CREATING SAFE SPACES WITH UZUMAKI CEPEDA
While attempting to salvage a five-foot painting that had previously been given up on, Uzumaki Cepeda stumbled upon a fabric store in her neighborhood in the Garment District in LA; she brought back a yard of royal blue faux-fur to mask the canvas, and quickly discovered that she had created something with hidden potential. Adding a burst of color and texture to any object that catches her eye, Cepeda’s magic touch now extends from earrings and pillows to telephones and du-rags.
Known for her previous works at Refinery 29’s 29 Rooms, as well as a recent sneaker collaboration with Reebok, she’s made a name for herself and has gained tremendous support from peers and followers of her work. Tomorrow, Cepeda begins showing ‘Safe Space’ at MoCADA, which will feature her body of work over time, including her paintings and a textile installation with fuzzy, faux-fur creations covering every crevice of the room. Drawing influence from traumatic parts of her childhood, Cepeda reinterprets her installations to be a perfect fantasy of comfort and joy; her mission is to make people of color feel welcomed, safe, and protected.
Through the lens of her Afro-Dominican heritage, Cepeda is determined to highlight the softness in brown and black people, while also addressing the stigmas of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and colorism that often affect queer people and women (a majority of the audience she is creating for.) “I just feel like what I do is special because I didn’t grow up around art, I didn’t grow up around somebody bringing me to an art museum, I grew up on ramen noodles, figuring it the fuck out and old generational thinking that I had to challenge my own family with,” she explains.
As she was preparing for her upcoming exhibit, we spoke to the artist at her New York studio about sustainability and the importance of sharing her work with an ever-growing community of supporters.
Congratulations on your exhibition at the MoCADA. What you have decided to share for this exhibit?
The theme is called “Safe Space.” One section of the museum is going to be my paintings, and the other section is going to be an installation. At the opening, I’m planning to have performance art at the stations; I’m going to be sharing my body of work over time. My entire work is based around safe spaces.
How did you become attached to using faux fur for your art practice? Is there something that drew you to it?
I moved to Los Angeles without ever going there before. I ended up crashing at a friend’s house who lived in this illegal loft in the fabric district. There was nothing within a mile radius besides fabric shops, and I used to roam around there. At the time, I was making five-foot acrylic paintings and I was really becoming bored of it; I was tired of my work and I was like, “You know what? I’m going to go find some fabric to cover up this big ass painting I fucked up!” So I found this royal blue faux fur and got just a yard of it. I didn’t realize that a yard of it was going to be the perfect-sized cover for it. I never measured it out to be like that. I brought the faux fur back to the loft and covered the painting. It ended up looking really dope.
In my building, there was a community of kids around me, as I was living with eleven people at that time. It was such a huge loft and I started seeing their interaction along with my covered up painting, and how it created a safe space for all of us in the house. Not only physically, like you can’t physically hurt yourself in this space, but psychologically. All these black and brown kids in this space can’t get hurt in there. There is a lot that plays into it. I like the physical and spiritual side of anything.
How important is it for you to be environmentally conscious with your practice?
I’m all about the ecosystem. My work is always recycled and it is never thrown away. Anytime I have scraps I keep it to upcycle and utilize to do something else; I am all about sustainability and even though faux fur is made out of plastic, I really make sure that it is not put to waste. Everything I use is a permanent item not to be disposed of. It is an important factor of my art because I feel like often society paints our community as “Black and brown people who don’t care about the environment!” and in retrospect it’s like…bitch, if a tsunami and a hurricane hit, that shit hitting my home country DR [Dominican Republic], first. We’re the ones affected by it directly. I’m definitely on my eco-friendly shit, I’m vegetarian.
You mentioned your work communicates a message/aspect of human vulnerability. What is your definition of being vulnerable?
Vulnerability to me is no ego, no self-doubt, and really surrendering yourself; not only to your thoughts but to the world, and that moment of meditation. It’s all about listening to your thoughts, letting your mind rest and existing in the moment.
Why was it important for you to attach the notion of softness to brown and black people that are represented in your work?
Its importance lies in fighting the perceived notion that we are these hard people. I don’t know how to explain it; we are hard to work with, we are hard to be around, we’re fucking just this “hard thing.” Anti-blackness is taught around culturally, worldwide. Racism is not just a U.S. matter and I had to defy hardness in my own culture. The real narrative of us lies in the softness, the depth, the influences — so much comes from us. My attachment to this notion is rightfully so and we deserve to be well represented in that way.
Do you experience feelings of being “foreign” when it comes to your ethnic background? How do you navigate representing these parts of yourself in your work?
Navigating through my work has definitely felt as if sometimes I’m used to representing my community in a way, where it’s perceived as, “Oh yeah she’s mixed, and she has a percentage of black in her, but she is not dark-skinned so we are going to take her.” I definitely benefit off of colorism, one hundred percent.
I utilize my advantage to be vocal and advocate for creating spaces where black women can speak on their experiences just as I’d like there to be more platforms where I can speak from my perspective of being a mixed person. I hold myself accountable for being privileged in my own way despite still being a minority. I still benefit from colorism in this society in many ways, so I feel that it’s all about being vocal, being present, and having accountability; that’s how I play my role in my activism.
What message do you want people to take away from your work? Is there something you want to say that your work might not directly communicate?
