PHOENIX, Ariz. — Phoenix-based artists Merryn Omotayo Alaka and Sam Frésquez’s collaborations center experiences of gender, queerness, and race through architected futures and reimagined pasts. Though each artist maintains an independent practice, their combined interdisciplinary work continues to receive sustained attention in the Southwest and beyond. Their piece “Kanekalon Forest” (2022) is currently on view at the Phoenix Art Museum as part of the 2021 Lehmann Emerging Artist Awards exhibition. The installation features three massive sculptures made of Kanekalon hair and clamps, steel, and wire, suspended from the ceiling, grazing low plinths on the floor.
Adornment and references to the body are recurring motifs in both artists’ work. The two created a “fictive speculation” that relates the regenerative biology of the Linckia starfish, which can regrow an entire new starfish from a severed arm, to regenerative trees that grow from severed Yaki ponytails. “Our collaborative work has been about alternate worlds that could exist,” she shared. Not just in the future she shared, “but even in the past and ways that it could have been.”
The two artists have been working together since attending Arizona State University, extrapolating their experiences into work that enables conversations about representation, structural and systemic violence, cultural preservation, and transference of knowledge.
“I come from a multicultural background; my dad’s Nigerian and my mom’s American. I’ve always been interested in work that’s being made across the diaspora,” shared Alaka. “I’m drawn to incorporating mediums and materials that are traditionally associated with African and West African craft, and using that to explore different ways cultural traditions are preserved, reproduced, and passed down intergenerationally through oral histories and collective memory.” Alaka received her BFA in 2019 in printmaking — a medium that, though still used by the artist, represented challenges concerning access to materials and studio space. She also began exploring metalwork and jewelry which has become integral to her solo work and her work with Frésquez. “Our collaborative practice introduced me to thinking more sculpturally and using more accessible materials.”
Issues of accessibility are an all-too-common reality for many artists working in the field of contemporary art. In cities like Phoenix, which was once a sought-after location for artist’s due to inexpensive real estate, has now seen its cost-of-living index increase over 13% in the last year alone. “Phoenix needs more artist studios,” shared Alaka. “The last studio we had, we and the other artists were kicked out so they could build a restaurant.” This, combined with a tourist driven art economy, can make it difficult to sustain one’s practice.
For Sam Frésquez, who was born in Mesa, Arizona, “being in the Valley of the Sun has its pluses and minuses.” A lot of the work I’m doing now and collaboratively I’ve been doing with my family,” she said. “My family are makers, they work with metals. My grandparents help us a lot with our projects — it’s a big part of being here for me.” Her work, which includes sculptural installation, video, photography, and audio, looks at the demystification of the private experience and how representation, misrepresentation, and lack of representation impact individuals and communities, while also including site-specificity and a relationship to land and Indigenous cultures. “I’ve always said I want to die here so I have bookends in my life,” she said. “It’s such a privilege to live in my ancestral land and it’s something that a lot of people don’t have. That has always been very special to me but there are limits [to what this city has to offer.]”