My interview with Ara Aranguri was far from what I expected. When I began to question her on her “alien” concepts, I thought the conversation would lean towards books and films. Her responses reminded me that art can always go much deeper into the life and mind of a person than we can imagine – and it isn’t always peaches and cream.
Whether you like it or not, her words and imagery is sure to make you feel something. In the world of an artist, the mission has thus been accomplished. Despite our differences, we are all the same without society’s definitions. To date, no one has made me consider this the way that Ara has.
You owe it to yourself to read this in-depth interview with Ara Aranguri and many more like it.
Hi, Ara. Tell me more about yourself.
I grew up in Los Angeles, CA. I like to tell stories so I majored in film/ video/ animation at Rhode Island School of Design. Right now, I am experimenting with a mixture of handcrafted and digital techniques in my paintings. I do believe that with one image, I can tell a story. I also believe that one story can alter reality.
Are you making political statements through your art? If not, what is the message or feeling you hope to evoke in viewers?
I am making political statements in my art. Art has the tremendous power to dictate culture. Culture is often times expressed in form of social hierarchies. The reason why current social structures can exist, despite the damage they have had on the lives of many, is because we are constantly presented with images that portray the supporting culture (the key ingredient that makes it all possible) as a positive lifestyle. Change the images presented to people and you change their culture. Change cultural views and you change the mindset of people, and therefore whatever social and political structure they decide to create.
The term “alien” can be used to describe both a foreigner and a creature from out of space. Could you go more into detail about how you can relate to both definitions?
The first time I heard the word alien was to describe my biological mother. She was an illegal alien (AKA an immigrant) from Nicaragua. It was 1994 and a scandal was all over the national news. The police had pulled over a truck filled with illegal aliens from Mexico. Despite the aliens being unarmed, the police brutally, physically assaulted every single alien in that car. Due to being beaten so severely, one of the women in this vehicle lost the ability to walk and was bound to a wheelchair for life. Whether the police should receive any consequences for their actions was a huge debate. After all, their victims were illegal aliens.
Witnessing this, I felt TERRIFIED. My mom is an illegal alien. Will she get beaten too? If she does, will no one protect her? After terror, I felt confusion. Why is my mom being referred to as an alien and yet I’m being referred to as an American citizen? She gave birth to me, so why am I not being regarded as an alien along with her? Does being an illegal alien really make my mom any different from anyone else? Does it make her different from me?
To use the term “alien” to describe members of our own species is extremely dangerous. How “other” can I be from you if we both cry when we’re heartbroken? How “other” can I be from you if we both laugh when we hear or see something funny? To refer to another human being as an “alien” or “other” is to choose to be absolutely blind to them and to yourself.
Like my biological mother, I have also experienced being made into an “other”, or an “alien”. I’m bisexual. I grew up in a religious environment that was anti-homosexuality. I’m a woman. I grew up in a culture that saw women as second class citizens.
I’m colored. I’ve had racist things said to me at work and school, by strangers and close friends. I do feel like I am an “out of space” alien because people do not include me as being a part of their space. When I was younger, I had the desire to be included in their space. However now I understand that being an “out of space” alien allows me to have more perspective. I can see the glitches and holes in traditional gender roles, racial stereotypes, and the categories of sexual orientation. Due to not being a part of society’s space, I don’t feel pressure to confine my identity in any kind of way what so ever. I have developed an “inner space.” In this “inner space,” I can enjoy being alien, I can enjoy being myself. Being an “out of space” alien allows me a freedom that I do not think would be possible if I were “in space”.
What are some of your favorite things that explore the subject of both types of aliens?
Growing up, I was a hardcore Star Trek: The Next Generation fan. The Starship Enterprise would explore outer space, boldly going where no man has gone before. Watching various species from multiple galaxies create a functional, non-violent social structure, never using the word “alien” to accomplish such a task, aided me in seeing how the word “alien” is truly a socially constructed term that is useless. “Alien” is just what we call whatever we choose to see as an “other.”
I am also a huge fan of Octavia E. Butler. Butler has written several books and short stories, starring outer space aliens, using them as metaphors for those we consider “other” in current society.
I see ASAP Rocky in some of your work? Are you a big of fan of his? Why?
I am a big fan of ASAP Rocky. One of my favorite songs of his is “Excuse Me.” In this song, he describes living aspects of a luxurious lifestyle. He doesn’t have time to be worried about his bills, he is too busy traveling internationally, buying the best fashion has to offer, and being able to pay for his friends to join him on these adventures.
