choice to focus on my parents stems from me trying to make up for lost time, [and] get to know them more.” In Frontera Familiar, he captures the quiet moments of their lives—his dad washes windows in one while his mom puts on a shirt in another.
Juxtaposed against these simple, domestic moments, Castaneda also used his home as an incubator for examining his own national identity. In one shot, he poses on his parents’ bed in underwear and a sombrero. In another, he lies shirtless in a Lucha Libre mask—a striking nod to his childhood watching the wrestlers. Through this nostalgia for the Mexican sport, Castaneda also examined his own queerness. “In certain Lucha Libre matches, the two wrestlers are fighting for the mask so the loser must face the public eye for the first time ever—their coming out,” he says.
Far removed from the wrestling ring, Castaneda has taken his mantra about artistry and politics to heart. While raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, have become regular occurrences in his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey, and neighboring towns, the story of a friend is what inspired direct action. As he finished work on Frontera Familiar, Castaneda began work on a campaign for his peer Viviana Marquez at Yale University.
Last month, Marquez’s father Melecio was detained by ICE upon arriving at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Denver as he attempted to obtain permanent residency in the US after crossing the border in 1998. While Marquez organized protests at Yale and began a GoFundMe that raised more than $50,000, Castaneda helped created a campaign to raise awareness for her father’s case.
Through activism, Castaneda has found a means of confronting and embracing his identity in all its forms. “We are always performing multiple selves, based on our histories, on our gender, on our nationality,” he says. “As a Queer Latinx, not only do you have to explain your sexuality but you have to explain that you are American by birth—[that] your identity is ultimately not one solid thing. We have to be visible and proactive. The role of the activist and the artist is even more important now that it has ever been.”
Frontera Familiar, curated by Max Marshall, is a new body of work created by Ken Castaneda with words by Efrem Zelony-Mindell. The series is on view at SVA BFA Photo and Video (214 E. 21st Street), Fourth Floor Project Room, by appointment with Castaneda.