Finding Your Mirrors: Latinx Artists in the Art World

A couple of years ago, artist and designer Giana Gonzalez attended Creative Capital’s “Professional Development Workshop for Latinx Artists.” The program focuses on helping Latinx artists build their skills to help advance their careers in the art world. Working with Creative Capital, artist Ela Troyano developed the program to help artists build cross cultural strategies for fundraising, advocacy, promotion and work/life enrichment. Recently, Giana reached out to us, saying the workshop had completely shifted the way she looks at her practice. We asked her to share with us her success stories since taking the Creative Capital course.

As artists, describing our work can be difficult. As English is my second language, it’s especially challenging to share my complex projects. We often rely on comparisons to describe one’s work simply, but in the past, I’ve been compared to Sofia Vergara and Shakira. While I was delighted since they are major players in my culture, I felt this comparison diminishes my work because they didn’t represent models of what I do. For God’s sake, my work involves building apps and developing conceptual pieces! All of these frustrations were addressed when I took one of Creative Capital’s professional development workshops.

I work across mediums. By way of technology, video, photography and performance, I explore identity, material culture and participation. Hacking Couture—a long format experimental project, which I started in 2006—has been my main focus over the past several years.  Through this self-funded project, I experiment with ways to merge open source into fashion and map the DNA of design as a tool for self-expression and collaboration. Perhaps because of the many disciplines involved, and open and experimental nature of the project, I sometimes find myself at a loss when asked to describe Hacking Couture.

Haute Couture, Punk Code, a project by Giana Gonzalez 2013

Jumping back and forth between my two jobs—as a design consultant and as an artist—has made me feel self-conscious about being too “design-y” for the art world or too artsy for the design world.
Even though personally I’m pretty outgoing and friendly, I had trouble showing my “true” self to the art world. Going to events felt transactional, and I was self-conscious about people feeling that I wanted something from them (like funding or time). I wanted to be friendly and open, which is how I normally am; not cool and collected. Something was blocking the way I communicated my work.

How Creative Capital Helped Change the Way I Presented My Practice

One day, I got an email from Creative Capital with the subject line, “Professional Development Taller for Latin Artists.” “Wow,” I thought to myself, “my work does not say ‘Latin’ anywhere!” I thought of myself as an artist first and foremost—just because I am from Panama doesn’t mean my work is “Latin.”

Regardless of my skepticism, I researched the facilitators, Ela Troyano and Chemi Rosado-Seijo, both of them artists. I found a video of them chatting with each other. I liked how they how they moved, spoke and expressed themselves. I thought of my mother’s wise words when I’m conflicted about doing something that might be good for me: “Don’t be afraid, mamita, just go! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” I decided to sign up for the workshop.

Before hearing Chemi, I didn’t believe that being creatively fulfilled could also lead to a happy and financially stable life. Artists are so often depicted as frustrated and unresourceful—and I saw myself reflected in that mirror.

As soon as I arrived, I felt at ease. I was surrounded by people who saw a part of me that hadn’t been understood before. I related to Ela, especially. Models like Ela give me a completely different vision of what it meant to be an artist.  She’s an accomplished filmmaker working in media, with a great presence and style. She was unafraid of speaking her mind. And I was amazed that she kept her New York/Cuban fire while remaining even-keeled in negotiating. I had not seen something like this before.

Ela and Chemi led us in several exercises that revealed that certain patterns exist for those who have grown up a Latin household. For example, in Spanish we tend to use elaborate descriptions, making it difficult to stick to an elevator pitch. Money is another issue: I had never made a budget for my art project. I had difficulty negotiating the boundaries of producing a project and setting aside what one needs to have a good life.  Because of this, I resented my art work, which I felt was blocking me from happiness.

Chemi—who was recently featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial—spoke about having purchased a home. He said that everyone, if determined enough, could have a successful creative life and have a strong financial foundation. Before hearing Chemi, I didn’t believe that being creatively fulfilled could also lead to a happy and financially stable life. Artists are so often depicted as frustrated and unresourceful—and I saw myself reflected in that mirror. But through the Taller workshop, I started to think differently. Most importantly, I didn’t feel like I was alone in my struggles anymore.

A New Way of Envisioning My Practice—Which Won Its Own Award!
Months later, a follow-up session took place. That’s when the magic happened! Ela asked us to get in groups of two. Patricia Benabe, a filmmaker from Puerto Rico who was sitting next to me, and I decided to work together. I shared my frustrations with being self-conscious about “art speak” and the feeling that nobody was getting me or my work. Patricia and I exchanged contact info and checked in periodically with each other. We continued to chat about challenges we were facing and gave each other suggestions based on our experiences.

One day, I texted Patricia, and finally, I connected the dots: if I was having difficulty explaining my work, perhaps it could be easier said in a video format. Since Patricia is a filmmaker, she could give me advice about making a video and budgets. She put me in touch with a team that I hired to help me produce a short feature. Patricia advised me through the process: how to best work with a team in the areas I was struggling with during post-production.

The short documentary solved the main problem I was having: to succinctly and engagingly explain the core idea behind Hacking Couture. But it went beyond its initial goals. I submitted the video to a film festival in Panama about fashion and art, and it won an award for best documentary. None of this would have happened if If I didn’t get out of my head, and shown up to the workshop.

I’m incredibly thankful to Creative Capital for having started this conversation and injecting diversity in its professional development programming. El Taller gave the space for magic to happen without any expectations. It was an investment in people, not in projects. When you invest in people the paradigm shifts. As Latin artists, there are many flavors to us. We have to look at the culture that unites us, to be more open and less competitive, and more community oriented when it comes to business.  This was my big lesson: keep my own bias in check regarding myself and my work. I was afraid that I would be pigeon-holed and that my work would not be seen for what it is because of who I am, either as a woman and as Latin–I now know that doesn’t matter.

I have come to realize that having a single point of reflection is not enough. I see my art practice as a disco ball: I need lights (inspiration, ideas, my work, friends, the communities I am in). I’m just reflecting the light coming from many directions. Just like a disco ball, light doesn’t come from me but through me.

Giana Gonzalez is a multi-disciplinary artist and designer working in New York. Read more about her and her work on her website.

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