Meet Dalila Paola Mendez
Lead Artist, Expo Center & USC Mental Wellness Banner Project
Dalila Paola Mendez is a queer Indigenous Central American artist. Combining modern and ancestral narratives, she explores indigenous connections as a way to reinterpret and navigate issues confronting communities of color. Through painting, printmaking, photography, and murals she visually narrates stories of resilience, elders, lgbtq, matriarchs, and our environment. Her work is influenced by her grandmother’s matriarchal line of wisdoms and knowledge. She is currently working on a series of Huipiles (Woven Blouses) depicting different contemporary social justice narratives.
Where are you from and what’s special about your neighborhood?
I was born and raised in LA. I grew up in Echo Park along the Silver Lake border and the Rampart Temple area. Those areas were really cool for me because they were very diverse areas in the 70’s and 80’s. They were multicultural communities of parents and kids.
A lot of Caribbeans and Central Americans lived in Echo Park and Rampart. I was exposed to a lot of different cultures in addition to my family’s diverse cultural background. I’m very grateful to those spaces. As a latchkey kid growing up in the 80’s I was able to explore a lot of Echo Park which has tons of hills and nature, so I always felt like I was around nature although I lived in an urban city. I’ve always been grateful for that.
How did your neighborhood shape your identity?
My neighborhood shaped my identity a lot because of my experiences playing sports and doing art. I was independent. There were a lot of queer couples in my community growing up. My family’s cultural diversity really influenced my work because I have always seen the world from more of a global context as opposed to an insular one focused on one culture and community. I grew up all over LA. I had friends in Baldwin Hills and other neighborhoods I would visit.
That influenced my work because I like to show the connections between our communities, but on a deeper level by showing spiritual and ancestral connections. My family has African ancestry, Asian ancestry, and Indigenous ancestry. All of those things have influenced my work, especially because I was raised by my grandmother who was very much about the old ways. She taught me the indigenous practices and ways to plant, so all of those things come into my work.
The beauty of really celebrating our indigenous and African ancestry is really important to me. I feel that as a darker woman of color there has always been a context of how I see the world within my frame of being darker. My work celebrates the female dark Goddess woman. I celebrate the beauty of our cultures. I celebrate those intersecting ways that indigenous cultures are very much rooted in that foundation. We just show it and explore it in different ways. It’s my way of creating that kaleidoscope bringing them all together to show that our cultures are all similar, and to show the beauty of their difference.
What’s your background as an artist?
I was very fortunate to go to Barnsdall Art Park where I was introduced to art. I took a photography and painting class there. That’s how those two loves developed simultaneously for me.
I’m a self taught artist. I took the classes. I really liked art and I would always do it. For me, during my high school years, it was very therapeutic. It was the way I got to deal with the stuff I was dealing with in my family. My stepfather and I have a tumultuous relationship. Painting was a way for me to paint beautiful things and celebrate my imagination on the canvas. Photography was a way to capture moments in time.
I knew I always wanted to travel and help indigenous and immigrant communities, so I planned to be a lawyer. After graduating from USC I took a year off and started teaching and became a LAUSD teacher. I did that for 3 years. I kept telling my students, “follow your dreams and whatever you love to do, that’s what you should do when you get older.” Then I was like, I’m not even listening to my own advice.
So, I started substitute teaching and working more in film, as a production designer. I would film stuff because I thought the moving image was a great way to experiment. Basically, I would say that my art practice began more fully around 2001 when I started a queer woman of color film and art collective. We used to DJ and do all these things to make money, so we could buy supplies so we could do film production. From 2001 on, I was doing my artwork and working a part time job or any job I could do while pursuing my art. It wasn’t until 2015 that I made art my full time job.
Around that time I had gone to Cuba for a Cuban U.S. printmakers exchange program. Cuban artists lacked resources and supplies, and were challenged by the other issues that impact Cuba, but the artists were still making incredible artwork and it blew my mind. They created artwork using trash or stuff you wouldn’t think of using because they had no other choice; they were being innovative and being creative in these really incredible ways. In the U.S. we have so much available to us, so there really shouldn’t be a reason as to why I’m not doing my artwork. It pushed me to do art full time and try to make my living from it.
So far you’ve mentioned painting, photography, and printmaking. What other mediums do you work in? Is that the gamut or are you still exploring new mediums?
I think that’s the gamut, but with COVID a lot of things have changed. I have been looking at a place where I can create more experiential artworks. I’m looking into installation. I think as people of color we go into museums and it's very separate. Even if you are from that community it's separate. If you’re a white person in art it’s still separate because of that interaction between artwork and the person in a museum. I feel like as humans and even as youth, to really engage youth or people there is a need for tactileness where you can be kinesthetic. Where you can touch and interact to make the piece come alive or add the influence of the viewer into the piece, so that it becomes a living entity. That’s what I really want to look into. I want to look at issues. I actually want to do something about Domestic Violence. Something where you’re like looking at a journal. Kind of like taking film and the art world and putting them together in a space. That’s something I’m looking forward to trying to create once shelter in place and COVID-19 is over.
You mentioned domestic violence, so we’re curious to know how you describe your work overall and what other issues, subjects and themes you explore?
A lot of my work looks at environments. Natural environments. The need to protect, honor, and cherish the elements of the planet and environmental issues. I talk a lot about Indigenous issues. The female body. I do stuff on food justice. Indigenous rights. Those are the topics I deal with. I think more about issues, deeper issues that are really intense issues to deal with. My aunt was a victim of domestic violence and I experienced it as a kid. So there’s a lot that I’m looking at. Like, what things do we store in our bodies as trauma? Then how do you give imagery to it that’s… I won’t say hopeful, but that even in the darkest of times there’s a little ray of light. I guess I’m more about that little ray of light that helps to keep people going in even the most precarious of situations. So I think that’s the more deeper philosophical thing I’m looking at. Being poor, growing up, and experiencing different things, my work tends to be more uplifting. A way of celebration. Whether through color or imagery. I went through a lot of stuff growing up and I was sad and angry, but those aren’t really the emotions I want to work with. I want to work with the other emotions.
Why does public art matter?
Public art is really amazing in the way that it can beautify a neighborhood. It can make a place safer. It adds to the health and well being of a community. Also, I think the way that LA Commons does it is a really great way to engage the community and the youth to take ownership. To give them space to be the creators and to understand that youth are already masters of themselves and their worlds and that they can communicate that. At least when I work with youth I want to create a space where they can say what they need to say in a way that’s respectful, but let’s them express themselves. Public art is a place where they can express the things that they have inside and share it out to the community in which they live or participate in.