When it comes to loss, Fabrizzio Subia may know more about that than most people.
Having dealt with everything from familial loss to the erasure of his history, the Ecuadorian-American multidisciplinary artist (who has also done things like host the open-mic event Tortas y Talento) has unveiled the video installation “Año Nuevo (2023)”—a grief performance on display at Chicago’s International Museum of Surgical Science that is dedicated to his late brother. It’s the sequel project to “Año Nuevo (2019).”
In a talk that sometimes turned emotional, Subia (who now utilizes “he/they” pronouns, acknowledging their life is a journey) discussed constraints against art and how he ultimately decided to do what they felt was necessary.
Windy City Times: Tell me about your life and background.
Fabrizzio Subia: Sure. I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador; it’s a city named after two Indigenous founders—Guayas and [his wife] Quil. I left when I was 8 years old, during the late ‘90s. (I’m 32 now.) It was a time of intense political instability in Ecuador; I remember getting out of elementary school and having to cover my nose because there was tear gas. My mom, brother and I came to the U.S.; my dad went to Spain. (I reconnected with my dad after my brother’s death and it’s been very healing.)
Around 2000, the Ecuadorian economy collapsed. (That’s in another project I’m doing, as my work deals with migration.) The national currency disappeared and the U.S. dollar appeared. To this day, the national currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar.
We moved to the West Side of Chicago. We went to the suburbs for high school; after that, we moved to Uptown and I’ve been there ever since.
WCT: What are LGBTQ+ rights like in Ecuador?
FS: Oof… There’s a lot of machismo there as well as Catholicism. The church controls so much of the politics. A lot of people there don’t feel comfortable sharing their identities. There are some brave people there—and I am very proud of them.
WCT: What drew you to art?
FS: Ha—that’s such a good question. When I was 6, my mom put me in a painting class after I threw a tantrum. [Laughs] I remember looking forward to going to class, but then we moved to the U.S.
This next part is very important: We overstayed our visa and were undocumented for seven years. So we were very poor and I wasn’t put into art classes again.
And I was discouraged from being an artist as well. Imagine that you’re a poor single mother of two (and, to this day, my mother doesn’t speak English). I was constantly told that there are no jobs in the arts and that I should be a doctor. I really rejected that [artistic] part of me and I didn’t paint again until I was 27 or 28. But I did write; paints are expensive but you can steal a pen from class. [Laughs] So writing and poetry are the foundation of my art. I consider myself a writer and a performer. So I studied, at age 9, to be a doctor—but I also wrote.
When I turned 13, I told my mother that I wanted to be a writer when I grow up. She said, “That’s great. However, that’s not going to get you money.” I can’t blame her; she did the best with what she had. I studied to be a doctor until I was about 25—and I was so depressed. I dropped out of school twice.
At The College of DuPage, I studied art and the humanities. Surprise, surprise: I got straight A’s there. Then I went to DePaul to study medicine; but I again became depressed and I dropped out. I then went to the City Colleges of Chicago (behind my mom’s back) and studied art; it was incredible and I built a portfolio. I ended up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (going there on a Presidential Scholarship), and I graduated in 2020.
WCT: So you got what you wanted because you decided to pursue your passion.
FS: Yeah—behind other people’s backs… [Laughs] My friend told me I’m living the immigrant kid’s dream of pursuing their passion and not their parents’ passion.
WCT: How does your mother feel about your art now?
FS: That’s a good question. She says, “I’m very proud of you.” The exhibition opening here was the highest attended here. I’m very grateful that people seem to be connecting to it.
WCT: At the same time, she must be very emotional about the [installation].
FS: Exactly. So my brother passed away in 2020. My whole life was just dictated by moving here to the U.S., and all I had for protection and a connection to my previous home were my mom and older brother.
WCT: How did your brother pass away?
FS: [Sighs] That’s a hard question. Some would lead people to believe that he passed away from COVID and that was certainly a factor. It was only after his death that I realized how deep his mental-health issues were. He put on a facade [of strength] and I modeled my life after him. [Tears well in Subia’s eyes.]
The police report—at least, the one that I got… Something that I have to say is “Fuck cops. Fuck the police.” There was definitely corruption in this case but the short few sentences said that my brother was hit by a car. What I can say is that the pandemic really took a toll on his mental health. There are so many COVID casualties that are due to the isolation—and being an immigrant is isolating enough as it is.
WCT: So tell me about “Año Nuevo.” It’s based on the “Ano Viejos” tradition [in which people burn effigies to end the old year], correct?
FS: Yes. The Ecuadorian New Year has everyone with an effigy. When the clock strikes midnight, we put them, filled with fireworks, into a bonfire. It’s very healing. I’ve always considered it a grief ritual even though many Ecuadorians see it as a celebration—burning the old to make way for the new.
Once we got our papers here in the U.S., we were able to travel back. I go back every year; it’s how I stay connected to my home country. It’s strange because so much of my work deals with destruction in some way. The theme of my works has been that Latin American people and immigrants are themselves the result of a culture that no longer exists; it’s what’s called an “embodied knowledge.” We don’t the real history. Colonialism and policy literally burned down our history and that, to me, is very indicative of this celebration—it’s us who are burning.
Since my brother passed away, I’ve been thinking about making art that isn’t so community-based but more for myself. But what’s weird is that with this project—“Año Nuevo (2023)”—is that I thought it would be an individual project in which I meditate on grief. I don’t know what grief is, but I know that you have to do something—maybe perform—and that brings people together. The [effect] of my grief ritual has been generational. The performance itself was intense because we burned one effigy an hour for 24 consecutive hours.
WCT: Do you feel like you’ve healed?
FS: That project made me feel like I’m a different person and that I’m in a different place. I don’t know if that’s what healing is, but I can say that I’ve lived the happiest moments of my life. Doing this project—even a grief performance—was a happy moment for me. Art is my therapy.
WCT: What’s your advice to the next generation of LGBTQ+ BIPOC artists?
FS: Firstly, don’t take advice from me. [Laughs]
I will say that community’s a responsibility. It’s healing. When you find your community, make sure you take care of the others around you.
Also, it’s okay to take your time; it’s a scary world out there. Protect yourself, more than anything. If you’re an artist, you’re going to be made to feel like you have to make work about your identity for a white gaze. Treat your artwork like it’s a gift to one specific person. Also, know who your audience is.
I don’t know if my words mean anything, but if you need anything, I can be there. Hopefully, you’ll feel the love and connection that I’ve felt with my art communities.
Fabrizio Subia’s “Año Nuevo (2023)” will be shown at Chicago’s International Museum of Surgical Science through May 7.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.