Tiffany Alfonseca is a Dominican-American artist who, from her studio in the Bronx, New York, creates vibrant and colorful pieces that celebrate Black and Afro-Latino diasporic culture. C&AL spoke to her about her path to becoming an artist, the necessity of representing her roots in her work and her new series In Quarantine.
Tiffany Alfonseca, Iglesia para hombre, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Tiffany Alfonseca, I Hope My Blackness Offends You, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
Tiffany Alfonseca, Espero que ya le dijiste a tu madre de nosotras, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Tiffany Alfonseca, Big Floyd, 2020. Hommage to George Floyd, killed by policemen in Minneapolis on Mayo 25th, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Tiffany Alfonseca, Natalie Matos (In Quarantine Series), 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
C&AL: How did you become an artist?
Tiffany Alfonseca: I have been drawing and painting since I was three years old. My mother always wanted me to be an artist. She is a very creative woman and she loves colors and glitter. I guess I brought out the artistic side in her. My mother doesn’t draw or paint herself, but art has always been present in everything she does, for example in her cooking or in the decoration of the house. This apartment has always been full of colors and objects everywhere; it has a lot of personality.
I studied fashion design at the High School of Fashion Industries in New York and, after that, spent two years at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But the program was very focused on business and I was looking for something that would stimulate my more artistic side. In the end, I graduated from the School of Visual Arts, having found a space that made me grow as an artist.
C&AL: In your work as an artist, what are the topics you are interested in exploring?
TA: It’s very important for me to incorporate Afro-Latino culture into my work. Growing up, I was never taught about it, and I didn’t see it represented in paintings or drawings. I want to develop an artistic body of work with the next generations in mind and provide them with something where they can see themselves, and that they can relate to. The problem is that Latinos and Afro-Latinos in the United States grew up learning about American art and especially white art. I never learned anything about Black art or Latino art, until a couple of years ago. I think this – highlighting Afro-Latino culture, which is still widely underrepresented – has been the driving force behind my work.
There are a lot of Dominicans who are in denial of their blackness; many are racist, even. My main objective is to break with that stigma, with that "I don't want to be black"-notion.
C&AL: You were born in New York City to a Dominican family. What role does your own Afro-American identity play in the way you approach issues such as identity, race or the body in your work?
TA: I was born and raised mostly in the Bronx. My mother was born in the United States and my father in the Dominican Republic. I suppose I grew up in a typical Dominican home; Spanish is my first language and I consider myself Dominican. I feel that everything that inspires my work emanates from there: the fabrics, the architecture, the color palette.
To me as a Dominican living in New York, representing Afro-Latin culture is essential. There are a lot of Dominicans who are in denial of their blackness; many are racist, even. My main objective is to break with that stigma, with that “I don’t want to be black”-notion.
People often tell me that I don’t look like an Afro-Latino because of my light complexion. But I do – look at my nose, my hair, my features. However, most people don’t understand; they only see the color of my skin. This is a problem I face as an individual but also as an artist. Some people ask me why I explore these aspects in my work, light-skinned as I am, but the truth is that being Afro-Latino is not just about color; it’s not about being dark-skinned or looking a specific way.
At the same time, I also feel the need to empower the female body. In many of my works, I incorporate full figured women. This is something very personal that I identify with and which was always very problematic for me while growing up. Now, as an adult, I accept my body and I would really like for other women to accept their bodies too.
C&AL: What plastic and formal artistic techniques do you prefer in your work?
TA: I like to mix different forms of expression: painting, drawing, or sometimes silk-screen printing or embroidery. I love textures, shiny things, diamonds, glitter, gold. I am very nostalgic in my work, and I incorporate a lot of things from when I was a child, for example from mother’s style, or from childhood memories that remain vivid to this day. About two or three years ago, I started to incorporate materials like glitter and rhinestones in shaping my personal aesthetic. For me, the materials and the topics that interest me are closely intertwined. When I look at Latinos, Dominicans in particular, I notice the color and that strong, striking personality and, using rhinestone, I am able to integrate and accentuate the colorfulness that I perceive without necessarily using actual color.
C&AL: As an artist, how have you experienced the isolation caused by COVID 19 in New York?
TA: I basically didn’t leave the house. I was very sick in early March 2020, and I thought I had the virus and didn’t want to be outside. In my day-to-day life, I sometimes spend ten or eleven hours working, and then at other times, I don’t do anything at all. It depends on how I feel, and I try to avoid getting overworked. However, since many people have discovered my work recently, I have sold everything, and so I am producing new pieces to be shown in two upcoming virtual exhibitions. I have also been working on the series of drawings for In Quarantine and then on transforming these drawings into paintings. To be honest, it has been very strange to work from home. I don’t like it because I keep thinking that I don’t want to mess up the apartment and that makes me feel very limited.
Tiffany Alfonseca, Rose (In Quarantine Series), 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
C&AL: Tell us about the In Quarantine series. What reflections do you want to propose on the situation we are currently experiencing during the coronavirus?
TA: My apartment is very small, and so during the quarantine, I needed to come up with a project that did not require too much space. Therefore, I decided that the best thing I could do was to draw, and that’s how the In Quarantine series started. In the beginning, I wondered what other people were up to during isolation, and so I did a sort of short interviews with some of my friends and family to find out what they were doing during the quarantine, and I asked them to take pictures and send them to me. The drawings were created by mixing elements from my own inspiration with what was shown in the photographs. I don’t think this could have happened under normal circumstances. It is one of my favorite projects and it is surprising that it originated from something I never thought I would do: draw. I wanted to make the series because, although we are living in very complex times due to this global pandemic, I think there are still intimate and pleasant moments that we can appreciate. Everything that is happening is very grim. I know a lot of people with mental health problems, but doing this, drawing for them, is a way of giving joy. I try to transform the negative into positive and to shed light on the positive things that are also there.
Fabiola Fernández Adechedera is an essayist and translator and a PhD student at Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures, City University of New York.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen