Donna Huanca

American-Bolivian artist Donna Huanca is a stand out talent in the contemporary art world, celebrated for her mesmerising blend of performance and paint.

Huanca distills painting, performance, sculpture, sound, and scent, into refined sensory experiences that challenge traditional depictions of the femme body in art history. In her installations, large abstract paintings adorn the walls, or slice through the room as free-standing objects symbolic of phone screens or digital interfaces.

  • Work in collections inc. Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection, New York; Zabludowicz Collection, London; B.LA Foundation, Vienna; Espacio 1414/Berezdivin Collection, Santurce; Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles; Rubell Family Collection, Miami; Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing; Yuz Museum, Shanghai
  • Solo show, WET SLIT at Simon Lee Gallery, London, 2020
  • Solo show, LENGUA LLORONA at Copenhagen Contemporary, Copenhagen, 2019
  • Solo show, Obsidian Ladder at Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles, 2019
Donna Huanca, installation view of Lengua Llorona at Copenhagen Contemporary, 2019. Photo courtesy Peres Projects, Berlin. Photographer: Anders Sune Berg

The painted models, which are referred to by the artist as “skin paintings,” move slowly and purposefully, framed and often camouflaged by their surroundings. Huanca uses a range of materials including silicone, plastic, clay, sand, textiles, hair, turmeric pigments, and metal. Cobalt blues dominate the palette, with splashes of orange, lime green and canary yellow.

“What I try to do is create a glitch in the normal expectation of what an audience receives”

The mark-making is incredibly expressive and textural, fusing abstraction and figuration by painting over blown up photographs that the artist has taken of previous works. Influenced by her Bolivian heritage, a background in experimental music, Huanca is driven to defy the male gaze and decolonise contemporary art through her own vision of the future.

Donna Huanca, WET SLIT, 2020. Courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery. Photo: Ben Westoby

Huanca breaks down binary notions of nature in her work. WET SLIT, the artist’s 2020 solo show at Simon Lee Gallery in London, responds to the outbreak of Covid-19: “I wanted to acknowledge ‘nature’ in a new form, both toxic, artificial, yet protective. The layered scent of plastic and holy wood, mingled with the sanitary, antiseptic hand-sanitiser gel we are bathing in.”

Donna Huanca, Melting Performer, 2020. Courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery.

Melting Performer (2020), a work from the exhibition, is a pillar of ice with bright blue hair frozen inside. Reminiscent of minimalist sculpture, the block gradually melts with the same ephemeral presence as Huanca’s live pieces. The cold blue lightning of the room, along with clear plastic sheets that wrap the walls, give the work a clinical feel like that of a forensic lab, or surgical operation room. By combining these aesthetics with the human hair, and the natural element of water, Huanca blends the natural and artificial, questioning where one ends and the other begins.

The core meaning of Huanca’s work — empowerment of body and space — is expressed not only in the formal elements and conceptual framework of her art, but also in the process itself. In order for Huanca’s work to be authentic, the models must feel genuinely safe and empowered. This requires a certain set of ethical perimeters, or “guidelines” as the artist calls them. Firstly, the personal relationships between Huanca and her models must be based on trust, kindness and a sense of community. And secondly, this same ethos must also apply to the spaces that they are in. Thus, the institutions and galleries that Huanca works with are forced to rethink their standard ways of working precisely because they are working with people rather than objects. In this sense, Huanca challenges the art world with each show that she exhibits in brave, incremental and powerful steps — just like those of her models.

Donna Huanca, detail from BLISS (REALITY CHECK), 2017. Photo courtesy of Peres Projects
Donna Huanca, Transformer: A Rebirth of Wonder, 2019. Courtesy Peres Projects, Berlin. Photographer: Hugo Glendinning
“In my work I want to project us into a new space, into a future space which values care, trust, community, and the natural world.”

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