These bright large-scaled paintings with juicy stains of blue, scarlet and yellow, I saw first on Facebook. Some of my friends posted about the upcoming exhibition of Maria de LosAngeles. In the photo, near the paintings a frail, dark-haired girl was in an unusual dress. She resembled either Frida Kahlo or Alice in Wonderland. These associations lured me to the exhibition, where paintings, dresses and fashion show come together in a magnificent and flamboyant performance. Men in ball gowns reminded me of Greek fauns and royal couriers at the same time. Paintings were crowded with images of people.
Then the story began to unfold and become complex and serious. Theatrical performance turned into a reminder of gay rights, references to Latin American and European traditions into discourse of post-colonial trauma, subjects of paintings revealed scenes from a difficult immigrants' life and the dresses were found paper. Carefree Alice turned into a Cinderella. Maria's parents, illegal immigrants from Mexico, brought her to America when she was eleven. In spite of the obstacles associated with her undocumented status, she received her bachelor degree at Pratt Institute and then her master degree at Yale University. Now Maria is a professor at Pratt Institute, although her immigration status remains unresolved.
People can have different attitudes on the issue of illegal immigration; this is a question to which there is no a simple answer, but an unshakable faith and persistence is admirable. I decided to meet and talk with Maria. On a sunny summer day, we met up with Maria in Front of the Art Space gallery to talk about the frivolous and serious sides of her work, immigration background and her decision to be happy.
Let's talk about your current show. You present bright and colorful picture, and at the opening it was a fashion show of paper ball dresses. Dresses and pictures look carefree and playful. This entertaining way of how your art work is made and presented contradicts the serious theme of immigration issues which you discuss in your work. Does this juxtaposition mean something for you?
I felt the same way when I started to make this type of work. Fashion is popular and it is kind of cute and entertaining. But I have realized that sometimes, when we put serious issues right up front of viewers, the viewer doesn’t necessarily want to look and think about it .Sometimes humor is the best way to package a serious message and talk about problems. It is a hook: first, people see beautiful paintings and dresses, but then they start to think about the subject and to see the images, not only cute or funny ones, or they begin to think about the person in the dress.
It seems that you work a lot and fast. Is it a spontaneous or planned process?
I never really plan a painting; I sketch a lot from observation and I do drawings from my imagination. Then I start making watercolors, developing an idea, like a little group of figures inside of shapes, and then they come together in one composition. I use acrylic and I like painting to look most like watercolor or feel like it’s moving. I like them to be fresh. Some people say that they look unfinished, but we all have different definition what complete is. They are like fragments from a poem, or sentences that come together and form a paragraph. There is a narrative, but it is not linear.
Your work, and especially this fashion performance, also refers to transgender issues. How does this theme connect to immigration issue?
There are multiple subjects that I am interested in and care about deeply. Discrimination and societal problems are not happening in separate categories, they overlap with each other. Yes, discrimination faced by gay and transgender people is important to me in or outside the immigrant community. There are many types of otherness andpeople who are put in those categories by society. I like a sort of range of a subject matter. I decided to have a diverse range of models, and did actively decided to include four of my friends who are gay in the show in order to speak about that sort of issue when gay people are not treated properly. In Mexican culture, this issue is even heavier, because it is a more religious culture; it is so Catholic. Men must be men, not act famine. I have heard people say growing up, “You must act and be a man.” I do not believe that, people should be allowed to live the lives they want and be protected by our society equally.
How did you get to this idea to create dresses?
I have had this idea to make dresses for three years. I never really got to it, until recently, when I was with a friend who is a photographer and I wanted to take a photo of me which spoke about my identity. I was dressed in traditional Mexican garments and I looked like Frida. But I don’t want to be another version of Frida. I wondered why I couldn’t make garments myself. If it could be my painting that I could be wearing, then maybe it would look like me.
I like indigenous clothing and all things that remind me of my background, of Mexico, the shirt brought back from the place where I was born, represented my mestizo side, but I am bicultural. I am Mexican and from the USA, which has influence who I think, I am. I have grown up in the USA for seventeen years; I have absorbed “Estados Unidos” culture also. I cannot really define myself only by one of these cultures, either when I pick up my colorful embroidered shirts from the indigenous people, or when I see my Spanish looking features, or when I prefer to speak English.
In my work I talk about emigration issues, because colonialism is not over. There are a lot of side effects from the history. Most people in this country don’t know that Mexico is a part of North America and that all comes from colonialism and post-colonialism. It is also talking about class and economics. These dresses imitate those European fantastical beautiful things that queens wore. They aspire earnestly, but they cannot become real, because they are from paper and canvas. It is sort of a fake, and that is how I feel about the “American dream.” I wish to belong to this country, but instead I am getting a temporary “differed action” and still after all this years, I do not belong. I did not come here for the “American dream”, but was brought here by my wonderful parents who did believe in a better life. I still have hope that we can make American a fair place and a place where people can make anything they want for themselves.
Was there somebody who supported and encouraged you with your decision to become an artist?
First of all, one person told me to go to college, to get my bachelor degree. Undocumented families used to not believe that their children should or could to go to school, because to going to school means to get a legal job. That was something unachievable without the social security number. Why would you go to school if you cannot get a real job? Or how are you going to pay for it? We could not get government loans. That was a sort of logic and no one talked to me about a possibility to go to university. I went to junior college and four year later my drawing professor said, “Why don’t you go to a university? Why are you not there already?” So I had to tell him I was undocumented. He encouraged me to go to university and, since then, I have had a lot of people helped me make it through.
There is a widespread idea that artist doesn’t need to be taught, but to be born with a talent. You have done a lot to get in good schools and now you are a professor yourself. Why education is important for you?
Education is giving me an opportunity to learn to do what I want and become a better person. When I was a child, I had a lot of people said, “Oh, you are not talented, why are you drawing?” And I hear this from children all the time, or from young adults, “I was told that I haven’t any talent.” That is the worst thing you can say anyone. Everyone has talent. We learn and we get better at it, and if we love it, we get better again. Many children don't get this chance just because they cannot afford it financially. My education has made me who I am, so why not help others figure out who they are? If you had told me when I was a child that I am going to be a professor at university, I wouldn't havebelieved. For me, having an education is a miracle.
What character traits are the most important for artist?
Hope. And also we have to be curious, to have faith, and then we have to make a lot of real friends to pick us up at the moment when we fail and when are full of doubt.
What make you resilient?
I don’t know. But when I was younger, maybe I was seventeen, I decided that I want to be happier and try to achieve what I want. It was a choice. We either are really depressed and sit at home and don’t do. I choose to be as happy as possible.