N.C. Arts Incubator features Durham artist’s work in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month

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SILER CITY — In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Siler City’s N.C. Arts Incubator has just gained a new guest exhibit: Durham artist Antonio Alanís’ Latinx Visual Resiliency series.

The free exhibit forms part of the Hispanic Liaison’s various Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations, which also include an eight-prize raffle and a month-long social media campaign. The exhibit first opened on Sept. 11 during the Liaison’s COVID-19 Health Fair and will leave the Incubator on Oct. 15, the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Born in Durango, Mexico, Alanís grew up in Durham. There, he works as the Development and Communications Manager for ISLA NC, a Hispanic advocacy nonprofit that seeks to “build community and leadership through educational Spanish language and cultural immersion programs,” according to its website. Composed of various acrylic paintings, his exhibit explores the Hispanic community’s resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s what he shared with the News + Record about his background, artwork and exhibit now on display inside the Incubator:

To start, tell us a little bit more about yourself and your background.

I am an educator by heart. I learned Spanish and English in the U.S. I’m a first-generation artist who uses education and artwork to create more understanding about who we are as Latinos — or Latinx — individuals in the United States. I’ve been an artist my whole life, and it’s my very first solo exposition that El Vínculo Hispano and N.C. Arts Incubator invited me to be part of.

How and why did you decide to become an artist?

So, how did it start? It’s one of those callings that you, or anyone, feels. The typical art story that everyone has — you know, like, managing, creating, and identifying with the media. I’ve used that ever since to express what I feel, what I go through, and now lately, I’m interested in creating artwork that speaks to people’s consciousness, particularly around creating dialogue or inspiration, or creating conversations around issues of equity or issues of mental health. I’ve always liked to use artwork to help us create more understanding about what it means to be a Latino or Latinx, and it’s one of those media that lends itself perfectly to do that.

What type of artwork do you do, and what type of imagery do you usually use?

My artwork is very much inspired by my cultural background. I mentioned that I’m a first-generation immigrant, and I am originally from Mexico, so a lot of the artwork that I produce is heavily influenced by my cultural heritage. Visually, my artwork is primarily colorful. It’s flat in nature and in how it looks, and it touches on different topics such as activism, the power of celebrating one’s roots, heritage, and really focusing a lot on our humanity as Hispanic/Latinx individuals. I see that much of the discourse here in this country is to really think of us as being separate or being very different from mainstream America, and I just like to focus more on how similar we are as individuals, rather than how different we are.

How do you use art to foster connection and mutual understanding?

I can base it more on the exhibition that I created; the exhibition was called the Latinx Visual Resiliency Series, and what I like to do in this exhibition is to create artwork that speaks to people’s ideas about what it means to become and be resilient ... I want to encourage people to use artwork as a way to not only make sense of what’s happening in the pandemic — which is one of the reasons that I started back earlier this year — but I also wants to encourage others to use artwork to express what they’re going through, and encourage others to use it just as it has helped me. When the pandemic struck, I really didn’t know much about how to understand it and how much it was affecting me until I began to notice the importance of staying connected to my community members, friends and family. I turned to art to create pieces that spoke to that sense of maintaining connection, and I want to encourage others as well to turn to the arts right now, when it’s so hard for us to maintain ourselves connected now that, of course, the pandemic’s still lingering and social distancing as well.

Tell us about your exhibit on display in the N.C. Arts Incubator right now.

It’s a new series of paintings that I created, and the idea is to not only rethink, or celebrate, Latinidad and our strengths as people, but people will be seeing a group of more than nine paintings where they can look at the symbolism of what it means to be resilient in times of struggle. One of the symbols that I’m using in this exhibition is a cactus, or cacti. We can learn a lot about what it means just to survive and thrive by examining and looking at how cacti survive in very inhospitable environments, such as the desert. It will be an invitation for people to reflect on how we can be more equitable as well towards Hispanics, Latinx, during these times, where they’re being disproportionately affected. It will also be a conversation starter. It’s one of those things that I really enjoy about art — that people can use that to springboard to conversations that will inspire them to think about solutions, or just collaboration between diverse groups of people as well.

This is your first solo exhibition. What does that mean to you, and why does it mark an important milestone for you?

