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Penn Museum’s first artist in residence encourages others to ‘transcend without fear’

Pérez Sámano is hosting a series of workshops called “Una raíz compartida,” designed to reflect through poetry on the concepts of immigration, identity, loss and belonging in diasporic communities.

Carlos José Pérez Sámano at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. Pérez Sámano is the first artist in residence at the museum, and is developing a series of poetry workshops throughout the city.
Carlos José Pérez Sámano at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pa. on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. Pérez Sámano is the first artist in residence at the museum, and is developing a series of poetry workshops throughout the city.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Carlos José Pérez Sámano isn’t known for working with large, established institutions.

The 36-year-old author from Mexico City, who holds graduate degrees in creative writing and publishing from Rosemont College, has built his career as an independent writer since 2007, when he published his first book, working closely with native populations while he explores the versatility and intersections between identity, mythology, and decolonization.

Pérez Sámano launched a literacy project with the People of Luo tribe in northern Tanzania. He has published four books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, two with Editorial Ad Zurdum, a publishing house in Mexico he cofounded.

He recently wrote a scene for the National Opera Orchestra in Montpellier, France, about fluid identities and the decolonization of Mexican heritage based on the myths surrounding Moctezuma, the late ruler of the Aztec Empire. His anthology-based workshops have been produced in Argentina, Italy, Spain, India, and the United States.

As the Penn Museum’s first artist in residence, Pérez Sámano says he finds himself “creating new communities” with a venerable institution that has been facing community backlash over its racist Morton Skull Collection and its handling of human remains following the MOVE bombing.

The museum and the University of Pennsylvania have apologized for both incidents and called the Morton Skull Collection “unethical” and suggested it was the result of “racist and colonial practices.” They also issued a statement on the MOVE bombing remains, apologizing for allowing them “to be used for research and teaching.”

In his role, which began in March, Pérez Sámano is hosting a series of writing workshops that begin with an open house in Spanish on Sept. 18 and include other events through April 2022, when his residence ends. Called “Una raíz compartida” — One Shared Root — the free program is designed to reflect through poetry on the concepts of immigration, identity, loss, and belonging in diasporic communities.

Partnering with local Latino leaders, the workshops will take place at the museum and in locations around the city, encouraging participants to draw from their own personal experiences, to share about their connections and interpretation of the artifacts in the museum’s Mexican and Central American Gallery.

The Inquirer spoke with Pérez Sámano, who has lived in Philadelphia since 2016, about his vision for the series, the strategies he plans to use for the workshops, and what it means to be the first artist in residence at the Penn Museum.

You are the first artist in residence at the Penn Museum. How does this achievement make you feel?

I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I feel so honored and proud. There are so many artists here with such interesting careers, who have more community outreach and better-known perspectives than I do. So, this distinction makes me question: What do I bring to the table that I’m the one here? On the other, I feel fear due to the expectations I need to fulfill and the ways in which I need to represent the communities [Latino and other people of color]. This is all a big challenge, and the way I’m approaching it is by focusing on what this opportunity offers us.

What opportunities does this residency offer you?

Well, beyond amplifying community voices, what this opportunity gives us is the chance to listen. Nowadays, we have all these platforms where to immediately deliver ideas and content and art, but we don’t connect with people to the extent that they would share their feedback with us or get extremely personal with one another. Now more than ever, there is this false sense of isolation, rooted in the fact that we don’t listen to one another. So, as we listen to others more closely, intimately, we will start to rethink the things we say, because we learn to connect with other realities and the experiences of other folks. That’s where writing comes into play, as a craft that gives transcendence to people’s thoughts around these topics.

Why are your workshops based on poetry?

I got that same question from the museum. [Laughs] Poetry is an instrument to question our use of language and words, and by doing so, we question our reality. Most people think poetry is a very subtle, unoffensive genre. On the contrary, it’s very political and disruptive, as it seeks to change a reader’s views on life. We change our reality when we start to think things differently, to name those thoughts in a different way, and therefore, we understand other realities better and create new ones. So, we will listen and learn with writing. It’s all a social experiment.

The Penn Museum is being strongly criticized for its role with oppressed and colonized communities, especially after its handling of the Africa family remains. In the midst of these questions, what’s your role as the resident artist?

The museum didn’t pick a migrant, Latino artist randomly. The museum is afraid as it deeply questions its identity and purpose. It’s a centuries-old institution based 100% on colonialism, when white men used to dictate the narrative around an object they stole and took from others. Now that we are learning to decolonize our identities and to question authority, migrants, Latinos, and other American community members are holding these large institutions like the museum accountable, which is pushing them to collapse, adapt, or reframe themselves.

It would have been a very big blow to society if the museum didn’t have the courage to name an artist who had the independent background to deeply criticize them. That uncomfortable circumstance of questioning the museum’s identity is what it takes to make a difference. Because, when we become stagnant, we perish with time. Identity is a river not a lake. So, when the museum questions its identity and the communities question their identities, there is a strong connection that could lead to a real conversation around who we are and where we are headed.

In this moment, when the museum is working hard on transforming itself and trying to better connect with the communities, I have the great responsibility to build bridges and roads. We tend to create all these walls around us instead of imagining the ways in which we can connect. We know communities are not static. They can be created anywhere and transformed in many ways. That’s what I’m here for.

How do you plan on getting those conversations going?

The community leaders play an essential role here. They have been nourishing and assisting community members for the longest, so no one has a better sensibility than they do. With their support, we’ve been building the logistics and programming needed to host the free poetry workshops and the Spanish open house sessions that we look forward to offering. I’m really excited about the book we look forward to publishing with the poems we produce during the workshops.

What do you expect to achieve during your residency?

The most important of all goals is to encourage folks to transcend without fear. To not be afraid of poetry, of other people’s opinions and criticism, of our past and history. We are all taking risks with this residency program, as we question our identities and open up to this dialogue and its uncomfortable feedback. If we want to find each other at some point along the way, we all need to walk the path.