“Kiki Serna: Fantasmas,” United Colors

Left: Bailando Dancing, 2023, Archival print on cold press paper. Right: Paper Plants, 2023, Archival print on cold press paper. (United Colors Gallery)

Kiki Serna’s “Fantasmas,” confronts viewers with a profound exploration of existential inquiries into the very essence of memorialization. Stepping into the United Colors gallery in Kansas City, Kansas, one is immediately enveloped in an atmosphere where remnants of Serna’s parents’ letters give rise to a multitude of ghosts haunting the space. Serna refers to fantasmas as her memories. “I’ve always found it a need to work with memory, it goes back to the American experience; coming to this country as a young child and only having certain things that are truly yours, one of that being memory,” she said. “Part of my overall practice is to patch up together these memories, but it’s about the agency to exist in this country.” 

Serna explores the fragmentation of identity within and beyond the immigrant experience. Displacement is evident in each composition, and the will to un-wound it creeps from the edges of each letter in pieces like “Ghost at the Zocalo 1 & 2.” This nostalgic essence becomes the background of an echo rippling through time and space.  

Documentation of installation inside of United Colors Shipping Container, Ghosts at the Zócalo 1 and 2, 2023. Prints on cold press paper, graphite on vellum, video (not pictured in this image) (United Colors Gallery)

As we journey through the narrow gallery, it becomes apparent that Serna’s artistic expression goes beyond mere nostalgia; the experience splits the viewer in two, indoors and outdoors, but in doing so, the gallery and the artist give us our own ghost to stitch together. The main gallery is bright and absent of color, except for pink-red bows adorning the playfulness of the piece “Farewell.” 

I was excited to adventure into the outdoor container where projections of Serna’s documentation play over her soft poetry. “Have I yet become a ghost to you?” laments the sender in one of the letters. Although the viewers are unsure which parent this is from, a single line in both Spanish and English serves as a potent channel through which estrangement finds resonance. Much like culture and language, the pain of separation is often invisible, but the United Color’s container holds it in for the viewer to see. Back inside the gallery, another piece silently screams “I wish you were here”.  

Serna is a DACA recipient, an immigrant, a daughter, and a future ancestor. 

Chapultepec, 2023, Graphite (United Colors Gallery)

“We ourselves exist as ghosts both here in this country and in the country we leave behind, we leave a copy of ourselves and that copy is what tends to me as the haunting, especially for me at age 7,” she said, “and then in this country, we often feel like ghost… so we tend to float between spaces or limbo,” as she steers our navigation through the corridors of our collective memory, we are reminded that the immigrant journey is not merely a historical footnote within the American Identity, but a living testament to the resilience of the human soul.  

With Fantasmas Serna steps into the spotlight; not long ago she coordinated the Mattie Rhodes Gallery in the Westside neighborhood she calls home. Currently, Serna is part of the unfeigned group exhibit showing at The Nelson-Atkins, “A Layered Presence/Una presencia estratificada.” Fantasmas is her homecoming in many ways, and as a fellow immigrant artist, I am lucky to witness the growth. In a time when vulnerability is muted, Serna reminds us to find our ghosts, nurture them, and feed them.  

“Kiki Serna: Fantasmas” continues at United Colors (formerly Curiouser KC), 611 N. 6th St., Kansas City, Kan., through March 31. Hours are noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, unitedcolors.gallery or info@unitedcolors.gallery. 

Alej Martinez

Alej Martinez, any pronouns, is an author, truth teller and community organizer deeply invested in the intersection of arts, social issues, justice and traditional ecological knowledge.

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