Amber Robles-Gordon’s anti-colonial quilts and personal histories at American University Museum at the Katzen Center

An artist’s visit to her mother’s birth place in Puerto Rico awakens her to the complexities of immigration and family – and to the dubious socio-political actions and inactions, by the U.S. government in its far-flung territories. Our reviewer Andrea Kirsh is moved by the powerful collage works and double-sided quilts of Amber Robles-Gordon. The show closed Dec. 12.

Collage landscape with lush green foliage and trees, people with brown skin singing and dancing, and a tall Puetro Rican flag flying high into the star-filled sky.
“y mi bandera vuela mas alto que la tuya,” 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas, 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Amber Robles-Gordon‘s first grade classmates in Arlington, VA bullied her for speaking Spanish, so she learned to speak to her mother in English. It wouldn’t be until middle age that the artist finally visited her mother’s birthplace in Puerto Rico. Successions: Traversing U.S. Colonialism, her solo exhibition at the the American University Museum at the Katzen Center (August 28 – Dec. 12, 2021) in Washington, D.C. was the product of that initial trip and a her return for a six-week residence on the island in 2020.

The exhibition presented two bodies of work. The first, “Place of Breath and Birth” is a series of ten vibrant collages on canvas, all 18 x 24 inches; two, represented by full-scale pigment prints. The collages are constructed from masses of tiny images cut from paper; even the bands of color that form their backgrounds are assembled from minute, colored fragments. And there is a very personal rhythm – like distinctive brushwork – in the way Robles-Gordon arranges the fragments.

Another personal language of Robles-Gordon’s appearing in the fragments is inspired by multiple, non-Western cultural traditions and imagery taken from magazines and photographs. These fragments are used as structuring and framing elements, incorporating the artist’s drawings of detailed and decorative, spiky, geometric patterns. An occasional small trinket or charm adds surface texture, as does the profusion of tiny, sparkly beads which outline the central, circular forms on each collage. The beads and high-keyed colors capture the intense sunlight of the Caribbean and lend a festival-like quality to the series.


Robles-Gordon culls her imagery from photographs she took in Puerto Rico or found elsewhere that evoke its lush, intensely-polychromed environment – both natural and human. While on the island, she was fascinated by the rubber trees and palms, the coconuts and mangos, street murals and public art. The titles of individual collages suggest the range of topics that were prompted by her visits: “Observation of Influencers: Taino culture and heritage, the climate and machismo,” “For bioluminescent bays and turtles.”

Her long-time interest in spirituality and syncretic, New World religious practices inspire aspects of the collages’ format, which the artist likens to personal altars. The imagery of fruit and floral offerings, flickering candles and the crystalline forms of her drawing run throughout the series and reinforce their spiritual associations. She includes photos of herself – both earlier and contemporary images – in several collages, and there is no question that the series itself is a diary of self-discovery.

Abstract collage artwork with a Venn Diagram in the center, which contains a woman with brown skin and black curly hair posing in front of a painting of Jesus Christ in one circle, and the same portrait of Jesus Christ in the other, but in this version, Jesus's face is covered by a star; surrounding the Venn Diagram are strips of color with religious imagery in them.
“Reflexiones sobre el yo, la virgen maría y el colonialismo,” 2020. Mixed media, collage on canvas, 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Quilts of pointed anti-colonial critique

If the collages capture Robles-Gordon’s connection to her ancestral culture in the form of personal, spiritual reflection, the second part of the exhibition responded to her developing political understanding of Puerto Rico’s position as a U.S. Territory. The works are a public forum in which to teach, to encourage discussion, to heal, and to begin building a congregation of territorial residents. Six, large, double sided, appliqued quilts hung throughout the high-ceilinged gallery. The installation, which gave its name to the exhibition, was titled “Successions; Traversing U.S. Colonialism.” The quilts include dense references to histories that have yet to be acknowledged and the dark underside of U.S. power. Their format entangles the conventionalized emblems of history and patriotism with the domestic craft of quilting, the masculine pursuit of territory and power with a feminine tradition of healing.


On one side of each quilt Robles-Gordon addresses political history, with references to each of the U.S. Territory’s flag or seal, as well as to the exploitation of its indigenous people for medical experimentation, military support and economic interests; on the other side she constructs an altar dedicated to healing the damage of historical exploitation and the racism which underpins it. Both sides bear central medallions; they are greatly enlarged versions of the circles in the collages, and make references to the circle as a foundational religious image and form of celebration – to healing circles and ceremonial dancing. The healing altars are constructed with the same spiky, geometric patterning that Robles-Gordon used in the collages, and all have hieratic, symmetrical designs. Here they suggest abstracted figures of deities, and their patterning makes reference to a variety of Afro-diasporic and non-Western decorative histories seen in painting, textiles and ceramics. Although painted, they appear to be drawings in chalk on black backgrounds, which suggests religious images in various cultures which are intended to be temporary.

The timing of Robles-Gordon’s residency in Puerto Rico reinforced her understanding of the disparity between U.S. government support to the island after the overwhelming damage from Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, and the level of disaster relief Americans have come to expect on the mainland. This understanding, in turn, led to her interest in the U.S. Territories as a group; areas under United States dominion with the highest percentage of poverty, where the government has exploited resources and sited strategic military bases, with little concern for the inhabitants – all people of color, who are largely, only nominally U.S. Citizens. The territories function, rather, as U.S. colonies.

Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands are unfamiliar to many on the mainland United States. Few Americans know that their residents are U.S. Citizens with the right to vote – although they lack full representation in Congress. Robles-Gordon included Washington, D.C., her current home, among the territories because it’s residents, too, fall under U.S. jurisdiction but have no fully-empowered Congressional representative.


Robles-Gordon used her childhood bullying as a spur to understanding her own cultural traditions, and it is characteristic of her long-developed career of teaching and producing art that she didn’t respond to the history of territorial exploitation with rage, but with honesty, offering understanding, teaching and healing as a foundation on which to advocate for social justice in the outlying regions of the United States and in powerless communities internationally. The sense of spirituality and turning towards a better future pervades her work as much as her personally-developed language of forms and patterns, use of repurposed materials, passionate polychrome, and fusion of visual traditions.

Amber Robles-Gordon, “Successions: Traversing U.S. Colonialism” is now closed. It was on view at the American University Museum at the Katzen Center in Washington, D.C., August 28–December 12, 2021.

Collage abstract artwork that uses symmetry and intricate linework, giving the feel of a blueprint, but one that is energetic and full of life and plant imagery.
“The eternal altar for the women forsaken and souls relinquished. Yet the choice must always remain hers/ El altar eterno de las mujeres abandonadas y las almas renunciadas. Sin embargo, la elección siempre debe ser de ella.,” 2020. Mixed media collage on canvas, 18 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.