“What is identity? How do we as a society come up with the idea of identity?” asks Rolando Cruz, a thought-provoking artist and one of two 2014 Latino Art Fair of Dane County winners whose work is being recognized as part of CelebrARTE and the Latino Art Fair of Dane County. “In the past, it doesn’t seem like it’s been as deep an issue as it is now … especially when it comes to social media, race, and ethnicity. So many things are coming to the surface.”

From Sept. 5-Nov. 29, the Overture Center is featuring the photography of Cruz, whose art exhibit “Selves” plays with the idea of identity and will force you to ask yourself questions about how you judge other people. “Why do people think I am who I am?” Cruz asks. “It’s really interesting how many people think that I am Muslim. Or I am Indian. Or that I am straight … that I am this or that … without really getting to know the person. And then they make many assumptions. My exhibit is about questioning those assumptions about a person.”

CelebrARTE is an art exhibition recognizing the work of 2014 Latino Art Fair winners Cruz and Yvette Pino. Through photography and printmaking, they share their journeys of spiritual explorations and self-discovery. An opening reception will be held on Friday, Oct. 2, 6-8 p.m. The exhibition is the accompanying exhibition to the 3rd Annual Latino Art Fair, which will also be held at the Overture Center also on Oct. 2.

Cruz’s portraiture, which focuses on questions of identity and the role of individual and personal selves, has appeared in several locations throughout Madison. Earlier this year, Cruz was recognized by Our Lives magazine as one of the publication’s “Our Artists.” Cruz believes that his photography “challenges the viewer to explore and confront our own perceptions of someone’s exterior identity” and “asks how appearance affects and effects our core emotions and prejudices.”

One of the images of "Selves" that will be featured at the Overture Center as part of CelebrARTE and the Latino Art Fair.
One of the images of “Selves” that will be featured at the Overture Center as part of CelebrARTE and the Latino Art Fair.

As openly gay and Latino, Cruz has been battling social stigmas and prejudices throughout most of his life and has always used his art to provoke people and make them think about how and why they think. I first met Cruz at last year’s Latino Art Fair at the Madison Central Library where he was wearing an extremely colorful shirt filled with dozens of derogatory names for homosexuals. Behind him at his station, was another shirt that he had created full of various not-so-friendly names for Latinos. The shirts jump right out at you and force you into conversations which is consistent with the theme throughout much of Cruz’s artwork: It is often bold and controversial.

“The media and Internet has made it easy for us to come together but in the same way it has pulled us apart because we just assume that what we see is what it is,” Cruz tells Madison365. “Sometimes, it’s just laziness, and, sometimes, we just believe too much of what we see. We no longer look for the answers, we just assume that they are coming to us via Facebook or through e-mail.”

“I hope that people walk away from the exhibit thinking about themselves beyond the external appearance. I want people to look at the images and reflect within themselves as to who they are and why they are who they are.”

Unfortunately, Cruz is going to miss his big day in Madison. He has his interview and hearing for his U.S. residency in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico which will keep him from attending the big CelebrARTE opening on Oct. 2. “It’s been three years in the making. It’s a world of emotions,” Cruz says. “I guess there is a little irony there – the absence of the artist at his big event.

“It’s scary in a way because I’ve been here for 21 years,” Cruz adds. “I’m going back to visit my parents for the first time in 21 years. I have a family here in the U.S. What if I can’t come back? They can deny it and I won’t be able to come back.”

Cruz came to America with nothing as a teenager not just to work for a better life than he had in Mexico … but to experience life in the fullest. He has been judged as a Latino immigrant and restricted and segregated in so many ways through language, culture, housing, economics, and more. “Not only am I an immigrant … but I’m also gay,” Cruz says, “so I was an outcast in an outcasted community.

“But I’ve never really thought of me as all of the labels that people assume I am because at the end of the day, I’m just me,” Cruz continues. “People will say, ‘He’s gay!’ But, to me, being gay is no different than having dark hair. These assumptions that people have of me are so far from who I am. I’m allowing people to see that in the exhibit as they realize that it’s just one person yet they felt different for each picture. Then they have to question themselves.”

As a photographer and an advocate in the community, Cruz hopes that his images showcase “the struggles of identity in the 21st century as a reflection of our own internal insecurities and the ill-perceived notion of belonging or feeling safe.”

Rolando Cruz
Rolando Cruz

“I want for us to be open to people and to look beyond the external identity,” Cruz says. “We are so caught up on how we look versus how we feel. And how we feel is what brings people together. We all have feelings.

“That’s why we have so many issues … because we will always be different,” he adds. “We have so many similarities that we don’t notice. It wasn’t always like this, but we as a society have become more superficial.”

Are we as a human race ever going to be able to just get past all of our external differences and live life in harmony as true brothers and sisters?

“It’s weird because I was just thinking about that today. It’s funny that you mentioned that,” Cruz says. “It’s sad to think that in order for us to do that, something horrible almost always has to happen to bring us together and to peel away the superficial mentality of our differences. Sept. 11 happened; everybody came together as one. But then, with time, we pull away from it.

“I feel like the way we’re going as a society right now that we are just going to have more issues because the world is getting smaller,” he adds. “That is the reality. And the more we focus on our differences, the farther apart we are going to pull and the more friction we will have.”

Cruz hopes that “Selves” will help reverse that trend and make you think about the question: What is it that I’m being biased towards or assuming I know when it’s the same person?”

“I hope that people walk away from the exhibit thinking about themselves beyond the external appearance,” Cruz says. “I want people to look at the images and reflect within themselves as to who they are and why they are who they are.”

There are 11 different portraits of Cruz at the exhibit. The 12th frame is a mirror. “When you get to the end of the exhibit, you actually see yourself,” Cruz says. “The whole idea is to feel like you are part of this group. So, you now you’ve just scrutinized and analyzed all of these images … will you do the same about yourself?”

For more information about the Cruz’s art exhibition, click here.