By Jasmine Williams
Sofia Maldonado has spent the last several years turning street art inside out. Instead of focusing on the facades of buildings, the Puerto Rican painter uses explosions of color to transform the interiors of forgotten structures into temporary community spaces. For her recent project, Kalaña, she turned an abandoned tobacco factory into an ephemeral meeting place where paint-splattered walls provided the backdrop for educational workshops, performances, film screenings, and lectures. Her use of buildings left behind by Puerto Rico’s economic crisis led to her inclusion in Occupy Museums’ Debtfair at the current Whitney Biennial. A photograph of Kalaña, is one of the thirty pieces on display in the project - a visual representation and survey on the immense crossover between art and a lack of economic resources. While Debtfair could leave museum visitors feeling somewhat hopeless, Maldonado’s own work creates positive actions out of negative situations by forming physical spaces for creativity within the void of her own country’s debt. Her experimental student gallery, Open Studio, was born out of an offer to take over the lease of a giant retail center whose landlords could no longer rent the building at market prices and her artist residency program, HIELO a.i.r., was formerly a mini market.
Abstraction has been Maldonado’s main device for her large scale community projects, but for her upcoming solo show at Point Green the artist is going back to her graffiti and skate roots. For Fem Trap she temporarily abandons the gestural in favor of the figurative. Drawings inspired by YouTube videos of Hispanic female trap musicians serve as the beginning exploration of this musical sub genre, which Maldonado eventually wants to become more involved in. Calling all female trap artists: Sophia Maldonado is ready to collaborate!
To coincide with the opening of Fem Trap, we talked to Sofia about her fascination with counter cultures, her piece in the Whitney Biennial and of course, music. Read on for the full interview and don’t miss Fem Trap, opening March 30 at 260 Java Street.
How did you get to your current artistic practice?
Once I finished my BFA at Escuela de Artes Plasticas I went directly into my MFA in studio painting at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. When I graduated I already had gallery representation at Magnan Metz, who I still work with. I had my first solo Chelsea show there. It was based on skateboarding culture and we had a mini ramp inside of the gallery. I painted some decks and had a video projection of a public intervention I did at an abandoned pool in the middle of the rainforest. We found the pool, painted the cracks, and had a skate jam in it. I like to work with public art in a community way so I am drawn to underground scenes - skateboarding, surfing, rap and now, trap. I really feed from all of these underground movements and of course I respect architecture. My last projects have been more space oriented. I also have canvases and my fine artwork but the core of my work is always community and urban space projects.
What do you have going on right now?
In 2015 I went back to Puerto Rico to do a big commission as part of the first Mural Biennial. After that I stayed in Puerto Rico and am now a professor at Escuela de Artes Plasticas. I’ve been experimenting with space and abstraction and abandoned factories and that’s where Kalaña came in. It is the project that’s featured in Debtfair at the Whitney Biennial. For Kalaña I took an abandoned tobacco shop and turned it into a cultural hub. We had different talks, we showed documentaries, we had workshops for kids and interior designers, and we had local bands playing. It was an ephemeral project because I knew eventually that the building was going to get destroyed or be remodeled. It’s a project that’s also based in the mentality that I had before Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy; the economy was really bad and you could definitely see how many abandoned buildings there were and still are due to the crisis. Kalaña comes from the idea of trying to create a pilot project where not only artists but also owners of abandoned buildings could see new possibilities for those spaces. Most “abandoned” buildings do have owners. This revelation started a conversation about what really is abandoned and what really can be accessed as an artist or creative. Some of the owners were the banks. So that project started a discussion on the nature of public art - does it always have to be outside? For Kalaña the main piece was inside rather than the outside so that’s when I started re-thinking about painting. Instead of using it as a beautifying agent I wanted to start using as an agent for identifying those abandoned spots. You beautify and then no one cares. So I decided that I wanted people to see these buildings and get annoyed and think ‘This is abandoned, what should we do with it?’ That is where my use of color abstraction started to take another direction.
In a way it was stepping outside of the typical street art movement. With that in mind I started to create different projects. I did one in an abandoned mansion next to my studio in Puerto Rico. It was all white so one night we went and totally bombarded it with color. After we finished it we had an underground happening with some friends of mine who make noise music. It was very ephemeral and open to the public but we didn’t advertise it. Someone knew about it and passed it on, it was very closed but very cool. Basically I’ve been experimenting with how you can use art to create community. Rather than going to a community as an artist, how can your art create ephemeral communities where people join in? It’s interesting because music has always been a part of my work whether it’s noise or punk rock, rap or now, trap. I really enjoy collaborating.
