Not long ago, I had the pleasure of invading the studio of visual artist, actress, filmmaker and writer Gilda Monreal (aka) Fiya Bruxa. Along with her sister and fellow street artist Shalak Attack and her partner Bruno Smoky, the three Latin Americans make up Essencia Art Collective: an international collective that believes in art as a tool for social change and community empowerment. Fiya's strong values and powerful voice are seamlessly reflected in all of the mediums she dances in and out of: whether it be ruthless critique of patriarchical systems or a ceremony of love and thanksgiving for Mother Earth. We touched on everything from the commodification of feminism to confronting misogynism and the power of public art.
You dabble in quite a lot of creative forms: from painting to theatre to writing, etc. How has your process developed through the years and merged into other forms of artmaking?
I’ve painted and drawn since I was little, and I’ve always created characters. My whole life I’ve written monologues and performed… I would enter into character even while I was studying biochemistry in university. I’ve realized that I’m a storyteller, and specifically a visual storyteller. If I see a performance and the visuals aren’t taken care of then I feel like the story being told is incomplete. To me, the aesthetics are just as important in telling a story than the writing, choreography or direction. The scripts I write aren’t just based on dialogue, they’re very much a magical realism.
In creating or playing different characters, one can express different experiences. How has this been empowering - or frustrating - for you?I think it was definitely frustrating when I was working for (or thought that I had to work for) the industry, because it basically exists to promote sex, violence and money. It has always been - and still remains- very misogynist. As a young actor you are eager to work on productions, but they don’t always feel right once you are working on set.I remember being on this TV set a few years ago and I was embarrassed to be on set. I realized it wasn’t what I wanted my legacy to be. I finished my scene, did everything I had to do and walked out. Ever since, I’ve been making my own films which have gained recognition and won awards. Writing my own stories has not only increased my confidence, but has also helped me understand where I come from and what I want to share. So now, returning to the industry with that confidence is empowering.
What negative spaces or situations has being a womyn in the creative industry put you in?
Globally, we are umbrellaed by a patriarchical system, so a lot of the times we end up taking for granted that this is how things are supposed to work. Music video sets, TV sets, film sets… you are objectified by directors, whether they’re men or women. In those moments, you are nothing but an object. They can use you in whatever way they want, to tell their story.
What about your role in the graffiti world? Do you find yourself tokenized as the ‘female street artist’?
I used to at the beginning. I remember the first years I would show up and was always asked: “Who are you with? Who’s your boyfriend that’s painting?”. There was a constant assumption that I was there to support a male graffiti artist as opposed to it being me. And it can still sometimes happen, I remember being invited to Chile about a year and a half ago along with sixteen old school graffiti artists to paint a highway underpass. The permit was between 11 PM and 6 AM, and the techniques that these guys used were absolutely beautiful, so for the first hour I just walked around observing them work. I knew maybe a third of the guys, and the ones that didn’t know me would ask what my boyfriend’s tag was (because they expected “him” to be painting at the wall). So when I started to paint, they would come up to me surprised like: “Oh, you paint! And you actually paint well.” (laughs) That’s when the respect comes. Now, a lot more women are being recognized but my sister Shalak Attack h and I are from a generation that wasn’t a part of this big global street art movement which has only really grown in the past 7-10 years. If you go back a few years, it’s very rare to see female street artists.
Do you find issues of feminism being commodified right now on an international scale? Do you see this as potentially being turned into something positive?
I think that the older that I get, the more I try to keep my ego in check. This for me means not thinking that I know better in terms of the “right kind” of feminism. Before, I used to judge things really quickly… now I try to sit with them and understand the context that has made them happen. Maybe this is a point in our history where this commodification is a necessity because there needs to be a push back from our patriarchal systems. Perhaps it’s not the perfect way to do it, but each feminist perspective is pushing with the best methods they know… I think that we have to go through all of these social movements to eventually grow and end up on the other side even if we don’t necessarily agree with all of them. I consider myself a feminist and I have my own definition of what that means, which I know isn’t necessarily the same as other women’s’.
What would your definition of feminism be?
Feminism to me is just a particular word used to describe gender equality, that’s the essence for me. For some people, feminism means just the rights for women (or rich women, or white women) so we’re far from the real equality. I think that each feminist movement has merit because they have all pushed in some type of way against injustice. Yes, some have been and are exclusive of all voices, but I like to recognize the value in each one because without them, we wouldn’t be where we are now.
What power comes into play through art in the public sphere? Specifically in graffiti, street art, performance and/or public speaking?
I think it’s really important to acknowledge that we are in the very unique context of Toronto. This is a very privileged city. Let’s say graffiti… which is important because it laid the groundwork for street art. I feel that as soon as street art was picked up here, the system began buying out public space to commodify murals and use it to their advantage. I see the gentrification happening before my very eyes and it’s crazy because my experience of graffiti and my belief system in murals comes from a completely different place. The history of muralism, especially in South America, had a social and political awareness with that spoke with and empowered their communities by telling stories outside of institutions. Whether it’s a tag or a bomber or a roller, all of a sudden you’re creating dialogue in a public space without institutional regulations. It’s about not giving in to the game of elitism and hierarchies that artists have to play. In Toronto, institutions now own these spaces at an increasingly fast rate. New policies are showing up on a monthly basis and I think that this institutionalization of street art is going to be culturally retroactive. At this rate, what art is going to be shown in the long run? What will the reaction of the new generations grabbing spraycans be?
Where does your art (both personal and collective) intersect with nature and our relationship with Mother Earth?
My parents are agronomists or soil scientists, so from as early as I can remember, my sister and I were raised to touch the soil and learn that it is not dirt, that it is alive. We learnt what minerals and life forms it carries and to give thanks for that. We were also raised to be proud of the Mapuche indigenous culture from Chile. I think both our personal and collective mandates (as Essencia) are related in the way that they are always dedicated to Mother Earth and always in acknowledgment of these value systems that I think are reflective of belief systems of various Indigenous communities from North to South. Since the beginning of time, art has always been ceremonial. Whether it was a ceremony to the harvest, to the moon or to understanding our place in existence, it has always reflected our place on the Earth. It’s a completely jarring break to see that art is no longer about this ceremony, that it is now linked to money. It’s like there are a few lost generations where technology is our new God… and art within this context makes it even more crucial and essential to our healing, our survival and our sanity. And by art, I don’t just mean someone who paints or acts. An artist can be a farmer, an artist can be a teacher. It’s about spirit, it’s about people who have imagination, creative vision and a connection to something greater. Artists aren’t just technicians.They can guide and heal and lead others out of the darkness.