Inspired by struggles that are personal, historical or fictional, four shows now at VisArts are labors of excavation. Edgar Reyes draws from his background as a Mexican American undocumented youth; Kim Sandara explores aspects of her Lao-Vietnamese heritage; and Antonio McAfee dissects photographs from the Exhibition of American Negroes shown at the 1900 International Exposition in Paris. The fourth artist, Andrew Hladky, burrows deeply into fable, inspired by a dystopian novel.

The title of Reyes’s exhibition, “Fragments,” could describe any of the four shows. So would another term: “layers.” That word is brought to mind by the way the local artist overlaps and interweaves images, usually on a single surface but sometimes on multiple planes. Sheets of photocollage-emblazoned fabric hang in midair, and a girl’s 3-D braids hang from an otherwise flat photograph, also imprinted on cloth. On pedestals in the foreground are actual objects, including an ear of dried corn and religious totems of both European and Meso-American origin. The pictures and artifacts are specific to Latin America, but Reyes’s theme is universal: the gradual, complex and often violent buildup of cultural identity.

Sandara grew up in Northern Virginia and now lives in Brooklyn, but much of her “Dislodging the Legacy” addresses Laos’s reported status as the most heavily bombed country in the world. During the Vietnam War, the United States showered the country with at least 270 million cluster bomblets. This inspired the “270 Million Project,” some of whose proceeds will go toward removing unexploded ordnance . Sandara’s contribution to the undertaking are small black-and-white abstractions, painted while listening to Lao music and arranged on the wall to resemble the maps used to clear the bombs. Contrasting these somber paintings are three larger, colorful ones that attempt to translate songs into gestures, made in response to an eclectic playlist. These pictures, too, are layered: Above the expressionistic hues are drawings in black on plastic that both complement and complicate what’s below.

McAfee’s “WWS 20 (Washerwoman Syndrome 2020)” is not his first reinterpretation of photos from that 1900 archive, which was organized by W.E.B. Du Bois and others. But this show was also inspired by an earlier event, 1881’s Atlanta Washerwoman Strike, which the Baltimore artist took as a model of labor activism. He printed images of Black women from 1900 onto degraded plastic and pieced the shards into rough collages. These battered “sentinels” (the artist’s term) are displayed alongside glitchy video of South African protesters, so as to suggest an artistic and historical continuum. In McAfee’s work, formal portraits become as mutable and dynamic as makeshift cellphone footage.

The most archaeological of the shows is the one with the most densely packed title, “All Ways Knowit What Wer Unner the Skin Only You Don’t Want to See.” Andrew Hladky took the phrase from Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker,” a 1980 novel written in a devolved version of English and set in the wake of nuclear war. Aptly, Hladky’s sculptural paintings often appear battle-singed. The 3-D pictures are predominantly black and dark blue-gray, their charred tones offset more by their craggy textures than by the occasional flecks of brighter colors.

A Briton who’s based in Philadelphia, Hladky assembles his artwork’s underpinnings with thin bamboo sticks and thick twists of oil paint directly from the tube. The results resemble loamy earth or damaged fabric and often protrude dramatically off the wooden panels that anchor them. Most of the sprawling paint-and-stick figures are mounted on the wall, but one is displayed sideways so it appears to be free-standing, with its black tendrils dangling like Spanish moss over a white plinth.

Several of the pictures suggest landscapes, a kinship the artist has taken to heart. He sometimes paints depictions of mountains, sunlight and even humans atop the dusky, ravaged surfaces. These additions work best when they’re subtle, and can feel intrusive when too prominent. Hladky’s layered constructions are too assertive to settle for being backdrops.

Edgar Reyes: Fragments; Kim Sandara: Dislodging the Legacy; Antonio McAfee: WWS 20 (Washerwoman Syndrome 2020); and Andrew Hladky: All Ways Knowit What Wer Unner the Skin Only You Don’t Want to See Reyes and Sandara through Feb. 28; McAfee and Hladky through March 7 at VisArts, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville.

Andrea Rowe Kraus

Local artist Andrea Rowe Kraus’s travel pictures are different from most people’s, and not just because they portray such less-visited lands as Ghana, Myanmar and Uzbekistan. Like most travelers, Kraus takes photographs, some of which are included in her Studio Gallery show, “Unmasked: Dolls, Masks and Marionettes.” But those images often serve as the basis for paintings and prints. Even the photos that haven’t been remade in that manner are subject to artistic revision. Several in this selection have been embellished with beads, sequins and feathers.

The largest pictures are acrylic paintings of market displays, rendered in a realistic, graphic-novel style. The depicted objects, which include dolls, puppets, fetish figures and other cultural artifacts, are outlined in black and filled in with colors that are bright and unmixed. Like the photos, some of the paintings have collaged garnishes.

The apparent goal of Kraus’s paintings is to distill, but not interpret, the scenes she photographs. She takes a looser approach with her prints, which is why they’re more interesting visually. Focused tightly on the scenes she documents, the linocuts employ bolder blacks and more subtle hues. In the six-part “Paper Parasols: Myanmar,” we not only see the handcrafted goods, but also see through the artist’s eyes.

Andrea Rowe Kraus: Unmasked: Dolls, Masks and Marionettes Through Feb. 27 at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW.