Reclaiming América: SOYXSOY explores identity and community in latest exhibition

Updated September 1, 2023 at 1:51 p.m.

SOYXSOY (pronounced “soy como soy”) is a Savannah-based collective of contemporary Latin, Hispanic and Native American artists who represent a diversity of disciplines, cultures and perspectives. Featuring visual artists, actors, fashion designers, photographers, writers, chefs and mixologists, the collective came together rather organically in January 2022 and has since grown into a creative force more than 20 members strong. Like many things, it all started with a conversation.

“An artist named Fermin Uriz reached out to me about doing a show and that evolved into maybe doing a collaborative show between me, him and a few other Latin artists in the Savannah area,” said Alexis Javier, SOYXSOY co-founder.

He had conversations with other artists who were interested in doing something similar, and from these talks, the groundwork for the collective was laid. Fermin came up with the SOYXSOY name as a possible exhibition title, Javier recounted.

“I thought that sounds like a great name though, on its own,” said Javier.

click to enlarge Reclaiming América: SOYXSOY explores identity and community in latest exhibition
Alexis Javier

With so many artists ready to collaborate, the idea to form a collective emerged. The artists had their first meeting in April ‘22, and in November of that year, they presented their first exhibition, titled “El Salón”, at the Savannah Cultural Art Center. SOYXSOY recently opened their second exhibition there. It’s called “Reclaiming América.” The multimedia exhibition explores the concept of “reclaiming” America in a current political climate that has been less than amiable or even at times hostile to Hispanic and indigenous peoples. “Reclaiming América” celebrates the vibrant cultural identities represented within the collective, while also presenting personal perspectives and challenging notions of whom and what America represents. 

American rapper Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Puerto Rican rapper Residente’s “This Is Not America” were references drawn upon for the exhibition’s title, Javier explained, which some members of the collective were hesitant about.

“There were varying perspectives on it. When you say it in Spanish, the word ‘reclamando’, it’s usually used in a negative connotation. And so by saying it, it already comes with a sour note [that may not be] appealing or attractive,” he said.

Collective members pondered about whether or not the title would push people away.

“Then there was the conversation around people here in the United States reclaiming America, specifically white supremacists, and just questioning that,” Javier recounted, “How do you as a European descendant reclaim America when there were already indigenous peoples living here?” 

The members eventually settled on the provocative title with hopes that it would spark conversations among viewers about what it means to be American. The exhibition also explores themes of reclaiming the environment and getting back to nature, as ecological motifs are consistent throughout several artworks. Ultimately, the exhibition presents questions about identity and what that means in this moment.

“I think a lot of individuals are exploring their own sense of identity, their own pride in their own nationalism or in their ethnicity, in their culture, and exploring it through their art and their creative practices,” said Javier.

SOYXSOY is made up of artists from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds including Puerto Rican, Colombian, Dominican, Venezuelan, Argentinian, Brazilian, Haitian, Mohawk and Spanish, which is why the collective name is especially fitting.

“I don’t think there’s one person in this group, regardless of skin color, who hasn’t been asked what they are. And that’s why I love the name ‘soy como soy.’ I think that’s the beauty of this group, we are what we are. No one has to explain anything. It just is, and there’s a sense of home and freedom in that,” said Autumn Gary, one of the participating artists featured in the exhibition.

click to enlarge Reclaiming América: SOYXSOY explores identity and community in latest exhibition
Autumn Gary

Equally diverse is the mediums they work with. “Reclaiming América” features sculpture and ceramic works, jewelry, mixed media and collage, paintings, photography, video installation and a dress made from found objects. 

The impact the collective hopes to make is to start important conversations.

“What do we mean when we say ‘I’m American?’ In the United States it seems as though we have claimed that word,” Javier stated.

“There’s the hyphenated Americans and then there’s Americans. But who really has ownership to that?” posited Antonia Larkin, the visual arts specialist and gallery curator at the Savannah Cultural Arts Center.

American identity is not limited to the United States. North, Central and South Americans are all ‘American’ in essence. SOYXSOY’s exhibition invites international perspectives into the discussion. 

Javier encourages the community to visit the exhibition “because there’s some badass work in the show. It’s a very vibrant show with a lot of different mediums on display, but there’s a cohesion between all of it.”

Gary views the exhibition like a tapestry that can communicate in ways that language may fail.

