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Lillian Aguinaga - telling a story, creating awareness, facilitating change

New Orleans, LA / United States

Lillian Aguinaga is a Peruvian-American contemporary figurative painter based in New Orleans, LA. Lillian studied at the University of Memphis until relocating to Lafayette, LA, where she received a BFA in Painting from the University of Louisiana - Lafayette in 2010. Her Peruvian influences, combined with being raised by a single mother in the Southern United States, give Lillian a unique perspective on culture and identity.

Lillian's striking workplaces focus on the fear of the unknown, the pursuit of belonging and individuality, as well as perseverance in the face of great uncertainty. In her latest painting series, 'Hidden in Plain Sight,' Lillian delves into the human response to grief and mortality. Grief can be the result of a relationship ending, a missed opportunity, or the revocation of fundamental rights. Through self-reflection and observation of others, she examines the transcendence of the self when we overcome our fears, embrace the unknown, and persevere. This series has become an integral part of Lillian's grieving and healing process. Her own experiences with hardships, as well as the tenacity of the strong, powerful women in her life, have an immense impact on her work. The intense color schemes capture the spirit of her subjects and evoke the sensation of stillness in chaos for the audience. Her command of light and shadow, influenced by color and lighting effects in cinematography, leave her audience with a sense of mystery and possibility.

Lillian also invests fervently in her community. She curates group shows and art markets that provide a space for other community artists, and she organizes fundraisers for organizations that are actively fighting for equality and justice within art and education.

Your Peruvian influences combined with being raised by a single mother in the Southern United States give you a unique perspective on culture and identity. How do these diverse experiences and backgrounds shape the themes and messages in your artwork?

One of the themes in my work is about individuality and finding where we fit in. This stems from my early schooling, which was the opposite of diverse. I grew up in Memphis and went to a catholic school until middle school, then public school until I graduated. I was often made fun of for the way I looked, especially my small Peruvian eyes and my unique last name. Being different in so many ways, physically and social-economically, helped me grow a thick skin. Although I felt these differences, my mother was always reassuring, and she never made me feel like I lacked anything.

It wasn’t until my adult teenage years that I started to be proud of my name and my differences.

I also spent time with my family in Peru every year. It’s an interesting shift going back and forth between a giant city like Lima with a completely different culture and the southern city of Memphis, which exists in the conservative southern states. Taking from both cultures definitely shaped my youth and continues to affect my perspective to this day.

Your latest painting series, 'Hidden in Plain Sight,' delves into the human response to grief and mortality. Can you share how your personal experiences with hardships and the strength of the strong women in your life have influenced this series and your approach to depicting these emotions in your art?

This series was spawned by my own grief and the need to paint it out. In trying times, I’ve always managed to pick myself up and keep going. This is most likely learned behavior after seeing my mother traverse much hardship and be able to survive and thrive.

The intense color schemes and lighting effects in your paintings create a sense of stillness in chaos for the audience. How do you use these artistic elements to convey the emotions and experiences of your subjects, especially when exploring themes of stress, grief, and mortality?

I use color to represent a certain mood or feeling in the subjects. For instance, the paintings that focus more on mortality and sadness tend to have more cool blues and violets. I use the intensity of color to intensify emotions.

The temperature of the colors can also convey the radiation of the emotional state of the subject. The use of intense color in the shadows emphasizes the concept of being "hidden in plain sight" in the shadows.

Your artist statement emphasizes the concept of shadows as temporary, just like life itself. How do you capture the transient nature of shadows and their connection to the human experience in your artwork?

I do this through the use of color and temperature. Every shadow is a projection of, but not an actual, reality.

The dramatic prominence of the shadow captures the instant of the impermanence of the moment.

Your work focuses on the pursuit of belonging and individuality, as well as perseverance in the face of great uncertainty. Can you elaborate on how you explore these complex and universal themes in your paintings?

There's almost always an obvious light source in my paintings. This increases the shadows. Even if the figure is engulfed in a shadow, there's always a light, a chance to persevere.

When it comes to individuality, sometimes we hide in our own shadows because we don't feel like we belong and camouflage ourselves. Sometimes, we cast our own shadows because we aren't confident in who we are, and this becomes self-defeating and self-sabotage.

'Hidden in Plain Sight' has become an integral part of your healing process. How does the act of creating art and expressing your emotions through your paintings contribute to your personal growth and healing?

