The website of 2016 Penny Stamps graduate, multimedia artist and community activist Alexa Borromeo reads, “HOUSTON MADE. NOT AFRAID” in big, white block letters against an abstract backdrop that suggests fast horizontal movements across the screen, maybe taken from a train or or a fast-moving car.
“Houston has almost everything to do with why I do what I do … it’s a very culturally and racially diverse city,” said Borromeo in a phone interview.
Growing up in such a diverse community allowed for her to see race in a much less divisive way, leading to a certain culture shock upon her arrival to the University at the salient disparity between white people and people of color.
For example, a video installation titled “stay out of the sun: a colonized consciousness” presents the artist’s body as it exists within the post-colonial sphere and how the pressures of and assimilation bear down upon it. The artist bares her nude body in a public video and photo installation in which she engages in rituals such as placing clothespins on the bridge of her nose and covering her skin in white paint. Borromeo’s work consists of mainly photography, video and public art; all highly narrative in form — sharing her own stories as well as the stories of others in ways that challenge the status quo.
Much of the art reveals urban backdrops. A woman in a towel moves down a sidewalk as a bus teeters a little too close to the curb, obscuring her from view momentarily. A child sits on his caregiver’s lap on a subway in black and white, staring straight into the camera. A Chicago construction worker peers up at his coworker from inside a pothole.
Borromeo highlighted the importance of her Houston, TX upbringing in creating socially-engaged art.
While in high school, Borromeo identified the opportunity to connect interest in both community action and art.
“I saw the opportunity to bridge the two: my desire to help others and my desire to create art,” she said.
One project Borromeo created was a film in which young adults reflect on early memories of when they first became aware of how their social identities made them somehow “different,” the face of each speaker obscured by a childhood photo.
At the University of Michigan, Borromeo became involved in multiple pursuits that sought to explore the ways in which art could be used to strengthen communities and spark social change. She served as the Senior Opinion Video Editor at The Michigan Daily in 2014-15 and became involved with the Black and Asian Coalition on Campus.
Although Borromeo knew early on that she wanted to create socially-engaged art, she recognized her own process of self-exploration and returning to her own roots and identities as crucial steps in developing an activist/artist persona. During her senior year, Borromeo returned to Houston to examine her roots, collecting sound material from her past that culminated in a video installation at the Duderstadt Center.
“It was a good way to get me in the mode to really create more socially-engaged art because I had some stuff I needed to express individually first,” Borromeo said.
She also spoke to her own identities as a Filipina and a person of color as they affect her process and artistic interest.
“Being Filipina, which is a colonized culture and a very Americanized culture, sometimes Filipinos have a somewhat relatable quality to them because we’re so Americanized so sometimes Filipinos can fit into a lot of different ethnic groups easily,” she said.
She also identified challenges of reconciling the sometimes traditional or conservative limitations of Filipina culture as it brushes up against the sometimes provocative or explicit nature of her art. She identified admiration for other Filipina artists for venturing into that territory, despite societal expectations or norms.
“It’s hard as a Filipina woman and artist to publicize the it the way I want to publicize it sometimes. That’s still something I’m navigating,” she added.
Such acute observance and passion for combatting structural racism and other injustices, inspires almost all of Borromeo’s work. She became involved with a program in 2014 called Summer Youth Dialogues, in which she facilitated dialogues on race and ethnicity — an involvement that almost seemed to foreshadow the work she does currently.
Borromeo divides her days between Detroit and Ypsilanti. In Detroit she works with Focus: HOPE, a nonprofit organization in collaboration with AmeriCorps and Public Allies that seeks to put in place local leadership to empower communities in a sustainable way. She works with Youth Development in the Community Arts Department where she coordinates photography programming for 5th to 8th grade students in Detroit where they take field trips and learn to use DSLR cameras, hoping to cultivate passion and skills that may help students find educational and employment opportunities as they mature. Her outreach also involves starting art clubs at schools where funding or access to the arts may be limited.
“I’ve gotten what I’ve learned through college and through art school and now I’m giving it back to the community,” Borromeo said.
From Borromeo’s studio in Ypsilanti she works on other independent and collaborative art projects. She was recently featured in the “Vagina Show” in Detroit, an exhibition centered around intersectionality, or the way social identities interact and open up space for multidimensional dialogue about various systems of oppression and discrimination. Borromeo is also involved in the curating of an anti-Trump show in Detroit.
Additionally, she collaborates with community activists groups in Detroit, like Detroit Independent Freedom Schools, a movement that offers supplementary weekend education by volunteer teachers to aid those Detroit Public Schools students who struggle. She is also a member of the Detroiters’ Resistance to Trump and DMJ studio, a group of women artists who use art to tell stories of those who live in Detroit and bring art to non-traditional spaces and neighborhoods.
However, the project that seems to be most reflective of Borromeo’s artistic journey is one which seeks to provide a cultural exchange between Houston and Detroit. She co-founded a show in Houston last year called “Art to Art” that showcased the fashion, hip-hop and art of local artists, and she hopes to foster a cultural exchange between the two cities, ideally having people from Detroit visit Houston and vice versa.
Borromeo highlights interdisciplinary and intersectionality at the heart of her work. Such a multidimensional approach is clear in the work of the artists and activists she admires. She spoke of Antonio Cosme, who weaves his public and street art with community organizing, and of Adrian Piper, who Borromeo said was, “basically everything I want to be ever,” expressing admiration for Piper’s strength as an artist, philosopher and her exploration and expression of what it means to be a light-skinned black woman.
Borromeo views art as a way of educating, informing and inspiring those who may not otherwise have the access to such knowledge, touching on the universal quality of what she does. She suggested that art was maybe more “digestible” to some than say, reading a newspaper.
“It’s a very special situation to be an artist, especially during this time because not everyone has the capacity to read the newspaper, maybe not everyone knows how to read. But art — but everyone kind of understands imagery — understands what a sound is, understands what movement is and so it can strike people in an emotional way that’s very different than just cut-and-dry stuff. I think artists just have a very strong role to play, especially in just empowering other people.”