June Canedo, Mara Kuya

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Small Editions (here). Hardcover (6.5 x 9.5 inches), 112 pages, with 54 color photographs. Includes essays by the artist. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by Rin Kim. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Mara Kuya is the first photobook by the Brazilian-American artist June Canedo. It shares the complex and deeply personal story of the artist’s family, split between Brazil, the country where she was born, and the United States, the country where her family moved when she was just nine years old. Canedo knew from early on that she wanted to share this story, and through her intimate photobook, she puts a spotlight (from the inside) on the rarely seen lives of immigrant families. It’s another example of the changing forces of agency in contemporary photography, of people who were once overlooked now telling their own stories. 

The cover of the book – warm yellow with an almost invisible title embossed in gold in all caps – doesn’t immediately stand out, but its soft color is meant to invoke a sense of joy, optimism, and courage. It also references a particular passion flower which grows in the part of Brazil Canedo hails from – “mara kuya” is its Tupi name, and the flower is known “to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia, and anger.” In its size and texture, Mara Kuya is reminiscent of a handy notebook, a book one can carry around and open to any page. Inside, the photographs alternate between full bleed spreads and pairings, and Canedo’s writings are placed in small blocks throughout the book, narrating the story of her family and mixing in everyday anecdotes with observations and heartfelt confessions.

The photographs were taken over the period of seven years, in both South Carolina and Brazil. The first photograph captures a young woman calmly gazing to the side as her head leans on her arm. Canedo’s intimate photographs document the people in her community and the rhythms of life: a little boy with a pacifier and swimming arm bands, a girl in a room drying her hair with a hairdryer, a close up of a tattooed shoulder, a woman dying her hair black, a family at the dinner table, an old woman in the garden, children playing in a swimming pool. One spread pairs an image of a glass mosaic window with a pile of plush toys, mostly Minnie Mouse, on a wooden toy chest, echoing splashes of pink and yellow. In another pairing, a close up of a baby girl held by her mother appears next to the shot of a farm equipment and chickens strolling, finding visual parallels in the bent arms and piping. Through these images, we get a glimpse of life divided between two places. 

While Canedo’s photographs offer tender portraits of family members and often quiet moments, the writing adds more context to the overall narrative. Canedo learnt in the very first months of her life in America what it meant to be an immigrant in the Southern United States. The texts recall a string of small incidents that reinforced her place as an outsider: as she was walking home, she was knocked down by a group of American girls, and they spit on her and called her a dirty Mexican; the parents of her new friends would pull her aside asking her to leave their house; the only time when her schoolmates showed some interest in her was when her family brought fried chicken and rice on a snack day. “I still don’t fully understand the difference between a snack and a meal. Neither do my mom and tia,” she admits. During those years, she unlearned her language and changed her “name to a name without history.” 

Mara Kuya also reveals the emotional cost of the traumatic experience of migration, especially on children. The process of moving to a new country, growing up as the daughter of formerly undocumented immigrants, dealing with her father’s aggression, and taking care of her family later as an adult took a toll on Canedo’s mental health. In 2018, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and working on this book became a part of her healing process. The last photograph in the book captures Canedo’s family when she was a kid: her parents pose next to a minivan, a little girl is waving from the front seat, and a boy stands next to it. “For Rogeria & Elcio”, reads the caption underneath, the snapshot providing a poignant reminder of their collective sacrifices. 

What makes Mara Kuya stand out is Canedo’s ability to tell her story, both as a participant and as an observer, in a powerful and confident way. This book comes at a time when sharing the truth and complexity of immigrant experiences is more urgent than ever. Canedo turned to photography to restore her own sense of lost balance, and the project clearly became an intense and emotionally charged experience for her. Her photobook is quietly courageous, using nuances of expression and gesture as the entry point for larger and more exhausting everyday struggles.

Collector’s POV: June Canedo does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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