"I think, for me, my art is kind of like a journal."
I had a wonderful conversation with Yemayá about art museums, capitalism, sonder, and social media that I am very excited to share with you all today! In their own words: "yemayá (they/she) is a writer, photographer and multimedia artist based in southern california. they love their two cats and hate capital letters."
DECADENT: Thank you for making the time to talk to me. I am very excited about this conversation! Let’s talk about you and your art! What does being an artist mean for you? And maybe we can expand that to what it means to be an artist of color and a non-binary artist? I think that our life experiences are really important in shaping our art, so how would you say your life experiences come into play when you make your art?
YEMAYÁ: What’s hard about that question is that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to exist in the world. So I’m trying to remember, “What are life experiences?” “What have I experienced in life?” Truly, this is hard.
Actually, in high school I was very athletic but I was around a lot of art through my family; we were always doing art classes and stuff. So in high school my focus was in sports, but then I realized that I didn’t want to do that in college. It was kind of a no-brainer then, when I stopped with sports, to move to art. But even then, I didn’t take it seriously: I wasn’t like, “This is what I’m going to do.” And now I’m at the point where I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else because capitalism is just not my cup of tea.
D: Love to hear that.
Y: I guess, being a Black and non-binary artist...god, what are my life experiences?!
D: I think it can be really hard to find the traces of your experiences in your artwork itself.
Y: I think for me my art is kind of like a journal. Every event or emotion I feel in life is the same in a way. Like, to be a child of divorce or whatever, that experience may not be unique to you, but each little life scenario you experience changes you and is different according to your life.
At the end of the day, the little events are different but the emotions are the same, the main overarching event is the same... So I guess for me a big part of why I make art is to highlight how communal feelings are.
For example, if I’m feeling burnt out and all I can manage is a little doodle (which is where I’m at right now) that is a communal feeling: sometimes you can’t create because you’re just burnt out. It’s the idea that everything you feel is felt by other people, that your personal narrative is something you can show to others and they can relate to.
Race and gender play into it if they are on my mind on that particular day and I want to put my narrative out there for other people to relate to. I can do that if I want, but it’s not necessarily my focal point.
I do believe that Black artists deserve support because, so often, you don’t really see Black people in creative fields being supported in the same way as other races or not represented in the same way. I think that’s why a lot of Black people don’t see it as a real possibility, as though, “I could grow up and do only art!”
Unless it’s music or sports, you know, the entertainment that we’re reduced to.
But like you can be a printmaker or a photographer and just make yourself visible as a Black creative, instead of saying, “Oh, art’s just a hobby…” Also, it is through art, other people’s art, that I have been learning a lot about gender. So it’s nice to be on the other side of that as creator.
D: Wow. That is such a profound way to talk about art. I love that idea of the communal feelings that art makes tangible.
So you listed a couple of sources of inspiration. One of the things you mentioned was “faces”. I was really excited about that because faces are hugely important in my own work and so I want to ask you, why faces? I might add that questions of gender and race are definitely foregrounded in images of faces because we typically encounter one another through our faces and gender and race are very wrapped up in the ways that people encounter and perceive one another.
Y: So I feel like there are two parts here. Regarding race, I actually did a photo essay for one of my classes, something like Media, Race, and Representation. I did the photo essay mostly to get out of writing a paper but it had the same gist of what I would’ve written about. It was titled “Black Boy Joy” and it was photos of my friends, people around me but I didn’t necessarily take pictures of them smiling because I feel like the idea that is sometimes pushed across is that of showing really happy Black people.
But just because we’re not smiling doesn’t mean that we’re not joyful. So the pictures that I was pulling from this photoshoot were not necessarily photos of my friends smiling but photos where I had known in that moment that we were just homies hanging out, where it was a joyful moment.
So I did that because we had talked a lot in the class about the use of very hard-faced mugshots and images like that that are interpreted as harsh. But just because someone has a resting bitch face, that doesn't mean that they aren't happy.
