Interview with Joiri Minaya

Interview with Joiri Minaya

For #dominicanwomengooglesearch Joiri Minaya searched google images for the term “dominican women” and translated the results into physical objects. Minaya prints enlarged versions of the images, mounts them onto Sintra board and covers the backside with tropical patterned fabrics. She then cuts out everything but the flesh and hangs these shapes from the ceiling.

We sat down with Joiri at Wave Hill while she was presenting this piece in the project space.

Groana Melendez
What was your process in creating #dominicanwomengooglesearch?.

Joiri Minaya
I started with a Google search and I found these images. When I started cutting them up into pieces in Photoshop I was mimicking the dissection that my gaze was doing. I would look at their faces, their boobs, their arms, their hair. I was sectioning them or cutting them up into pieces with my eyes based on how these images are presented to me, and how I’ve been conditioned to read those images in that way. I was analyzing them in general. There’s more afros in our vision of ourselves to the outside than to ourselves. I think that’s changing now thankfully. I also noticed a lot of straight long hair.
That’s the front part, and then the backs are covered with designs that represented “tropical” spaces, which was something I was already working with from previous projects. I grew up in a clothing store, my mom had a clothing store since I was little. I’ve always been surrounded by fabric and patterns. It’s something that still influences what I notice visually. “Tropical” pattern design felt very familiar to me, but I was never really critically conscious of it until I was in undergrad. One time I was wearing this Hawaiian shirt that I found in a thrift store and a professor said, “Oooh, so tropical.” I was like, “What does this mean?” That’s when I started thinking about it more critically.
I started paying attention to what is depicted on these fabrics and how the plants are organized and are, once again, just catered to this [foreign, scientific] gaze. Plants in reality have nothing to do with how they’re presented in pattern design. As problematic as they are, I love scientific illustration. They’re extracted from reality, isolated on a white page where all of its parts are being analyzed, supposedly to be informative, but it’s a very particular gaze, which I then relate to the kind of gaze towards women and brown bodies and the objectification of women. I wanted to link that history of scientific illustration, how it later became interior, domestic design, and the representation of these women; mapping this whole system of representation around the tropics.

Groana
Were you here in the States when you were looking for these images?

Joiri
Originally yes, although it was during a trip to the DR that I first looked up Dominican women on Google searches. Results when I was there and when I continued with the process here were pretty similar. What makes a difference is that I’m Googling in English, and English is not our first language. I was consciously thinking about that, but I guess when I have conversations about that piece in the States that intentionality is not evident. That decision was definitely intentional for me, because I was thinking of how we present ourselves to this international audience as opposed to how we think about ourselves to ourselves, which I’m not sure is always that too apart but there’s definitely differences.

Groana
Do you see the images you’re finding as mujeres dominicanas showing themselves to the world?

Joiri
I think so, because they’re tagged in English. Also the photos themselves, they’re not selfies, they’re staged, there’s someone taking the photo. There is this whole apparatus around it that to me is deeply related how we internalize these demands which we subsequently performed for someone else.

Martha Naranjo Sandoval
What I really like about it is that it starts from a very digital space, but then it’s all about being there, because you can’t really access it unless you’re in the room.

Joiri
Yeah, I’m interested in that materialization. These photos exist online, they’re tiny, they’re made for your screen to 72 dpi or whatever. Then when you blow them up they become an object. You print them out, they’re tangible. They’re tangible in a very unnatural way, in a very artificial way. I like how that translates to a material because it’s funny how these women are supposedly selling you this “authentic” experience, but then they’re very artificially crafted. To print them out makes that obvious.

Martha
Yeah, because it makes it about the image and not about the person.

Joiri
It’s always about the image, but at the beginning, it’s meant to create this illusion that you are meeting this girl [a lot of the images found on the Google search link back to online catalogues “for men who want to date Dominican women on their vacation”]…but this girl could be any girl.

Martha
Yeah, but the fact that you can see the pixels interrupts the…

Joiri
the illusion, yeah. Also how they’re flat and spinning around, that makes you think of digital illusion, like animations. I like the material manifestation of it. Another aspect I was interested in is how they rearrange and recompose as you walk around them or even if you just stand there and see them spinning around. I think that’s at the same time liberating within this question of identity, how you’re taking these ingredients that already exist but you’re making your own combination, and also on a darker and more confrontational side they look just like a butchery, it’s a bunch of hanging body parts…

Groana
Then you add pretty flowers and stuff, jaja. And it is also a hand-made object…

Joiri
Yeah, it might not be immediately recognizable in this piece at first, but it’s a very crafty process, cutting out the images on photoshop, marking point by point with the pen tool, isolating individual parts, enlarging them, printing them and then cutting all over again, physically, out of the rectangular board into these independent pieces, following the pixels. And Sintra is so hard to cut by hand with an Exacto knife!…
I think after a lot of reading, writing, performance and video works at Parsons during my undergrad I really missed drawing and spending time “making stuff with my hands,” but the idea that hand-made techniques are more crafty and labor intensive than technologically mediated ones is another illusion. There’s the illusion that things like video or photography and other mediated forms of image making are supposedly faster and easier to materialize, with a click. Preparation time and thought process now take me way longer than it used to take when I was only drawing. So much of it is trying to decipher the idea and put it together in a way that communicates whatever I want to communicate before event starting to make anything. It still takes forever, but there’s this illusion that it’s more immediate, which is something I’m beginning to be aware now.

#dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016). digital print on sintra and fabric collage. aprox. 6 x 15 x 12 ft. Wave Hill Sunroom Project Space, Bronx, NY. Photos by Stefan Hagen

My art education has been very diverse and kind of fragmented. I got into the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo when I was 14. They have a program that allows you to go that early. It’s fine arts in a very traditional way, it’s good to get that very formal training but they don’t necessarily push you a lot conceptually. Then I went to Belgium for a year, finished my last year in that art school when I came back, then I went to Altos de Chavon for 2 years and through Chavon I got a scholarship to go to Parsons. After going through these schools that teach you different tools to communicate and also have different philosophies, a lot of my work since graduating has been interested in balancing and juggling between all these different techniques and philosophies, navigating that world that wants to put a label on you and say, “You’re a painter and you should work like this.”
It should be more liberating now because after conceptual art, in theory, “nothing matters and you can do whatever,” but that’s not really true. People still want to categorize you often and I’m still asked frequently what kind of work I make and whether I have one favorite or main medium, which I don’t, really. If anything the idea of performing is very present, but a lot of my works don’t involve performance art.

Groana
How much does the location of the piece affect it?

Joiri
I think the context changes the perception of the piece a lot. I’ve shown this piece once before, in an exhibition space with blank walls. At Wave Hill the piece is inside a space that looks like a greenhouse (which is effectively used to house tropical plants during the winter). That space activated another part of the dialogue that I wanted to have with this piece. The history of greenhouses, collecting, exploring and the way that the specimens are historically categorized and presented in this kind of space gives the piece that layer of criticality that it didn’t have before. I’ve also been navigating this thing of showing work in the Dominican Republic and the US. I don’t know, I think #dominicanwomengooglesearch is one of the pieces that I’m more comfortable showing in both places, but for other works it’s kind of weird. For example, I was working on Siboney when I started doing the Google searches and roughly thinking about1 this piece. Siboney is a performance in which I spend about 5 weeks hand-painting the design from a found piece of fabric onto a museum wall. Once the mural is finished I pour water on myself and scrub my body against the wall while dancing to the beat of the song Siboney by Connie Francis, partially washing off the paint. (You can watch a trailer at joiriminaya.com/siboney).

Still from Siboney (2014) Performance in two parts and a mural painting.

I made that specifically for the DR. I’ve show the video documentation as documentation, but as live performance, I’ve had studio visits where people have asked me if I would redo something like that for their institution and I always say I wouldn’t repeat the same, maybe something related but it would have to be different because I feel doing the same thing here, I’d have to be careful about it because it could become one of these works in which brown artists perform for a mainly white audience. It could become mere entertainment, whereas there (in the DR) it’s more reflective of our own identity and how we cater to this outsider’s view. To me it’s different when shown in the Caribbean and shown here. Works like #dominicanwomengooglesearch adapt better, here I see it more like a mirror for the gaze that creates and perpetuates these images.

Groana
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? You were born here and grew up in DR, was there a lot of back and forth?

Joiri
Yeah, I grew up in DR. I’m very much Dominican, I was born here (NYC) and my Grandma was living here. I grew up in the DR and went to school there and my family is there. I have a bunch of relatives here, so I grew up visiting relatives and spending my summers here and in Florida sometimes, but mostly here.
Then I was an exchange student in Belgium when I was 17. That’s an experience that I go back to a lot these days, in works like this. I lived in this tiny little town where it’s weird because Dominican wasn’t even a thing, a lot of people didn’t even know where that was, they would vaguely place it “somewhere in South America.” It was so foreign that it was almost liberating. To my perception, they didn’t really have specific stereotypes attached to what I would represent, as opposed to Turkish or Moroccan people who have lived there for generations and who are their main immigrant groups. Dominicans weren’t a thing, at least not in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium.
Yet I was still reminded of my foreignness all the time. That was the first place where I was absolutely out of place. I didn’t understand anything around me and everything was examining me. I think that’s an experience that definitely informs my current work.

Martha
I understand what you mean. I’m Mexican and I never thought about being Mexican until I moved to the US.

Joiri
Yeah, me neither, about the States, I’m still deciphering this place, it’s so confusing, and also interesting. It’s a place where everyone comes from a different place, but everyone is American. There is this thing about homogenization and everyone has to be Americanized but everyone wants to cling to the memories and traditions of a place of origin. There is this ever-going dichotomy. Then you have the Americans that have been here for centuries: the Native Americans, the white colonizers and their descendants, black people and the past of slavery and erasure. There’s all these things going on at once. I never thought about being Dominican in this particular way until I got here. It’s funny, this curator asked me the other day, “I’m so curious why you’re so aware of your identity in such a cosmopolitan place like New York City.” I was like, “What does that even mean?”
Why is there an idea that people can be universal to begin with? I’m thinking about this European idea of universality, that’s still so prevalent in contemporary politics and the arts and even relates to who makes conceptual, minimalistic or “neutral” work, versus the people who make representational and “very specific” work and so on. There’s all these hierarchies. It’s just really annoying.