Ever since about three years ago in 2018, I started to submit many individual paintings to different expositions, and I formed part of larger, similar-themed expositions. For me, as an artist who is emerging right now, is looking toward becoming a professional artist after this, it’s one of those signs that people are interested in what I do and also inspired by the work that I create. Doing a solo exposition means that I can create more of my work and focus more on what I do, and ... that I have the liberty of really focusing on one topic. So far, I haven’t found any exhibitions this year that really speak to the themes that I wanted to talk about, which are the ones that I’ve described. And that to me, having that autonomy to direct the gallery space for these weeks, as well, speaks volumes to the interest people have in my work.

What’s the most meaningful work of art that you’ve produced?

Oh, my goodness. It’s pretty hard to say which one has been the most important. It’s called “The Hope Butterfly,” which I also started in 2020, and it’s one of the most important ones because I used art with a purpose ... I want artwork to speak. I want artwork to be a springboard for conversation, and this “Hope Butterfly” that I started was that perfect example that I think marked an important part of my career where I began to fuse my love for artwork and also activism. I was always very concerned in terms of how society looks at artists — just creating, you know, pretty, beautiful things. I’m not against that, but I wanted to go a step further and use artwork for the betterment of opportunity; I wanted to use it for the well being (of others). In 2020, I began to think about using classes to allow people to make sense of what was happening, give them a little distraction from the isolation. I was invited to be part of the program through the Diamante Cultural Arts Center. It was one of those moments where I noticed that I can use artwork for this purpose, and give people hope for what the future will hopefully bring. It’s part of the exhibition as well. I’ll say this one of the most important ones from these couple of years.

Speaking of painting classes, what is your Xochipilli Painting Project?

The Xochipilli Painting Project is inspired by the ancient Aztec deity of the arts. That actually came about the Hope Butterfly class that I gave in 2020, and this project is funded by the Durham Arts Council. I was really interested in going beyond what artwork can do in terms of just decoration, and I applied for this grant to teach free bilingual acrylic classes to community members throughout Durham and the Triangle. It’s open to everyone, regardless of age or ethnicity. It will be bilingual — in English and Spanish. It’s a space for us to spend time together, build community, and have a good time. It’s a great place for relaxation, and it’s inviting for everyone who wants to use artwork to learn about culture, or language, and make sense of what’s happening these days. It’s every other week. It started back in August; it will be ending in December. So far, I’ve had reception from about 20 to 30 students per class. Actually, (on Sept. 18) I taught my third class as well, where it’s an open space for us to use artwork in that nature.

It’s virtual. It’s open to anyone, and everyone is encouraged to register. I have a lot of social media posts, where people can just send me a DM, and I’ll be happy to let them in. (You can contact Antonio Alanís at aalanis@antonioalanisart.com or on Facebook at @AntonioAlanisArt.)

If people could only take away one message from your exhibit, what would you want it to be?

I want to use these pieces to focus on our strengths as individuals who have accomplished so much these last months, but I also want to inspire people to look at the arts as a way of coping, as a way of imagining, and connecting. For me right now, the arts have been great for keeping me centered and also grounded, so I also encourage everyone to really look at what makes them centered and grounded or happy. I’m just one voice that has used art. It has worked for me, and I want other people to do the same as well — to be curious about what makes them find that stability they may be looking for right now.

So, what advice would you offer for all of the aspiring artists in Chatham County and beyond?

My advice for everyone — I always say this — is pursue what you want in the arts, even if you don’t feel that your work is the best. There is some judgment in the art community, from what I’ve seen. As long as you feel content doing what you’d like to do — drawing, painting — maybe you’re not the Michelangelo that you want to be, but still if that gives you a fulfilling life, do it. Just have fun. That’s all that matters.

Anything else you'd like the community to know?

I do want to definitely credit the Durham Art Guild, who made this job possible. I did a mini-residency in early 2021, and because of them, I’m able to exhibit this work. They gave me a space ... and I produced this artwork from the very beginning. I really want to extend my gratitude to El Vínculo Hispano, Ilana Dubester, and then N.C. Arts Incubator, Michael Feezor, who invited me to be part of this exhibition.

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