Mariela Ajras: “I Think of the City as a Large Canvas Loaded With Morphological and Historical Stories”
Addressing themes involving memory, oblivion and gender, the Argentinean visual artist and muralist, Mariela Ajras, displays her art on the walls of numerous cities around the world such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego, Barcelona, Valencia, Salamanca, Mexico City , Bogota, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, among many others. With a background in psychology, she has participated in different urban art festivals, exhibitions, fairs and public art projects, one of the largest murals in the city of Buenos Aires being the one she developed for the project “Corredor de la Memoria”, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing.
From the organisation, Public Art Review, she was recognised as one of the most influential female muralists in South America. Getting to know the creative processes and the work behind her murals, understanding the role they play in cities from her point of view and how they are able to relate to the architecture that surrounds them are some of the topics we set out to develop in conversation with Mariela Ajras.
Agustina Iñiguez (@ArchDaily): What is your source of inspiration when designing the murals? Do you have references to follow, who are they?
Mariela Ajras: My source of inspiration when painting the murals is varied. Much of the process is determined by where the wall is located, its context, the community it belongs to, the history behind the building, its particular architecture, how old it is. I am also very inspired by the color palette surrounding the wall, textures that appear from the passage of time, from the surrounding roofs, if there are any patterns of moldings, tiles, sculptures, etc.
On the one hand, the surrounding colors and shapes have a strong visual impact at the time of starting to design, and on the other, in the encounter with the wall and its shapes, a sort of story begins to emerge, a visual narration that corresponds to the sensations that arise in me. Inspiration is elusive, to tell the truth, it always appears in a blurred form. It is a combination between the purely visual impact of shapes and colours, and a conceptual narrative that I have been deploying in my work related to the concept of memory, oblivion and a question about the feminine universe. I think of the city as a large canvas loaded with morphological and historical narratives.
AI: What is the creative process like prior to the realisation on site?
MA: The creative process prior to the realization involves a field survey. I usually walk around the wall, if it is in a historic building. Such was the case of the last project I did in Buenos Aires for the Museo de la Ciudad, where I had to intervene, on the one hand, in the dividing wall next to the Ezcurra House (one of the oldest mansions in Buenos Aires located in the heart of what was the colonial city, dating from 1830) and on the other, The Heights of the La Estrella pharmacy. Both properties belong to the museum and are part of the so-called historic center of the city. As such, they have a lot of history and architectural relevance.
I observe and am struck by the conservation of the original façades, the domes, the sculptures of the Plaza de Mayo, the basilica, the tiles of the houses, the vitreaux to let light into these ancient houses, the wooden staircases, etc. Some parts abandoned to the inclemency of time maintaining their structure and have been filled with vegetation between their bricks, marks of time, roots and humidity that leave a very stimulating texture on a visual level. Not to mention the infinite number of stories that have been woven in those rooms that have marked the history of our city. All these variables have an effect on my creative process when thinking about the design of this mural, for example.
AI: What was the most challenging mural you developed?
MA: All murals are always a big challenge in many ways, mainly physically, but also emotionally. I would say that the most challenging murals have been the larger scale ones because they involve a high level of pre-production and delivery. The mural commemorating the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing at the Hospital de Clínicas was a technical challenge without a doubt, but it also carried a great given the importance of the subject matter for Buenos Aires society. And the last mural I did on the wall of the Ministry of Culture for the Museo de la Ciudad was very challenging on a technical level, as I painted a portrait on an enormous scale, one of the biggest faces I have ever painted in my life .
AI: What role do you think murals play in cities?
MA: Community role: knotting of meanings between art, the social imaginary and the real interaction of people. The mural appears in the city landscape as a marking of color and form that triggers emotions and senses on a visual level but also on a community level. The process of painting a mural provokes particular types of interactions between passers-by who are challenged by the work and, in response to this challenge, are ready to interact with each other on the basis of what the mural generates in them. This makes the mural a third instance between two people who now interact as peers who share emotions and produce meaning together. Interaction of pairs in front of this third fact and not two people facing each other who define themselves by opposition, but by that which now unites them, summons them. In this sense, the mural as a relational event has great collective potential. Especially murals with themes that speak directly to the historical problems that affect the community to which they belong.
Role of unblocking the aesthetic dimension. In terms of the experience of the citizen passing through the city, the encounter with a piece of art that becomes part of their everyday landscape, at the very least, provokes the activation of the imagination, a playful and imaginative treatment that has the effect of unblocking the aesthetic dimension. In my opinion, there is something therapeutic in this event; in this encounter, an experience is generated which expands the limits of subjectivity. There is something that unfolds at the level of subjective power on being summoned or affected by a work of art, and not only in a positive way. I don’t believe that my murals always arouse good feelings, not everyone can like them (in fact, I am the first to criticize them), but I do that this encounter is an affectation: something of the interior unfolds together with the transformation of the exterior. A city that becomes a museum, that opens up to new aesthetic dimensions and proposes new urban poets.
Role of art in general. I am excited by the potential of artistic practice to expand the boundaries of everyday experience. The possibility of constructing an ‘other space’ in which to inhabit transcendence. Breaking the veil of an anesthetised every day to allow us a heightened moment of grace that returns us to a more genuine state of being. It is these states that I feel and try to evoke in my work. A pause, a strong commotion. The social crossing of artistic practice in a profound reflection of the scope of art. Producing works to move us with the other, to unite us as spectators of beauty. To break out of the automatism of an alienating contemporary everyday life and to surrender to ourselves beauty as an act of political-aesthetic resistance. It is towards this everyday sensitisation that I aim in my quest. I will not be able to change the world through art but I can create artistic instances that allow people to feel more exalted, inspired and empathetic states. Designing experiences that empower and strengthen the spirit to further explore the complexity of the human experience.
AI: Do you think muralism depends on architecture?
MA: 100 per cent! At least in my personal experience, one does not exist without the other. The inherent dialogue between a wall (which emerges initially as the product of an architect’s thinking) and the mural that will later be inscribed on it is inevitable. The two are in constant dialogue. The compositions and realisations are determined by the previous architecture. The architecture offers not only a surface on which to realise the work but also a number of variables that influence the mural from its design to its execution. I am interested in thinking about the idea of murals as knottings of poetic and aesthetic meanings within the territories delimited by architecture. The urban cartographies that intertwine between architecture and the marking of a mural, new ways of rewriting the map of a city in constant. I feel it is time to start conceiving these processes in an integrated way. I long the idea of beginning to incorporate mural art as another element of the architectural layout, where walls and buildings would be built with a mural from the beginning, where their visibility and access would be improved, and where together they would enhance the aesthetic and poetic capacity that both proposals introduce into the experience of what it is to inhabit a city.