As they enter the space I’d like the audience to feel comfortable and be able to express themselves how they would want to. It’s all about honesty and taking that time to be with one’s self and be vulnerable, which is important. People need to let themselves exist more because nowadays, everyone’s so caught up in this capitalist society, where everyone’s doing and not being and we’ve just forgotten to daydream and just simply exist. I want people to remember it as something that’s just chill, definitely.
Is there any feedback you have received that really touched your heart, or made you think differently about your work?
Late last year, I was a part of my first show in Los Angeles at the Craft and Folk Museum and it was the first museum I was ever in. There was a girl that came in and she was like, “Yo, I’m Dominican too, I’m here to see your work, and it’s so special being here and seeing your work in person.”
It was just a minor compliment, but it was really dope that she went out of her way to see me. The fact that we shared the same ethnicity and were both living in Los Angeles resonated with my work so much. She understood that in our country we struggle with homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, and she said that I am a voice against all of that so I loved being recognized in that light by someone who shares the same narrative to an extent.
What is your favorite creation to date? Which one was the most challenging?
I would have to say Refinery 29 and 29 Rooms. The Teenage Bedroom was definitely one of my favorite creations to date. Additionally, the Craft Museum exhibition that I was a part of which I had deconstructed in January of this year. That was one of my favorite exhibitions ever. Now I’m speaking into existence my first upcoming solo exhibition at the MoCADA.
Your work often connects to elements of your childhood. Do you look back on your childhood differently after creating something related to a specific experience? Is there a feeling you chase while creating your work?
I definitely feel like I’ve recreated my childhood through my artwork. Even the simplest thing like the Teenage Bedroom I did with 29 Rooms, that was the bedroom I dreamed of as a kid. I finally got the opportunity to recreate a safe space in the form of a bedroom, which was a luxury that I did not have growing up. I felt like I had to grow up really, really, really fast. My childhood was very cool, but it was also very traumatizing. I believe that art is therapy and I used my art as a way to really console myself during those times. Being able to take my negative experiences in my bedroom growing up, and having the chance to recreate a bedroom on my terms has been a huge part of my healing process. I also got to create a living room for the Craft & Folk Art Museum, which was an extension of my room in a sense because I had bad experiences in my living room too. I am just recreating my childhood in the most positive way.
What do you like to do in your free time? Are you pursuing other hobbies as well?
I am a full-time artist now, and it is hard to pick up other hobbies and stuff because I am juggling my entire life in a way. I am definitely a cannabis enthusiast and enjoy chilling with my friends; I get inspiration from existing and being around close ones and my culture. Being Dominican and being around my family really inspires me. If I wasn’t busy being my own manager and PR and I was chilling, I would be riding a bike with my nephew.
Since your work is also attached to your personal life, do you ever feel like it can be really emotionally overwhelming?
It definitely gets overwhelming because people start asking questions like, “What happened? What’s this?” and there are things I don’t feel that comfortable speaking on just yet to the public. I have been very open about my sexual abuse as a kid, and that’s why I turned to art, to bring myself the sanity. It is definitely a sensitive and over-emotional topic but I feel like me speaking about it helps other people speak about it, so I’m trying to bring myself to a place where I can speak about it more comfortably.
Do you have any advice for artists of color that are trying to make it or put their work out there?
Do not try to fit in this cookie-cutter mold. Do not try to fit into this society, a society that is trying to push you into the mindset that you have to be a certain way to be an artist. No, stick to your own lane and people will come to you for you doing you. Don’t try to be somebody else, or be on somebody else’s narrative.
Especially for women, they are constantly just trying to push narratives on us like we’re supposed to be this way or were supposed to be that way, but in actuality, we are supposed to be who the fuck we are and we don’t have to look a certain way. The definition of a bad bitch is not just a fat ass and big breasts; a bad bitch to me is, being really talented in your own way and you don’t need to have corporate signings, or anyone’s validation at that, for you to be dope.
What is some advice you would give your old self or any specific challenges you faced in terms of navigating your art?
I would tell myself to stop being so hard on myself and to just keep putting out work. I feel like there have been many times where I got on my knees and gave up and really lost faith in many different ways. The most important thing to tell myself is to keep going.
That person pulling out on a deal or this shit not going through the way it is supposed to; that is not going to make your career. At the end of the day, you being hardworking is going to make your career. People talk about good luck, and all these hypotheticals but even if you’re at the right place at the right time, if you don’t have a body of work, you’re not going to go anywhere. It’s all about working to where you want to be. The work don’t fucking stop, ever. I haven’t slept in three days, it’s still going.
No matter how hard or late you think it is, you have to put yourself in a position to be lucky. You have to put yourself in a position where, if you are in front of a random investor or whatever the case may be, you are able to show your body of work and say, “Hey, this is what I can bring to the table.” That’s what a lot of people forget. That’s how I used to be, I was like, “I want to be put on, I deserve it, I’m so creative, but where the fuck is the work to back up all my ideas?” I had to hold myself accountable.
INSTALLATION ARTIST: Uzumaki Cepeda
CREATIVE DIRECTOR + STYLIST: Paola Castillo
PRODUCER: Ben Hype
MAKEUP ARTIST: Shideh Kafei
HAIR STYLIST: Candice “Coco” Cuadros
Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love.