Peruvian Born, American Based Claudia Ruiz Gustafson Speaks on the Value of the Family Archive as an Immigrant, Symbolism, and the Power of Words
AS A COLLECTIVE, WE WANTED TO TAKE TIME TO HIGHLIGHT THOSE THAT ARE DOING THE HARD WORK OF PURSUING THEIR OWN CREATIVE AND ACADEMIC GOALS, WHILE ALSO PAVING THE WAY TO FURTHER THE REPRESENTATION OF MARGINALIZED PEOPLE IN THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES. WE HAVE CALLED THIS SERIES, TAKING OUR SEAT. FOR OUR CURRENT FEATURE, WE SAT DOWN WITH ARTIST, CLAUDIA RUIZ GUSTAFSON.
Originally from Lima, Perú, Claudia Ruiz Gustafson is a fine art photographer based in Massachusetts. Her work is mainly autobiographical and self-reflective; each image relies on visual codes and symbolism often portraying themes of femininity, memory, dreams and personal mythology. She regards image making as a powerful medium for exploring her own inner world.
Claudia currently runs her own portrait photography business and teaches Creative Photo Portraiture and Contemplative Photography in the Boston area. Her fine art work has been exhibited in museums and galleries across the US and abroad at venues including the Griffin Museum of Photography, the Danforth Art Museum and Galatea Fine Art Gallery.
She holds a BA in Communications from Universidad de Lima, and a Professional Photography Certificate from Kodak Interamericana de Perú. In Lima, she worked as a freelance photographer for a cultural magazine and as a photojournalist for a regional newspaper.
SPEAKER GUIDE | AB: AKEA BRIONNE & CRG: CLAUDIA RUIZ GUSTAFSON
AB: Claudia, you are originally from Peru but are currently based in Massachusetts....can you talk about the differences between these places and if at all, the ways that it affects your practice? So much of your work explores the body, place and family, how did that affect you once you moved?
CRG: My work drastically changed when I moved to the US, I don’t necessarily think it was due to the change in physical spaces, but due to a shift in my personal identity. When I was in Peru, photography for me was a way to record my surroundings, my country, the people, especially my neighborhood where I grew up. Another aspect of my practice in Peru was my job assignments, as a freelancer of a cultural magazine, I was photographing people, usually artists, writers and progressive thinkers. My work in the newspaper was strictly documentary, they assigned me to the police section, I was covering riots, police interventions and terrorist related scenes. When I moved to the US, in my mid twenties, my work drastically changed as I was starving for self expression, so naturally in my first bodies of work, I was bringing out what was inside me. I used my body in my work as a way to reclaim it for myself, as an act of empowering and self control, also perhaps as an act of protest towards my patriarchal upbringings. Later, my interest turned to my family, my culture. When you are an immigrant, especially in my case where I lived most of my formative years abroad, there’s a longing, a sadness that happens when you miss the rituals, celebrations and milestones of the people you love. For me the hardest part was not to be able to spend the last years of my grandparents’ lives with them. My grandmother was the pillar of my family, the story teller and the story keeper of our family’s history. I knew she wanted me to continue this tradition. When she died I started to work on Historias Fragmentadas Part I and then Part II. I feel that the story of my family is as unique as any family story and I feel it is important to preserve it. The story of my family is a piece of the Latin American experience, a story that is not told enough here in the US. People don’t realize that Peru is a multicultural, diverse country, where immigrants from Spain, Italy, Portugal arrived in search of a better life, as well as Africans and Chinese who were part of the slave trade of the colonies. I am always upset when people tell me I don’t look Peruvian. Also, many people are surprised when I tell them there’s a Chinatown in Lima. I am a Peruvian American of mixed race: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Quecha, Aymara and more and I am telling my story.
AB: Can you talk about your creative process? What is your first step when making work? Especially for your work that combines different objects and concealments in your photos?
CRG: For my latest work, Historias Fragmentadas, I am working with the photos of my family archive that I inherited from many of my relatives. I feel that the best way for me to tell the stories I want to tell is by juxtaposing elements from the past and the present. Using photos as a subject is new for me. As an immigrant and as a photographer, old photos of my family are like priceless gems. I am lucky there was an amateur photographer in my family who took gorgeous pictures. Each image is a visual poem dedicated to a family member, but not necessarily a happy poem. My first question is: What do I want to tell here? What elements do I need? Then I start playing with different objects from my childhood that I brought from Peru. I layer them, sometimes I rip the photo, sometimes I bend it, sometimes I burn it. Sometimes I take a photo of myself to insert in the composition. I love the use of color, especially the color red that symbolizes the blood lineage among family members.
AB: There is a lot of symbolism within your work, can you expand on how you decide on what to include in your work? How do you approach how much information to include and how much do you leave up to the interpretation of the audience?
CRG: I use symbolic objects both intentionally and unintentionally. For example when working on my project SHE, I researched all the symbols that since antiquity have been associated with the goddess and the female: orb, wings, water, apple, chalice, chair, lily flower, etc. Some symbols are universal, archetypal. They speak directly to our subconscious. I believe by using universal symbols I can connect better with my audience. Sometimes people tell me that my images whisper them secrets. I want to believe that’s true. I want my work to be accessible to people and not too obscure. The balancing act is always difficult. I feel it’s crucial to leave room for interpretation, because in the end I believe art is for the well being and improvement of humanity.
AB: Your work covers a large variety of mediums, with image making at the center. Though, you are also a bookmaker, a poet, and an educator. Can you talk about why you chose to work in these mediums?
CRG: They all revolve around creative expression. Being a shy person, I feel I didn’t have a voice for many years, now in my forties, I feel I am able to let go of my fears and use all these outlets for my own expression. I love books, I have always been a bookworm and I also have a small collection of photo books by my favorite artists, not just photographers. I feel books are a powerful, economical, democratic and simply delicious way to experience and consume images. Recently I took a bookbinding workshop and plan to continue making my own handmade books to host my images. I also love words and feel that books are just great for this purpose. For Historias Fragmentadas, I am working on including lots of text. Regarding my poetry, I don’t have a formal training in creative writing; I write poems because I feel I can say things through my poems I normally wouldn’t say. I feel everyone should write poetry. We need more poetry in our world. And finally I am an educator because I feel I need to give back to my community. We are living in a time where we are saturated with images. Social media and the internet are inundated with all sorts of images. We are all photographers. My teaching is all about slow art. Quality instead of quantity, images with a purpose, with intention.
AB: You are a portrait photographer by profession, how do you balance your own conceptual and fine art photography with working and creating for clients that might not be as interested in the artistic field of image making?
CRG: These two practices are indeed very different. My portrait work is a collaboration between me and my clients. I work with them to create the images they want and I also give them something extra something they are not expecting because my fine art nurtures my commercial work. And my commercial work gives me the financial means to continue creating and promoting my fine art work. My hope is someday to get a gallery representation to concentrate on image making.
AB: I must ask, who are some artists that have inspired your practice?
CRG: My early influences were Julia Margaret Cameron, Francesca Woodman, Joyce Tenneson and my first photographer teacher, Roberto Huarcaya who is now a leading authority on photography in Peru. Lately, I am admiring the work of Latin American photographers María María Acha-Kutscher, Luis Gonzales Palma and Karen Miranda-Rivadeneira. I also have to acknowledge that the amazing work of Salvador Dali, has been a constant influence. I had a chance to visit his museum in Figueres for the first time this year. His free spirit was refreshing and encouraging. I want to continue creating art that is true to my soul.