An Interview with Artist Sabrina Diaz

by Amy Brady

This month I have for you a great interview with Sabrina Diaz, a Miami-based artist who works only with found and donated materials to create her art. (She discusses why in our interview below.) She’s also a member of Fempower, an artist collective led by queer, black, and brown artists whose work focuses on systemic oppression – including the ways in which climate change makes life worse for the world’s most vulnerable.

Your work incorporates all kinds of materials, both man-made and natural. Do you have a favorite material to work with? Do you have a favorite medium to work in?

I didn’t plan it, but textile and fabrics have revealed themselves as themes in my work. I’ve used clothing, bed sheets, and scrap fabric that were all donated to me to make rope, giant rag dolls, and macramé nets. It really has proven itself to be a mutable material. I always add an earthly element like sand, leaves, or dirt to my pieces as well. Earth acts as a multifaceted symbol, but one message that has remained consistent in every piece – and I hope resonates – is the feeling of shared healing and home.

You don’t purchase any of the materials you use in your work. Why is that?

Many reasons, but the main reason is that I’ve been a student my whole life, have had a minimum of two jobs since I started working and have been paying off debt, mostly medical, and credit cards, since I was 18. Purchasing supplies often means contributing to that debt. That being said, I have to acknowledge that I have one of the more privileged circumstances. As an able-bodied, white-Latina, I’ve always had a job, a place to sleep, and a support system. My position is often seen as a best-case scenario while living in the US, a world powerhouse, but such an equation just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m trying to imagine a world past capitalism, which specifically thrives on exploitation. Making art that I feel stands in opposition of our current system means challenging myself to work outside of its means of control. Most often that means reaching out to my community for resources and skills.

We live in a culture that glamorizes resource hoarding for the ego stroke that is “doing things on your own” but that’s the biggest illusion. I literally wouldn’t have been able to make anything without the support of those who contribute material, ideologies, or skill sets. Our interdependence becomes more apparent through this process. The purchasing of a product or service allows you to be disconnected from the labor that goes into it by real people whose livelihoods are reduced to the value of these items. Connecting with friends and strangers reminds me that our survival will depend on each other, and my art-making allows me to engage with that truth more directly by activating communal skill sharing.

Tensión Palpable is a sculpture made of re-purposed fabric and tree trunk. This piece stands in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico post-hurricane Maria. More than a year later, the island continues to struggle and overcome. The piece re-imagines the tension between Mother Earth and the people of Puerto Rico, a US occupation. The colors of the fabric create a confusable interplay between the Puerto Rican and American flags. Its torn state reflects the strain of Puerto Rican identity in the midst of crisis. The interlaced fabric propping up the log imitates the people of PR tending to their land and healing communally.” —Sabrina Diaz

What first drew you to the subject of climate disaster, and why do you pursue it in your art?

I’ve lived in Miami my entire life, and we see better than anyone else anywhere in the US the effects of the climate crisis. I became unhealthily obsessed with the life changes I could make as an individual to contribute less to climate disaster and remember losing my mind on social media one day about the water crisis when Niki Franco, Fempower political educator and friend, recommended I read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. That’s when I started to understand that my efforts were futile if I didn’t begin to combat the wealthy people not only contributing to climate disaster on a massive scale but using it as a tool against marginalized communities.

As summers become unbearably hot and sea levels become noticeably higher, the poorest in Miami are affected first through climate gentrification, increased health problems due to longer heat waves, and more powerful hurricanes, which put those living on the street and in less stable houses at higher risks of injury or death. Maintaining a livable environment on Earth sounds like a cause we should all be able to get behind but we have to start speaking truth to the elite that are trying to get rich at our expense. My art ultimately points the finger of climate disaster at the powers that be, those who consistently put profit over people.

Tell us about the art collective you’re a part of. What are their goals, and how does your art connect to the other work they’re creating?

Fempower is a queer, black and brown-led artist collective that fights against systematic oppression by centering the needs of the most vulnerable. Through community education, activism, art, music, healing and shared joy, we are changing Miami’s political landscape. We have free programming like the Femme Fairy garden, which brings people together to tend to the Earth and learn environmentalism, herbalism, and activism through self-sustaining farming practices. Liberation book club provides free education on topics like decolonization, abolition, eroticism, and environmental justice. The knowledge learned in Fempower spaces has strategically been inaccessible by other means because it gives power back to the people: Fempower’s ultimate goal. Much of the book club readings have sparked the concepts behind my work. I attempt to create a visual language that’s as critical as the theory we’re learning and can act as an alternative method of seed-spreading.

What do you hope viewers take away from your art?

I’ve been stunted recently, because I’ve been trying to find ways to send messages of hope. I think hope gets people closer to imagining something new. Until then, I want to leave people feeling uncomfortably burdened. My pieces are bigger in scale and normally heavy for that reason – I want people to feel crushed by the weight of knowing until that weight breaks their apathetic facade. We need people to start deeply caring for each other.

When it comes to climate change, are you hopeful for the future?

Being active in my community keeps me hopeful. I think being unconditionally supported eventually makes you a more supportive person. Over all, I stay grounded knowing that if we do die off, Earth lives on, flourishing – I’ll stay fighting until then.

(Top image: Photo by Joice Gonzalez. Instagram handle: @joicegonz.)

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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