How do Open Studio and HIELO a.i.r. fit into that idea?
Back in Puerto Rico I had the chance to work in a space that was the typical retail store but was a humongous space. Due to the economy the owners weren’t able to rent it for the usual amount. I got an opportunity to create an art project inside of the space and that became Open Studio. At the time I was teaching at the university and I saw that there was a need for students, especially painting students to experiment in a bigger space or at least have one to show their work. We don’t have too many spatially big galleries in Puerto Rico so you don’t have many opportunities to see your work in a different space where it can speak in a different language. I also just love spaces and wanted to do something with students so that’s where it started running. It started out very underground. I started pitching the ideas to different groups and collectives who were already working and pretty much gave them freedom in curation so it became a place where student could propose group shows and feature their work. Right now there are five different female artists working there and each one is developing her own agenda.
Open Studio was funny because I didn’t look for it, it was just one of those things that happened but HIELO a.i.r. is my baby. It is a really small place, about three-hundred square feet. It used to be a mini market and now it is an artist residency. At the moment we have a project by Radamés "Juni" Figueroa who is doing a pop-up shop project called Warevel Socio. He has t-shirts and it’s also a punk music label so it’s pretty anarchic and very fun. It’s going to be there for the whole summer until July 31st.
You seem to often have cross-pollinations between merchandise and fine art. You are going to be doing that for Fem Trap...
That is where art is moving, as artists you want to keep yourself accessible to different audiences. For Fem Trap, it was interesting to do merch because the whole trap scene is very connected to marketing. Trap musicians are always fronting about having money and new clothes. Everything has to seem very fresh in trap so I thought it made sense do to merch and treat the show like a pop-up.
I’m making a compilation of female trap singers and I do want to have limited edition shirts that represent the show and the music in a way that is accessible. There’s also going to be skateboards. That’s part of the whole thing, to keep it kind of boutique. I’m going to have small drawings of the singers from pictures I found on their Instagram accounts and small details from their videos. I like to mix elements - I’ll take a really cool outfit that I saw on one singer and combine it with the hair of another. In this way I’m making identifying agents of these women. It’s not a copy of each rapper, it’s more like a narrative of how the female trap artist is seen by someone watching these videos.
What led to your fascination with trap?
I grew up doing graffiti, I have a lot of graffiti friends. Now most of them have grown up and started making conceptual work but the core of my foundation as a painter was formed while being immersed in graffiti culture. I used to love Spanish rap and hip-hop. It’s been awhile since I’ve gone back to my roots and I think it’s good to check in sometimes. It’s been about two years now since Puerto Rico started to have trap music, we’ve always been known more for reggaeton but now there is a new generation of artists who are doing trap in Spanish and it’s fun. I was really into Spanish trap and then from exploring YouTube I starting finding all of these women and was like ‘What? This is insane!’ I loved it so every time that I found a new one I added it to a list. It’s funny because I feel like I have a lot of friends who like rap and trap but have no idea about these girls. I’ve been sharing the playlist with a bunch of friends or sometimes I’ll have conversations with people on Instagram who are like ‘I noticed this song in the background of your video, what’s this about?’ So then I send them a link to my playlist. It’s become an interesting archival project where I am creating documentation of these women. I keep adding to the list. It’s not like I have friends that trap, it’s a more voyeuristic thing. I really want this show to be the catalyst for more involvement in this scene because I do love what these artists are doing. I think it is very interesting and a response to years of macho culture. There’s an interesting movement happening with millennial women who are very empowered in their own bodies. It’s a very different feminist approach to life and I want to keep on exploring it. Fem Trap is the tip of the iceberg.
Do you see these female trap artists as empowering themselves?
It’s an interesting form of empowerment and that’s something that I want to study more. At this point, I don’t want to judge what’s right or wrong I just want to research and theorize a bit more on the movement. I like the idea of putting this music in a gallery where people may not have been exposed to it and then gauging the public response. Most of these women are just starting out and have videos on YouTube but aren’t traveling to America. Some of them are from Spain which is a whole other thing. I would love to eventually collaborate with some of them. ‘Fem Trap’ is basically an invitation to see what happens.