But for faces, for me personally: the absolute bane of my existence is the feeling of sonder. I hate it. It gives me a daily existential crisis. The things I see sonder in might be traffic, walking around neighborhoods, but also people’s faces. Like when I sit in a coffee shop, I love to eavesdrop on people and pretend that I can get glimpses into other people’s lives, but when you are just passing by someone, all you’ve got is their face to tell you what’s going on in their life at that moment. First of all, I hate perception: like what the fuck do I actually look like?!
And second of all, everyone has a different face and it’s so weird because we all have the same facial features. That just blows my mind: 7 billion faces out there! When it comes to us being individuals, it’s really the faces that I get caught up on.
D: Absolutely. And art is a great way to explore how we perceive things, but it also makes perception so much more complicated. And it becomes even more complex when you are the artist, right? Because you’re able to explore that complexity. So to continue with faces just a bit longer: as an artist, you can create a face, whether it’s the portrait of a friend or a face you’ve invented on your own. Do you feel like that changes the way that you see other people?
Y: I love this question. One thing I really enjoy about my art is that I never learned how to draw realistically and I don’t want to. Sometimes I look at other people’s art and I think, “Wow, that’s so good! I should learn how to draw like that.” But then I realize that realism isn’t the only way to make art and I like to make really wonky faces that aren’t proportional or realistic. And I think that translates to the way that our bodies are flesh prisons, they aren’t really important...Like when I look at someone, the last thing I really consider is something critical about their appearance. Like someone might be thinking, “Ugh I look so ugly today! Look at all my pimples!” But I’m not thinking about that when I’m talking to someone. Who cares what you look like as long as you’re taking care of yourself?
So being able to construct wonky faces and still see them as good art in my eyes is directly related to this fact that people are beautiful regardless of whatever they look like. I mean, not always beautiful because sometimes people are ugly on the inside, haha.
D: Yeah, yeah. So I want to talk a little about selling art and capitalism and how it works, how capitalism doesn’t work, and what the future could be. Because we know the way that things are is not necessarily the way that things have to be. And so many young artists are trying to show that. Also, so many people our age have been told, “Don’t be an artist. There’s no money in that.” I think you told me earlier that 2020 gave you the fuel to just create a business of your own. So what happens next? What’s your mission and your vision moving forward?
Y: I have a couple things to say to that. One is that I hate pricing my art because I have always been that person that makes handmade gifts and I’m so used to just giving art to friends. And so it’s so hard to put a dollar sign on something and try to sell it and market it. It’s so annoying because I will say something like, “Oh yeah, this is worth like five or ten bucks.” But my friends will be like, “No! You’re worth so much more than that!”
But it’s not that I’m saying anything about my worth, it’s more of an accessibility thing because I’m used to giving it to people for free. Like, I understand that you’re supposed to price your art at a livable rate, but it’s so hard for me to not give people the stuff that I make. If I make fifteen prints, I’m just going to hand them out.
It’s interesting: one of my favorite things has been doing art trades. Like, I love stuffing an envelope full of stuff and then getting art in exchange back, like I love that there is no money involved.
That is an ideal future...but it is also not entirely sustainable. I mean I don’t know the future but I hope that there is less social media involved. I feel like so many people are caught up in how to market themselves on social media. There are some artists I follow who, as soon as they announce a shop update, they will sell out immediately. And, it’s not necessarily that I see capitalism in that because it seems like they have a genuine community of people behind them, but I think that type of community-based foundation is what I see in the future.
We need a larger community of people going back and forth and supporting each other, regardless of how cool they are on Instagram or whatever.
It’s been really hard trying to make it a viable, sustainable option while also hating social media.
I think one thing that makes people think being an artist is not a feasible option is that they don’t know about all the jobs that exist in the art world. If you didn’t go to an art school, and you aren’t being mentored by people in those fields, it can be hard to know what jobs are out there. Like the idea of product design, for example. Obviously it’s done by artists, but I had never really thought about it that way, I was just thinking about how some marketing person was successfully manipulating people psychologically. There are so many different directions that you can take art in, even though we live in this capitalistic society. One of the things that really does motivate me is financial security. It wasn’t even my parents who told me that I couldn’t do art for a living, it was me telling myself I had to find a more stable option. But there is so much in between being a famous artist and being a “starving artist” that I just hadn’t realized existed.
