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Interview with Daniela Riojas by Claudia Zapata

Daniela Riojas is an emerging Texas multimedia artist currently based out of San Antonio, Texas. Her creative body of work recalls ancient ritual practices and engages seemingly anachronistic couplings of pre-colonial world concepts and contemporary cultural theory. Throughout her creative process her corporeal presence often attempts a locative terrestrial engagement for the sake of her Ana Mendieta-inspired performance narratives. 

— Claudia Zapata

Rio Abajo Rio: River Beneath the River, 2015

Claudia Zapata: What is your most recent body of work or series?

Daniela Riojas: My most recent body of work is entitled Rio Abajo Rio: River Beneath the River, which also included a follow-up performance installation called My Well, My Stream, The River that won “Best of Contemporary Art Month” award in San Antonio. 

To Be Immaculate 2, 24 inches x 36 inches (from the series Being and Becoming)

My Well, My Stream, The River, 2016, performance installation.

CZ: Can you tell me a bit about these projects?

DR: Through self-portraiture, video, and performance, I introduced the emergence of an ancestral figure using the metaphor Rio Abajo Rio: River Beneath the River; a subconscious place from which the wild woman crone, dealing with both death and re-creation, illusively navigates both inner and outer worlds dispersing remembrances of the pre-colonial landscapes and sources of life. I created a pathway from the San Antonio River to the deserts of New Mexico’s Rio Grande and into the purified Blue Lake waters of Taos Pueblo, performing ritual and cross-pollinating the basic elements of maize and agua del rio as a way to merge an ancient cleansing practice into modern awareness of our land and water, specifically the unnatural and commercialized state of the San Antonio River.

​For the follow-up, My Well, My Stream, The River, I created a performance installation that was a living image - a tableau vivant self-portrait expanding on my demonstration of The Wild Woman excavating memories from my current lifetime and generations past, revealing ancestral messages, the collective unconscious, and personal histories intertwined. I was suspended for the entire 3-hour duration of the exhibition opening during this performance. 

CZ: What is your relationship to space?

DR: Space is integral to my approach for both self-portraits in the privacy of my studio, working in nature, and also for performance in the public realm. If I am undergoing ritual, there is purpose for inhabiting the space with openness and flexibility and reverence to my intention. For my self-portrait series, Being and Becoming, which I made at the Vermont Studio Center, the ritual act of embodiment required a certain amount of research of each goddess I was speaking to first, and also days of prep - moving my body to feel authentic to the sentiment. Upon my arrival there, the first thing I did was undress and become accustomed to the environment without inhibitions, allowing myself to be vulnerable there. In the Rio Abajo Rio series, I underwent a pilgrimage and used a big, clunky, large-format camera to document my ritual acts in nature, with the elements playing parts in the polaroid development, and also how my body was responding to being directly active with wild natural environment. The process was painstaking, but because the goal was to portray an ancient crone character, the result of manual labor mixed with rudimentary technology mixed for accurate results.  

Being and Becoming, 2013-15

CZ: How is Texas, and specifically San Antonio, incorporated into your body of work? If so, why is this important? 

DR: Texas is my birthplace and my blood. I’m from a small, dry bordertown called Eagle Pass. My upbringing and experience looking at the scarcity of the desert instilled in me a close connection to the tierra, both in its abundance and its lacking. Coming to San Antonio, which has a more centralized river, showed me how magical water is and how the earth provides it as a great gift. Despite my initial admiration of the San Antonio River, though, as I looked further into the history of how it has become commercialized and how badly the Blue Hole (headwaters) has been treated, I became more awakened to the politics of colonialism and how it relates to land ownership. 

How tourism could be an unjust way of selling facades of stolen natural landscapes and manufactured cultural emblems. These actions have been and continue to be detrimental to the welfare of indigenous and/or longtime inhabitants of this predominantly Mexican-American city because it is easy to see that their culture is simply being used for capital. I always say that San Antonio provided a space for me to find my true voice because of its deep cultural knowingness, and this remains true. Additionally, it’s opened me up to regarding a place as my own, and along with that, a need to protect it. This has infiltrated all of my work. In many ways, I fight and heal and try to understand our position as San Antonio through my work. 

Dysplacia: Documenting the Undocumented, 2016

​CZ: How is your practice informed by technological advancements?

DR: As a multimedia artist, technology plays a very big role in my work. Working through song, performance, photography, and music videos requires a large skill set, since each is accomplished through specialized gear, programs, collaborators, and often scientific methods. It is very technical and I spend many hours on the computer producing in some sort of way. I always try to balance this with the tactile process of using my body and my voice to express all the things I can’t fit in a soundbyte or screen or box. The body, in the end, will always be the most palpable and undeniable aspect of the creation, no matter the amount of equipment used. The humanity is always the most important thing to capture. The tools are simply there to preserve and communicate. In My Well, My Stream, The River, creating the appearance that I’m floating in rapture as a part of the performance took a very precise technological approach to accomplishing that feeling. This weightlessness. But, what people remember most is the feeling of a real person being a living image for them to experience in real time. The body did the most important work. 

CZ: Does your use of bodies relate to biopolitics?

DR: In some ways, yes. Unfortunately, in our society, women often reach a point where they need to undergo a rigorous process of regaining ownership over their bodies. Through the media, body image propaganda has a way of stealing women from themselves, from self-acceptance, and from viewing their bodies as blessed vessels. Self-portraiture started off as a way of doing this. The camera also gave me a platform for me to tell my stories in a way that couldn’t be ignored. As someone who continues to recover from a history of abuse, these discoveries in self-expression through body and image were crucial to my need to be heard and seen. Just as the advent of the camera served women in the feminist movement during the 20th century, it also served me in the same way. 

​CZ: Do your photographs certify or refute experience?

DR: They certify my experience. I think my practice revolves around very deliberately trying to express a deep-seated belief, feeling, and/or vision that absolutely needs to be communicated, whether it is for personal purposes or to send a message for awareness, as with my work with the river, water sources, and forgotten matriarchal figures. 

​CZ: What are broad themes you currently cover in your work and why?

DR: Reconnection to indigeny, ancient ritual, and de-colonization, rediscovery of the matriarch, and investigation of the self. Because they are my truths. It leads me to enlightenment, fulfillment, and understanding. It creates a web between myself and the audience and my fellow humans that is inherently healing, which inherently connects and progresses one another’s mental place. And what else should art do but unify? 

Don't Let Me Forget La Loba, 2015 (from the series Being and Becoming)