The main line in the song is “Excuse me.” This is a description of how he is being received into these new luxurious environments. He is in Barney’s, purchasing Rick Owens, when someone approaches him with “Excuse me,” implying “What you are doing here? You don’t belong here.” ASAP Rocky responds back with “Excuse you . . . we’re gon’ have problems if you touch my tailored garments,” and then continues to unapologetically enjoy his new luxurious lifestyle.
I can relate because I’m adopted by a middle-class African American family. Like ASAP Rocky describes in his song, my family is not always welcomed into luxurious environments. Due to not being accustomed to seeing African Americans in the same environment as themselves, people have sometimes reacted in a hostile way towards us.
For example, a very nice restaurant did not give us service for over 90 minutes. Even though we were well dressed, they did not believe we could afford to eat there. My mom wears glasses. A woman approached my mother, asking her where her glasses are from. She absolutely adores them. My mother responded, “Dolce & Gabbana.” The woman responded back, very loudly, “Oh, but yours MUST be fake!” She could not believe that my mom could afford a pair of Dolce & Gabbana glasses. Many acquaintances have had a hard time believing that my sister and I, for several years, attended an arts boarding school together. People usually think that we are joking when we start talking about how much fun we had.
While attending Rhode Island School of Design, another student called the campus police on me. I was running on a treadmill, working out. Suddenly the campus police arrived and literally lifted me off the track. My entire apartment was searched and I was heavily questioned. Why did that student call the campus police on me? Because she thought I looked “suspicious”. She thought I looked like I did not belong at the same school she was attending. The campus police also thought that I looked “suspicious,” which is how my apartment got searched. A very similar experience happened to my sister in college as well. Like ASAP Rocky, my mother has encouraged our family to not be apologetic about our presence. We belong where ever we say we belong. Teach people that we belong by enjoying ourselves freely in whatever environment we choose. Someone says “Excuse me” to you? Say “Excuse you” right back to them and continue to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
That being said, I wanted to play with the presentation of the images from ASAP Rocky’s music videos. ASAP Rocky is describing a dream. This dream of going from hard knocks to limitless luxury is the American dream, constantly being sold to the American audience and to people around the world. However, American reality is different from the American dream. Reality is, unless a few miracles happen in your life (such as winning the lotto or just being a straight up ninja genius), to achieve the lifestyle that ASAP Rocky is selling, as quickly as he claims achieving it, will probably involve doing some illegal things. Is not jail partially filled with people trying to achieve this American dream with the means that they had access to? Reality is- real access to wealth and education is not available to most Americans. With the lack of accessibility not being dealt with, the chase of the American dream can lead a person to jail, which winds up being a huge profit for a private corporation that owns that jail. The irony behind the American dream being sold to us, however not having real access to achieve this dream, is creating a cycle that is beyond heartbreaking- it’s evil.
I was very careful about where images of ASAP Rocky were placed. For example, there’s an image of ASAP Rocky smoking weed, while I dance on him, in the recording studio. This image is displayed on a TV monitor. If you look closely, that TV monitor is inside a jail. A police woman can be seen in the background. The reason why I placed the TV monitor in jail is because the selling of this American fantasy has not only symbolically created a jail out of American society, but has been used to fill jails.
I remain a huge fan of ASAP Rocky. I can identify with his bravado. I also find his music videos to be extremely creative and admire them.
What are some of your other artist inspirations?
Wangechi Mutu. The surrealism in her work, in combination with the sheer beauty of it, is breathtaking to me. Ashley Zelinskie, who makes her sculptures out of 3-D printed computer codes. Alexandra Marzella is the person who inspired me to take my clothes off. I used to post up very risky selfies when Facebook first came out. I also would post up many videos of myself dancing. When I would go to parties though, everyone would start making fun of me. This made me feel very self-conscious and I abandoned making dance videos and taking selfies as a result.
Then came Alexandra. She also started posting up videos of herself dancing and very risky selfies. However, when people began to make fun of her for it, she became even more extreme about it! She got to a point where her message became more than just selfies. Suddenly she stopped shaving, legs and armpits included. She stopped tweezing her eyebrows. You could see her acne. Yet she was STILL fiercely and shamelessly in front of the camera, fully confident in her beauty. Her work helped me realize that my body is art the moment I declare it as art. I have control of this. Regardless of what anyone else thinks or say, I have the power to make my body art. It is me deciding to create my own values and principles. That and also, Alexandra heavily uses phone cameras, Photo Booth, and social media sites to create her artwork. I had a web camera, phone, instagram and Facebook as well. Alexandra helped me learn that I had all the tools I needed to start promoting my own body as art, even if on a budget.
