Art Through Afro-Spirituality, the Work of Eilen Itzel Mena

To Be Born, 2021 (Eilen Itzel Mena) BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Eilen Itzel Mena/ To Be Born, 2021 - Acrylic & Oil on Canvas - 40in x 30in

An important characteristic that makes everyone unique is simply the authenticity of recognizing and understanding your origin. Once you unlock and are in sync with your roots, growth happens. As we know, understanding these roots and spirituality not only heals your past but also clarifies your future.

Such is the story of Afro-Dominican American artist Eilen Itzel Mena, with whom we had the pleasure of speaking. We talked about her creative journey, Afro-spirituality, and how the connection between both helps her heal her past and cope with the current injustices surrounding us. After graduating from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, this exceptional artist instantly interned for major galleries and has participated in shows in London and Los Angeles. Apart from her art, she is involved in Zeal, a Black artist cooperative, and is currently a co-creative director of social practice and global artist community called Honey & Smoke.

We invite you to discover the art and practices of Eilen Itzel Mena.

First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Eilen Itzel Mena, and I am an Afro-Dominican American Artist. I was born in the U.S.A., but I was raised in the Dominican Republic for the earlier part of my life. My family officially relocated to the U.S.A. in the Bronx when I was ten years old. My life trajectory has been one that includes a lot of travel and educational exploration in different spaces. In high school, I left my family’s home to attend The Hotchkiss School, a private boarding school in Connecticut. Then I completed my undergraduate studies in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California and studied abroad in Brazil.

Through these experiences, I was able to witness new ways of being, living, and growing. I became poly-lingual, grew spiritually, and connected the dots between different folks and their walks of life. Most importantly, I learned that art could bridge gaps between culture and ideology. It is the unofficial, official language of the world.  

 How you express your Afro-spirituality in your art.

Being a Black Dominican-American woman, who has occupied different socio-economic and ethnic spaces, my multifaceted creative practice helps me connect African Diaspora, spirituality, culture, identity, and purpose. Although I grew up knowing about and partaking in some Afro-spiritual practices in the Dominican Republic, I didn’t make it a structured practice until I was introduced to Ifa in college. Now, being an active and disciplined Ifa practitioner, my work and its aesthetic act as a vessel for the spiritual work that I am doing. I express my Afro-spirituality through the themes I discuss in my work, the imagery, the honoring of nature, and the color combinations that decorate my practice. 

 How do these works come to life? Where do you get your inspiration? I’ve read about your dreams, and premonitions and the general dream realm are used for inspiration?

I pull inspiration from a myriad of spaces. My compositions come from Odu (Ifa scriptures), Ifa stories about the Orisha, my dreams and daydreams, and meditations. Some of us connect to the Universe and receive messages from the spirit through a unique language that is specific to us. My visual language manifests through a lexicon of repeating shapes, figures, inversions, and forms such as rainbows, swords, flowers, and smiley faces. By repeating specific shapes, I create my own universal language and share it with the spectator. Because my process of receiving the imagery comes from different realms, I mimic that in making the work. I often sketch my mock-ups for paintings in my iPhone — coming from the digital realm into the current realm. 

Afro-Dominican American artist Eilen Itzel Mena BELatina Latinx
Portrait courtesy of Julia Ryan (https://www.juliaryanart.com/)

 Your creative practice explores healing and activation of purpose – how is that so? How has your art or art in general helped you bring out clarity in life?

My painting work explores the relationship between childhood and adulthood to bring forth healing and activation of purpose. In the Ifa tradition, children and the elderly are closest energetically to the spirit realm. My upbringing and relationship with my grandparents have been a divine experience, as they raised my cousins, my siblings, and me after my aunt and mother died when we were young. My painting work explores the relationship between childhood and adulthood to bring forth healing and activation of purpose. Highlighting adult concepts with a childlike aesthetic allows me to reimagine and challenge trauma and emotional space representations. I believe that self-actualization occurs when there is a DEEP remembrance of childhood that is in CONSTANT communication with adulthood. When that is the driving force behind experiencing the world, alignment happens, and one is free to explore and be present with the world.

 What would you say inspired you to start and to continue your creative journey?

Before my mother passed, she was an architect in the Dominican Republic. She would hand me art supplies and let me create work while she would work on blueprints. She also started a community art space with her best friend. So I would hang out there after school and see them engage with the kids from our town through social, creative practice. She was the first example of a woman who looks like me working on her creative practice while also thinking about the community. 

 Lastly, It’s been an especially rough past year. How have the pandemic and overall injustices, such as anti-blackness, affected you in your art? How have you been able to not only cope with this but also inspire others to remain resilient in your Honey & Smoke community? What would you recommend others to do?

The pandemic and overall injustices surrounded anti-blackness have definitely influenced my work. Throughout the first few months of quarantine, I contemplated my purpose and destiny a lot. I realized that my work should lead with joy, peace founded on critical thinking and curiosity. Reva and I knew early on that Honey & Smoke should hold space for artists to focus on and create work that mirrors our current realities. When the pandemic began, we quickly adapted to a digital realm. We created a space that incubates and breaks down difficult conversations and encourages those involved to release new findings and emotions through creative practice. This community project allows for a deep understanding of some of the most challenging themes of our time from start to finish. We have grown so much as artists and facilitators by hosting and designing this space. 

In difficult times like these, I encourage others to dive DEEP internally and explore the depths of your mind and spirit. When you find a way to TAP in, all possible answers to personal and communal questions come rushing in, and clarity occurs.