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Jessica Elena Aquino was the commencement speaker at PAFA's graduation ceremony on May 10. 
Jessica Elena Aquino was the commencement speaker for the MFA class at PAFA's graduation ceremony on May 10. Photo: Emily Neil / AL DÍA News

Art at the crossroads: A young artist finds her voice at PAFA

Jessica Elena Aquino is a Mexican-American artist who draws on a number of influences and aspects of her identity to produce artwork that challenges…

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Jessica Elena Aquino thrives at the crossroads, in the middle of what seems incomprehensible, and tangled, like the fibers used in some of her site-specific installation artworks now on display in the end-of-year exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).

Like the weavings of her family’s past that she incorporates into her pieces, Aquino deftly flows from Spanish to English in conversation, in mid-sentence, even, threading a fabric that reflects the entirety of a vast cultural tradition from coast to coast, from her native California to her chosen home of Philadelphia.

Aquino originally started her graduate studies as a painter, having majored in art as an undergraduate at Colgate University and continued with her practice while working as a gardener, farmer, and educator with AmeriCorps in upstate New York after college.

Now, though, her work has become “rooted in weaving.”

Aquino said that one of her artistic touchstones is Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana writer who wrote about Chicana identity, and her place as “una persona, ni de aquí ni de allá.”

“That, for me, resonated especially because going from California to the East Coast, going from various locations...it made an impact, it made me think more outside of just my own self being, how I maneuver the world, how the systems affect me, how I affect the systems in short and small ways,” the artist reflected.

In the course of reading Anzaldúa’s work for her senior thesis, Aquino said that she came across the word “nepantla,” which “means crossroads, or a person in between” in Nahuatl.

“She describes it as a person who’s in the crossroads…you’re in the middle of something and that’s how I felt, that identity. You’re always in the middle of something, it’s always moving, it’s never static, nothing that’s stable, it’s always changing, it’s always adding on,” Aquino said.

“And it’s cut, it’s mended, it’s rewoven and that’s paying homage to where I’m from and my communities. And for that I chose fiber, I chose linear materials, because with linearity, you can cut that, you can manipulate it,” she continued.

Something more out there

Aquino’s father was born in Guerrero, Mexico, and grew up in Puebla. Her mother is also from Puebla, Mexico.

Aquino was born in Southern California, the youngest of four, and so far is the only one who has left the state, saying that she left home to explore because she “felt like there was something more out there.”

But the interests she has delved into — farming, gardening, weaving — are, in some sense, a way of circling back to her roots and reclaiming her family’s traditions.

“My family are farmers...they’re weavers, and just as soon as we came here, when my parents came here, that was all stripped away,” Aquino said.

“I feel like that is what the work is somewhat about: Paying an homage to that, but also bringing in how I use materiality, symbols, colors that definitely I feel reflect where I’m from, but also the statements that I feel like it makes,” said Aquino, noting that she likes to work in large scale because “it has to make a presence, it has to be there, present.”

Though the installations themselves are large, the level of detail is exquisite in many of Aquino’s works. She said that the “accumulation of many things” plays a role in the painstaking building of her site-specific installations.

Navigating the in-between

Aquino also constructs her art as a bridge of sorts—yet another intermediary space—between ancient and contemporary artistic traditions.

Aquino’s one piece on display, which is one of the “high points” of her career at PAFA, depicts the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, who is a mother goddess represented by serpents. Coatlicue gives birth to the hummingbird god, who then immediately slaughters his siblings who have been plotting to kill their mother. It is an ancient story that in the piece Aquino ties into current events: sheltered in the red lace representing Coatlicue is a small bird cage, filled with hummingbirds, meant to reference family separations and the children who have been placed in cages at the border.

“There is a sort of embedded history that’s there like the stitching the colors, there are symbols and unwritten language of history embedded,” said Aquino of weaving, and other forms of art which are often characterized as “folk art,” while noting that often there is a lack of nuanced exploration and research of the art form.

She noted that some of the interactions which inform her work include teaching and being“immersed” in the community, which in this past year she explored through her work as a volunteer with children at the Lillian Marrero Library in Northeast Philadelphia.

“I’m a person who likes to work in multiple places, doing agriculture, outside of school, building a social practice that is also important for the work,” said Aquino.

After graduation, Aquino is doing a summer internship at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she will work in the education department, doing work that is similar to her activities at the Lillian Marrero Library.

She is still waiting to hear back from some residences that will help her “actually [make] the work.”

“That’s the goal, just being here, being immersed and see where it goes, quien sabe,” she said.

At her PAFA graduation ceremony on May 10, Aquino became the first in her family to get a graduate degree — and it was also the first graduation ceremony where her mother, she said, was able to directly connect with the words being spoken at the ceremony. Aquino is, after all, the commencement speaker, and she made sure to address her family in Spanish and have them feel included in a way that they have not often felt.

“My mom specifically has been present in my graduations but yet it’s never been accessible to her for her to understand,” said Aquino. “ But now...I have the microphone.”  

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