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Expanding the Narrative: Victoria Rinaldi Explores Race, Identity, and Art

Victoria Rinaldi is nearing her final year of undergraduate study at the Stamps School of Art & Design amidst global uncertainty. Like many students planning to return to campus, her semester will be filled with unknowns.

Expanding the Narrative: Victoria Rinaldi Explores Race, Identity, and Art

Written by: Emily Considine and Sarah Jacob

Victoria Rinaldi, courtesy of the artist

However, for Rinaldi and other art students, these unknowns present unique obstacles to the quality of their tactile education.  “Our school hasn’t announced anything official but I am just wondering how [virtual courses are] going to change my thesis… I’m sure everything’s going to have to be presented in a different way than it normally would,” she remarks.

In the past, Rinaldi’s multi-disciplinary work included painting, printmaking, and sculpture. She’s also a singer-songwriter and has written music since she was in high school. However, over the past few months of living in Ann Arbor, Rinaldi reflects that she’s neglected a lot of her creative practice. “Painting is really the only creative outlet I’ve been doing,” she admits. “I started doing a couple self-portraits and then I started painting my roommates because I was kind of sick of painting myself. I was like, ‘this is too much deep thought. I don’t want to think about it.’”

Rinaldi is grappling with the obstacles many artists are facing while staying home: shifting subject matter and the emotional burden of a pandemic on their work. In April, Vogue released an article titled “Creativity in Crisis: How Some of Our Favorite Photographers and Visual Artists Are Coping in Quarantine.” Their study reached all over the world, including multimedia Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. Neshat’s work once adorned the living rooms in UMMA’s apse and today remains an important part of the Museum’s collection. Neshat, like Rinaldi, is facing a stir in motivation, creativity, and inspiration. Turning to nature and a reimagined look for her early time in quarantine, Neshat’s new creative outlets echo the changes student artists in our University of Michigan community face as well.

Looking deeper into the collection here at UMMA to understand how artists cope and contribute in trying times, we can reflect on the work of Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch. Both Schiele and Munch lived during the Spanish Flu pandemic and Schiele lost his life to the disease shortly after his wife. Schiele, known for his raw figurative paintings, and Munch, most known for The Scream, were deeply artistically impacted by the outbreak. Experts reflect the immense psychological change in their works from the time the pandemic claimed so many lives. This fundamental change in their artistic voice and practice shows us how deeply we are all impacted by global changes. The subtle but robust changes in the tone of work produced by Neshat, Schiele, and Munch mirror Rinaldi’s shift away from the overwhelming work of self-portraiture and self-reflection in our modern time. 

For Rinaldi, painting self-portraits is tied to exploring her personal identity. As she puts it, “I’m a half-Filipino, like half-Italian artist” and “my Asian heritage informs my work more… but it’s important to note it like that. I’m only half-Asian.” As an artist in the Asian American community, Rinaldi explored her community's history through coursework and her Asian identity through artwork. She explains that being mixed race in particular is “definitely something that I think I tried to talk about in my work. Because it’s kind of like living in this dual identity because you’re not fully Asian but you’re not fully white. So you’re kind of in this weird in-between where you don’t really feel fully accepted by the Asian community because you’re not fully one of them, like you’re only partially so I feel like growing up a lot of my identity was really caught between these two very different worlds.

Rinaldi remembers her start to portraiture, “at first, it kind of started as a way for me to try and figure out, you know, who I was and what I wanted to be. And I found self-portraiture to be therapeutic at first”. However, she continues,“as I started taking more classes about Filipino-American history and, you know, reading, and talking to my family more about why we immigrated here… it really started to inform my self-portraits more.”

Now, Rinaldi finds portraiture to be a way of challenging common reductive stereotypes. “My goal is to kind of change the narrative of how people perceive Asian women,” she explains. “Asian women are either you know, perceived as docile and obedient, or they’re seen as overly sexy, exotic, [as if] they’re to fulfill all of your desires.” Rinaldi describes the minimized image of Asian women in American media as either a villainized temptress or obedient exotic as “the extreme ends of a spectrum” that reduces a highly diverse and dynamic population to dated Western expectations. Rinaldi concludes she tries " to paint [herself] in ways that Asian women aren’t particularly represented as. So I paint myself just kind of sitting in my bedroom a lot or just kind of doing something super mundane.” Rinaldi is exploring an understated way to humanize the landscape of stereotypes against Asian American women by activating in herself the diversity of the Asian American community. She is utilizing her unique identity as a mixed race and media artist to elaborate on the real lives of Asians living in America. 

At the same time, she’s wary of tokenization. “I feel like people just try to tick boxes,” she explains. “You know, it’s like, ‘oh, look, we have a Latino artist, okay, we have an Asian artist, okay, we have a Black artist, okay.’ It just doesn’t feel super genuine all the time.”

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I feel like people just try to tick boxes. You know, it’s like, ‘oh, look, we have a Latino artist, okay, we have an Asian artist, okay, we have a Black artist, okay.’ It just doesn’t feel super genuine all the time.

Victoria Rinaldi

As Rinaldi reflects on her experience of being the token diverse artist and the way she is pressed to balance her racial identities, this sort of personal burden is felt by many marginalized people around the world. Shirin Neshat, for example, explores the realities of women in Islam through her film, video, and photography as an exiled artist. She, like Rinaldi, faces the complexity of representing her community against the harsh and entrenched negative stereotypes held especially in the West. Other artists like Katie So are also having this conversation within their art. So explores her half Asian racial identity along with mental health themes through her work. Reconciling one’s racial identity is a major undertaking for many in America and around the globe. However, recently as people and institutions begin to reconstruct their sense of justice, equality, and diversity, allowing people of color to share their lived experiences is more essential than ever. Performative diversity or tokenizing people of color to market to a broader audience harms a community of people, like Rinaldi, trying to make more fundamental change. 

“As a person of color I feel like there’s a weird pressure to make your work always about being different from white,” she says. Eventually, Rinaldi plans to develop these ideas on identity and race in her senior thesis. “I was always drawn to painting myself, but [lately] trying to put more of a narrative behind each painting is where I’m going next.

You can find more of Victoria Rinaldi’s work at https://vicanner.wixsite.com/website.

Emily Considine is a senior BFA student in Art & Design at the University of Michigan, hoping to become an illustrator. In addition to her involvement with UMMA, she’s done various illustrations, comics, and design work for Arts at Michigan, Forbidden Stew, and ArtsEngine. You can find her most nights during the school year at The Michigan Daily, where she manages the Opinion page.

Sarah Jacob graduated from University of Michigan this past winter with a Bachelors of Science in international studies, biopsychology, cognition, and neuroscience, and a minor in Islamic studies. While she navigates the world post undergrad, she is working closely with UMMA staff on student engagement, continuing research on peacebuilding and violence, and reimagining her own artistic voice.

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