This story is part of Image Issue 12, “Commitment (The Woo Woo Issue)”, where we explore why Los Angeles is the land of the true believers. Read the full case here.)
The human face mask comes out of the pot like a cactus. An open hand made of corn bran — a mano poderosa – The fan opens, its parts are connected by flexible weaving of the palms. A weightless figure made of twigs, dried plants and fruits rests on top of a stationary bike. Maria Mai’s artworks, as she describes them, are “altars” of objects she has collected and long lived. Masks – a recurring image – are often molds of family members. Each task has a specific memory. Sometimes, she doesn’t even realize she’s creating an art piece until the fact: the objects “live in such a place of my prayer, my meditation, that sometimes I can’t always zoom out.” Do something and really see the totality of something.”
In this talk, artist Rafa Esparza, a friend and collaborator, talks with Maia about the spiritual and deeply personal act of creating objects and the forces that inspired them to create them.
Rafa Esparza: I wanted to start by asking you how you relate to art or creativity. I want this to be an opportunity for us to think about how we use art and how we relate to art, but also how art is present in our families and in our cosmology. When did you know you wanted to make things, make art?
Maria Maya: I come from a very large family where resources were spread among many people. So, having a birthday cake was a creative process – it was artistic. I remember we couldn’t buy Christmas trees, and my mom would go and get butcher’s paper from church and cut down a tree. And then we would make ornaments on paper. It gave us the ability to feel that we were creatively engaged with each other and with ourselves. You know, we were one family that shared a coloring book!
For a really long time as a young person I didn’t have the resources to say, “I can get a fancy notebook., I can get these very nice colored pencils, I felt likeI cannot make art and I cannot be an artist. But I think a lot out of wanting to be a part of something. Being a teenager and meeting other young brown creative people who were playing music in Long Beach who were trying to do whatever they could to enjoy their lives, I found community there, I Got agency there.
I didn’t go to art school, but I used to meet people from out of the world. I’ve always been curious about what people’s abilities are, what they’re working on. And I’ve always allowed myself to be bold that way or open that way.
again: You alluded to this collective experience that you shared with your family. It seems to me that, in many ways, our family is one of our earliest communities, one of our first communities, whereby we first interact with our friends and begin to socialize in these different places. Can you take some time out to talk about who your family is and where you come from?
MM: I am a first generation Mexican Samoa from Long Beach, California. My parents are both immigrants who moved here – my mom from Samoa and my dad from Mexico, both when they were quite young. I grew up among so many cultures, figuring out what it was like to be here, figuring out what it was like to have the American Dream.
I involve my family in a lot of my work, because with such a large family, I feel like I have almost a case study of what migration is all about. As a person from Los Angeles, as a person who is able to get resources and access to places my family has never visited or never attended, and face casts Being able to use images of your family by making or using molds. Their hands, I bring them with me to these places in which it’s really hard to stand at times, and somehow, having brought parts of them, I feel more capable.
I do a lot of spiritual work like this, but sometimes I feel like I’m afraid to call back, because I don’t know who’s out there. I’m taking these old photos of my family I’m very familiar with – a picture of my grandmother, her sister, at my uncle’s funeral, a picture of me nino And my grandmother, my cousin’s graduation photo. I start looking for the shadows on their faces, and along the way I see the faces of many others. before i come ninoThe face of, my brother shows, my cousin shows – the angle, just the nuances of the nose, or the way an eye is shaped; I see so many of us, and it’s really comforting to see me do the work of living in communication with a deeper ancestor. That level of family wisdom gives you a sense of power and self-confidence, allows you to navigate these things that are right here.
again: Can you talk about the materials you work with — because you’ve worked with diversity and in very different ways — how you combine them, how they sometimes activate in the performance? You have molded snow, you worked with clay and clay, you are weaving palm leaves and you have also molded with wax. How do you relate to these materials, and how do you find them and how have they found their place in your work?
MM: I realized I was building these little prayer places for myself—these little altars of objects that resonated, like when I had my dresser, my brother’s dresser, and my other brother’s, as a young child. There was a dresser. Our dresser tops were our art installations, weren’t they? Those were the places where we got to make our mark: This is my dresser. I collected things that took my mind off, whether it was this cute toy or a really cool marble that I found on my walk home from school. My art practice still exists that way.
I find that this way a lot of material gets accumulated around me. Like, abandoned – I could walk down the street and someone’s rearview mirror could fall, and I collect it and I bring it back and set it in a spot. I think of these objects as personalities, the ability to be storytellers. In my space, a lot of the things I collect move around like pieces of a gameboard.
These objects have an energy, and they have a relationship to each other and a story to each other. Sometimes accompanied by these sculptures, especially those with plant bodies., I don’t always feel like I’m building them. At times I feel like they are collecting themselves over time.
again: The way you take care of these materials, the way you keep them and the way you work with them How you connect with people is no different – at least to me, I feel like it’s been a very caring and supportive relationship that I’ve had with you.
What do you think happens to objects when they stay with you? What does it mean for them to be in the same place you live in?
MM: I find that objects just kind of become embedded in my daily story – I’ll find the object and it will probably be very representative of a moment in time for me, like a walk down the street, or a moment in the park. With a friend or something like that. It would hold that memory for me, then it would sit in space, and those memories would remain with the objects. Then, placing them within a large sculptural work or an altar space, they become entangled in these other memories.
I also feel that my practice has found the palm, which has given me this kind of meditative practice—in knitting as a daily practice, I find it ingrained in memory. And that’s something I’m saying because I’ve grown as a weaver over the years, because it’s a material I’ve found on Pandemic. I am getting this ability to notice the memory locked in the pattern. Like I knitted something for Subliminal Projects, for the first show I did with Essence Harden, and that was the first kind of large sculpture I did, and it was a big hanging basket with lots of holes. And my body was actually processing in a different way, because I was having to bend over and move around. There were pockets of sculpture where I could be like, “Oh I was here thinking of my mom, I was talking to my brother all this time, I was upset with my boyfriend at the moment, I was here for an old job. There are moments of recognition and pattern. When you step back and just look at this large woven piece, I could still recognize myself and my pockets of time.
again: Something that feels super-existent at the moment is how art markets and collectors thirst for artworks created by black and brown artists. This is a complicating factor, the sale and collection of art, and once it becomes an artist’s reality, the market has the power to truly transform one’s practice. Because all of a sudden, there’s this other potential motivator to work as well, right? People want to buy it, and we need to eat it, and it becomes just another thing to think about. And I think the way your work exists doesn’t match that way of production. The market asks you to churn things out. And I feel like practices that are performance-based, that have an enduring relationship to materials, operating within their temporality outside of these market calendars – have a power in that. Having a strong presence in the market doesn’t have the power to change what we do.
MM: You and I have been in our labor for much longer than we can see in the market. And the thing is, the people I need to feed will eat them, whether I’m selling work or not. I’m not afraid to go and work other ways to make sure I’m eating, because at the end of the day, like you said, there’s only so much I can produce, that’s all I can produce. I am, because by the nature of the material. I will do things like making bags. I exist in the fashion world, where I’m like, “Okay, I can sell this as a product.” But when it comes to my art, I’m not trying to be a figurehead. They don’t feel powerful to me, objects, if they’re not with me, and I don’t mean just over time but perhaps energetically. Is that stew in it? Does this sound like me? Because at the end of the day, I don’t like to show off something that doesn’t feel like me.
hair: Ramon Tuilepa; accomplish: Deborah Martinez; blue suit: Lujo Depot x Julissa Aarons (Not Urge); pink gown: TUAPO Creations x Eve Diazoo
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