Oaxacan artist draws on personal experience to depict farmworkers

A recent graduate of Cal State Long Beach, Narsiso Martinez discussed his latest exhibition, in which he used discarded produce boxes as his canvas to create stylized portraits of farmworkers. (Sean Flannelly | Daily Trojan)

When he first drew a worker on a discarded produce box, visual artist Narsiso Martinez wanted to contrast the lives of farmworkers and ranch workers. However, he quickly realized the method actually connected farmworkers to the entire agricultural industry.

On Tuesday night, Martinez, a recent graduate from Cal State Long Beach, led a discussion and walkthrough of his exhibition, a collection of portraits of farmworkers on discarded produce boxes at the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles. The USC Fisher Museum of Art and the Consulate organized the “Artist Talk” in collaboration with Art Division, a nonprofit that trains and supports underserved youth interested in visual arts.

“Most of the images that I used for reference are images that I have taken myself all these years since I started working in the fields,” Martinez said. “Some pieces actually depict stories on their own, of certain people that I met.”

Martinez said he helped out in the fields growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico, before immigrating to the United States. When he started college, Martinez said his savings quickly dwindled, requiring him to intermittently return to work in the fields in Washington, where he picked asparagus, cherries and apples.

When Martinez first began painting on produce boxes, he said he wanted to depict experiences different from his own, ultimately deciding to draw a portrait of a banana worker on a banana box. The portrait was very technical, Martinez said, as he felt obligated to portray the images exactly as he saw them, resulting in a less personal piece. After that, he decided to embrace depicting personal experiences and began using his own images he took for most of the portraits.

In the current sociopolitical climate, Martinez’s work has become increasingly relevant, said Maria Galicia, an education and programs coordinator at Fisher Museum and organizer of Tuesday night’s event. Galicia recalls being blown away when she first saw Martinez’s work, especially given her father’s background as an immigrant and farmworker. When the Consulate reached out to find a Oaxacan artist, she said she immediately thought of Martinez.

“I think he’s the perfect person to really show the daily lives of these [farmworkers],” Galicia said. “He lived that, so his work really speaks for itself.”

Although no other events with Martinez are in the works, Tuesday night’s event could be the start of a longer relationship between Martinez and USC Fisher, said Selin Camli, the museum’s communications and marketing administrator. The museum has focused on these types of social issues with some frequency, Camli said, such as the “MONTARlaBestia” exhibition in 2017 and “Dos Colectivos” earlier this year.

Martinez said he wants to raise awareness about the farmworkers, especially given  comments U.S. President Donald Trump has made about the Latino community. Farmworkers represent one part of the Latino community, Martinez said, and he wanted to use his portraits to show how farmworkers contribute a great deal to the nation. Martinez said he does not intend to target any specific produce brands with the exhibition but rather wants to start a conversation about inequity and the agricultural industry as a whole.

“I felt like the [produce box] label would represent the whole agricultural industry and the unfairness, really, of how farmworkers live and how the well-off live,” Martinez said.