‘Both Eagle and Serpent’ mixed media exhibit explores themes of cultural identity

By Seb Peltekian
Medill Reports

Luis Sahagun’s art exhibit “Both Eagle and Serpent” evokes the Mexican flag, which features an eagle holding a snake in its talons, as well as how Latin American immigrants arrive in the United States — by air or by land.

Sahagun’s artwork includes sculptures, paintings and installations to  explore cultural identity, history, spirituality, trauma and family. The exhibit is open through April 26 at the Chicago Cultural Center.

“For me, I think the show is really about thinking about culture in a more nuanced way,” said Sahagun, 37, an artist-in-residence at Michigan State University.

The show covers three galleries. The first gallery “could be framed as where I’m from,” Sahagun said. He grew up in the south Chicago suburb of Chicago Heights and said that the work in this gallery “aims to draw attention to the gun and gang violence on the South Side and surrounding areas of Chicago.” As a former gang member, these topics are personal for Sahagun.

The middle gallery “is about conquest, is about resilience, is about survival,” Sahagun said. “So thinking a lot about our ancestors, thinking about Brown bodies being marginalized. It’s been 500 years since the conquest [of the Americas] and thinking about how that pain and trauma has been inherited intergenerationally,” he added.

The artist describes one particular work of art, entitled “Lo que grita mi piel” (“That of which my skin screams” in Spanish), a mixed media human figure with a British sailing ship for a foot. The sculpture is a commentary on how cultural inheritance can be both a celebration and a burden. The piece “is a life-size puppet that is wearable,” Sahagun said. “But if you wear it, it’s very heavy.” This is meant to represent how culture and heritage can be a “heavy weight,” he said.

“Pain is Our North Star” is one of the pieces in Luis Sahagun’s exhibit “Both Eagle and Serpent,” currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center. (Courtesy of Nathan Keay)

The third gallery brings us to a world of fantasy where Sahagun explores ways to visualize imagination. “In my studio, I embrace the imaginary and the playful as tools to guide my [creative process],” Sahagun said. “Art teaches me about who I am and about the world around me. I would say that making is thinking [so] being playful and allowing spaces for discovery in my work is important.”

Sahagun, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, came to Chicago at the age of 4. He was undocumented until his teens, when he became a US citizen. However, he feels that the word “immigrant” may not be an accurate portrayal of who he is. Sahagun’s grandfather was a steel-worker, who came to Chicago from Mexico in the 1940s to help construct railroads and skyscrapers.

“For many years, in my own work, I was sort of justifying my American-ness by being like, ‘Hey, you know, my grandfathers on both sides helped build this city that I live in. How much more do you want from me to say that I’m from here?’”

That’s the reason he utilizes unconventional media to make artwork – cardboard, wooden boards, nails, rope — as an homage to his family’s legacy of construction and working class roots.

Exhibit curator Teresa Silva said that she hopes that the work inspires visitors to think about identity and culture after leaving.

“I do want people to walk away with a little bit of an idea of how Luis has synthesized not just the materials but sort of his identities and how these are fluid,” said Silva, the director of exhibitions and residencies at the Chicago Artists Coalition. “I want people to also recognize that part of cultural reclamation is resilience and protection, so sort of reclaiming what your story is, owning it, but also looking toward your ancestors and to those that you know as a support system too.”

“Both Eagle and Serpent” is the first in a series of public events that Silva and Sahagun will be collaborating on at the Chicago Cultural Center. Other events include a doll making workshop, an artist’s talk, and a traditional Latin American pop-up market, which will feature musicians and folk dancers.

Photo at top: Luis Sahagun’s piece, “Lo que grita mi piel,” explores themes of cultural identity and colonialism. The ship is a replica of the 18th century British vessel, the HMS Victory Ship. (Courtesy of Luis Sahagun/Photo by Luis Sahagun)