Beginning with an unlikely stint studying economics, Liz Cohen followed a somewhat circuitous path to a successful career as a photographer, performance artist and professor at Arizona State University. Recently selected as one of 175 winners of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship awarded to those deemed exceptional in scholarship or creative ability in the arts from an applicant pool of 3,000, Cohen joins a rarified group of scholars and artists.
Cohen said her art represents how people have to navigate belonging when one is different or even an outcast. She is known for her work with a wide variety of subjects. She has illustrated an ostracized poet, the lives of transgendered sex workers in Panama and is best known for “Bodywork,” a project wherein she focuses on muscle-car culture, even transforming herself into a car customizer and bikini model.
The Jewish News spoke with Cohen about her family, her work and what drives her.
How confident were you of receiving the fellowship?
I applied for it, so I knew there was a chance. But I knew it was also very competitive, so it was a very welcome surprise.
How did you find out you won?
I got a letter from Edward Hirsch the president of Guggenheim Foundation, and then the next morning, it was already announced everywhere, and I started getting this flood of friends and family sending lots of love. I mean, it’s been incredible.
Your family history is fascinating.
My father grew up in Medellin, Colombia. There were many Jews when he was young. He grew up in a pretty Orthodox environment. ... My father was the son of immigrants. His father came from Aleppo to Latin America during the fall of the Ottoman Empire between World War I and World War II, and his mother was born in Argentina, but only lived there for six days. One of my great-grandparents was from Beirut and the other was from Aleppo.
My father grew up in an Arabic-speaking household, but his parents used it like their secret language. My dad knew some Arabic, but he wasn’t fluent like his parents. My dad became a communist when he was in college, and he went to the first youth camp in Cuba in 1959 after the revolution. And it was a really big deal to him. He met Che Guevara.
How did you parents meet?
They were set up by friends. They lived in Bogotá, Colombia. My father was a professor at the National University, and he was a doctor, and my mom was working in Bogotá. They met and fell in love. My parents were very politically active when they met. The religious difference wasn’t an issue for them, because I don’t think either of them was practicing. My dad’s not around anymore, but we describe both of my parents as intellectuals who were deeply interested and engaged in culture.
Colombia was still a Catholic state, so they couldn’t have a civil ceremony. Then they got lucky and won the visa lottery. They flew to Miami and got married by the airport. They had one friend in Phoenix and one friend in Sacramento, and they checked out both places and decided to stay in Phoenix in 1971.
I got a great upbringing. My parents cared about music and art and politics, and they took us to China in the ’80s and the Soviet Union so I got to see a lot.
Your dad’s the one who got you into photography, right?
Yes. My father had a nice camera. He enjoyed it, and he took pictures of the family. He would occasionally take pictures of other things, but it was mostly us. He did it with a flair. There are some beautiful photographs he took of my mom, like silhouettes of her on the beach and beautiful photographs of us as little girls and Flagstaff surrounded by flowers. He cared about the composition.
Do you think being exposed to travel and ideas is part of the reason you’re an artist?
I probably became an artist because I was trying to cope with the loss of my father, the tremendous loss and trying to make sense of all of it. If he hadn’t died, I probably would not have been an artist. I was coping with that pain and trying to figure out my relationship with him and also just express myself.
Did you study art in school?
I was very politically engaged in high school and thinking about social justice. I went to Tufts to study economics. I started out taking economics classes, and then I quickly realized through the mentorship of one of my economics professors that I should take some political philosophy classes, because what I wanted to do wasn’t necessarily what everyone studying economics wanted to do.
He told me that a better route was to keep taking my math classes and get a Ph.D. in economics. There was an art requirement at Tufts, and I took a photo class. I kind of had a knack for it. The pieces fell into place, and then I ended up double majoring in philosophy and visual art.
When it came to applying to graduate school ... I felt that through photography there was an opportunity to focus on social justice issues and be out in the world and among people. I ended up going to grad school for photography ... at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. it was amazing. I learned more about art as I went along: what it could be. My work just started to get more expansive.
You’re known for work with cars and transforming into a bikini model. What got you started there?
It’s funny. I did work out, and I think that sometimes people think I had a much bigger bodily transformation than I did. I was already slim. I was building the car which is a lot of physical labor and lifting a lot of heavy metals, which was its own natural workout. I really saw it as a social experiment to figure out how many different ways I could become a part of something.
