Inspired by people and a need to see herself represented

Artist and photographer Alanna Airitam's series "The Golden Age" is part of the San Diego Art Institute's "ABOUT-FACE" exhibit, on display through June 3.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Alanna Airitam wanted to be just like her dad when she grew up. She describes him as “an amazing artist” who showed her how to use all of the tools necessary for painting and drawing when she was a kid. She became very skilled at drawing faces and facial expressions of people she’d conjured up in her mind, creating back stories for them, and becoming fascinated by the reasons behind why people did the things they did.

“I asked a lot of questions as a kid, and I’d study people’s faces because I somehow was able to tell if someone was telling the truth or not. Or, at least, I thought I had that superpower,” she says. “I kind of feel bad for my parents because I was that kid that always said, ‘Why?’ Clearly, I was annoying, but the cool thing about it is, I got good at reading people. And I think having that skill has served me well.”

She took a break from creating art in her 30s to take an office job, which she ended up hating and led to her diagnosis of a stress-related illness. Fed up with her job, she began dabbling in photography, which eventually moved her down the path of portraits. Her portrait series, “The Golden Age,” was inspired by Dutch Realism and her own need to see people who looked like her in positions of beauty, grace and pride. Her work is currently on display in the San Diego Art Institute’s “ABOUT-FACE” exhibit, featuring photography, sound installation and video through June 3.

Airitam, 47, is an artist and photographer who lives in downtown San Diego. She took some time to discuss her work, what inspires her in creating it, and what she’s discovered about herself in the process.

Q: What appeals to you about photography and expressing yourself through this form that you don’t get from drawing?

A: I really love the flexibility I have with reality. I can document something or I can completely make it up — either way, it gives me the control to tell a story in one frame. And the stories I want to tell are about people and how we relate to each other, how disconnected we are in some ways and also how beautiful we are. I get to tell stories from my perspective as a woman of color. Sometimes the perspective looks different when you have someone else’s shoes on your shoulders and I think it’s important that people see that perspective. Photography is just such a perfect medium for such complexities.

Q: What inspired your “The Golden Age” series?

A: I was fed up with my job. It was a toxic environment. I wasn’t contributing to anything with real meaning for me, and it just felt like I was wasting away in another cubical. My doctor diagnosed me with a stress-related illness and during this time, I was constantly on edge, emotional and angry. It wasn’t just the job. Even though I had given up watching the news years ago, it seemed like every week there was another “breaking news” story of a black person being gunned down by cops. And after the election, it seemed like it had become open season. I honestly had no idea how to process this; there was never any time. … I quit the toxic job with nothing lined up. I just knew I had to get out of there. I took advantage of the time I was looking for work to shoot. I had some lighting styles and color palettes I wanted to play around with, I called up some people, we talked and we took some photos. I had no idea where it was all going, but I knew that no matter what, I was going to show every single person who sat for me exactly how I saw them — like royalty. If people were going to portray us as “thugs,” I would show them the truth. If they wanted to make us out to be ugly, I would prove how beautiful we are. And it’s not for them, it’s for us because in that moment, I needed a reminder of all of that myself. “Golden Age” was the biggest “[expletive] you” to this sick and twisted system that I could get out of me.

Q: Why is it important to you to see black people in settings that show beauty, grace and pride?

A: It’s important for me to make a statement about the beauty, grace and pride of black people because it makes it harder to treat someone like an animal when you see their humanity. It’s only when you strip away someone’s humanity that makes it possible to torture and murder them with no remorse. That’s why it is important that these photos are hung at eye level. I want every person to be able to look into the eyes of a black man. Because let’s face it, there are many people that have never done that. And for black people to see themselves in this light, I hope it does something to uplift and elevate their sense of self and remember who we are.

What I love about downtown San Diego ...

I recently moved into my new live/work space in the Gaslamp. I never thought I’d want to live amongst the hustle and bustle of the convention goers, college partiers and tourists, but I love where I live. I have a window with the most perfect view for people-watching, and there are plenty of people to watch. Now, if only I can get those pedicab drivers to play something other than “Despacito,” it would be more than perfect.

Q: The San Diego Art Institute’s “ABOUT-FACE” exhibit is called an “exploration of oppression, cultural heritage and representation.” How does “The Golden Age” speak to these themes and issues?

A: I would like to think “The Golden Age” offers an alternative to seeing things differently when it comes to oppression. I think it’s part of the darkness of oppression that, after some time, the oppressor doesn’t even have to do any work. We can get so used to the feeling of oppression that we continue to do it to ourselves. But we can also free ourselves by shifting our perspective. “The Golden Age” speaking to representation is very personal to me as an artist. I always wanted to be an artist, but as a kid didn’t really see people who looked like me being represented in the art world. Sure, there were works of art featuring black people. There were artists and probably some art spaces being run by black people but I saw very little, if any, of that. And so the message I got was that I didn’t belong in those spaces. So as a young person wanting to be an artist, but seeing the lack of people who looked like me, what other message was I to gather from that? I felt it was a part of my responsibility to leave something behind for younger people who might go wandering into those spaces so they can see themselves there. I’m so thrilled to see so many other incredible artists in those spaces now. It makes it all feel much more possible.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work?

A: What has been challenging, but also very rewarding is the amount of attention “The Golden Age” has gotten. I am so humbled and grateful for this experience, but I had no idea how it was going to affect people and wasn’t prepared for the amount of conversation it would spark. I want to have all of these conversations because they are relevant and meaningful, and talking about the hard stuff creates shifts. I made the work, I need to be willing to have the conversations, but my time management skills could benefit from an upgrade.

Q: What’s been rewarding about your work?

A: It has been incredibly rewarding to see how it has inspired others. I get messages daily from people thanking me for helping them talk about these issues. I love when people tell me they’ve been inspired to start their art practice again, but I’m especially moved when I get messages from kids about wanting to be an artist or that they like my work. It gives me hope that things are shifting.

Q: What has it taught you about yourself?

A: OK, I know this is going to sound very esoteric, but I don’t care. I have been able to find a better balance in my life where I have my eyes set on the things that I want, but not try to control or force things to have a particular outcome. I’m more in the flow and allow things to unfold the way they are supposed to. So, there’s been an interesting balancing point I’ve found between moving toward the things I want, but allowing it to show up the way it wants. It’s constant work, but I’ve learned this is what I’ve had to learn in order to do the work that I do.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I don’t know if people would be surprised by this or not, but I take the majority of my phone calls and messaging while roller skating around my studio. Chances are, if you’ve interacted with me during the day, I’m wearing roller skates.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend would be slow mornings with good coffee. Maybe Saturday, getting out into the sun in the afternoon at the beach, or maybe a hike or even just a walk around the city, and a fun evening with friends. Sunday would be spent making art. This sounds perfect to me!


Twitter: @lisadeaderick