Though currently located on opposite coasts, sisters Janelle and Lisa often create project-based work as a pair under the name “Las Hermanas Iglesias” (Spanish for “The Iglesias Sisters”), a reference to the Spanish surname of their Dominican father Bienvenido. They have individual artistic practices and careers: Janelle is Assistant Professor of Studio Art at University of California San Diego and creates objects and installations that are three-dimensional, while Lisa is Associate Professor of Art at Mount Holyoke College and prefers the two-dimensional mediums of drawing and painting. They impart their expertise as educators, nurturing aspiring artists. However, when partnering on a project, their work considers their roles as sisters, mothers, and daughters. For the show M(other) Tongues: Bodhild and Las Hermanas Iglesias, they enlist the textile talents of their Norwegian-born mother Bodhild, a fiber artist, to expand the conversation across mediums and become “Familien Iglesias” (“Iglesias Family”).
In preparation for their first exhibition in the Pacific Northwest, I sat down with Janelle and Lisa to discuss the importance of identity and heritage in their contemporary collaborative practice.
Lisa and Janelle, you collaborate with each other as Las Hermanas Iglesias. How does the work of this artistic collaboration differ from or extend your individual practices?
LAS HERMANAS IGLESIAS: At the very beginning of our collaborations in 2005, we thought of our working-together as something very separate from what we did in our individual studios. The flexibility to experiment, break our own rules, and try new things has always been woven into our collaboration, so our philosophy about the structures of our relationship has naturally shifted over time. . . . We think of Las Hermanas Iglesias now as a separate entity from our individual practices, yes—but binaries and borders don’t apply here—our work as Las Hermanas Iglesias has fluidly evolved to intermingle with, borrow from, and thread through our individual studios and frequently extends to other makers, communities, and family members. Perhaps a difference between this collaboration and our individual practices might be that a certain kind of multiplicity—a relational identity, our familial connection—is foregrounded as central to the premise of our collective work.
Explain the genesis of your artistic collaboration with each other and with Bodhild. When did you decide to include the artistic perspectives of Lisa’s son Bowery (Bowie Gerlitz) Iglesias and Janelle’s baby August Som-Iglesias?
LH: We celebrate and acknowledge that we’ve been collaborating with our mother in various ways since gestation—the connections that have physically and emotionally bound us to each other have affected every detail, every gesture in our lives. The first time we worked with our mother to create a deliberate and collaborative artwork object involved our invitation for her to knit a conjoined dress for us. We wanted a garment that would visualize this physical binding, a dress we could wear together while performing tasks like creating artworks or attempting to walk in opposite directions. As our collaboration as Las Hermanas Iglesias gradually became more complicated in terms of relationships and structures for working together, so too our desire to work more directly and intimately with our mother grew, adapting to her increased availability after retirement from teaching in the elementary public school system, our father’s death, and mirroring our own instincts towards incorporating more of the familial, maternal, and textile. In extending our respect for how knowledge is passed between generations, it just follows organically that we invite Bowie’s contributions and honor this child’s interpretations of these practices.
As Las Hermanas and Familien Iglesias, you have examined transnational identity. Your mother Bodhild was born in Norway, and your father Bienvenido was Dominican. What aspects of Norwegian and Dominican cultures inform your work?
LH: Our work reflects the mashups and hybridic qualities we experience through our autobiographies. There are unique relationships and constellation points between our parents' home countries, including the cod fish—an important export in Norway (klippfisk) and one of the national dishes in the Dominican Republic (bacalao). We grew up within a variety of colliding cultural traditions, expectations, and motifs. We are shaped by and interested in the static and the ways that these qualities counteract and intersect each other, and we also experience many parallel values that Latinx and Scandinavian cultures share. Some of the shared values inherited from our parents that actively inform our work include a persistent transformation of materials, an intense respect for mending, an assumption of re-use and collection, a re-consideration or re-activation of ideas and objects, a love and reverence for the hand made, and an appreciation for using things at hand to problem solve.
Did you travel frequently to Norway in your youth? What were your impressions of your mother’s native country?
LH: We grew up in Queens, very geographically distant from our relatives in the Dominican Republic and in Norway. We didn’t go to Norway very often at all in our youth—our mother took us with her to visit family as infants, and we went again with her for a week to the small mountain farming town when we were sixteen and seventeen years old. One of the most striking impressions of our mother’s native country was the presence of a large family—and the feeling that we were deeply loved by a group of people outside of our home in Hollis. The stories and imaginations of her upbringing that had always been close at hand now gathered the tangibility of the touched and witnessed—the proximity of school to home for commute by skis, the grass grown on the roof to at times be mowed by goats, the impossibly-dated year of her home’s construction chiseled into rafters. These layers of the home and farm where she is from exist alongside her children’s own bridge and tunnel experience in Queens.
Your story resonates deeply with me, as a second-generation American and as a person of Caribbean and Nordic-American ancestry, as well as with others who have had multicultural upbringings. Did you initially seek to bridge cultures and communities through your collaborative work?
LH: Our identities as daughters and sisters, our parents’ experiences as immigrants, our upbringing as marked by the colliding and overlapping of the cultures and knowledges of our parents—these layers and more are in the DNA of the work, and we hope that these layers translate in some way to the communities with which we engage. Unpacking our own identity—a feeling during childhood that we occupied an in-between space as we navigated our own definition of ourselves—has impacted our ways of working. The translation of ideas and patterns between participants and across mediums is inspired by the presence of multiple languages in the house. Our installations and object choices usually include references to the cultural traditions of our parents. We consider our work to be interdisciplinary and we resist a signature aesthetic or category for production, preferring to think of our practice as porous, ever-growing, and un-fixed.
The exhibition at the National Nordic Museum is multigenerational, and it celebrates motherhood in your own family. You also reference artistic motherhood with Anni Albers (1899-1994), who is considered to be the mother of modern textiles. Are there other creative maternal figures who have inspired you?
LH: We’re influenced by the energies and contributions of so many artists who feel like maternal figures—people who have generated paths we continue to walk. Anni Albers is a major inspiration as well as Mary Kelly, Lygia Clark, Lorna Simpson, Yoko Ono, Ruth Asawa, and Louise Bourgeois. . . . and inspired by how contemporary artists interweave their practices of family care and making as Wendy Red Star, Carmen Winant, Sheilah and Dani ReStack, Rachel Hayes, Lenka Clayton, and Andrea Chung do.
You are both professors who foster the development of artists at Mount Holyoke College and the University of California San Diego. How do your respective artistic philosophies inform your educational philosophies?
LH: Our artistic philosophies and politics regarding collaboration, experimentation, challenges to traditional hierarchies, and acknowledgements of privilege and power dynamics inform our pedagogy—resulting in syllabi and classroom cultures that value lateral learning environments, education, and thinking through materials and critical analysis of our actions. We’ve been deeply influenced by Paolo Freire, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Rebecca Solnit, and Sister Corita Kent in the studio and the classroom.
M(other) Tongues: Bodhild and Las Hermanas Iglesias is now on view at the National Nordic Museum through January 31, 2022.
This interview with artist duo Las Hermanas Iglesias was originally included in the 2021 issue of Nordic Kultur. For more information on the official magazine of the National Nordic Museum, click here.