Interviewed by Rosalyn Spencer
Rosalyn Spencer: Congratulations on your Joan Mitchell Center residency. What were you able to create or learn from that experience? How was it to connect and witness the art of others around you in that space?
Cecelia Fernandes: The best thing about my first residency was the ability to really take my personal work seriously and make it a complete focus rather than something I just did in my spare time. Between our photography business, the gallery, and the work I do with my husband as C+J, not to mention the renovations we are personally doing to our home and studio, it’s easy to let my personal work slide. This was an amazing opportunity to focus, and in the process I finally started to see how to integrate my various mediums. Now I’m working on setting installations that incorporate my sculpture, 2D work, and videos. So I’m quite pleased in the result, even if it was incredibly painful to get there with the extra work and stress. As far as witnessing the art of others, we are behind closed doors and as artist we tend to be a bunch of loners so we didn’t spend so much time in each others studios. But it was great to get to know such a talented group and I had some really great conversations.
RS: How long have you been pursuing a career in the art field?
CF: I started working with my husband the photographer José Fernandes back in 1993 or ’94 when he was a fashion photographer and I was 18 years old. I was often in front of the camera but I also did styling, makeup, and art direction for our various fashion shoots. I believe it was there that I really began to conceptualize through imagery.
RS: How would you describe your aesthetic?
CF: Urban, loud, and violent. It’s always focused on my experiences reflected through my community and family here in New Orleans and our resistance to the forces that wish to hold us back and marginalize us, hence the violence.
RS: What is your method in choosing your different mediums to create your mixed media pieces?
CF: I love to use photography as the base of all my work because I feel it captures who we are in a very contemporary way. It’s a snapshot of where we are as a people within the environment that shapes us. I feel like the images read like code. You just need to be open to the subtle messaging to be found there. The images I chose are a direct reflection of my concept and an extension of my personal experiences into the experiences of the “other”. I always reflect on my community because they have shared in the same environment and therefore were similarly shaped as I was. It’s in their actions and expressions that I find a physical manifestation of my inner personal experience out in the tangible world. I often mix in elements that remind me of my youth or that I feel carry some history connected to the city of New Orleans, the city of my birth and eight generations of my blood line. I feel like the spirit of the city courses through my veins.
RS: How are your views on the political and social landscape reflected in your work? Which work do you believe highlights this juxtaposition the most?
CF: I feel like my political views are apparent in the gesture of the figures and the juxtaposing of the antagonist. The figure always represents the body of the people, the juxtaposing is the violence, and the antagonist is a natural shape shifter and therefor can be almost any form. The simplest and most readily assessable example would be “Crescent”. In that image you have that ridiculous gauntlet of a foot bridge juxtaposed to a women facing the viewer in disbelief as to its very existence. It speaks about allocation of funding and accessibility to public spaces.
RS: What defining moments helped shaped your outlook on your aesthetic?
CF: The displacement I experienced after Hurricane Katrina was monumental. I spent about 10 years trying to find a place to feel at home and that lead me to begin to explore what it was about this city that was so special and what was my direct connection to it.
RS: What are some of your major influences that helped shaped your artwork?
CF: It’s my entire life that is the base and meat of my work, reflected in my community. However, Hurricane Katrina’s lessons of who is valued in this country and how disaster capitalism truly works was for the first time right before my eyes. The City’s use of public funds to promote corporate endeavors while doing nothing for the people who need it, the refusal to engage in any attempt to help my community return, and the biggest insult, the salt rubbed into our deepest wounds, was the us, commercialization, of our very culture—the Second Lines, Jazz Funerals and Masking Indians, to fuel a return where we, the creators and bearers of the culture that makes New Orleans so great, are completely excluded.
RS: What do you want most for those who see your work to understand about your work?
CF: I want them to understand that I’m human just like them. We’re all humans, so if they happen to say “I wish I could do that.” I want them to know that they also have the power to create just how I do, and it’ll be just as beautiful as mine. I believe every form of art is special. If my work appeals to someone so much that it drives them to paint something themselves, I want them to understand that’s what makes me feel accomplished as an artist.
RS: What do you believe are some milestones and moments that helped change the art scene due to the contributions of artists of color that you may feel have been overlooked?
CF: Artists of color ground art in reality—the reality experienced by most of the worlds population. They keep art from being over run by the elite art world who is rich and art is a play thing for them. For artist of color it’s a necessity for survival or else we are lost to the violence of this all consuming, capitalistic system that grinds us down and no longer needs our labor, which was the only thing it ever needed us for.
RS: Not only are you a visual artist, but a business owner. Can you tell us about the trajectory of your career and your vision for the near future?
CF: Six years ago I was a bartender in Manhattan. I had completed my undergrad at the New School which was a major accomplishment because Hurricane Katrina had disrupted my studies and sent me on a journey of discovery that spanned two years in Lisbon, three years in Rome, and five years in New York. My husband José had returned from Portugal 2 years earlier and had found a house to buy while there were still cheap deals. We bought the house cash money and started our own renovations, which are still on going today. I’m fine with the time it is taking to complete because I want to stay away from the debt trap that this country does its best to encourage us all to take part in. I have enough student loan debt as it is. We started out selling at the art market on Frenchman street then we added festivals and took advantage of an opening in a shared space on Royal street to open a small gallery of José’s work which is were we are now. But I believe we can integrate all the work we have been doing over the years better if we move everything to our home/studios in the 7th ward. At this point we would like to become more flexible to allow for more travel and projects outside of New Orleans.
RS: What are some of your experiences in the world of art as a woman of color that has led to your perspective of the art scene?
CF: I think as a women of color I always have to come up against marginalization. People tend to have a very narrow idea of black women, our interests and our capabilities. But I can’t blame the world of art as that is an experience I have always had to struggle with in every field. It’s just a nasty reality in this world. I have been my husbands partner from the very beginning of our relationship and here we are 26 years later and now people look at me and think ‘Oh, you’re an artist too?”
RS: What do you want most for those who see your work to understand about your work?
CF: I want the strength, creativity, beauty, and history of resistance and down right defiance of the ruling classes that my community, my family possess and our right to exist as equals without some capitalized version of value. We have a deep history here in this city unlike any other city in this country. This place was not formed in the same mold as the rest of this country. We were not made part of America till 1803, and while the city celebrates our tricentennial it is important to note that 2019 marks the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship to these shores, one year after its founding. We have been here from its inception.
Cecelia is a 8th generation New Orleanian visual artist whose perspective reflect her experience growing up in the city's Creole community. She studied painting and sculpture at the University of New Orleans and after Hurricane Katrina she lived five years between Lisbon and Rome, where she studied videography. She lived an additional five years in New York, completing her education at The New School for Social Science before returning home to New Orleans in 2013.
As a co-owner and creative director of Eight One Eight Contemporary Photography Gallery on Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter, Cecelia promotes the documentary photography of her husband Jose Fernandes as well as their joint work as C+J, which has received critic’s attention while participating in several museum shows, most recently The Contemporary Arts Center 2018 show Constructing the Break, along with the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and New Orleans Museum of Art. Currently, Cecelia is currently in her first artist residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans through the end of January 2019.