Interview with Cassandra Mayela

JO-HS Residency November 2022

Martha: what is your artistic background?

Cassandra: I didn’t go to art school. I am self taught. I went to college for journalism and dropped out and then enrolled in graphic design and specialized in digital textile design. I’ve always played with fabric and hand dyed stuff, and once I moved to new york, I expanded my knowledge. My approach was kind of inversed as I first learned about textiles digitally and then more traditional processes… I was really interested in making clothes and ironically now my practice is in a way about tearing down clothes.

Dani: Yes but also re-uniting it again…

C: Yes for sure!

D: Do you feel comfortable with sustainability?

C: Sure..! though I feel sustainability is a word that has been used very loosely these days, because there will always be waste as a byproduct of creating. In my practice I like to work with what’s already here, rather than new materials.

M: One man’s waste is another man’s treasure

C: Exacto

M: So in your practice you use recycled or upcycled clothing, but what is the motivation behind it?

C: I love working with used clothes, because I feel clothes have the power and capacity to really hold memories, so I feel particularly inclined to working with something as personal as people’s old garments. In the series Maps of Displacement I use clothing as a way to connect and humanize the migration experience as an alternative way to tell people’s own stories.

M: Yeah because every single one of those pieces of clothing has been worn by venezuelan people but they all experienced different things in their journeys.

C: yes -they belong to someone and they all have a meaning. I’m interested in learning what are those things that people feel are important to share, like what are those things that are marked along the way through their migratory process because it’s not a linear thing, some people have to move many times to different places until they figure out where they settle. There’s a lot of change in the process, people change…

: Does the action of weaving imply something relevant in work/speech/ process?

C: In this specific project it does. I’m taking all these bits that have been fractured one way or another. These bits being us, the people, fractured all over the world so it’s a gesture to unite us within our exile.

D: Have you been working with weaving and textiles since you started as an artist?

C: Yes though I don’t call myself a weaver as what I do is very experimental in my own style. I had a memory of building a loom when I was 9 and I kinda took it from there… With this core memory I started playing with fabric until I figured out how I wanted the project to look like but I’m not trained professionally as a weaver, I’ve read and seen a lot of videos lol.

D: So it’s not something your mother or grandmother taught you?

C: No, not at all… My grandmother used to knit a lot though. That’s something I regret, I never learnt how to knit from her -I should have.

M: Would you say that your weaving process was influenced by your hometown or country? You mentioned you did a weaving class when you were nine - Is weaving a Venezuelan craft?

C: I mean, weaving is a millenary practice! In every culture! What I’m sharing is the memory ofan extracurricular class. I was always very artsy and as a child my mother definitely championed that. I do think that every experience you have influences your work in a way and it’s quite funny and curious that this activity as a young kind made such an impression in me. It’s a vague memory but it is imprinted in my core. When I received the first 20 pieces for this project I thought I should start figuring out how I wanted to share this [Venezuelan immigrants’] message. It was all very intuitive and I didnt have it mapped out very clearly. For example, at first, I cut all the seams of the clothing received and sewed a few pieces together. I pieced T-shirts with pants etc. and it looked like a weird big sheet. It didn't do anything for me so I kept on playing with it until I landed on weaving.

M: When you collect these clothes I know you get each donor to write a small history about their clothing or their experiences as a Venezuelan immigrant. Can you highlight a single story that has resonated with you from collecting these materials?

C: Um… there was a girl who was a dancer who had packed these tights that she used to wear in practice. She had been in The States for three years at the time she gave them to me and she began to cry as they meant a lot to her but in a way she was also letting go of that version of herself, allowing room for who she currently was. After 3 years of living in the US, she had never been able to wear these tights so she gave them to me to make peace with the fact she might not be able to dance again. Now she is a new version of herself and she gets to live a new life but that also involves saying goodbye to past elements of her previous life.

M: Knowing that these tights will be sewn into a Venezuelan story helped her through this process?

C: It was sad yet joyful, definitely bitter sweet. The experience can be very cathartic specially if I start cutting the garment infront of the person who gave it to me.

M: It’s quite an emotional experience tearing up certain aspects and memories of their life.

C: Yeah, definitely.

M: With all these different clothes and experiences would you say you’re sharing them without forcing views or opinions onto the audience?

C: Totally! If you have an understanding that every fabric belonged to a different person you can relate to at least one eg. “My father used to have a shirt like that” that already made you feel something completely independent from the message of my work. Or maybe you really like a fabric and wonder what it used to be or you see a bikini and it takes you to a memory of you at the beach. Clothes have the capacity to stir very tangible memories in us.

M: Your career has been multifaceted, you’ve done a variety of different jobs. Could you talk us through a few of these and talk about how these could have possibly influenced your practice and your life as an artist?

C: I think I was never satisfied with doing only one thing. In Venezuela we have a saying of ‘toderos’ where you kind of do a bit of ‘todo’/‘everything’. I was into a lot of things growing up, I was into styling, designing, photography etc. And also the country forces you into having a side hustle as you have to be creative in order to get by. In the States, once I migrated, there is no way to do only what you had in mind to do. I was a nanny, a bartender, a waiter… to afford living and getting by.

D: How long have you lived outside Venezuela?

C: Almost 9 years. Next April it will be nine years. I would say the past three years my life has begun to make some sense. Before that I was still figuring out and adapting to American life. It’s weird, this year, for the first time I no longer feel homesick, I feel nostalgic on a level but I don’t see Caracas as my hometown any more.

M: Do you feel New York is your home?

C: Yeah, it feels a little odd and very cool and kinda sad.

M: It’s an interesting shift. Would you ever consider moving back to Caracas or Venezuela?

C: No, I think I would love to spend more time there but it has changed so much and I have changed so much that I can’t see myself living back in Venezuela full time, though who knows! I never ever thought I’d live in NY.

M: What has been your biggest achievement in your career?

C: This exhibition?!

M: And your biggest challenge?

C: This exhibition!

M: After/during this exhibition, what would you like the audience to take away/learn?

C: I think honestly it’s more about humanizing the experience and challenging this default stereotypical idea that society has of what a migrant is. When I say migrant or immigrant we think of a person with a lack of knowledge and resources and is moving in this world illegally -this is not true and though it may be real in some cases, it is not the entire picture. What is moving in this world illegally when birds and butterflies and fish go from the north to the south every year? We’re the only species that is confined to one space. Society tells us we’re worth more or less depending on where we were born… Why? I want to challenge that idea. I hope that people meditate about what it is to move freely in this world. I want the audience to check their privilege or lack thereof and for people to become an ally for people who need help and understanding. So on one hand I want people to reflect on this and, on the other hand to shine a light on this crisis, which is the second largest displacement crisis in the world right after Syria. If this resonates I want the viewer to do their own research about the Venezuelan situation and draw their own conclusions and opinions.

Do you think more people should take more responsibilities to educate themselves on situations happening in other countries?

C: Yeah, totally. This work is political but I try to make it as little as possible as I feel like.

M: You’re not forcing an opinion onto anyone.

C: That’s the intention. In a way facts can be an opinion. I believe you have to watch and read a range of different channels/sources to formulate an opinion. If you’re only reading one narrative you can’t understand where other people are coming from, even if you don’t agree.