Death is a heavy topic of conversation. It’s uncomfortable. It’s dark. It can bring upon fear and uncertainty of the unknown.
Volver::Moe Penders is about helping start that conversation. The artist, whose father passed away mysteriously when they were four years old, delivers a profound and affecting interdisciplinary installation and exhibition on the brevity of existence.
Based on fives works — all of which are being exhibited for the first time — Volver is appropriately named for a show housed in Space HL (1303 Cullen Blvd), located in Houston’s East End. In this solo exhibition, the Salvadoran-born, Houston-based Latinx queer artist reveals memories of their father’s mysterious death, including a sequence of photographs taken during the civil war in El Salvador to a found business card dating back to 1991.
“A lot of his death, to me, has always been a mystery,” says Penders. “He died in his car, but growing up, a lot of people would tell me that he had been murdered. So, I’ve heard different stories.”
The artist told Byline Houston that they have been wanting to work on this project for a long time and that “a lot of this [work] has to do with his memories, not knowing and what was perceived as a four-year-old” and the memories they have of him which have to do with his car.
The single installation, titled Volvo P1800, is upcycled headlights from a Volvo P1800, the car their father owned and was driving when he passed. The classic sports car was manufactured by Volvo from 1963-1971, and in the gelatin silver print nearby, titled LumenlLux, Penders explains how they used the headlights to expose the analog paper.
Using a medium format camera, “a heavy piece of equipment,” mentions the artist, CA-4 / Curva de la muerte “was an image taken a few years ago when I was back home. This was the road where I was told he died.”
Penders and their mother were driving back from the beach and they asked to stop at this area so they could take a photo. The artist mentions that their mother is fearful of driving on highways and freeways ever since the passing of her husband.
“The tall grass is red [from] the blinkers of her parked car,” says the artist.
While they were visiting El Salvador last month, they went to the embassy to look for the paperwork from the investigation about his death that was supposed to have taken place after he passed.
“My mom and grandma didn’t want to see it, but I’ve been looking for it,” Penders says. “Because he was a U.S. citizen, the embassy [performs] an investigation when you die in another country.”
Penders was told the paperwork didn’t exist.
Another strong memory the artist has of their father was during one of the “final offensives” of the war. It had been declared in the early ‘80s, and the country knew the war was far from over.
“My dad and I were only alive at the same time, [and that was] during the war,” says Penders. “It must have been the end of ‘90 or early ‘91; everyone was locked in their houses. We lived close to the military school, and my dad was on what we call ‘tendederos’ — where you hang your clothes — in El Salvador. He was on the platform, and I remember running after him, looking up and seeing him taking photos, and my mom yelling at him to get down. I ran back inside, and that’s all I remember.”
The fourth photo in the sequence incorporates the wire fence in its composition, with a strong focus on the Vietnam War-era fighter planes which were given to the Salvadoran military by the United States. If you look close enough, you can also see two fingerprints.
“I’m assuming those are his fingerprints,” says the artist.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to grieve, and Penders encourages viewers to consider the turmoils that “still continue to plague the lives of fellow Salvadorans who still face the dangers of oligarchy, war, inequality of wealth and corruption.”
While no photograph or installation can fix the pain Penders and their family have felt since 1993, Volver delicately addresses their mourning and memorialization. The artist’s courage, thoughtfulness and talent is inspiring.
“Everything changes. Our whole lives as a family, changed after he died,” Penders says.
Funded in part by the City of Houston and the Houston Arts Alliance, Volver is on view to the public at Space HL (1303 Cullen Blvd) through April 28.