Latinx Photographers in Focus
Ever since Sandra Riaño ’21 transferred to Wellesley as a sophomore from Nassau Community College in New York, she’s immersed herself in the study of history through the lens of visual culture. “It’s a concentration that examines the intersection of race and culture across history through images,” says Riaño, who was born in Colombia and moved to Long Island, N.Y., when she was 5. “I started taking photos at Wellesley and doing portraits and thinking more broadly about the history of portraiture itself and trying to square Latinx diaspora art within that history and not really seeing it very well represented. It was really hard to get a sense of what that history even was.”
In the fall of 2020, when Riaño took a semester off to pursue her interest in podcasting at the Futuro Media Group, she continued to fuel her passion for the arts by taking advantage of free online events held by museums during the pandemic. She attended an event hosted by the Whitney Museum of American Art on the occasion of the publication of Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History, written by Elizabeth Ferrer ’80, who she didn’t know was a Wellesley alumna. Later, in the spring semester, she spoke with James Oles, senior lecturer in art, about Ferrer and her book, the first to examine the history of Latinx photography.
“He asked me, ‘Did you know Ferrer is class of ’80?’ … And I was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It’s so wonderful to know that there’s this legacy of Wellesley students that comes before you who are doing the work that you’re interested in, and you can tap into that,” she says. “That was a really magical, full-circle moment, to find that Ferrer had gone to Wellesley and had studied Latinx art and was thinking about the same questions.”
Ferrer, a curator and writer specializing in Latinx and Mexican art and photography, has curated major exhibitions of modern and contemporary art for numerous venues in the United States and Mexico. She is currently chief curator at BRIC, an arts and media organization in Brooklyn, N.Y. Riaño asked Ferrer to talk with her about Wellesley and their shared interest in Latinx photography. Following are excerpts from one of their wide-ranging conversations, edited for length and clarity.
Riaño: Tell us about your path to Wellesley.
Ferrer: I am originally from Los Angeles and grew up in East LA, which was a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood, and loved art from when I was a little kid, and began college by studying photography at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, thinking that I might actually become an artist. It was a very progressive art school. The art history program was very much guided by the spirit of Sister Corita Kent. She had this way of teaching that was just super liberating and very influential. She would take the students to the supermarket across the street, and they would make art about the signs and the fruit and the messages. You know, so Wonder Bread would become a silkscreen that would be about wonderment. Corita was no longer at Immaculate Heart when I was there, but that spirit was part of the way that I studied art.
But then I realized that I wanted to get a more rigorous art history education. So I began to look at schools and discovered Wellesley and got in, and was a transfer student. And I really found myself there in terms of what I wanted to do with my career. Wellesley has always had a really strong art history department. I had wonderful professors. It was very rigorous. I learned about so many areas of art history, Renaissance art and Asian art, especially. But what I didn’t learn about was Latin American art, about Latinx culture in general.
I want to dig into your experiences at Wellesley. What were some of the questions you were asking in your study of art history? And did you have any formative moments that shaped your art career afterward?
Wellesley was just a very positive, great experience for me. It was hard to be a transfer student, as you would know, coming in and a lot of relationships have already been established. That’s always difficult, but it wasn’t a huge impediment. I especially found the art history department very welcoming. My student job was to work at the museum. This was before the beautiful Davis Museum had opened, but there was a nice museum in the Jewett Arts Center. My job was to update the records of alums, because Wellesley tracked who got a curatorial job or who had moved up to director or who had written an important book.
That was a real eye-opener because growing up in East LA, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to art, and certainly not to art careers. When I was a little kid, I thought if you liked art, you became an artist, and I didn’t really know much else beyond that when I was younger. But at Wellesley, seeing this large database of women who were accomplishing all these exciting things, that made me realize that there was so much opportunity and possibility.