As a young woman going to college in the early ’90s, I was trying to figure out how I wanted to be. In undergrad, I had really short hair and hairy legs and armpits. Maybe the project was a permission to try out a different way of being, just to try it on. Throughout my career I try on different selves, and I have fun experimenting how those different ways of being can be empowering or not or complicated.
But why transform into a car bikini model?
I had been working in Panama where my paternal family had emigrated from Colombia when I was a kid. My father had died, and I wanted to learn a lot more about him, and I was photographing in Panama a lot. I was thinking about what it means to be a U.S. American of Latin American descent, and Panama is an interesting place to think about that.
I had been photographing transgender sex workers working on the fringe of the old U.S. Canal zone. I think those three kind of elements — the body, transformation, radical self-expression — were there already. And they had been in other work I had done.
When the canal work came to a natural end, I started dressing up like the people I was photographing, but it was a masquerade, because there were things I didn’t share. We shared a bond, but there were experiences we didn’t share. So I wanted to do a piece where I could really become a part of what I was looking at, where the voyeurism that’s inherent in photography could shift over the course of a project, because that’s always the big moral dilemma or ethical quandary in photography — all the problems that come with voyeurism.
I wanted to wrestle with that, and I had an opportunity to go to Germany, to a city where they build cars. That made me start thinking about this idea of the car and the car body and customizing a car body and the car body standing in for the human body.
Do you often start at point A and take a very circuitous route to come to point B?
I started to understand my process where there’s a central object or idea or activity that then has all these things that start to spiral out from it as I start to learn things. It means that I can always come back to them, so I left this work in some sense, although I feel like a custom car is a lifelong thing. You can always tinker a little more.
Are you happy you’re known for this work?
The car is definitely like the most labor intensive and time … I spent the most years on this in my career as an artist so far. It’s natural that that’s what will be recognized. I think maybe the ways it is recognized sometimes are less interesting than others. There’s still a lot more that can be unpacked from it, so I’m happy there continues to be interest around it.
Are you going to extend this work with the Fellowship?
I wanted to work on another car, which I never thought I would, with a Russian vehicle, a Soviet vehicle. It’s like a Jeep Willy, and I became very curious about it because my mother learned how to drive on that car, and I was wondering, Why would my mom learn how to drive on that, in the ’60s, on a Soviet vehicle in Colombia? I started doing research. How did these cars get there? Was it an oddity? I found out that there was a trade deal made between Colombia and the Soviet Union, which was an exchange of cars for coffee.
I became interested in the kind of labor politics of the Soviets and how that’s influenced Latin American identity — all of the kind of labor around coffee, from the people that grow it to the people it’s distributed to, who will work at Starbucks, to people who serve coffee as administrative assistants, to union workers who have a 15-minute station coffee break … My work is very layered. What I say and think now may not really be that connected to where we get, and the project requires a lot of movement.
Have you considered working on your family’s history? Or your Jewish identity?
I had a show in Sweden with the car. There was a group of Jewish tourists that asked if they can come do a biblical reading of the car and my work. I was like, “Bring it on!” There were things that had to do with purity in the Temple Mount, this idea that if your sandals touch the cemetery — I think they were fascinated that I’m a Cohen — and you know the sandals touch the cemetery, and it can’t go on the Temple Mount, but if you change the utility of the sandal, you can change into something else and then it becomes pure again.
If I were going to say that there were themes that come from my upbringing, I think that has to do with a lot of themes around social justice and different political ideologies Jewish people in the history of the Americas have often been quite involved in. And then I also think my work has to do with this kind of willingness to be different, and transforming oneself or in negotiating yourself in different spaces, which I guess comes along with the difficulties of being Jewish in many ways.
My work is a lot about trying to figure out how one belongs and how one belongs when one’s a little bit off or different.
After living in so many exotic locales, how do you find being back in Phoenix?
This is where I had my most formative moments, but I’ve always been someone who goes where the opportunities are great. That’s just part of life’s adventure, but I was very excited for the opportunity to come back here. At the end of the day it’s a very comfortable place for me to work, and a lot of the themes in my work came out of my formative time here so it’s interesting to be here. It doesn’t mean I’ll be here forever, but I’m very happy to be back. JN