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State of the Arts

A New Look at China

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Juana Valdés

Juana Valdés in the Studio Arts Building. More of her work may be seen in these 2019 exhibitions: “The Politics of Place” at the Center for Book Arts in New York City; “Ghost in the Ghost,” at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York City; and “RAW: Craft, Commodity, and Capitalism” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) in Los Angeles.

Photo by
John Solem

Bone china is associated with luxury—think of Royal Doulton or Lenox—but Juana Valdés, an assistant professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst department of art, has fashioned bone china into rags—albeit exquisite rags that celebrate women and their labor.

Valdés, who came to the U.S. from Cuba as a child, sees rags as tools for progress. “How many women have put their children through college by cleaning houses?” she asks.

Her “Colored China Rags” range from white to pink to tan to gray to charcoal, evoking skin tones and the harsh reality of “pigmentocracy”—how lighter skin has been given privilege over darker skin in our culture consistently throughout the centuries. Valdés devised a method of injecting pigments into clay to achieve these nuanced flesh colors in her china rags, made by coating fabric in clay.

The rags appear to be hurriedly hung on hooks by a departing maid. Their soft graceful ripples bring to mind the drapery of Renaissance Madonnas, and how the folds highlight the sensuality of bodies beneath the fabric.

Her talent for finding meaning and grace in the ordinary is being recognized: Valdés recently received two prestigious grants. A grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation will allow her to further pursue her artistic exploration of race, social class, and migration. A grant from the Art Center of South Florida will support her work on a video piece on the Cuban migration.

The Bone China Rags