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In the Studio: Catherine Martinez

Catherine Martinez is a Houston-based artist whose practice is rooted in materiality while looking at her own heritage and the often-overlooked history of the African diaspora. Driven by history, her work is research-based and she works in a range of techniques that transcend a medium.

Materiality is the cornerstone of her practice. Considering the nature of opposing forces and qualities of materials, she looks at the dualities of hard vs soft, rigid vs flexible. ‘It's the framework for layering experimentation,’ she explains. Next to exploring the specific characteristics of materiality, her choice of materials is grounded in her ancestry and Black history. Her use of steel, for example, ‘connects me with my ancestry. My great-great-grandfather was a talented and skillful blacksmith on a plantation in Claiborne county, MS. Stories of him inspire my use of steel as a dominant material in my work.” Interconnected to this is that she also looks at her Nigerian ancestry and the Nigerian god Ogun, who amongst others, is the traditional deity of blacksmiths in the Yoruba region in West Africa and might have been an inspiration to her great-great-grandfather. Other material choices, such as crochet to clothing design to leather, are chosen to explore femininity or connections with the community, to share the world from her perspective.

“I strive to use my creativity to make a positive impact on our world.”

One work that exemplifies how she both looks at her own heritage and the African diaspora is the work featured below, created in 2019. In ‘Great Migration in the 20th century: East St. Louis to St. Louis: A study of southern migration from rural to city to suburban flight.’ Catherine has used steel in combination with clothing, plastic fender, tail light, tire, burlap, wire, and twine to explore ‘The Great Migration’. This is one of the largest movements of people in United States history. Approximately six million Black people moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states roughly from the 1920s until the 1960s to escape racial violence, pursue economic and educational opportunities, and obtain freedom from the oppression of Jim Crow.

The piece evokes feelings about how it must have been for the people migrating from the South to other places in the country. This invigorating and gripping piece makes your eyes whirl around the curved structure while the contrasting materials pull you in different directions. Relating to the people of the Great Migration, “Your life is toppled upside down”, the artist explains.

Catherine Martinez, Great Migration in the 20th century: East St. Louis to St. Louis: A study of southern migration from rural to city to suburban flight, 2019. Steel, clothing, plastic fender, tail light, tire, burlap, wire and twine  4’×4’×1 ½’, 1 ¼’ × 4 ½’ × 1’, 2’ × ¾’ × ½’ 

Another deeply research-based work is ‘18th Century Rockstar’, a mixed media collage from 2023. For this piece, she dove into the histories around Joseph Bologne. A French Creole violinist and composer, Bolonge was the conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris in the 18th Century.

Catherine Martinez, 18th Century Rockstar, 2023. Mixed media collage, 24" x 20".

What has drawn her to this story is that although he was one of the most gifted musicians in the history of music, at the time known as the black Mozart, but has not been represented in the history of music. His work was overlooked for 200 years. Only in 2020 one of his operas was performed in LA for the first time.

In the mixed-media collage about Joseph Bologne, the musician is presented as he should: a portrait of a glorious genius. She explains that researching him extensively created a conversation that is important in the representation of the history of the Black diaspora. “I'm trying to change the formative narrative that masses of individuals try to place on formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants. There is a collective narrative that all Blacks past 1865 had little or no contributions to society.” By shining light on these underrepresented histories, she counters that narrative. “I like artists that assist in this movement, but I am not limited to artists who only have these types of conversations.”

-Maribelle Bierens

Maribelle Bierens is a London-based curator and founder of online platform where's the frame?. This post is part of a series in a collaborative project with the 2023 UH MFA Exhibition at the Blaffer Museum of Art.


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