With a population of a little more than 200,000, Washington Heights is 1.7 square miles sitting at the north end of Manhattan. It was first settled by Irish immigrants, and by the mid-twentieth century, became the largest US refugee settlement of German Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Today it hums as the American epicenter of Dominican culture. Imagine the aroma of deep fried chicharrón wafting through the sounds of classic merengue blaring from a bodega and reggaeton blasting from an apartment window. Street vendors are busy selling everything from suspicious M.A.C. lipsticks to pastelitos con queso y jamón as “Oye primo” resounds from all corners. A cacophony of Spanish ricochets louder and faster than a Pedro Martinez fastball. Unlike other heavily gentrified ’hoods in New York City, la gente have kept the soul of this community intact. So, on a snowy December afternoon in her South Bronx studio, when artist Tiffany Alfonseca proudly proclaims, “I’m Dominican as fuck,” I know exactly what she means.
Dominican-American artist Tiffany Alfonseca is new to the contemporary art world, but she has always had an innate, special relationship with figures, drawing lines, colors, and shapes. “I’ve always been an artist. My earliest memory as a three-year-old was drawing mermaids and dolphins.” And unlike many immigrant parents who encourage their kids to get good stable jobs, Alfonseca found a real cheerleader in her mother, who now exults to friends and family, “Yo tengo un hija artista famosa.” “My mom loves the fact that I’m an artist. I could never see myself doing anything else.”
Alfonseca lived in the Gunhill section of the Bronx but spent most of her waking hours in the Washington Heights/Inwood section of Manhattan. “I grew up in the Inwood, 207th street area. I love that area. It’s like little DR, I feel like home there,” she says. The 26-year old is the younger of two sisters, her older sibling, a psychologist, and although their mother was born in the U.S., like many immigrant families, she adopted entrepreneurial skills and created several streams of income, owning two daycare centers and managing her own catering operation. “I was raised in a super Dominican household. Spanish is my first language. And in our house, there were lots of bright colors and fruits and plants all through the house. It all shows up in my work,” Alfonseca explains.
After attending Fashion Industries High School where she honed her drawing and illustration skills, but learned that fashion was not her medium, Alfonseca eventually graduated from the School of Visual Arts. Like many artists of color, Alfonseca echoes a reoccurring narrative often expressed by attendees of storied arts education institutions, citing a Eurocentric curriculum that focuses on works, artists, and ideologies rooted in Western philosophies. Her frustration still fresh in mind, she recalls, “In that group, I was one of the only Spanish-speaking people. There were only, like, five people of color in my cohort. The feedback I was given on my work was that it’s ‘exotic.’ Why is that the response, because I’m Latina, I have to be exotic?”
This all-too-common reality at the university level is finally being re-examined with intensity at contemporary art museums and institutions, especially in the last year. The exclusion and erasure of anything outside the cis-gendered white male gaze is a systemic issue that often appears at the university level and proliferates into museum and gallery spaces. Artists and narratives that diverge from classical Eurocentric standards are perpetually excluded or forced to live in the margins. Silence runs the risk of stagnating the whole contemporary art discipline.
While the world was in tumult for 2020, Alfonseca experienced a growth spurt that catapulted her onto the collective radar of curators and collectors, quite the feat for a new artist with no gallery representation. “I get recommended by word of mouth, and people reach out to me everyday through Instagram,” she said. She attributes her expansion to a few things, such as initiating a drawing series during quarantine when she asked close friends to pose for her, in this case, images of themselves they sent to her. Enjoying the experience so much, she extended the invitation to her Instagram followers, and the project just took off! Inadvertently, Alfonseca had successfully executed the best kind of marketing strategy—without even trying!
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