Think of the Garden of Eden and you get a sense of artist Claudia Alvarez’s approach to her exhibition at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery. Large-scale watercolor paintings of children, sometimes clothed, sometimes nude, are crowded with an array of tropical botanical backgrounds. Though the works may appear to be utopian scenes of children at play, they stand as reminders of wider cultural and contemporary societal ruptures while still being deeply personal for the artist.
For Alvarez, “gardens” as a metaphor for wider society started in her childhood, where she recalls memories of time spent in her mother’s home garden playing with her family members. One painting, titled “Dando Golpes Entre las Flores” (meaning “throwing punches among the flowers”), depicts one recollection of Alvarez boxing in her childhood garden.
Alvarez and another girl wear red boxing gloves and awkwardly pose in such a way that shows how inexperienced they are as fighters. Both are encircled by a water hose her mother would set up as a boxing ring. The background consists of trees, potted bushes, and flowers colored with purples, pale pinks and crimsons.
At first glance, this painting appears like an innocent scene, but it subtly hints at violence and pain. Everyone knows the ultimate goal of boxing is to injure your opponent to incapacity, though we know the match between the two young girls in this scene will only result in some light bruising. Violence against brown and black people is emphasized in this exhibition considering there are no depictions of white children.
There are only brown children existing in these semi-fictional worlds, mostly of girls, and only a handful of males. With this in mind, Alvarez’s use of floral motifs can then be seen as commentary about flowers and their association as feminine objects.
But flowers are used as stand-ins for human bodies and refer to the over five centuries of conquest of the Americas, Latin America in particular. For example, the Indigenous flowers and plants of this continent had Indigenous names, but after European contact in 1492, these flowers were renamed with European languages, a topic of interest for the artist.
Certainly, Alvarez hints at this with the brown children she paints – these people had an Indigenous history, but through colonialism, become almost non-Indigenous. This is concretely communicated with painting titles being only in Spanish, and the dress of many of the children consisting of folkloric Mexican clothing.
Her paintings can certainly be otherworldly and ethereal, blending colonial legacy, with religion, and fantasy, into surrealist scenes and imagery. One such work, titled Los Morados (or “Mexican Petunias” in Spanish) does just that, existing within the real world and a dream-like landscape, somewhere between Indigenous and European culture.
In the painting, a naked brown girl hesitantly walks forward while glancing her eyes to the side. Maybe she is waking away from some concerning situation, or just curious what lies beyond our view. There is no floor or ground, and it appears the girl may be floating. She is surrounded by flowering vines and budding purple cacti.
If we were to take the Garden of Eden as an inspiration for this body of work, this watercolor can be read in a literal way: as the Christian primordial founding story, with a nude female figure in a utopian landscape.
What is especially lovely about how Alvarez titles her works is she aims it at Spanish-speakers who understand the context of the names. Without any background information, an English speaker would translate this work’s title into “The Purples”, which makes sense, but unintentionally overlooks the artist’s childhood and cultural background.
“Unicornio”, a watercolor based off a tapestry housed in the Met Cloisters titled “The Unicorn in Captivity”, engages in this historical observation, but focuses on the conquest of Africa and the sociopolitical turmoil of racism in the United States. In the original, a white unicorn trapped by a wooden fence is surrounded by a garden. What Alvarez did in her version was take the unicorn and paint it black.
This gesture changes the meaning of the imagery, since the white unicorn, although tethered to a tree, enjoys sitting among a bursting garden of fruits and flowers. In fact, it could escape at any time. That’s not the case with the black unicorn, which is bound by a metal chain, and implicates the viewer by looking directly at us.
Alvarez uses the colors white and black in her paintings as parallels for how we speak about race. It’s simple to infer that this watercolor is about the violence and oppression against Black people in the United States, which is directly inspired by the many Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in New York City, where the artist lives.
Though this painting is about the specific ongoing racism in the United States, it does also touch on the legacy of European Imperialism in Africa. In the original tapestry, the flowers and fruits are European and symbolize fecundity and fertility, while in Alvarez’s, the flowers are all originally from Africa. These two readings are fundamentally about historical injustices and how they affect people today.
Alvarez’s paintings can also be interpreted outside of history and on its aesthetic value. In one “Untitled” work, a naked girl walks on a fallen tree over a hill of flowers and green leaves. She holds up her arms, one hand almost covering her face – maybe to balance herself or as a protective measure from annoying insects. Unlike in the other paintings that show children in states of anger, pain, and confusion, here, the girl appears almost indifferent, merely going about her day.
The floral background is almost like a wallpaper design by William Morris, a British Arts and Crafts designer, covered with curvilinear stems and an abundance of flowers. Though symbolic, the flowers are also beautiful and a pleasure to look at.
That’s a major success of the show. To one viewer, they may stand as testaments of botanical and floral beauty, while to another, they may express a deeper history. Alvarez leaves it up to you to take what you want.
Claudia Alvarez continues through August 8 in the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, 1042 Howard Street. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from noon to 8:00pm and on Sundays from noon to 6:00pm. For further information, please contact 402.341.1877, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Garden of the Zodiac page on Facebook.
[JO1]Information gathered came from the gallery’s press release and interview with the artist…see attached press release in email.