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The labels Manuela is usually tagged with, such as “Latinx”, “artist” and “activist” are a matter of pride for her, but she is quick to point out: “I don’t want to be pigeonholed in the art community. A lot of my work centers around empowerment and influencing change broadly from femme and Latinx to LGBTQ rights. I don’t want to be limited or tokenized in the art community.”
At 4 years old, while living in Dominican Republic, she drew a little mural on a wall in her house, which of course got her in trouble with her mother. But it wasn’t until later, when she was a teen, that art really became the center of her world, she says: “During that time I was going through so many hardships. I experienced domestic violence, poverty, and the death of someone very close to me. Art became my coping mechanism.”
Her work is uplifting, positive, and colorful, filled with pastel tones, flowers, and butterflies. She wants her art to elicit the same emotions in the viewer than it did for her in her time of hardship. “Art always served as a rock in my life, helping me to meditate and reflect on the pain I was dealing with so I could have a little peace of mind.”
Her college thesis was based on the memories of her extended family and dealt with the topics of immigration and feeling far from home –home being their multiple native countries.
“For example the piece I created about my dad dealt with an old folk tale he used to tell me,” she explains. “The story was of an old man who carried two buckets, one with water and one with seeds. The bucket of water had a crack in it so every time the old man returned home the bucket of water was empty. Finally the bucket asked the old man why he kept it because it had the crack and he explained that every time water dropped, he would drop seeds. Now the trail he traveled is a beautiful garden.”
“The image I painted inspired by this folk tale was of a woman whose hair transformed into an ocean with her body floating above a boat. The woman’s body had flowers growing from her limbs, and on the side of the image there was a cracked bucket with seeds surrounding it. All of the images I created for this thesis show surrounded my upbringing and family background. This was the first time I finished a series of paintings and felt a real sense of accomplishment as an artist.
Though my art has evolved and become more popular I still think back to that moment in the art studio when I finished my final painting for my thesis. That was the moment I realized this is what I do, I’m an artist.”
A recurring topic in her art is vegetation, specifically, exotic plants. The deep symbolism of all the places they are brought from into America speaks of the burgeoning diversity of the people who live in the country and bring with them their own little piece of the world into the melting pot that is American culture at large.
Plants from Mexico, Dominican Republic, and El Salvador, among others, bring to her art the vibe of places with a colorful -and lively- culture. She has lived in many of these countries, so for her, in particular, they bring specific memories of her time there.
Guillen’s influences include those of contemporary artists such as Zosen from Spain, who paints abstract shapes; Magda Love, an Argentinian artist who uses dots and outlines to convey movement; Symone Salib, of Cuban-Egyptian descent; and Victoria Villasana, from Mexico.
“Magda Love is a Latinx painter and a muralist who creates large, colorful pieces with plants. Her work is in many cities internationally from Miami and New York to Puebla, Mexico. She is an ambitious painter who never ceases to create new work, her powerful energy is something to watch. Who knows what she’ll paint next.
“Symone Salib is another artist to follow. She’s a Cuban-Egyptian artist who creates work for her community in South Philadelphia. Her work is positive focusing on portraits of fellow artists, friends, and idols. She is deeply integrated in the Philadelphia art community and uses her platform to unite her fellow artists. Her drive to bring people together in the space is admirable and she’s definitely someone to pay attention to.
“Victoria does a lot of street art and uses realism mixed with yarn. She does these crazy beautiful patterns and shapes and incorporates yarn into visual images to call attention to pop culture and current events. Her work can be seen all over the world in places like the UK and US as well as Mexico. She does a lot of yarn bombings, where you knit or crochet images or patterns onto various objects in public spaces. Her bright colors and textures help me push my art in new directions. She is someone to follow for inspiration, her pieces challenge me to work through different means of expression.
“I also like Nosego, who is a local Philadelphia artist who experiments with nature and surrealism. These artists inspire me to endlessly grow my work and try to use new styles to bring my work to life,” she explains.
Nowadays she is focusing more and more on street art, because one of her recent concerns as an artist is how to establish a dialogue with the community using art as a medium, “I want more people in my community to see my art. Not everyone has social media and I want to appeal to different generations. Most of the street art I create deals with topics surrounding women’s empowerment and immigration rights.”
“I go around the city of Philadelphia and wheat paste my designs in public spaces to address my community and raise awareness about what’s is going on in this country. My hope is that people will connect to my work and to create more dialogue around social injustices.”
Most of her concerns as an artist are of human nature, and there is a recurrent and strong statement in her work throughout her career: “People are entitled to basic human rights,” she says. And the role of artists in this is to “look at the bigger picture to bring attention to all angles of discrimination. We should be talking about empowering one another because la lucha sigue.”
Follow Manuela on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lazy.beam/
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