Recreating History With Her Hands: Adri Montano & the Invisible Women of the WorldJun 25, 2021 04:38PM ● By Kamrin Baker
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
"I’m here to dismantle the patriarchy and cure the traumas of our ancestors,” Adri Montano said, clear as day. It’s her elevator pitch, her tagline, her purpose in the world.
The multimedia artist, who specializes in illustration, graphic design, and animation, immigrated from Colombia with her family 21 years ago, first landing in Florida, later Washington D.C., and now, with her husband and daughter, in Papillion. Montano was born creative, influenced by her father’s passion for the arts. However, it took time to reach the beauty she has discovered now.
“The lifestyle was way different in the States,” said Montano, who took dance, music, and tennis lessons in Colombia. “You couldn’t just get private arts tutoring because that’s only for rich people. I had to work and help in the house to just keep my family afloat. There were days that gum was for dinner. I didn’t have the privilege to simply go to school.”
Montano eventually pursued community college in Florida, and later graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a visual arts degree, concentration in graphic design, and a minor in art history. Despite countless years of grinding and sacrificing, she still had trouble finding work.
“I want whoever hears my story to put themselves in the shoes of an immigrant of color with a graphic design degree, trying to get a job in this city, where people look and sound nothing like you,” Montano said. “I went to countless interviews, and it happened again and again, losing to white cis men. So I said, ‘f*ck it, I’m going to do my own thing.’”
Her thing is creating art to tell the stories of women of color erased by history. Her Black, Colombian, and Indigenous identities inspired her to research women whose lives changed the course of history—who otherwise would never have their portraits drawn.
There’s Queen Nzinga of Ndongo (now Angola) and Matamba, who is Montano’s favorite, the one she would “choose to revive if there were ever a zombie apocalypse.” Nzinga spent her life fighting Portuguese colonizers in the 1500s and even killed her own brother, who was selling her people into slavery.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a Mexican writer who refused to get married and instead became a nun so she could continue her studies, even though she did not believe in the Catholic church. Her poem, “You Foolish Men,” which describes men as predators, was written in the 1600s.
Then there’s Tu Youyou, a Chinese woman who discovered a groundbreaking treatment for malaria through the study of ancient plants and medicine. The government kept her discovery under wraps for years, until she won the Nobel Prize in 2015.
“I am so passionate about the history of marginalized women who are basically invisible,” Montano said. “It’s not because they were quiet, or because they didn’t exist, it’s because they were never included.”
Peggy Jones, an associate professor in UNO’s school of the arts, has spent her career studying the intersections of gender and the arts.
“When we don’t know something, it in effect doesn’t exist,” Jones said. “People’s lack of knowledge creates a ripple effect whereby they act on this lack as if these accomplishments have never existed, nor could they ever have existed. Our brains are constantly and unconsciously seeking patterns on which to base future actions.”
Jones taught Montano in her Black Aesthetics course at UNO, where students explored paradigms such as race and gender, and how those paradigms affect art and the way it is and was created.
“Adri’s artwork makes women of color visible, thereby including them in the patterns our brains are making. Adri is doing critical work to [enrich] all our lives by not overlooking humans with much to offer,” Jones said.
Montano’s creative process often depends on how she’s feeling. When she’s angry about the injustices of the world, she said it’s impossible to create digital art.
“It has to be physical,” she said. “I make paper from scratch. I’ll use charcoal or homemade paints. The whole process is very therapeutic and takes time. The imperfections on the paper make me feel so raw and human. Just like your skin that has scars and bruises and stretch marks and wrinkles, the paper feels the same way.”
When she’s able to channel her feelings into more concrete ideas, she works on digital illustrations. She is currently developing a book: Coloring Book Adventures of Nina and Catalina, the story of two girls who travel through time and space to be empowered by the women of yesteryear, learning about science, history, and self-discovery along the way.
“I am raising my daughter this way,” Montano said. “She was named after an indigenous woman from the area I was from in Colombia, who was abused by her colonizers yet formed treaties with them to help her people. My daughter is half and half like that, too. I want her to be seen. I want her to be heard.” Her daughter is half Colombian and half American. “She is like a bridge between the two worlds, just like la India Catalina.”
Montano creates vivid, colorful works to find healing in her ancestral story, while developing a new narrative.
“If I’m not being represented, if you’re not going to hire me, I don’t need you. I can do it myself.”
To learn more about Adri Montano, visit adrimontano.com.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.