Martha
It happened the other way around for me, a curator was like “Your art is not Latin American enough.”

Joiri
Then there’s that too.

Martha
I was like”What does that mean?” I’m Latin American. Who decides what’s Latin American and what’s not and at what degree? I don’t feel like there is one, Latin American is a huge brush to paint over a lot of people who have some similarities but I also look at Groana and my experience is so different from hers…

Joiri
I know, it’s different. My sister was doing a university exchange in Chile for 6 months and I went to visit her when she was there. I couldn’t even understand what they say sometimes. It’s immensely different from someone who grew up in the Caribbean. I don’t know, in a way I’ve discovered a lot of Latin Americanness, and Caribbeanness, and even Dominicanness here in the States. Especially here in New York, because in the Caribbean itself you are not as interconnected with the other islands. I think everything has been done for us to not be connected at all in terms of flights, international relations, and commercial relations. It’s intentionally isolated, as opposed to here where you learn about all these other people from all of these other islands that, as one discovers after having had a very insular experience, are also in the Caribbean. We just speak different languages but in terms of culture there is so many overlaps and similarities. In a way I’ve have this expansive experience here, but in another way I’ve also had this reductive experience where I’ve been essentially told “you’re Caribbean so you’re supposed to be this” or “you’re Latin American, so you’re supposed to be this other way”…
I’m annoyed by the label identity. I use it a lot because I want to expand that label, my work is about identity but it’s not about identity in the way that the art world wants to see it here, as in “you’re illustrating this other place, this other experience.” I was talking about this with Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, curator of the Museo del Barrio. I was saying that someone who talks about them growing up loving a punk band is as much identity as it is to talk about where you come from. Even someone like Donald Judd, his minimalistic work says a lot about him and can be thought of as identity, in the same way that you making work about your homeland can. But that’s not how the art world operates.

#dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016) digital print on sintra and fabric collage. aprox. 6 x 15 x 12 ft Wave Hill Sunroom Project Space, Bronx, NY. Photo by Stefan Hagen

Groana
That’s so funny because Martha made a zine about how people think she looks Ecuadorian. She made a zine out of the results of searching for…

Martha
Ecuadorian women… It’s because every time people have to guess where I’m from they say I’m from Ecuador… that’s so inaccurate and so specific…

Joiri
What are “people from Ecuador” supposed to look like?

Martha
Right? What does that even mean? I’m always a little jaded that I don’t look Mexican, that people don’t say, “You’re Mexican.” I want to look what I am.

Joiri
There’s a lot of people going through all these similar experiences. Just again going back to America, it’s such a particular place. These things wouldn’t necessarily happen in our homelands, but then in our homelands we are part of the majority so people wouldn’t question us.

Groana
It’s not about you being Dominican, it’s about you being something else.

Joiri
Yeah it’s about your hair texture or your way of speaking or your way of moving through the world or your interests.

Martha
But also in the context of the outsider. In Mexico I’m not a minority, I’m white.

Joiri
Of course. Dominicans have all these stereotypes about Haitians, they need someone to create a hierarchy around, which is super disgusting but that’s the way it works. It’s the same everywhere. In Belgium they have the Moroccans and the Turks and other groups of immigrants. Not as many people from Congo as I initially thought there would be but then I realized the way that Europe dealt with their colonies is that their colonies were entirely absent in their homeland, they only got the resources they extracted. That’s another interesting thing about being in the Caribbean or even America where your colony was in your territory. The colonizer and the colonized were together. Then you go to Europe and you’re like, wait, so, oh yeah, you guys have all the gold, but why do other people …they’re just absent, because they were out of sight.

Groana
My experience is so much different from even yours because I spent my summers in DR where you spent your summers here. It’s really interesting.

Joiri
I’ve talked to people like you, they feel lost and alert when they go there, because they don’t really fit, but they’re Dominican. I think identity is such an interesting thing.

Groana
It’s funny that you say that because I always felt that way. Every time I went to DR I was “la Americana,” la “gringa.” But now that I’m married and my wife looks white and we go there then I’m the Dominican, I’m seen as pure Dominican in comparison to her.

Joiri
I like that contradiction too, because it translates a lot of feelings that I have, just navigating the world as a woman of color, all these labels. It’s true, you’re seen in a particular way. That’s another thing of New York, I started realizing that when people knew I was Dominican, they were thinking of particular things, they’d be, like “Oh you’re Dominican,” with a certain intonation. I was curious about what that intonation meant. That’s when I first started doing the Google search and thinking, oh, I guess this must inform what people think when they say that I’m Dominican.