Portrait | Fiya Bruxa
Throughout our conversation I get the feeling that Fiya is on the verge of a new chapter. She speaks retrospectively, using words like “trajectory”, “legacy” and “reflecting” frequently, in a seemingly subconscious indication of understanding where she has been and now is looking to where she can go. “I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on what my voice is. I’m starting to get what it is that my voice is and maybe what my legacy over the years will tell.” Now 15 years deep in her artistic practice Fiya has a mature and resolute self-confidence about her that is also reflected in the demeanour of the women she depicts.
“I consider myself a storyteller and I use different mediums to express that, whether it’s visual, writing, performance or a combination of all. I think I’ve done this since I was little ... but it’s interesting to look back through your life trajectory and see that’s what you’ve always done.” Fiya Bruxa, also known as Gilda Monreal, grew up in a household that held a multidimensional belief system of latin american traditions mixed with catholicism and philosophy, and was raised by scientist parents who survived and overcame a dictatorship in Chile. This combination of an accepted family religion contrasted by scientific questioning and rationality on the backdrop of political opposition made for an empowering environment to grow up. “Being raised in a household with mixed beliefs but also being raised with scientific parents and grandparents who questioned even the existence of God made for interesting critique in my own mind.” By age 12 Fiya had made her first clay sculpture, it depicted a female version of Jesus who had been sacrificed and nailed to the cross. “I showed it to my art teacher who put it up in the hallway and then it was a scandal … My teacher at the time told me, ‘Congratulations, you’ve gotten over 100% on this art piece because you’ve created dialogue and controversy.’ But for me it was a really important message I was like “No, women are being repressed in the Catholic religion, where is their voice?”. For the next 15 years Fiya went on to collect hundreds of Virgin Mary paintings and sculptures in a part fascination and part obligation that could be likened to Edward J. Williams collection of negrobilia that were first purchased simply to remove them from the market but have now formed a eerily sombre and disturbing collection in the top floor of the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago. The Virgin Mary, a perhaps overlooked but needless to say iconic representation of a woman in visual culture, is generally depicted as gentle and repentant with her head tilted softly to the side and eyes cast downward or to the sky in an act of questioning. Though she is frequently forward facing, the posture of her head indicates a fragility or vulnerability and though none of these traits are inherently inferior, one must question the impact of a mass reproduction of this image on society’s understanding of a women and women’s understanding of themselves. “By the time I studied theatre I wrote my thesis on the responsibility of artists when painting an iconic image and what does this do to the psyche or psychology of people. And so having studied that and being obsessed with that imagery of women, now taking that back and being like ‘Okay, I will not paint a woman in a submissive role.’ My responsibility is to paint an empowered woman. I see the trend in my work of painting women directly facing forward or facing upward, strong assertive women. No matter what their story of suffering may be they are overcoming that.”
"Canadian theatre, until extremely recently, is very formulaic, very very traditional. So if you are not blonde and blue-eyed you will fit a certain role"
Fiya originally went to school to study Biochemistry at McGill University but dropped out about two and a half years in to go into the arts. And though they were creative and innovative in their respective disciplines, she said facing her first generation immigrant parents with the decision “was scary. Like ‘What are you doing, you’re making the worst mistake of your life.” But she jumped straight in. Working in film as a director and then in post-production and editing Fiya found her way by studying film on her own while working part time jobs. “Then I started taking acting classes so I could understand how to communicate better as a director.” She transitioned into taking on more acting roles and went back to university to study Theatre Performance and going on afterwards to work in theatre, film and television. “Though I was trained in theatre, in classical theatre, [I was] working less in that area because I never really fit in. Canadian theatre, until extremely recently, is very formulaic, very very traditional. So if you are not blonde and blue-eyed you will fit a certain role, and we can see this on TV and film but theatre is even more particular … It’s interesting because in South America or in the Caribbean I was allowed to play lead roles ... And then I would come back to Canada and it was like ‘Oh, you’re the Indigenous girl, the lover of Italian mafia, you’re the Latina cleaner.’ All the stereotypes.” This cycle of tokenization and stereotyping over the years of her acting career pushed Fiya to a breaking point. “Then finally [I rejected] that entire industry because it’s so formulaic and I felt I was pushed out and corned into a certain stereotype … The rejection and frustration in that industry made me really go full on into graffiti. Go to South America, live there, work there, learn from there.”