It is cliche, but I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t paint. I feel like I would die! Having art as an outlet has been crucial to dealing with life, even as a child. It helps me process emotions, slows down my mind, and helps keep negative thoughts at bay. It’s an outlet. I didn’t always recognize that I use it in a therapeutic way.

I finally realized it in 2016. Early that year, I experienced a lot of hardships - I lost my home and studio to a fire, ended a 10-year relationship, and had back surgery, all within a matter of about a month. The end of that relationship resulted in being stalked and harassed for nine months. I began to have sleep paralysis and bad nightmares of a shadow figure standing over me. I was terrified to sleep; it was driving me insane, and I was living with so much fear.

One night, I was crying on the phone with my best friend, telling her how exhausted I was but that I was scared to go to sleep. She simply said, “Paint it out.” And that’s what I did. After that, the nightmares ceased. It wasn’t a magical cure, but it sure did feel miraculous. To this day, I still get those nightmares, but they’re rare. I know that if they become disruptive, I can just paint them out.

The human experience and response to everyday burdens are central themes in your art. How do you approach the representation of such emotional subjects, and what challenges and rewards do you encounter while exploring these intimate and vulnerable moments?

I always photograph my subjects first. The photography aspect is crucial to my work but can be challenging. Although I explain the concept and direct the models, they each bring their own emotions and vulnerability to the set. I try my best to capture all of that in the photos and in my paintings.

Artists are emotional sponges and we soak up all the emotions. Throughout the entire process, from idea to photographing to painting, it can feel mentally taxing and a bit overwhelming. This might be the biggest challenge of all.

However, the reward is far greater than the challenges. Once you’ve nailed a piece, it’s completely worthwhile. It’s a complete boost.

What is unexpected is also the most rewarding thing, which is the response from the models, viewers, and collectors. Many times, I’ve heard from models that the photography process is therapeutic, and they’re uplifted to see themselves in my work. I also often get responses from viewers and collectors saying that my work is empowering and comforting in how relatable it is.

I don’t create for other people, I create for myself. However, hearing these responses makes what I do that much more special and fulfilling.

Your involvement in curating group shows and organizing fundraisers for equality and justice within art and education demonstrates your investment in the community. How do you believe art can contribute to social change, and how do you use your platform as an artist to advocate for these causes?

One of the most beautiful aspects of art is it speaks without words.

When an image tells a story, it can create awareness, which can create change. My art often centers around or stems from femme empowerment. In my latest series about grief, it represents loss not just from death, but also in revocation of rights.

As an artist, I think it’s important to use our talents to help create awareness.

In addition, donating art to raffles and auctions can provide funding for various groups actively involved in social change.

Your artwork evokes a sense of mystery and possibility through your command of light and shadow. How do you achieve this balance between mystery and clarity, and what emotions or thoughts do you hope your audience takes away from engaging with your paintings?

Some of the subjects in my pieces appear more confrontational, but most of my pieces give you an intimate glimpse into the subject. This can seem mysterious but I use hand gestures and expressions to give hints, which can create clarity.


Another way mystery is apparent is how much of the face is revealed as clarity comes with the light and the tightly rendered areas.


I hope viewers find comfort in relating to the raw emotions in the pieces. I want them to realize there is strength in vulnerability, and growth can bloom from that.

Your artist statement speaks about how our light can be dimmed and concealed, but it can be bright again. Can you share a specific painting from your series that encapsulates this idea, and how do you use visual storytelling to portray the journey from darkness to renewed light?

"Tapada Limeña" is about a fascinating moment in Peruvian history where women protested and persevered.

In the 1500s, women who lived in the capital in Lima, Peru, began wearing cloaks with veils, or sayas and mantos, that covered their entire face and body except one eye. These women were referred to as Tapada Limeñas. Although it might seem oppressive, this attire actually gave them a bit of freedom as it hid their true identities.

The Tapada Limeñas received backlash from the Catholic church, which tried to ban the fashion multiple times. The church feared "transvestism” was taking place. At one point, when lawmakers were trying to ban the custom, the tapadas limeñas didn't protest. Instead, they unionized and went on strike by simply halting their traditional female work, which turned the city upside down in just 24 hours. Needless to say, they got their way.

This history is interesting in many ways. The freedom we feel by hiding our identity and putting on a mask is bewitching. The tenacity of these women is inspiring - they didn't give up when the church tried to dim their light. They fought, and they won!


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