D: Was starting a shop something you had planned on doing for a long time? Or did it just sort of happen?
Y: It just sort of happened. And it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for quarantine. I had always had a portfolio site but I didn’t have a shop until July of 2020. My mom had gotten me an iPad as an early birthday present because I had just been making digital art on my phone. And I was really enjoying the art I was creating and posting on Instagram, which I had started forcing myself to do more, and, it was mostly just my friends, but people in my DMs were asking, “Hey, can I buy a print of this?”
We had recently gotten a nice printer, so I got some photo paper, made some nice prints and sold them over Instagram DMs. And then, after realizing how chaotic it was over Instagram - I had 60 orders at one point - I realized I needed a better way to streamline the process.
So I invested in the website. It made sense to me to do that. It’s not something that can sustain me, it’s really just for fun, but just knowing that there is a demand - that if I make something, people might actually want it - it’s just been fun.
It was definitely not planned, it just happened, because, one, I was corona-unemployed and two, I had time. If I had been swept up in the hustle and bustle of life where I would get burnt out before even trying, I never would have done it, I don’t think.
D: Amazing! Did you pick up any new art skills in quarantine? Or is most of the work you do based on knowledge and skills you had acquired prior to the pandemic?
Y: So, for the digital art, I had just downloaded Adobe Fresco on my phone one day. Printmaking, however, was something I had learned about my freshman year of college. I had to take an art class so I took a printmaking class and it was super interesting. I remember at the time complaining about how the difference between high school and college art classes is that you have to buy all your own supplies in college and it’s expensive! But because of that I had all of my printmaking supplies and I was watching TikToks of people making prints and I realized I missed it. So I ended up taking a printmaking class last semester.
The idea of owning things by artists is very cool to me, especially when those things are practical items. I don’t sew, but I was able to print on pre-made things. I do want to teach myself screenprinting at some point, but I also enjoy handprinting because every print is unique. Sometimes I wish it took longer, honestly, because I will be like 30 prints in and realize maybe I should stop. But it’s just so fun. Except clean-up is always an ordeal.
D: Haha, kind of like cooking a meal: it’s delicious but then you have all the dishes to wash.
So let’s talk some more about your other sources of inspiration! You mentioned going to art museums and I want to talk about that because I think, a lot of the time, people don’t really know how to go to an art museum. So what do you like to do when you go to an art museum? Like sometimes I overthink it and I’m like, “Wait a second, it is so weird that we go to museums and just stand and stare at big canvases and sculptures…” But I also love it, I think the experiences we have in an art museum can teach, or re-teach, us how to see things. So I want to know how you like to approach them.
Y: I miss it so much! Um, am I allowed to talk about drugs?
D: Go for it!
Y: Okay. My favorite thing to do is take a fat edible and go to the art museum. So I’m in San Diego and the museums aren’t the best here, but there is one I like going to: it’s called the San Diego Art Institute and it features artists from San Diego and Tijuana. They have very cool exhibits. They’re sometimes kind of future-forward to me because they can get pretty digital.
Freshman year of college, I went to school in DC and my favorite museum was the Hirshhorn Museum. Even if they hadn’t changed exhibits, I was there like every week, high off an edible, and I would just wander around for hours.
I don’t really like going to art museums with other people because they will just want to do a quick walk through and be done. But I want to sit, hang out, wander and realize, not really how limited my thoughts are but rather how expansive other people’s thoughts are.
The fact that someone thought of making a particular work of art that i couldn’t have even imagined, like with some random pieces of metal or something, is really cool to see. And when I went to school in LA, I loved just taking a bus to LACMA and just doing the same thing there.
It’s just very meditative. I love taking in my own reaction to the work and then reading the artist statements. I always wonder what the thought process behind the art piece was.
