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Interview: Bryan Fernández

1) Could you introduce yourself regarding where you are from and what school you are attending? What is your background and your story?

My name is Bryan Fernandez and I'm from Washington Heights located in upper manhattan and am currently a junior in the fine arts department at the School of Visual Arts. I'm a first and second generation dominican-american who grew up from humble beginnings. I didn't grow up from wealth and as my family sought a better life for us we often faced hardship, much of which has shaped the young man I am today that is still making me who I am today, While my family may have traveled throughout New York State I find myself being strongly connected to Washington Heights and the dominican community I grew up in. With a culture that is very much a big part of my identity to this day that is very much prevalent in my work today.

2) Your work appears to be about representation of and political activism for the Latinx people. How does your depiction of the Latinx people, which appear to be very much based on your own personal experiences, humanize and familiarize the Latinx communities and experiences for the outsiders? How does your art give voice and empower the Latinx community?

I feel like my work is able to give outsiders a proper look into daily life that exists in latinx/caribbean communities that goes beyond the stereotypes.

Time and time again do the usual stereotypes of being of such backgrounds overshadow the actual character of these communities. For me, the community of Washington Heights is often characterized as this knock-off ghetto version of the dominican republic. With many of its people being characterized as these dirty, hood/ghetto spanish speakers who only smoke hookah, eat platanos, play baseball and cheat.

With work such as mine, it takes back control of our narratives showing the reality that we truly live that many overlook thus empowering us by showing the world who we truly are. Going against the narratives created by the western media and being prideful for the people we truly are no matter what country we are from. (central/south america, the caribbean, or even the United States)

For me, it's showing the vibrant, hardworking and passionate community that exists here in Washington Heights. Where the culture and spirit of the island (dominican Republic) lives on, as we bring much of it here to New York City whether it be through our street vendors, our daily activities, ourselves in our appearance and so much more.

3) Your painting titled "Santos" is such a powerful example of representing the stories and experiences of the people of your community as it depicts a man who had taken his own life due to his mental health. You gave such a powerful sense of dignity and personality for this man, whom you knew personally. What did you feel when you painted this portrait? What is the message that you would like for the viewer to take with them when they see this painting on a gallery or studio wall?

When I painted "Santos" I felt like I was able to humanize the man (Junior was his name) who many thought was crazy, even himself possibly. I can only imagine the pain he had been suffering due to his mental illness (schizophrenia), and as someone who at times struggled with mental health the thought that such stigma still exists especially in many Latinx/Caribbean communities towards illnesses and people like "Junior" was very disheartening, Through this piece I hope the viewer can realize that many people suffering from such disorders are still human, and perhaps this can open up a wider dialogue that needs to be discussed.

4) Why do you gravitate towards the human figure? What is it about the human figure that excites you and moves you? How does it tie into your political inclinations in your artistic practice to achieve greater representation and equality for the Latinx people and communities?

I gravitate to the human figure as that is how we experience life. We experience the world in these bodies that come in a variety of colors, shapes, sizes where it is because of that we each have a different experience of the world. To me, that's what excites me the most about the figure and its representation of it.

It ties into my practice as much of what these latinx communities face is a direct result of the way we look. Issues such as racism, colorism and anti-blackness shape who we are as a people and the issues we face from both outsiders and even many within our community (like anti-haitisimo specifically for dominicans)

I think by showing people of latinx communities in scenes that represent us, make it so that we embrace who we are as a people in the way that we look (which can be quite diverse) and outsiders can look beyond appearances and get the chance to connect with the community for what it is. (Disregarding any harmful notions they may have had previously)

5) How would you like for your art to be accessed? What do you think about the dilemma of exhibiting in only gallery or museum spaces, which can raise a "paywall" for certain people and prevent them from accessing your art? How would you like for the people of your communities to see your art and see themselves in your art?

I would like my art to be accessed by anyone for free despite its location in any institution. (it can be online, in a show at a community center, or even publicly)

I don't personally think it is right for such paywalls to exist to prevent the people that this work was meant to represent to not be able to see it. That to me is a form of segregation where only the people who are wealthy enough can have the privilege to see such work while those of a lower income status simply can't afford to pay. Unfortunately the people who can afford it more often than not are predominately white while people of lower incomes tend to be of minority backgrounds.

