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California photographer turns her personal experiences into art

A detail shot from Aydinaneth Ortiz's "La Condicion de la Familia," a photo book she made about her family. (Courtesy of Sage Paisner )

A detail shot from Aydinaneth Ortiz’s “La Condicion de la Familia,” a photo book she made about her family. (Courtesy of Sage Paisner )

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

When she first started pursuing photography, Aydinaneth Ortiz saw it as an escape.

The California native recalled steering clear of anything too close to home, or close to her personal experience, in her images.

“In the beginning, I only wanted to take a pretty picture,” she said during a recent phone interview from her home in the Los Angeles area. “I was avoiding everything that was hard for me to deal with, vocalize and speak about.”

But when her younger brother Geovany died in 2013 after an altercation with her other brother, Israel – who suffers from mental health issues – she was done hiding.

“Everyone who I cared about or wanted to protect, everyone knew; there was no hiding it any more,” said Ortiz. “That’s why I took the liberty of ‘I’m just going to do this for myself, because I need to deal with it.’ ”

Ever since, the 32-year-old’s artwork has become a very personal practice, touching on themes relevant to her and her family’s experience: mental health, substance abuse, loss and other issues.

Several bodies of work from Ortiz dealing with these very topics will be part of a solo show at Foto Forum Santa Fe starting Friday. “Hogar” will remain up until Aug. 31. It will be Ortiz’s first showing in New Mexico.

“Her work is a very honest reflection of the circumstances that she’s gone through and almost everyone can look at someone in their family that struggles with some kind of mental health issue,” said Sage Paisner, Foto Forum’s executive director. “With her, it was an extreme case …, but I think it’s very relatable to society as a whole.”

The solo show at Foto Forum is an adjusted version of Ortiz’s thesis exhibition for the photography MFA she received last year from the California Institute of the Arts. She also received her art undergraduate degree from University of California, Los Angeles.

 A detail shot from Aydinaneth Ortiz's "La Condicion de la Familia," a photo book she made about her family.

A detail shot from Aydinaneth Ortiz’s “La Condicion de la Familia,” a photo book she made about her family.

Unlike that show, and as a way to provide context for the rest of the exhibition, Ortiz will be showing her 2013 photo book, “La Condición de la Familia.” She made the personal photo book while at UCLA as a way to deal with the loss of her brother, her then-22-year-old brother’s schizophrenia, how the two are connected, and how they’ve affected her and her family. She called the creation of the book the “catalyst” for her current art practice.

“La Condición,” she explained, is made up of archival family images, and images she made around that time of events and rituals related to Geovany’s passing, like lighting candles and going to the cemetery. There’s no text, with the exception of a copy of a restraining order she’s placed on one of the pages. She ends the book with a childhood photo of her and her siblings as a reminder of happier times.

“Through that process …, I was able … find some type of therapy in doing it,” she explained.

When she started showing the book at UCLA, “I started to notice that the world I thought was really small, unique to myself, dealing with mental health, was actually not,” she said. “It was just because nobody was talking about it … that it makes it feel like you’re alone. … But through showing the book more and more, I’ve had more people come up to me and share things … just because I’ve been so open in my personal experience.”

Also in the show is a series of large prints titled “Ingredients,” in which Ortiz photographed household products commonly used to create methamphetamine. Her interest in learning about meth came from her brother, who Ortiz said self-medicates his schizophrenia with that drug. She described the images of items like acetone and brake fluid as portraits rather than product photography; some viewers have also likened them to pop art, she said.

Ortiz said her brother Israel, who was not charged in Geovany’s death because police deemed it self-defense, has been in and out of jail ever since due to addiction. Following the younger one’s death, she said her brother was not provided psychiatric treatment because what happened was not considered a crime, something that Ortiz says still upsets her.

For Ortiz, creating “Ingredients” was her way of “investigating” and learning more about what could attract her brother to the drugs made from these everyday items.

“Through the process, I realized how readily available these products are and how dangerous they are,” she said. When she printed the images, she wanted to them large and “in your face,” ensuring the products’ warning labels are particularly clear.

A version of Aydinaneth Ortiz's installation recreating her brothers' room will be on display at the photographer's solo show at Foto Forum Santa Fe.

A version of Aydinaneth Ortiz’s installation recreating her brothers’ room will be on display at the photographer’s solo show at Foto Forum Santa Fe.

Not far from those, Ortiz plans to set up an installation based on one of the images in her photo book. The picture is of the room her brothers once shared following an episode in which her brother Israel tagged the walls and flipped furniture over. In that same scene, with graffiti’d walls and a bed with the sheets torn off, Ortiz added elements that she said came along later in his life, like destroyed light bulbs. She recalls her brother using light bulbs to smoke crystal meth.

“Normally, I’m very much a photographer and want to take a photo of what I’m dealing with or want to talk about,” she said. “But something about this physical object, I wanted to bring it into the space as it was so it could impact the viewer the way it impacted me when I saw it.”

But before the viewers see any of those series, Ortiz said that as viewers walk into Foto Forum, they will see a more “celebratory” series that is a departure from the rest, yet still based on issues important to her and her community. In response to the current rhetoric surrounding migrants, she was inspired to make “Hija de tu Madre.” The title of the series translates directly to “Daughter of Your Mother” (Ortiz noted it’s a play on a Spanish profanity), in which she photographed women who have migrated to the U.S. alongside their daughters. She’s added the years the mothers were born, their native country and the year they came to the U.S. In this ongoing series, one of the works is a portrait of her own mother, Ana, along with photographs of herself and her older sister.

“I kind of veered away from the trauma or things I’m angry about and wanted to embrace, and it’s because of our current political climate, women that have migrated from their home countries to the United States and had daughters who have thrived, succeeded, were able to get an education here; to show a different representation of these women.”

What has kept Ortiz being so vulnerable in her art, she said, is the response she’s received from others; people who can relate to loss, or have loved ones who have suffered from addiction or mental illness and the struggles with dealing with it. She plans to continue down this path of making this artwork based on her life experiences, and has considered making a recorded archive of the conversations she’s had with people who have opened up to her about their own similar experiences.

It’s difficult, Ortiz said about making such personal work, but the process of confronting and acknowledging is something she says has continued to offer some kind of solace.

“It’s just kinda tough, right? I do this work, not only because it helps me, but I feel in some way it’s also helping others,” she said. “Whether it’s someone who is dealing with the same situations or has a family member or who has friends (with similar issues), so we’re starting this conversation that most people tend to keep to themselves.”

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