Victor Palomino considers himself an ambassador of sorts. The Colombian-born artist has worked tirelessly over the last ten years to build connections between Latino communities; these days, his art gives voice to immigrants by focusing on themes of culture and identity. “Because I can speak English I have the opportunity to get into circles that maybe not all of the Latino community can get into,” says Palomino. “I want to see more minorities get into the art circles that are happening here. Those are people who have set their roots here and are going to be part of the new community in the upcoming century. As soon as we can make more spaces in the conversation the better and richer the community will be.”
Last Fall Palomino and his wife Sarah Nuñez organized a travelling exhibit called Our Voices, Our Stories, Nuestras Voces, Nuestras Historias, with the help of organizations like the Latino Community Center and the Center for Diversity Coalition for Latin America. The exhibit focused around The 100 Stories Project, an interactive installation that documents Latino immigrant testimonials concerning laws like 287(g) — a policy that grants law enforcers the authority to act as immigration officials.
“The word “immigrant” has taken on really bad connotations over the last 10 years,” says Palomino. “The first thing that comes to everyone’s mind is illegal immigrants coming from Central America. We wanted to create dialogue and give voice to those living in the shadows. Immigration is what makes the culture that we have here.”
Our Voices, Our Stories, was exhibited at The ARTery Gallery, UNCA and Enka High School respectively. “We had all the students look into their immigration roots,” says Palomino. “We created a point in common between the new immigrants that are here and the kids who maybe for the first time are thinking about their own immigration roots.”
In 1998, Palomino received a degree in film and sound engineering from Unitec in Bogotá and has used music and writing as creative outlets in the past. The last two years, however, he has focused primarily on visual art-making. His earliest pieces are sculptures constructed from brightly painted steel that Palomino describes as “purely abstract.”
In 2010 he created a series of portraits in ink of people captured in the background of photographs he took while visiting Mexico. “I was thinking while I painted these people, what defines them and what is their identity.” His answer was to mix up a lot of colors “because there is not only one color in the skin, there are many colors,” he says. The compositions are framed in geometric patterns akin to the traditional patterns found in Pre-Colombian traditions.
A third body of work utilizes materials common to construction sites — arenas where many Latin American immigrants work. The choice of materials is conceptual but also a matter of practicality as Palomino has friends in the industry who frequently offer him their excess building supplies. In this series, gestural portraits are rendered in house paint on sheets of paper used for laying flooring materials. In some, tiles are incorporated, and in one the shards of a mirror are embedded into an American Flag. “I find it really interesting when people look at themselves in a broken mirror because you can see yourself in many different places,” says Palomino. “There are people who actually avoid looking at themselves in a broken mirror.”
After leaving Colombia and travelling internationally for three years Palomino landed permanently in Asheville in 2001. Here he met and married Nuñez, also of Colombian descent, and together they’ve worked with community outreach organizations and with the newspapers La Noticia and La Voz. These days Palomino volunteers with the Western North Carolina Aids Project. “I’ve been doing a lot of outreach in Latino communities, so I’ve had the opportunity to meet different people from different sectors — from migrant workers to restaurant owners to regular people, so that gives me a very broad view of the population here,” he says.
Palomino and Nuñez’s latest endeavor is a school bus they’ve named Chiva in honor of the colorful buses of Latin America that act as transportation during the day and convert to party buses at night. With Chiva, Nuñez and Palomino plan to transport art supplies and learning materials to communities where such resources aren’t readily accessible. “We can take the artists to the neighborhoods instead of the opposite,” he says.
Moving to Asheville forced Palomino to confront issues of culture and identity head-on. “It was the first time I experienced discrimination and it was a big cultural shock,” he says. “Everybody wears a mask and unfortunately the mask that most people wear is one of defense. After many years I realized that because there are very many separate cultures inside the general community there is no one point in common. So that gave me a lot of input and I needed a way to put it out, and art was the best medium.”