The following four or so years spent in South America working and exploring the muralism and graffiti culture greatly impacted Fiya's value system when it comes to the arts. “I think I’ve always been interested in graffiti since I was a teenager and because of my Latin roots it was influenced by a different history - not just hip hop and the New York scene. I’m like a hybrid or a combination of both [South American muralism and graffiti rooted in hip hop]. South America has a political history of social movements linked to muralism so [for me] hip hop or graffiti is linked to that.” Beyond the history, Fiya learnt from the collaborative working style as well as the attitude, which empowered her four years later to return to film. “I have the confidence in what my voice is and [I am] not caring what the roles are because graffiti is really about painting what you want where you want when you want to paint it. And so that’s a value system. I think that really showed me that as long as you’re respecting your own integrity, there is no fear. You don’t have to follow the formula. So now I think I’ve been venturing back into my original direction which was written or visual performance and storytelling but with the flavour of what I learned in the streets, in graffiti.”
"It was interesting to come back into film with a collaborative perspective as opposed to a systematic patriarchal infrastructure.”
With a range of influences in political, cultural, spiritual and scientific realms, Fiya has developed a unique style that tends to mystify audiences. “A lot of people say it looks very much influenced by Indigenous arts and visual storytelling. For me I call it ‘molecular’ because I grew up with science and biology books. … Even [when] my mother helping me with homework for math she would always draw circles and group cells together and we would have conversations about DNA at the dinner table … And so now my visual storytelling is usually portraiture of women combined with what I call a molecular storytelling of what that woman has lived and it’s almost abstract but for me it’s not abstract I see clearly what the story is. But if other people look at it they don’t know what it is.” Being drawn to a non-hierarchical organization in her painting is another example of how her time spent in the collaborative world of graffiti and muralism has influenced her. This understanding of a different type of structure revealed itself again when she went back into film. Contrary to her more traditional and ‘formulaic’ academic training, Fiya used the inspiration of living and working in different countries to break the mold. “I started noticing the changes in how I saw the creative process … I know that [in] the first film that I worked on as a writer and producer in New York my perspective was completely different after having had 3 or 4 years of just graffiti in South America. And so all of a sudden I was like “Everybody gets credited for everything and everybody’s voice is here and it’s going to be heard’ and everybody on set was like ‘Uh, no Fiya there’s different rules. This is the Director..’ … It was interesting to come back [into film] with a collaborative perspective as opposed to a systematic patriarchal infrastructure.” When the system was pushed on her she pushed back and found her own route. “I learned by seeing who I wanted to collaborate with … I still see [the different roles] and I respect that because each role is a specialized approach to a project but [now I am] working with people because they are good people and have similar values.”
And who better to collaborate with than your sister? In addition to her own independent career as an artist, Fiya co-founded Essencia Collective with her sister, Shalak, who is a muralist and graffiti artist as well. Their ingrained appreciation for community and the arts led them to work together to use art as a tool for social change and community empowerment. “We attempt to create spaces where we can have that dialogue and in that way it’s the dialogue that is instigated by the creative expression that will lead us to grow as stronger cultures and communities.” Depending on the circumstances Essencia’s role can adapt to timelines and location, in the past they have worked in different countries hosting workshops, festivals, and exhibitions but their main focus is always murals that highlight and acknowledge Mother Earth. “I think that the context of our lifestyles right now disconnects us from that … I didn’t realize [Mother Earth] was so important to me but as you develop a body of work and a collection over years you start realizing 'Oh this is so fundamental to me because all my work is dedicated to this.' It’s all dedicated to portraits of women and their stories.” Essencia is just another example of Fiya continuing to challenge an imposing hierarchical structure. “The public art is where we have removed ourselves from the elitism and institutionalization of visual arts." And she intends of continuing this perspective as she moves forward in her career, holding graffiti, collaboration, Mother Earth to innovate and push away from systematic oppression and into a new future. “I think that the system that we’re currently in is so broken and archaic that where we need to go is beyond capitalism, communism, socialism, we haven’t seen it yet, it doesn’t exist. So we need to be, as artists, questioning the formulas that we are given. We have to be innovative.”