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Collective Grief: The Biennial of the Americas' COVID-19 Memorial Exhibition

A piece from the Americas COVID-19 Memorial.
A piece from the Americas COVID-19 Memorial.
Sandra L.
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“Don’t worry, we will regain the steady heart beat,” writes Mark Davidson, an Aurora Public Schools student who submitted artwork as part of a new Biennial of the Americas exhibition titled Americas COVID-19 Memorial. The collection showcases the works of over 200 artists, both professional and aspiring, from around the United States and across the Americas. Together the artists create a multifaceted story about some of the many ways the pandemic has affected their lives.

The virtual phase of the exhibition runs on the Biennial website from June 15 through July 18, and members of the public are invited to vote on their favorite pieces of work. The Biennial, a Denver-based nonprofit, will later award prizes of up to $5,000 based on public votes as well as those of an artist selection committee. An in-person exhibition will be on view at the Museo de las Americas in September.

“We set out to offer a space for artists and members of the public to acknowledge and process the collective and individual challenges and grief experienced across the Americas — and worldwide — throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Biennial deputy director FloraJane DiRienzo.

“I hope their work can be a source of empathy and compassion — that we’re more alike than we are different, that our borders are imaginary,” DiRienzo continues. She explains that this concept is central to the mission of the Biennial, which was started in 2010 to create community, build connections and inspire change across the Americas.

"Mutual Aid of the Earth," by Suzy González.EXPAND
"Mutual Aid of the Earth," by Suzy González.
Suzy González

Typically, the nonprofit brings artists and creative projects to Denver, but because of the uncertainty of live events last January, organizers saw an opportunity to launch this exhibition online. In addition to submissions, curators Derrick Velasquez and María Paz Gaviria chose 21 commissioned artists from the Americas working in a range of disciplines.

Montreal-based artist Shazia Ahmad looks at a triad of shoes in “Nowhere but Here (Three Women)." The painting, composed with blues, purples and red, memorializes “the small things, the domestic details, the quiet moments that emerged in the horrific tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ahmad writes in her artist statement.

Alejandro Almanza Pereda, from Guadalajara, created “Rammed Earth,” a series of drawings proposing blueprints for statues representing “the abstraction of a devastating event,” he writes in his artist statement. The 5-foot-by-5-foot square sculptures would be made from pre-colonial indigenous construction techniques that combine different types of soil to create a longstanding structure. The sculptures represent a need for change, “a radical deviation of human habits in the face of the environmental threats, linked to upcoming unwanted diseases,” adds Almanza Pereda.

Roff-Garcia And then there’s the collection of works submitted by the general public. Aurora artist Davidson’s simple drawing shows the steady fluctuations of a heartbeat during the years before 2020, the spikes of the past fifteen months, and a return to a normal rhythm in the years to come. Davidson is one of a number of students from Aurora who submitted work as part of a collaboration with CherryArts, a program through which students received Studio Create art kits donated by the Biennial. Many of the students' pieces display images depicting the Black Lives Matter movement, masks and personal stories.

Jave Yoshimoto's "The Empty Next."EXPAND
Jave Yoshimoto's "The Empty Next."
Jave Yoshimoto

Other works from the general public include Monica Marquez Gatica's “Rising Angel,” a mixed-media painting that relates to both social inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s “about the upturn, the solidarity and being united, awakening of consciousness and defining a new normal,” she writes.

Another artist, Jay Roff-Garcia , chose to highlight the unfathomable nature of the number of lives lost to the disease. His “100,000 to 200,000” is a hazy photograph of a cactus with cropped stems. “The shifted focus is meant to symbolize the numbers and figures that are still out of focus, the crudely cropped cacti and their blank backgrounds are meant to represent those ripped from us prematurely, quietly, and brutally,” Jay explains in a statement.

“Artists have the power to heal. They’re amazing storytellers. … This is their creativity speaking from their hearts...[showing] that tension between real sadness and despair and hope and light and how they come together,” DiRienzo points out. “What resulted is an exhibition that truly reflects the range of emotions, the depth and breadth of experiences and the myriad of ways art can provide an outlet for reflecting, sharing and moving forward.”

The pandemic “isn’t just something that happened during one day. It happened at very different rates and [created] very different experiences, neighbor to neighbor, regardless of which country you’re in,” she continues. “We anticipate the continual feelings and processing to happen for years to come.”

View the virtual exhibition on the Biennial of the Americas website. The public can vote for a new favorite piece every day. Winners will be announced in August, and an in-person showing at Museo de las Americas will begin on September 3.

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