Julio César Morales was attending a city college in San Diego when he took a photography class. Then, “it was all over,” he said, “I wanted to focus on the fine arts.” Now an internationally recognized artist and curator, Morales has shown his work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, SFMOMA, Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, and much further afield in Paris, Istanbul and Singapore. He has curated exhibitions for the Nordic Watercolor Museum in Sweden, the Venice Biennale, the San Francisco Art Institute and the Craft and Folk Art Museum, to name a few. He is currently the curator of visual art at Arizona State University.
Morales brings all of this profound knowledge and experience with him to Albuquerque for the first ever session of the Visiting Curator Series, organized by curator Nancy Zastudil and Central Features Contemporary Art, with support from other organizations. The program invites regional arts professionals to our city to mentor and exchange knowledge as they visit the studios of select local creatives. Each curator will later give a talk—free and open to the public—about their practice and the contexts within which they work. Morales will share his wisdom on Friday, June 22 at 5:30pm at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 Fourth Street SW), in the Community Gallery.
Before his visit, Morales took the time to discuss his work as an artist and curator, how art can work in the community and the importance of “supporting artists working in 'off center' locations such as Albuquerque, Phoenix, Detroit, etc.,” as he put it. Find more details about the Visiting Curator Series at centralfeatures.com/
Alibi: Does being a practicing artist give your ability to curate a different depth?
Morales: I was first and always an artist and had an artist-run space in San Francisco for nine years called Queen’s Nails. I opened the space as a response to gentrification and the loss of artist spaces. I found my voice as a curator and almost immediately curators such as Chus Martínez came to visit and loved the programming. From word of mouth, the space got in major art magazines and went on to have the first US exhibitions of artists such as Pedro Reyes, Zhou Tao and Nina Bier. As an artist you can relate to the artist practice more than, say, an art historian, because you know what it takes to create a body of work from initial ideas to the physicality of the object. Art historians just write, not make.
How do you see the role of the curator in the community?
The type of work that I curate most always has a community connection and most projects involve community collaborations. I also think mentorship is essential with artist and peer groups to advance projects and social movements. An ideal project related to this question is Pablo Helguera's “Librería Donceles,” that was a makeshift Spanish language bookstore at our project space, [which was eventually] converted into community space, where the community took it over and actually finished the art installation. It became an important hub for the Latinx community in downtown Phoenix, [hosting] performance events, readings, community meetings and teen reading clubs. I think that in socially-based artworks, when the artist is erased, the work is a success.
Is curation an art in its own right?
It can be! I have worked with some amazing curators such as Hou Hanru and the way he curates has a specific rhythm and style regardless of content that he makes his own. He was initially trained as an artist but found his calling as a curator, and he is definitely a good example of balancing curation as a form of art.
What are you currently working on?
For the last three years I have been working on a series of exhibitions at the ASU Art Museum entitled Contact Zones. The exhibitions focus on contemporary migration and its intricate uncertainties within border culture. … Currently I have been working with Mexico City-based artist Tania Candiani for her project For the Animals that tests the physical, environmental and societal boundaries between nature and sound by creating a hybrid installation of land art and sound art. … For the Animals focuses on animal species that are native to the Sonoran Desert: bobcat, coyote, Gila monster, Mexican grey fox, jackrabbit, javelina and jaguar. These animals were chosen because they would be most affected by the proposed new border wall between Mexico and the US. … The result [of the piece] is a series of experimental compositions as lullabies, which represent an ultrasonic dialogue with nature.
What are your highest aspirations as an artist and curator?
My path begins with being an immigrant to the US from Mexico. When I first came to this country, I literally moved one block—from a neighborhood in Tijuana that is one of the northernmost points of Mexico to the tiny city of San Ysidro, the border town in San Diego, Calif. The experience of growing up on both sides of the border allowed me to develop a unique understanding of identity in relation to site and how one adapts to performance out of necessity—whether performing for the US border patrol to prove citizenship, or on the Mexican side to promote “authenticity.” I take inspiration from the complex myths and histories about this area—from fiction … to complex truths about the interdependent relationship between Mexico and the United States around tourism, immigration, drug trafficking—all of which is especially vivid in the contested state of California. For years my family did not understand what I did. … Then, when I was asked to develop a solo exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, they came in along with about 1,500 people and said, “OK, we get it. All this time we did not realize that your art was about us.”