This month, ICAI celebrates and highlights visual artist Manuela Albarracin as our Artist of the Month. Manuela spoke to us about her art and about the intersection of art and identity.
Tell us a little about your artistic background and journey?
I am a multidisciplinary artist based here in Mohkinstsis in Treaty 7 territory. I am originally from Colombia and I have roots in the southwestern part of the country in Nariño as well as Bogota. My immediate family and I arrived in Calgary in early 2002 and I have been creating art for as long as I can remember as a way to connect with myself and the world around me. When I was younger my mom put me in an Arts Junior high school away from my neighbourhood and I met a teacher there who really believed in me, shout out to Mrs. Wronska! I was part of group exhibitions during my time there and while it was certainly not all easy, it was a great learning experience. In high school, I lived close to an art centre where I took a pottery class. It reminded me how centring the process of creation can be. I started creating again but I didn’t feel like I was prepared to make it a career just yet. As an immigrant, a lot of my family friends’ kids and my friends were thinking of becoming engineers, doctors, teachers and lawyers. In third year of uni, I walked into the Visual Studies Program at the University of Calgary in late May, determined to be an artist. A couple weeks after the application deadline, I met with the Head of the faculty and he was so gracious. He allowed me to send him my portfolio and I was accepted into the program. I was struggling really hard balancing home life and school with undiagnosed ADHD at the time. I took a break and then I started again in early 2020 but then the pandemic hit and I decided to take a break from school again.
Currently, I am working and making art. My practice includes discussions of living disabled, queer, Colombian, Nariñense and femme in a white, patriarchal, cis-hetero-normative and colonial society. I am thankful for school and academia for giving me the words to express my experience but at the same time I find that these words feel a little foreign. Even everyday language sometimes doesn’t quite match what I feel and art has been like a bridge that connects me and helps me to understand my lived experiences.
Can you tell us what inspires you to create your works?
As an artist, I am often asked this, and I feel like I give a different answer every time! There’s a feeling that precedes creation, I can’t describe it but it’s like a drive or intuition. I find that when I listen to it, I make the most sound decisions. Also, I'm often inspired by people and things that feel authentic and unapologetic because it inspires to be authentic and unapologetic, too.
What are the challenges you are currently facing as an immigrant/newcomer artist?
The biggest challenge I am facing right now, is figuring out how to advocate for myself in professional settings. I think if I had grown up in a community that claimed me as their own and with more role models, I probably would feel more comfortable in these settings!
I found ICAI through instagram. I had been a follower for a minute when I saw the poster encouraging artists to apply for the residency in collaboration with the Women’s Center. I felt like it was my time. I strive to make feminist work that talks about the intersections of queerness, disability and immigration and I was looking for opportunities to engage with community. When I got the residency, I couldn’t really believe it. Living in the Calgary suburbs, the art community for me, sometimes feels far away. Having community and people believe in your talent is the loveliest gift.
What would you like to share with the people of Calgary about your works?
I want the people to see my work and engage with it. It has taken me so long to feel comfortable enough to share it! I want people to feel encouraged to take on that artistic project that they have been putting off. There is this idea in a capitalist world, that we have to be making money off of ALL of our talents or that we have to be extraordinary all the time. I want people to know that art can be whatever you need it to be at any particular moment in time.