On May 22nd, The Laundromat Project their annual SOAPBOX gala in New York City. SOAPBOX brings together hundreds of New York's most influential people to raise funds that support local artists using their work to create social change. We'll be profiling my fellow honorees, artists and honorary gala chairs to get to know them and their work.
Elia Alba is a multidisciplinary artist whose work has been exhibited throughout the United States and abroad including the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Science Museum, London, and ITAU Cultural Institute, Sao Paolo and the 10th Havana Biennial. She is also a recipient of numerous awards and residencies and her work is in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of Art, El Museo del Barrio, Lowe Art Museum, and more. We got the chance to dig deeper with her, here’s a little window into Elia plus a bonus question.
What’s the most important thing that you hope people take away from your work?
Community. As folks of color, we need to look at ourselves in a bigger picture and not keep ourselves separated from one another and understand commonalities versus trying to figure out or point out what makes us different. Maybe it sounds a little kumbaya but that’s my wish, for people to be more together.
Who is a person in history that inspires you?
I can name a bunch for different reasons.
As an artist, I would say Ana Mendieta and I’m going to sound corny, but Frida Kahlo as well.
Ana, as an Afro Cuban, though I don’t know if she would considered herself an Afro Cuban, came to this country as part of Operation Peter Pan, a mass exodus of unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States in the early 60s. To come to this country, not know the language and somehow rise above all that to become who she is was speaks of her strength as an individual. Also for a long time, her career was second to her husband’s. She was female artist working against the time and working against the convention of being a wife, and of being with someone who, at that time had a lot more visibility than she did
As far as Frida Kahlo, she was also a very strong artist, and again married to another well-known artist, and she pushed against that, too. I think they both loved their husbands, but they were incredibly ambitious artists. With Frida, not only were the conventions even more so in her time, she also had those illnesses. She was in constant pain. The fact that she worked through all that pain and transformed that pain into these magnificent works of art for me was incredible.
There is also Audre Lorde that I love, like myself, she was a native New Yorker and a daughter of Caribbean immigrants. Her work speaks of the importance of struggle for liberation of people across race, gender, class and age. There is Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson because they worked together and were leaders in the movement for queer rights. I love the Mirabal sisters. They’re not that well known outside the Dominican Republic, although Salma Hayek did a movie about them. They were three sisters [one of them actually went to school with my mom] who pushed against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and in the end were killed for it.
How did you get started in the work?
I was a late bloomer as an artist. I did not graduate high school and knew I was going to be an artist. I didn’t go to college and study to be an artist. I got a philosophy degree. Art came because I felt the need to move all those ideas I had and express them visually. In the 80s, I was a photographer but I didn’t consider myself a photographer. I just knew I walked around with my little Canon AE1 and I snapped a lot of pictures wherever I went. I would also photograph small theater and opera companies in New York, but that wasn’t enough.
When I turned 31 or 32, I realized that I really wanted to be an artist. Up until that time, I didn’t make that choice to be an artist out of fear. I didn’t know what that meant for me. When I would see some of my friends, they knew they were going to be painters, sculptors, photographers. I thought you had to be very specific with what you were going to do as an artist. My work has always been about a natural evolution. My practice isn’t always a straight line. I jump around a lot. That’s how I evolved and became an artist. So when I hit my early 30s, I said, I have to do this now or never and I threw myself into it.
Who is your community?
Thinking about the recent project I did called the Supper Club where I photographed about 60 artists of color, South Asian, Latinx, African, African American, some Latin Americans. A lot of them I knew and were friends. When I think of community in my artistic field, that’s what it is.
My [personal] community is very diverse. I have friends from different walks of life.
What is your superpower?
I think my superpower is that I am a good judge of character. I think I read people really well. Even though I come across as not, I am very sensitive to the people around me and my surroundings and I think that’s why I’m able to navigate through so many different worlds. I know how and when to push and when not to, when to enter and when not to enter. So I would say that is my superpower.
How do you think art can do more?
When I mean art, and I don’t mean artists, I mean the whole mechanism of art, the whole apparatus we need to be more conscious, of what we put out there, of what we say. Be more mindful. I think we’re starting to do that, be more open. I think this is why we’re seeing a lot more Black artists getting a lot more attention, a lot more prominence. But there’s still a long way to go. That’s where we can do more. More empathy. There’s not enough empathy.
People need to be aware of what goes out there. And why? What does it mean? What is the reaction going to be from this community or that community? We have to start understanding that we’re not just a one type of community. We’re a multitude of communities. How do we interact? How do we make it so it empowers other people? Not make it so it diminishes other people. Curators need to be more inclusive; writers more sensitive. Institutions also need to be more inclusive, and artists as well need to be more sensitive and understanding.