“Art is its own language, so it bypasses all the conventional ways that we sometimes limit ourselves in communicating. I’ve always seen art as a language, and I think it’s a universal language. It’s an inclusive form of expression. So it’s important for people to come and view the work without any other preconceived thoughts or feelings, just experience it and they’ll see the woven stories, the connections,” she said. 

From its many perspectives, “Reclaiming América” presents a collective commentary on American identity, but reclaiming America in practice looks different for each artist.

“As a painter, as long as I keep painting what I want to say, staying true to the message that I want to convey, that’s my way of reclaiming it,” said lé dieguê, one of the SOYXSOY artists featured in the exhibition.

click to enlarge Reclaiming América: SOYXSOY explores identity and community in latest exhibition
lé dieguê

“From a curator’s perspective in regard to the show, it is to take that perspective, exhibiting these expressions that are relevant, that are contemporary, that are happening right now. To take all those ingredients and to alchemize and put together a strong body of work that makes sense, that does feel cohesive . . . in a way that could be digestible for an audience,” said Javier. 

Lorien Gascón, a mixed media artist featured in the show, says reclaiming America is about representing and celebrating her culture.

“For me, very personally, it would be carrying the most important basis of my culture through what I do in the daily. And how we all as a group represent our cultures through our eyes and through our own experiences, and it does show in the work. You can see how where we come from transforms to who we are and how we want to display it to the world, without leaving behind that we are a part of America, all of America. From the furthest north to the deepest south,” said Gascón.

With Hispanic Heritage Month fast approaching, “Reclaiming América” feels particularly timely and important as a way to celebrate the rich heritage and myriad contributions of Latin and indigenous peoples to the U.S. and the world today. 

“What’s so beautiful about this work is that . . . we’re bringing a voice to the now. What is happening now. We’re bringing our ancestors with us,” said Gary. 

Through their work, SOYXSOY is bringing Hispanic and indigenous voices to the forefront, dispelling stereotypes along the way and sparking courageous conversations about culture and community.

click to enlarge Reclaiming América: SOYXSOY explores identity and community in latest exhibition
Tafy LaPlanche

“There’s an African proverb that says when elephants fight, who suffers is the grass. I’ve always thought about that when you think of politics. There’s always people in between, and politicians seem to forget that. So with opportunities like this, as artists, we naturally speak about the times that we’re living in, even if we don’t plan to,” said lé dieguê. “The other quote I was thinking of is ‘every artwork is a child of its time.’ Kandinsky says that. It’s something I always think about when I’m doing a painting. . . We are so much of where we come from. So it feels very natural and it’s a huge responsibility to be the faces of this month when we’re celebrating our heritage and . . .  what it is that we're made out of.”

While “Reclaiming América” is SOYXSOY’s latest exhibition, they’re already working on their next feat. The collective has collaborated with Savannah Rep for their upcoming performance of “Empanada Loca,” which is a Spanish play that has been adapted and translated into English.

“We are working with them to build out, install and transform their lobby into a Washington Heights bodega,” said Javier.

The play is set in New York’s Washington Heights, and SOYXSOY will convert Savannah Rep’s box office into an NYC-style bodega complete with artworks from the collective. The play will be performed Sept. 7 - 17. 

Beyond their local shows and collaborations, SOYXSOY has plans to exhibit in other cities throughout the U.S. and internationally.

“That’s one of the benefits of this group, that everybody’s coming from so many different places and has connections in other places. I think our reach is a little broader than Savannah. Those roots, they’re deep. They go far,” Javier expressed.

The artists encourage anyone wanting to support SOYXSOY to come out to their exhibitions and shows.

“It feels like we put our shows together like regalia. We bead it together and we make the things work where they need to and we balance out the outfit. . . Any show we have, it feels like you just got dressed in it. So people feel that when they come. They get energized by that. There’s joy at every show we have,” said Gary. 

Purchasing artworks, collaborating with the collective and providing venues to showcase their works are other ways to support SOYXSOY. Keeping up with them on Instagram at SOY_X_SOY and on Facebook at SOYXSOY is a good way to know what’s next for the collective. And there’s always something next to look forward to with this group.

“You ain’t ready,” said lé dieguê, which is their unofficial slogan. That, and “you’re welcome.” 

“Reclaiming América” will be on view at the Savannah Cultural Arts Center through Sept. 23.

Published September 1, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.


Chantel Britton

Chantel Britton is a compelling storyteller with an ever-growing curiosity. She's built a rewarding writing career for herself in addition to serving five years as a Public Affairs Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. She's an NPR nerd with a deep passion for all things travel, sustainable living and adventure. She...
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