Sensuality is a strong element in your work. How do you feel that being a bisexual woman of color affects your perspective and influences your art?
If I was a little white girl, where would I see the image of a nude white woman’s body? Easiest place to go to is a museum. So I’m a little white girl, and I enter a structure that was designed by some of the world’s best architects. A team of security guards is hired to work around the clock. The perfect lighting is picked out. So is an immaculate frame. Why? To properly present this image of a nude white woman’s body. As a little white girl I am learning- my body is sacred and deserves to be presented in a careful way, and will ALWAYS be protected. Why? Because the image of a nude white woman’s body is regarded as high class ART.
I am not a little white girl. I grew up as mixed Black/Brown girl. Growing up, the most accessible place to see a body that looked like mine was in a hip hop music video. This representation of my Black/Brown body is usually greased up in baby oil. It’s not only common, but expected, for men to literally be speaking vulgar words over this Brown/Black body that represents me. Not even the entire body is shown in the video shot. Usually, only a section of a woman’s body is shown. Other than these videos- there’s also porn. Which isn’t that different from what’s in a music video. But even then, that’s better than the police brutality cases all over our media. Recently mug shot pictures, as well as images of the dead or injured bodies, of innocent women of color being brutally assaulted by police has been inescapable for me. I don’t even have T.V. but every single time I log onto Facebook or walk into a grocery store, I get confronted by the images of these victims. Whether these police brutality cases are regarded as justifiable or straight up murder, whether our society feels like this is worth changing or not, is still being debated. How am I supposed to feel about myself when I am constantly being told that my body is a money making machine that is disposable and does not deserve protection?
The sensuality in my artwork is being used to create a space where the body of a colored woman is THE ART. My first model was myself. I began with the core belief that my RAW body is as intentional as the line work in my drawings, therefore- YES ABSOLUTELY!!! My RAW body= ART. Every single decision that I make- from my dietary choices to my fitness regime- is the reason why my body has the appearance and ability that it currently has. I decided to show a woman enjoying her body AKA enjoying her art, to show how not only can her body be used as an erotic object, but also as a tool to tell a people’s story.
Everyone is making intentional decisions every single day that determines what their body will be, whether they realize it or not. Therefore, our bodies are art that tell a story. Our bodies are intentional art. Our bodies are valuable art. Our bodies deserve to be presented with care. Our bodies deserve to be protected.
What is your favorite creation at the moment?
My favorite creation is the current series I am working on. The images of the white colored ninja doctors and the alien being dissected are loosely based off of Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson”. I wanted to take this iconic painting and use it to tell a modern story. Originally, I was telling the story of myself. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m mixed. At every single job I’ve had, at every school I have ever attended, I have always been repeatedly asked for my racial identity. Usually, I’m talking about something else entirely when I’m suddenly interrupted mid-sentence and asked for my race. Sometimes I’ve answered, “I’m a human being. What are you?” However, when I’ve given this answer, people simply began analyzing my physical features and started taking guesses as to what my race is. These incidents have always made me feel like an alien being dissected in public.
Now I feel like this series is telling the story of being seen as an alien- period. When you’re an “other”, an alien, you are constantly being dissected and analyzed by society. However, despite having people’s attention and gaze, you’re still not being seen as a living being. You’re being seen as an object. This is beyond obvious once you see parts of your identity taken and used out of context for profit. It’s as if someone is literally taking your body apart.
I experimented with many new techniques with this series as well, so it’s been incredibly awesome to surprise myself with my own artwork.
Do you feel that all humans have “alien” traits/emotions and vice versa?
“Alien” is a society-created term used to transform human beings into “others”- so foreign, they are completely unrelatable. In my opinion, since we do not currently have an exchange program with another planet, it is impossible for “aliens” to even exist on planet Earth. So yes, I do believe that aliens have human traits and emotions because we’re using the word to describe other human beings.
What most people don’t realize is that they themselves are “alien.” We all come from the continent of Africa; it’s in our DNA. Whether we chose to acknowledge this fact or not, does not change it. So we can look at the continent of Africa like it’s totally alien, and we can look at other parts of the world like it’s totally alien- however, this is society lying to us. Look at the history and development of American culture, and it becomes clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, that HUGE chunks of the American identity are borrowed/stolen from other people’s cultural identity. Yet we still have the nerve to create an “other”, out of where we literally come from. We still have the nerve to refer to those who have made massive contributions to our cultural identity as “alien.” Look in the mirror; you’re just as alien as the person you call alien. That alien DNA is a part of your DNA. If me being alien scares you, it is because you are scared of the alien inside of yourself.