However from my experience, if artists and institutions both reach out and work with communities could we see this dilemma disappear. More outreach to such communities and its leaders, more people who come from the community working in high ranking positions at such institutions (like museums and galleries, not as janitors, cashiers etc), more events/shows/artwork that actually interest these communities and not just people in the art world could go a long way.

6) How did you work for the La Bodega club at SVA as the President? What responsibilities do you carry day to day to promote and connect with the Latinx artists and communities? 

To be quite honest, my main goal as president first year was just to form a club. I had to start from scratch so for the most part I was just trying to gain traction for a community to even form through events, A LOT OF PROMO and just dedication. It looks like it paid off after a year of work as now I am not alone. There is now an amazing board of team members who each take on some responsibilities, a great group of people who come to meetings, and a genuine Latinx community that has a presence on campus. Since responsibilities have been split, I mainly lead the board in making sure everything runs smoothly as well as working with vasa and potential guests so that everything is organized.

7) Who are some of your favorite Latinx artists who inspire you and move you? Do they include Hip Hop and Graffiti artists?

In terms of Latinx fine artists, I'd say many of my peers John Rivas, Raelis Vasquez and Tiffany Alfonseca as well as Scherezade Garcia. Since I am currently painting figuratively and about the Dominican Republic (a latinx and caribbean nation) much of their work figuratively speaking very much interest me especially collaborative pieces like "Suenos Mio" (John Rivas and Raelis Vasquez) and "Untitled" by "Raelis and Tiffany". Seeing this clash of both styles and materials especially interests me very much and my process of assemblage where I use a variety of materials to create the pieces you see. John Rivas and his use of materials in particular interest me and even influence to a degree. Whereas I look towards Raelis and Tiffany for the context behind their works in relation to the dominican republic.

8) There is a great deal of beauty, dignity, and humanity found in your portraits. How do you achieve this elegant and easeful expression of beauty that is key to delivering an empowering image of and a feeling of beauty for the Latinx  people?

I actually get this very often, hahaha. You know honestly it all comes down to just understanding that beauty firsthand. This expression, this feeling, it's something that just has to be inside of you that can't fake. It's once you connect to this beauty that this feeling can naturally be expressed. It's done differently from person to person, with dance, music, cooking etc. For me it just so happened to be art. To conclude, it's just a beauty that I naturally feel connected to and can express.

9) There are several contemporary artists who deal with the representation of the people in the minority and their experiences, such as Amy Sherald, Tunji Adeyini-Jones, Susan Chen, and Jordan Casteel. How is your art similar to the art of these artists? How is it different? What sets you apart from the many examples who came before you?

I think in terms of us portraying figurative work as well as portraying people of color (with the exception of Susan Chen) is where much of our similarities lie. Especially with an artist like Jordan Casteel who is portraying her figures in and scenes in the city of New York such as seen in her "Twins (Subway)" piece. However my process revolves around assemblage, thus much of work takes on a sculptural aspect to them which I don't see in many artists before me. Not to mention but much of my work comes from my dominican heritage thus making it very latino/caribbean centric which is a background I don't see many artists cover. Nevertheless I think conversation between my work and other figurative artists such as Jordan Casteel and Amy Sherald is quite interesting especially when comparing the subjects visually and context behind it.

10) How do you amplify the cultural and narrative aspects of your paintings through the use of collage? What are the implications of the tactile and physical qualities of the collaged elements in your work?

I think my process is reflective of the folk art quality you can find on both the island of the dominican republic and many domincan homes. Reading about how our costumes for carnival often start out with a mold made from mud which then becomes a complex beautifully constructed piece of art truly impresses me and cant be replicated through painting . Not to mention many subjects in my painting also revolve around this ingenuity, pieces like "Frio Frio", all the gentleman did to start his business was transform a shopping cart into something that can essentially make a latino version of a snow cone. It's this that makes me want to replicate that in my pieces and I feel as if it can only be done through this process I've created in my body of work.

11) Do you ever plan to explore figurative abstraction as your main vehicle for expression? In what new exciting ways do you plan to evolve as an artist?

I think considering how I'm still very young, I truly can't give an answer quite yet subject wise of what I plan on exploring. However what I can say for this upcoming year you can expect me to explore different mediums, (sculpture, digital, projection, installation etc), I think exploration and experimentation is very important for growth so hopefully through stepping out of my comfort zone i can perhaps come up with new ideas, techniques, and artwork that it take my practice to the next level.

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