Albany Andaluz: ‘Art was my safe place’
Raised in a public housing project in the Bronx, New York, life-taught artist Albany Andaluz uses colloquialisms to draw intersections between her Caribbean, Latin American, and American experiences. In this exclusive interview with TNF, she reflects on her traumatic childhood, the root causes of male violence, and how her artistry helped her heal the wounds that living in an abusive environment had caused her.
The screams pierce through her little body like sharp blades. She curls up in her bed, vanishing under the sea of blankets, trying to keep quiet and still, to be a good girl, like her father tells her time and again. But no matter how hard she tries, she never seems to be good enough. And neither does her mum.
If that was not the case, he wouldn’t mistreat us, she thinks.
Suddenly the commotion stops. Thank God, the fighting is over. She catches a glimpse of her father storming out of their small public housing apartment in Morrisania, the lowest-earning neighbourhood in The Bronx, New York City, slamming the door behind him.
A deafening silence reverberates in the air, soon interrupted by her mother’s trembling sobs. Albany gets out of bed and carefully tiptoes towards the lounge. Her mum lies in the middle of it. Don’t cry mum, she says, wrapping her small arms around her, as she wipes her tears. ‘I had to be her rock,’ she recalls, admitting that she could not help but feel resentful towards her.
‘I wondered why she was doing that to herself. Was this what it meant to be in love? To let a man control you?’ Albany says. She was only seven, but she already had it all clear: when she grew up, she would never allow anybody to treat her like that, she had no doubts.
HEALING TRAUMA THROUGH ART
‘I did not choose to become an artist. Art chose me,’ she explains.
Indeed, art was her only safe space, away from the daily abuse that she and her mother endured at the hands of her father, and the dangers of the violent underworld that dominated the local streets, preventing her from playing outside like any child of her age.
Albany, who was the only child to her Dominican mother and Ecuadorian father, started creating pieces of art from a very young age, blending materials that would otherwise be discarded.
‘Art started being my solace, the only way I could feel safe in my controlling, abusive household,’ she tells me, pointing out that as a small child who craved her parents’ love and support, she felt very confused and hopeless living in such a threatening and oppressive environment.
‘I had to speak or move in a certain way, otherwise my father would get mad. I soon learned that I had to be perfect to be safe,’ she says.
This continued until she gradually realised that silence was her best ally. So, when she was around ten, she stopped talking. ‘There would be many times I would be in a room and people would not hear me because I was so quiet,’ she explains.
Talk therapy helped her gradually build confidence and open up to the outside world again.
COLONISATION, CONFLICT, AND PATRIARCHY
But despite her traumatic childhood experiences, she does not hold any hard feelings towards her father.
‘He did what he did because that’s all he knew,’ she argues.
Along with patriarchy, she also blames Western colonisation for the violence deeply rooted among Latin American and Caribbean communities.
‘It is connected to colonisation and our history of conflict,’ she says, pointing out that the brutality employed by the colonisers against the native population often resulted in the victims turning into the oppressors, as defined by the so-called Stockholm syndrome when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers.
‘It is a trauma bond. In our cultures, getting beaten is seen as a way of correcting bad behaviour,’ Albany explains, warning that taking into account the vicious way in which colonisation took place, it does not come as a surprise that people, particularly those from her parents’ and older generations, may be in such a traumatised psychological state.
Having experienced misogyny in her own home, Albany internalised that she could not be emotional if she wanted to be as powerful as her father, whose behaviour would change dramatically when he was with other males. “Since I was a woman, he felt he had control over me,” she points out.
Indeed, within her community, expressing one’s own feelings was perceived as an intrinsically feminine trait, and as such, a sign of weakness.
‘I told myself that I could not be vulnerable,’ she says, adding that she would often reject her mother’s teachings, and with them, her feminine side, because they tended to perpetuate the subordinate role imposed upon women in patriarchal societies.
Her childhood experiences also affected her relationships later in life. ‘I thought I did not deserve love and attention and would be suspicious of anybody who showed some affection towards me. I would be like: “What’s wrong with you? How can you love me? Do you not see what’s wrong with me?”’
‘It was the consequence of not being validated, of being scrutinized just for existing’ she carries on.
She tried to hide away from the world for many years, admitting that she felt depressed until she was eighteen.
Paradoxically, however, the degree of control she was experiencing in her family fuelled her inquisitive mind and courageous, rebellious spirit. ‘I was being pushed to question everything,’ Albany explains, pointing out that she would constantly try to push her limits by making herself uncomfortable and scared, as a way to face her fears.
SUCCEEDING DESPITE LACK OF SUPPORT
As she grew up, she gradually developed her ability to ‘interact with herself and others’ through painting and singing, initially joining a band, but later continuing to perform solo.
Her first introduction to a professional artistic environment was not a formal one.
In fact, before college, she did not even take visual arts classes, which were among the optional recreational school activities, because every time she tried to sign up for them, she never got selected.
Indeed, her schoolteachers discouraged her from pursuing her artistic ambitions, arguing that she was wasting her intelligence on something that they did not see as a viable and sustainable career choice.
Things were not any better at home either, where family members not only refused to support her endeavours but would also laugh at her for persevering with them.
But Albany was determined to chase her dreams and become an artist, even without formal qualifications or support.
She would choose jobs that related to her passion and allowed her to build connections within the industry; she joined arts and entrepreneurial collectives, surrounding herself with people who were experts in the field.
‘It was a do or die mission. I told myself: “It has to work, I can’t die without this working,”’ she recalls.
Her determination paid off, and now, at only twenty-five years of age, Albany is an acclaimed artist whose works that resurrect discarded textiles to allude to the intersections of conflict, migration, and settlement, have awarded her residencies, grants, and features with international publications.
LET MEN BE VULNERABLE
Now Albany, who describes herself as a ‘warrior’, completely healed from her past traumas and is keen to help anybody who went through similar experiences and is looking for a way out.
She currently divides her time between the hustle and bustle of New York City and the slower pace of the Yucatán Peninsula, where she can find the mental space to focus on her creative work, something that she finds hard to do amidst the overstimulation of urban life.
But she loves to spend summers in New York, where she is involved in a community gardening project in her neighbourhood which aims to engage vulnerable young men who may otherwise risk being exposed to illegal activities, particularly in the summer, when schools close for the holidays and extracurricular activities are paused.
‘If we create a safe space for men to play the hero role that they always want to have, I think that will benefit women and will also benefit the relationship between sexes,’ Albany explains.
She believes that feminism is not just ‘a woman’s issue’ and that, in order to succeed in dismantling the patriarchal mentality entrenched in our societies, it is paramount that men can find a space to be their vulnerable selves, allowing them to redefine their masculinity.
‘My role as an artist extends as a mediator that listens to all sides,’ she asserts. She is aware that she does not have the power to heal anybody, because change comes from within.
However, she also believes that if her father had received the emotional support he needed, perhaps he would have become a different man. By giving back to the community, she is embodying that emotional support system, she says.
So far, she has mainly worked with female clients, or people identifying themselves as women, helping them visualise the life they want and empowering them through her paintings, but she intends to involve more men as well.
In addition to paintings, she also sells her music, which, just like the rest of her art, combines elements from Mestizo, Latin American, and American cultures and genres.
‘I think that creating hope and faith for one community is so important, particularly at this critical time,’ she says, arguing that there is too much emphasis on trauma, rather than using trauma to inform holistic ways of healing.
‘If nothing else, the pandemic taught us that we are all humans. We should continue to put aside our divisions and focus on our shared humanity,’ Albany states.