Donna Huanca (b. 1980, Chicago, IL) works investigates the natural world and all its chaos – thematizing cycles of renewal and decay. Her installations, which often incorporate painting, sculpture, and live performance, are intricately woven into the specific architectural spaces in which they are presented. Huanca’s art is deeply rooted in ritual, her rhizomatous practice serving as a conduit for transcendence, meditation, and transformation.
In 2022, Huanca created a captivating and immersive architectural environment for her commissioned exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, Washington. The space featured a vast stage of interlocking ovoid/cellular forms, landscaped with white sand and six mirrored “screen” sculptures, along with a selection of other sculptural work. Surrounding the gallery were four mural-sized paintings, each representing one of the four seasons. Huanca’s goal was to provide viewers with a complete sensory experience, engaging them in a kaleidoscopic exploration of their own reflection, the works on display, as well as sound and olfactory pieces. By inducing a slippage of space and time, the installation encouraged participants to lose themselves while also finding themselves within the transformative and immersive environment.
Huanca defies the male gaze and decolonizes contemporary art by blending performance and paint. Her multidisciplinary installations feature painted models, referred to by Huanca as “skin paintings,” situated in serene environments created using sculpture, painting, photography, sound, and scent. Throughout her work, symbolic gestures are abundant, such as rectangular free-standing paintings representing phone screens or digital interfaces, and cobalt blue embodying female power. Huanca uses a range of materials, including silicone, plastic, clay, sand, textiles, hair, turmeric, and metal.
The artist’s process reflects her political ethos, centered around social change.
The artist’s process reflects her political ethos, centered around social change. As she works with people, a set of ethical guidelines is required, including trust-based personal relationships with her models and the creation of safe environments for their performance within galleries and museums. Huanca disrupts conventional exhibition practices, which are fundamentally rooted in colonial and sexist power structures. In doing so, she changes the art world from the inside out, in bold and powerful steps, akin to those of her models.
At the heart of Huanca’s art lies her inspiration drawn from the chaos, resilience, and creativity of the natural world. Clothing, which she sources from second-hand and local shops during her travels around the world, serves as powerful stand-ins for the human body in her work. Since 2012, Huanca has also incorporated live models into her pieces, inviting them to improvise and interact with her surrounding sculptures and installations. Her work is imbued with references to origins, memory, time, and identity, capturing the complexity of influences that shape who we are.
The artist is heading to Seoul, South Korea, to hold a solo exhibition at Space K. Additionally, she is showing works for an exhibition on display at Museo de Arte Zapopan in Jalisco, Mexico. She is currently represented by Peres Projects. We conducted an interview with Donna Huanca for our latest Hypeart Visits feature, exploring her unconventional and trailblazing methods of artistic expression in diverse fields.
“I am driven by making work that brings presence to the body.”
From where did your hallucinatory ideas originate and what drew you towards creating pieces with this concept, as you once stated, “I want the experience of my work to create a surreal moment similar to a hallucination”?
I am driven by making work that brings presence to the body – an experience that can be powerful and hopefully create deep and lasting memories for the viewer. I am interested in the abstraction and hardcore aspects of the natural world, patterns of death and life, transformation and shapeshifting/mutating cycles.
2. You create paintings, sculpture, video and performance pieces. How would you define your interdisciplinary practice in a few words?
A hallucinatory trip.
“I am a plant and material hoarder.”
Tell us about your creative upbringing. Where were you born and raised and did it have any impact on your art practice?
I grew up in Southside Chicago and spent my summers in Bolivia – both were chaotic environments to grow up in and required street smarts for survival. As a kid I loved the chaos of parties, music and street life.
Describe your current studio. When did you move in and how often are you there working?
My studio is in the east side of Berlin and I’ve been here for about seven years now. It’s an old KGB factory from the 1970s across from a former East German women’s prison. In contrast to those surroundings, my studio is a serene oasis of color and light. I did my best to transform the space into a blinding, serene space full of plants, and color from textiles that I’ve collected over the years. I am a plant and material and hoarder.
“I love hair because I see it as an analogy for a flesh diary – each strand of hair hold records of our traumas and significant life events.”
When you are creating in your studio, what kind of atmosphere do you cultivate? Is it a quiet or noisy environment, and do you have any specific rituals or routines you follow before starting your creative process?
My studio is mostly silent. Before beginning a days work I like to meditate. I keep order in my space so the chaos of my work can be highlighted.
What is your preferred material to work with and what makes it your favorite?
I think it would have to be hair. I love hair because I see it as an analogy for a flesh diary – each strand of hair hold records of our traumas and significant life events. Because we all have hair I think it’s a universal thread that we can all relate to.
“I am inspired by the chaos, resilience and creativity of the natural world.”
How do you begin your creative process? What is your method for developing initial ideas into concrete concepts that you can pursue in your artwork?
My creative process begins with a feeling of wanting to create a situation or space that I haven’t seen before. I am inspired by the chaos, resilience and creativity of the natural world.
Can you describe the distinctive difficulties you encountered in your position as a curator with “PORTAL DE PLATA” at Whitechapel in August 22, compared to the challenges you typically experience as an artist?
The process and the work felt really natural and intuitive for me. I started out by researching the Christen Sveaas collection for materials so that I could create an installation that repositioned some of the works and objects, crafting a new narrative, but that also highlighted some overarching themes in my practice.
“The performances are used to sculpt time, melting reality for their duration.”
What is the message or story behind the complex performance-focused pieces in which you incorporate live models to interact with sculptures or installations?
The performances are used to sculpt time, melting reality for their duration. Sound and scent are used to create deeper memories for those present.
When creating your performances, how do you go about choreographing them? Do you let a specific painting or art object influence the choreography, or do you approach it differently?
There is no choreography. I set up the space and a situation where the performers can feel safe to create a work of their own in relation to the sculptures and installation. All the work is made in service of the performer, and are seen as architecture for the performers to interact with.
What projects are you working on currently?
I am heading to Seoul Korea, to open up a solo exhibition at Space K and have an exhibition that just opened in Mexico at Museo de Arte Zapopan in Jalisco.
Photography courtesy of Donna Huanca, Peres Projects, Museo de Arte Zapopan and Whitechapel Gallery