María Alejandra is a photographer born in Caracas, Venezuela. She developed an interest in arts from a young age and studied Social Communications at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello graduating with a major in Visual Arts. María was a part of her college's theater group for a couple of years and eventually moved on from the stage to the front pit photographing live performances. She decided to move to Boston in 2012 to attend the New England School of Photography and graduated in 2014.
In this interview with visual art editor Catalina Piedrahita, Mata opens up about being an artist away from home during tumultuous times, and about coping with helplessness. She also shared some insightful tips for international students coming to the US and dealing with cultural and language barriers.
Catalina Piedrahita: In your series “Where it Hurts” you use very simple, straightforward imagery. How did you decide this was the kind of aesthetic you wanted to pursue? How did it start?
María Alejandra Mata: I chose to go with a very simple aesthetic because I didn't want to have any distractions from the actual wound. I wanted it to have an impact, and have the body be some sort of blank canvas for the wounds. I experimented with adding different elements, like smoke or changes in the color of the eyes or lips, but went back to the simplicity of the naked white body. It makes it much more vulnerable and intense, specially for me since it's a series of self-portraits. It's a very personal, intimate body of work and my natural instinct was to strip the human form of anything that could distract from the message: the pain.
CP: You mention your home country Venezuela and your experience of being away in tumultuous times as inspiration for these images. Can you elaborate more about these sentiments? What are your thoughts on Venezuela’s the current state as someone who has been able to step out and look back at it from another perspective?
MAM: During the time I started experimenting with this series was when the protests and conflicts were at its peak in Venezuela. I have never felt more connected to my roots as I was during that time. I felt like it was burning me from the inside, not being able to do anything about it and see the city I grew up in consumed by violence and misery. I was afraid for the safety of my family and friends, who had to deal with tear gas and constant attacks in the area. I felt completely hopeless, something I never truly understood until that time. I needed a way to drain all those terrible feelings from my body, so I turned to art. I had other painful personal experiences during that time, so it definitely fed that need to release the anger. It was a very difficult time to be far from home. I am safe here, but extremely sad knowing that there's no solution ahead.
CP: You also are a commercial photographer shooting bands and products related to the music scene. Does fine art photography have a special meaning for you? How does it compare to commercial photography and how do you balance both of them?
MAM: This is a very interesting question. When I moved to Boston all I was doing was shooting concerts. I was able to develop my style in these past two years and keep an open mind when it comes to shooting. My fine art work is very personal and intimate. The "Where it Hurts" series is basically an experiment, a release. It's so far from what I was comfortable with doing that it became a style of its own in my body of work. I do manage to add my own spin to my commercial work, even when sometimes you do need to keep the client's interest in mind, but to me that makes it very exciting: how can I make this my own? My work with live performances is somewhere in between, it's very emotional and organic. I think my process lends itself to be in the middle of both commercial and fine art. I work with an idea in mind of what I want to say, but the process I use isn't exactly what's traditionally conceived as a fine art process. I live comfortably in that limbo.
CP: Can you share with us your experience as an international artist coming to the US and building a career here? How difficult, how rewarding or how different has it been for you compared to a photography career back in Venezuela?
MAM: It's extremely different. When I came here I understood what it was like to walk around with a camera without fear of someone pointing a gun at me for it. The freedom I have here is incredible, and it's something you can't quite understand if you've lived here your whole life. That itself was a major turning point and allowed me to explore. I wouldn't have been able to move forward with a project like "Where it Hurts" in my country. Venezuelan society is very conservative in a weird way. Women can't walk around in shorts or skirts without having someone say something inappropriate, so the thought of doing a series of nudes was very bold and brave for me. After finishing that project I felt like I could do anything and not be afraid. The experience as an artist in a different culture is super rewarding. And not only being in contact with american society, but meeting so many people from different countries was definitely a once in a lifetime experience that changed my life for the better. It's definitely worth it. You're a very different person after going through all of it.
CP: Do you have any advice for international artists coming to the U.S. to strengthen their skills that can possibly encourage them or make it a more pleasant experience for them?
MAM: Keep an open mind! Leave all your fears at the airport. You're about to get into a life changing experience and everything becomes a part of who you are and will be as an artist and as a human being. Don't be afraid of language or cultural barriers, because that holds you down. Having this chance is something you have to live to its fullest and every single second is worth it. Allow yourself to explore things you've never done and grow. It might be your only chance to experience something like this.