The only piece that I’ve seen that made me really say, “What the fuck is that?” was like a piece of red string across a corner, haha. I was like, “Yeah, that could go.” But I do like contemporary art museums where people can play with abstractness. That especially inspires the part of me that doesn’t like realism. It’s nice to see work that reflects that in museums.I also don’t like crowded art museums. I prefer going on a Monday afternoon or something, when I can have it to myself.
So yeah, I love just being on a cloud by myself in the art museum.
D: I completely agree: I like having the museum to myself. One of the other things you mentioned as a source of inspiration was your mom’s book collection. Can you say something about that?
Y: So my mom’s dad was kind of a bigwig in the music industry back in the day and he had a lot of art books, like coffee table art books from the 70s and 80s. And now my mom has a lot of these books. Like this one she recently gave me, The Golden Age of the Poster.
So she has all these books from her dad or ones she’s collected during her own travels and they are just really fun to look at. I just flip through them and look at all the art...It’s a collection that I didn’t have to build myself; I know a lot of people will build up their art book collections over a long period of time. So I have a very coveted resource.
D: I love looking through art books. I like how they kind of force you to spend time with the art. So, going back to the subject of social media and posting art on a platform like Instagram: it can be tough! As an artist, you might spend so much time on a piece but then you know that your followers will most likely like the photo and continue scrolling. Does that bother you at all?
Y: I have a very interesting relationship with social media because I’m the type to just post and dip. I don’t spend that much time scrolling. I really don’t like Instagram, so I am definitely guilty of being the person who scrolls right past. I follow more people that I can watch on YouTube where there can be a little more back and forth. So when it comes to social media, I’m really just doing it for myself as like, a photo archive. I don’t really care about the amount of interaction that my social media gets but at the same time, I kind of have to care because I’m operating a business and I have to figure out how to reach more people.
D: Yeah, it definitely sucks trying to sell art on social media without reducing your art to something that is merely marketable. Okay, here's an interesting question about how to look at art, whether it's at a museum, in a book, or on Instagram: how would you describe the process of looking at art (especially as an artist)?
Y: I remember listening to a podcast that was saying when you find a work of art that really pulls you in, you should try to identify what makes you want to look at it, whether it’s the colors, the composition, all of that.
And then let it inspire you instead of just looking at it or letting it go over your head.
Maybe I’m not exactly incorporating elements from other people’s art, but I will say, “I really like the color palette this person uses,” or, “I like how this person does their shadows.” Stuff like that is really fun: to just sit there and deconstruct what you’re looking at.
Something I really enjoy is photography. I like asking, “What about this photograph’s composition makes you want to look at it?” or, “What about the scenery or the way it’s shot is compelling?” Just questioning what it is about the art that you like.
So yeah, I guess my advice would be to just look at the art, let it inspire questions in you, and see what you might want to incorporate into your own artistic practice.
D: So you are a writer, correct? Do you think that your writing and visual art play off of one another at all?
Y: I don’t see them as totally separate things, but when it comes to my writing, it’s very narrative-heavy, draws on the five senses, it’s very descriptive. Not quite autobiographical but based in lived experiences for sure.
With my visual art, the same sentiments are there, but I’m not trying to evoke the five senses. It’s much more visual and the message in it is more for me.
I’ve been playing around with making zines that mix the visual and textual, and I’m trying to figure out how to make them complementary. I’m also starting to play around with video! I definitely want to play around with video and create a visual narrative that includes words.
D: Wow, that is super cool! I was going to ask about your future plans, but here you are: living your future now.
Y: Well, I’m graduating in May and then I think I’m going to go to community college to get an Associate’s degree in Graphic Design because being self-taught is hard sometimes. And then there is this art retail store in San Diego and I’m going to start working there over the summer.
D: Incredible! I’m sure that will be an amazing experience and you’ll be able to learn a lot through it:) Thank you so much, Yemayá! It has truly been a pleasure getting to know you and talking about art with you!