When Inocente Izucar wakes up in the morning, she paints her face with lively winged spirals around her eyes, colorful designs on her forehead, and red lipstick. Then she places a yellow flower in her hair and puts on her red Converse, covered in layers of paint. The art that Inocente makes and wears reflects her character and her soul – a bright, resilient, wise-beyond-her-years survivor and visionary who is determined to see and dream of beauty amidst her traumatic circumstances.
Inocente, the Academy Award-winning documentary that screened at Late Night at the Lehman Loeb on December 4th, tells the story of this brave teenager who lives homeless and undocumented with her single mother and brothers across shelters in San Diego. She goes to school and attends an arts workshop for underserved youth called ARTS: A Reason To Survive, where she is devotedly admired for her talents. Inocente creates artwork for herself alone, but is humbled and surprised when others enjoy it as well. Her process is deeply therapeutic – she dips her hands in paint to make sweeping strokes all over the canvas. Her brush glides satisfyingly along thick paths of color. Dynamic forms and vibrant hues reverberate across her paintings, which tell stories of escapism and of lost dreams. “Just because I’m homeless doesn’t mean I don’t have a life,” she asserts. Of course she has a life, and it is riddled with a haunting past and present – the constant threat of deportation, a father who was deported for domestic abuse, and a mother who has been so hurt that she once took her daughter by the hand to a bridge, where Inocente had to convince her not to jump off. Inocente still blames herself.
She has been through too much for a fifteen year old, but her art is the key to her resistance, sanctuary, and inner peace. The filmmakers, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, originally set out to make a more general documentary about homeless youth in America, but when they met Inocente, they were so taken with her that she became their main focus. The film raises the importance not only of arts education for homeless youth, as there are currently at least 1.5 million children living homeless in the United States, and the largest and fastest group of them are undocumented immigrants (according to the documentary’s website).
But the exceptionalism in Inocente is hard to miss. Inocente is strikingly talented, but she cannot be the only one. My concern is that many audience members will walk out of the film thinking that justice has been served – Inocente’s arts education has been well-sponsored by wealthy liberal philanthropists, and thus she is well on her way to getting a university scholarship. Everything about art – the process, the supplies, the schooling, the final product – is expensive. And as art-making can be a tremendous healing tool for survivors of trauma, it is imperative that programs like these continue to be funded. The film’s assertion that anyone, from any background, has the ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps just by dreaming and working hard, is unjustifiably post-classist and post-racial. It alludes to issues of homelessness, immigration, and neglect for public arts education as individual problems rather than linking them all to a larger system of intersecting racist, classist, and gender-based oppressions. These structures are what truly determine Inocente’s fate; but at only 45 minutes long, the film doesn’t really have time discuss them.
However, by virtue of sharing Inocente’s inspiring story and body of work, the screening of Inocente at Vassar is a step in the right direction. Brought to us by the Department of Hispanic Studies, REACT to Film intern Cayla Chambers, and the Lehman Loeb Student Advisory Committee, this screening at the Art Center is significant in that the Loeb, like many art museums, has historically been a bastion of elitism closed off to dissenting artists. In the art world, Inocente’s work would be classified as “outsider art”: pieces made by artists with no formal training or “insider” experience. So, as Vassar students coax the institution to relinquish its old ways, it is important for the Loeb to be open up a more full range of artistic expression. With this moment as an inspiration and a point of departure, the Art Center should continue to create a larger space for “outsider” art in its museum.