Indra Arriaga was about to turn fifteen. Her parents had a restaurant in San Antonio, Texas, which was frequented by Fernando Herrera, a painter and bullfighter in his 60s. It was he who suggested: “You are intelligent. You’re going to get into a lot of trouble. Don’t you want to learn how to paint?”
Indra painted her first work under his guidance. It was a landscape in acrylic. Herrera taught her the basic rules of perspective and shadow. And he shared one of the secrets that accompanied her from her early works: “Do not be afraid to waste.” Indra understood him to mean: do not skimp on exercises; repeat as many times as necessary a technical or conceptual challenge. Shortly thereafter Indra made her first oil. She was so fascinated by the process that she hardly returned to acrylics. Soon she stopped painting figurative pieces because at that time she thought that making abstract painting would be easier. “But it was more complicated than I thought,” she says.
Indra showed her works for the first time while attending college. The exhibit was com- posed of landscapes inspired by her native Veracruz, in Mexico, and abstract works. There she sold her first painting for $60, which seemed a fortune to her as a student. Later, she found it difficult to show her work at galleries or cultural centers which she felt were governed by stereotypes: “I wasn’t Mexican enough for the places that showed Mexican art.” So she decided to travel to San Francisco.
In that city she enjoyed a period of high creativity. For the first time she had a studio to work in. She showed her pieces in a number of collective exhibits and began to work in collaboration with Paula Pereira, a photographer who as a street artist used the pseudonym T.W. (Thirsty Wall). Indra and Paula along with some friends made banners with photographic transfers of celebrities from the LGBTQ world. They hung them around in a fenced-in vacant lot in the triangle formed by Market Street, 16th, and 18th streets. It was the first time Indra practiced public art, a genre she has returned to ever since.
After the financial market collapse at the turn of the century, she made a piece in collaboration with actress Joan Bernier, showing the agony of a stockbroker. The portrayed figure closely resembled the popular image of Jesus Christ, making a natural analogy between them. “It took us like 24 hours to print posters with this image and paste them all over. We did this huge installation all over the city. We used the city as a canvas.”
In 2001 Indra visited Alaska to celebrate Thanksgiving with her first wife, and fell under the spell of the Arctic: “It was the one and only time I had seen red northern lights covering the entire sky. And I thought: Oh, my God! It’s like this all the time.” She left San Francisco for Anchorage in 2003. In addition to the natural wonder, Indra found in this corner of the continent a resource that every artist needs: time.
In the early 2000s, only a few Spanish names were known in the art scene: Mariano Gonzales, Alejandro Barragán, Marcelo Muñoz. Although the weather conditions in Anchorage are completely different from those of San Francisco, she did not stop practicing public art in the northern city. One of her best known works is in Mountain View. Produced in collaboration with Christina Barber, this sculpture addresses the issue of immigration. We’ve come from so far depicts three concrete characters. They are immigrants carrying ropes on the lower part of their bodies to symbolize social ties with the places they came from and also with those they have come to.
Like Joseph Beuys and other well-known artists who have sought to transform life itself into an artistic experience, Indra takes the aesthetic challenge beyond her personal pieces. For example, she worked for 13 years to organize one of the most emblematic festivities of the Mexican community in Anchorage: the Day of the Dead. Those who know Indra know that she feels the need to raise her voice whenever she does not agree with the state of affairs. “I’m more likely to do something if I’m angry than if I’m not. With the Day of the Dead we were looking for a place to celebrate it the third year. I went to a gallery and asked if we could do it. I told them that there will be a lot of kids, that it will be chaotic, but that it doesn’t matter. They told me: ‘No, that doesn’t work with our space.’ But then a week later they came out with an event called Come party with the dead, 20 dollars a head. I said them: ‘You cannot do that. It is not OK with the community.’” Then Indra wrote to the board of directors for this place and told the story in a newspaper. When they realized what was happening the members of the Latino community came out to defend their celebration. “And that’s how I got in touch with the community.”
It was also an outburst of nonconformity that led her in 2004 to another of her most significant projects: the Spot Gallery, in the shopping center on D Street and 4th Avenue, once known as the Post Office Mall. The gallery operated for ten months. Indra and her then wife Caitlin Shortell decided to open it when a cafe refused to exhibit Indra’s work. They walked through the old mall, noticed an empty space, and decided to open their gallery in it. “I came in at a time that the community was really thirsty for things like that,” says Indra, and in their gallery they held the celebration of the Day ofthe Dead, as well as exhibits of Indra’s paintings and the work of artists with whom she had collaborated in San Francisco. Thanks to this space, local artists got to know some artists from abroad, and vice versa.
On the experience of being a Hispanic artist and part of a minority in the United States, Indra says that sometimes people she love have wanted to persuade her to be content with the disadvantages. But she knows she could not and would not want to. “Racism is something that I experience every day. And it’s not OK,” says Indra and a glitter shows in her eyes. Apparently it is saying that she will defend the right of everyone to be treated as equals, either by wielding a brush or by developing some creative community project, because she knows well that art and its world are the natural spaces to express dissent.
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