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An Afro-Dominican Artist Answers Questions Of Cultural Ambiguity & Her Roots Through Her Work

An Afro-Dominican Artist Answers Questions Of Cultural Ambiguity & Her Roots Through Her Work

Insecurities are something we can all relate to from an individual standpoint. When discussing it at a larger scale, art is a perfect expression of showcasing what that looks like and it’s up to art to bridge that connection in order to relate.

That is what Afro-Dominican American artist, Eilen Itzel Mena is accomplishing with the release of her work, Holding Self-Regard.

“I was experiencing a lot of self-doubt and certain insecurities about how I am perceived spiritually, intellectually, and physically as a woman. I look a certain way, what does that mean? Do I need to look nicer? And for me, the place I was trying to go back to is a place of beauty; not vanity. Just pure beauty” said the New York City native from the South Bronx.

One of Mena’s impactful bodies of work was held at The Tremaine Art Gallery at The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut in February 2022. 

The concept behind this exhibit took years to create when discussing the process of creating the new paintings. After an estimated 7 months of curating the artworks and 9 years post-high school graduation, it was the right time to come home to both her juvenile self. Mena held the exhibit at her high school while taking a deeper dive into her Dominican roots.

In her work, she incorporates objects from her grandmother’s house to embellish the space like certain ornaments and adornment pieces. 

The 28-year-old visual artist has a multifaceted creative practice that helps her connect the African Diaspora, spirituality, culture, identity, and purpose. Her painting works explore the relationship between childhood and adulthood in order to bring forth healing and activation of purpose. Highlighting adult concepts with a childlike aesthetic, allows her to reimagine and challenge representations of trauma and emotional space. Her compositions reflect dreams, emotions and spiritual experiences. The color combinations she uses in her work are inspired by different African indigenous cultures.

@eilen.itzel.mena | Instagram

Mena’s faith is Ifá (an African religion that dates back 8,000 years from the West African Yoruba people; otherwise known as Southwestern Nigeria) and it’s important for her to openly share her spirituality through her art as a way to stay true to herself because, as she says it, “you start disconnecting.”

“Subconsciously, we’ve (Black folk) been told not to talk about these things. It’s so stigmatized because of colonialism. There are so many artists who practice, but it’s not noticeably visible in their work. There are reasons for that,” says Mena, who goes on to say Black women like Alice Coltrane’s artistry inspires her by Coltrane’s spiritual practice in the connectedness to her faith with Hinduism.

In conversation with the writer as well as community organizer, Mena gives the example of how paintings in the Italian Renaissance, like the Creation of Adam housed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, were based on religious imagery. In African art history, a lot of sculptural objects and visual works have been used in ritual and are still referenced in works by artists throughout the African Diaspora when compared to that of Christian iconography in Western Art History. 

Mena also serves as a Co-Director and creative collaborator for Honey and Smoke, a global artist community and platform focused on creating space for artists to meditate on the important themes of our time through themed seasons. Some themes they’ve touched upon are ancestral, spirituality, and evolution of the self to name a few.

She will also conduct workshops with students in the Studio Art Program, participate in programming with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department, as well as meet with student affinity groups.

I wish I saw more of that when I was younger, but I didn’t see many full-time creative, working professionals while I was there. You can graduate from this place and create knowledge in an artistic way. We don’t all have to be doctors, lawyers or engineers. You can emphasize creativity and have that be your profession and still be successful,” says Mena as she will serve as the artist-in-residence for 10 days during the show’s three weeks.

When focusing the conversation on her thoughts towards Black History Month, Mena is aware of her experience as not just an Afro-Dominican but also a Black person in the world because that is the first thing people see.

”When I think about Black History month, art and creation of culture, the more diverse we get as creatives to show the spectrum of what Black identity is, the better. A lot of Latin American people are not Catholic. There’s diversity in that. There’s diversity to how you express your Blackness.”

Mena has exhibited work in New York, San Francisco, Miami and London and has been covered by various publications such as the New York Times, VogueCultured Magazine, Deem Journal and Hyperallergic, amongst others.

“I feel like I was confident but something was missing. I think now, after doing this work, I had a transformation around beauty. It’s deeper than just, “you look good” and vanity. I see myself as beautiful.”

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