Beyond Basel: Amliv Sotomayor

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Since its arrival in 2002, Art Basel has been instrumental in the cultivation of Miami’s contemporary art scene. It’s attracted thousands of spectators, propelled the transformation-via-gentrification of Wynwood into an arts district, and exposed thought-provoking pieces (like this washer and dryer combo) to the masses. The fair, however, has been criticized by people such as Simon Doonan, who has called it a “cheese-fest” for the rich. It’s also elicited contempt from locals who don’t want it, or its many offshoot parties, to be viewed as representations of Miami. After all, out of the nearly three hundred pop-up galleries that make the cut each year, less than a handful display homegrown artwork. But visitors more interested in talent than publicity wouldn’t have to travel far from the convention center to find it.

Drive west of Miami Beach for half an hour and you’ll wind up in Hialeah, home to the largest Santero community in the country, and Amliv Sotomayor. The young artist got her start drawing “mermaids and things” for her grandmother, and after immigrating from Cuba in 1997, graduated from Ai with a degree in visual arts. Since then, she’s worked as a designer, displayed her work in several regional galleries, and has amassed a sizable following on Instagram. And it’s no wonder that her followers are quick to comment with prayer hand emojis. Her artwork blends sensuality with elements of the occult to produce pieces that merit worship.

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As someone who immigrated to the States/La Yuma at a young age, have you struggled with cultural identity, or has living in Miami helped you avoid acculturation?

The shock was extreme when I first moved to the United States. 
I think change is extremely difficult for anyone that has had to leave their home country for one reason or another. You move to somewhere completely foreign, with people you would call “extranjeros” in your natal home, and now you’ve become the extranjero. 
I do consider myself really fortunate to have the opportunity to live in this country and be a part of what I call “Cuba Part 2,” which is Hialeah. But every time I travel outside of Miami, I embrace the cultural differences and make them part of my life, while still retaining my Cuban origins, which includes rice and beans all day, no matter what part of the world I’m in.

What inspires the imagery in your work? And how do you choose your subjects?

They come from everyday life experiences I have with friends, family, and especially strangers. From dreams, and moments of attraction. These moments stay in the back of my mind, so I get to relive and recycle them by putting them down on paper.

Attraction to what?

A person, a thing. A powerful alluring moment that you don’t want to forget. Moments when you’re completely in love with someone, or something.

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You recently started reading up on Santeria, which is practiced alongside Catholicism in Cuba, but largely misunderstood outside the Caribbean. What’s one misconception about it that you’d like to straighten out? And will you incorporate some of what you learn into your artwork?

A huge misconception is that Santeria is pure black magic, and that you should stay away from it. The fact is that not everyone who practices it is trying to make human voodoo dolls. Just as there are good and bad people with any practiced religion, there are good people using Santeria to attract positive forces to themselves and the people around them. Before actively researching it, I had already subconsciously incorporated elements of it into my drawings and paintings.

Before you sit down to draw, you like to warm-up by dancing. What’s on your playlist?

A lot of Afro-Cuban jazz, afrobeat, bolero, salsa, son, danzón and guaguancó. Buena Vista Social Club, Los Van Van, Celia Cruz, Orishas, Silvio Rodriguez, Calle 13. I also listen to a lot of the less Spanish muzaik music, like Sigur Rós, Tricky, Massive Attack and Grimes. It all depends on my mood. And yes, I can dance to these.

It was your mom who taught you how to dance, right? Did anyone in particular push you to draw, or is it something that you felt naturally inclined to do?

My mother taught me to dance at a very young age, because like any parent, she felt the need to pass this gift down to her children, and I’m grateful to have taken advantage of that inner rhythm. I learned that all natural talents should be taken advantage of when they are present. I had one art teacher in high school that pushed me to draw and taught me to believe in my talent. My brother was also instrumental with building my confidence.

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You describe yourself as shy, but your work’s bold and effusive. Does drawing allow you to communicate things that you normally keep quiet about?

I think a lot of us fear being naked or vulnerable in front of others. Drawing allows me to communicate that vulnerability without saying anything verbally. It’s very much like a certain look you get from a loved one when you do something wrong or right. Words are unnecessary.

When we spoke, you said that you believe “everything’s connected in its own creepy way.” Can you expand on that thought?

I’m discovering that precognition and intuition don’t just happen. I believe that there are many meaningful coincidences that appear unexplainable, but aren’t. I’ll see something related to someone I haven’t heard from in years and my brain will bring them up for a brief moment. Their favorite number, or a particular memory, and then I’ll hear that # on the radio. Hours later, this person will call or text me. I’ve experienced this many times, and still do. I began recording them on a small notebook, because they can’t just be coincidences. It’s like a spiral of signs leading up to something that’s already been put into motion.