A Conversation with Self-Taught Artist-Activist Tamara Torres: Honesty and the Importance of Putting Your Voice “Out There” as an Afro-Latina Creator

Tamara Torres BELatina
Photo Credit Tamara Torres

How many Latina abstract artists do you know? More specifically: How many Afro-Latina artists do you know who have exhibited in the big exhibition halls… and who really care about doing so?

For Tamara Torres, making art is nothing like that. Making art is a necessity, period.

Born and raised in Trenton, NJ, Tamara is now one of the few internationally recognized, self-considered feminist Afro-Latina artists whose “artist” status is determined by what she does on a daily basis, not by what the big catalogues might say about her.

A Childhood Marked by Two Pictures

In a conversation from the couch at her home, and amidst laughter about the complicity we share against academia, Tamara tells me how a key moment in her life would make her recognize herself as an artist. 

With a self-taught artist father who, she recalls, sometimes forgot that he had children because of his struggle with alcoholism and depression, Tamara and her brother used to stay away from home and live on the streets for a day or two. “But you know, in the house, we used to say that what goes on at home stays at home. We wouldn’t go to school and tell people,” she says, trying to organize memories.

“Because of that, me and my brother we walked around a lot, and we kind of stayed out in the streets, sometimes sleeping out,” she continues. “Practically in homelessness, until he remembered that he had kids and then let us back in, sort of speaks. And I remember this one time, at the library where they sometimes serve lunches I don’t know if they still do that they had this lunch program, so one time we went to the library to get lunch, and I remember sitting there going through books, and by that time I’ve barely spoken English, my primary language was Spanish, right? So, I couldn’t really read what some of the words,t I was just going through the pictures of stuff, and I came across Frida Kahlo, and I thought ‘Holy shit, who the hell is this?’ I couldn’t believe some of the stuff. First, the fact that she was [Latina], and then to see the images… I was like: ‘I need to be like her. I want to be like her.’ We’re talking about when I was 11 or 12 years old, I wasn’t even set in my mind as artist.”

It was this “love at first sight” with the icon of Latin American surrealism that made Torres “see the world with different eyes.” But it would be an acquaintance from the streets that would literally allow her to train her eye through a camera lens.

“A friend of mine who was out in the streets gave me a 33mm Pentax camera and he said: ‘If you take pictures of me, then I will go ahead and buy you film,’” she remembers. “When you do that to someone who’s bored in the streets… forget it, right?” Tamara remembers that it was precisely that moment when she saw the world through the camera that she started to see everything for the first time.

“I became an artist without even knowing it,” she remembers.

Tamara Torres BELatna Latinx
Photo credit via Tamara Torres

Today, her most famous pieces have that melancholy component that was gestating in her eyes when she was 12 years old, and that, through her collages, tell her stories.

Even when her friend told her not to take any more pictures because he couldn’t afford to keep buying her film, Tamara admits that he saved her life by introducing her to image composition.

On the Types of Artists, and the Visceral Need to Create

When we talk about her career, Tamara does not hesitate to call herself “self-taught” since she was 12 or 13 years old.

“Now you have YouTube videos, and when you have a question you just go and you have tutorials to figure it out. In my case, with art and self-painting and abstract, if I have questions I just reach out to other artists that I know,” she says. “I thought about going to art school, and a lot of them told me that if I did it was going to ruin me. They used to say: ‘Don’t do it, they’re just going to take whatever you have.’ So, yeah, I’m self-taught.”

But recognizing oneself as a professional artist is not a matter to be taken lightly. In fact, it’s still hard for her to do so.

Photography being her first love, Tamara Torres began taking pieces of her photographs and translating them into what she calls “stories” through collage. Her interventions of the image, through feminist symbolism, the use of the written word, and often self-portraiture, have interwoven her childhood memories with the discovery of a social reality to which women especially women of color are confined.

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That “narrative” part of her work is, she confesses, what keeps her sane. “With collage, that’s always telling me a story that’s always trying to grab all my thoughts and words and putting it in one section hoping that people can get it or understand it,” she explains.

However, her visceral side, the one that needs to be exposed and poured onto a surface without further explanation, is what has materialized in more than ten years of experimentation with abstract painting.

“I think that art –whether is good or bad you’re just telling a story. It’s the only way that I can share my voice. So for me, when I do abstract work it is absolutely my own personal feeling, it is my soul. I hate when people look at it, it makes me nervous because they’re actually seeing something about me and I’m always sweating thinking that they know things about me that nobody else knows.”

This transparency is precisely the manifestation of something that her father explained to her many years ago: the existence of two types of artists.

“There are artists that go to school for it, and they create a life, and they believe they’re going to make it, that they’re going to be the next so-and-so, and be in the MoMA,” she says. So they go to art school, and they commit to themselves, but one day, out of nowhere, life happens either you have a baby or something happens where they kind of click off and say ‘Well, you know? I’m going to be an accountant, and I’m just going to do accounting.’This, she explains, is the first type of artist according to her father.

“And then, there are artists that if they don’t do something, they feel that there is a huge hole in their chest, like they have absolutely no choice whether they do accounting, whether they have 25 children running around the house, and [even] if they have to take care of their home, of work, of bills… if they don’t create, they feel like they’re suffocating. That is an artist. Period.”

The answer to the next question is simple: No, it is not the same being a white woman as being a woman of color in the art world. Especially for Tamara, who asks at every opportunity, “Who are the other abstract Latina artists in art history?” She even remembers asking this question at one point to an art historian in London, who responded with the shyness of being discovered in unjustified ignorance.

However, she did not always know that what she was doing was abstractionism. “When I started to create at the beginning I used to throw it out,” she reveals.  I used to photograph it, use it for the collages and stuff and then throw it out in the garbage. But then the dumpsters, the garbage people, started coming on and they would take my art and I just used to think that was so funny because there’s a couple of garbage people that have my art.”

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It was thanks to the social networks and the mass information shared on the Internet that her style finally had a name, and that Tamara was able to contact other artists and other people who shared her creative process.

“As an Afro-Latino artist, I think we are at the beginning of the strongest we can be,” she explains. “It’s just the beginning. It’s just like, the tidal wave is just starting to come up.”

For her part, being the only or the first Latina to exhibit in many shows is a way to open the way for other women who want to carve out a niche for themselves in the industry, and to gradually break the stigma to which women of color are subjected. Her pieces have been exhibited in London, Edinburgh, Rome, and Milan, New York and in her native New Jersey.


On Activism

Tamara confesses that her activism, per se, began as a sort of accident: It was thanks to her community work that she got a part-time job as a bilingual case manager with undocumented families at school. “I think it’s just people nowadays rant more on social media than they do publicly. They tend to go on social media have this rant about what people should do, instead of actually stepping up and do something. To be an activist and, like, participate and volunteer trying to create a change is a whole different ballgame.”

Her work includes community support, but she has also introduced children to the language of art and even collaborated with organizers to raise funds. Her art has become a channel for communicating the importance of fighting side by side for women’s rights around the world.

Using art in her activism was a natural progression of her gifts. Thiswas just me trying to do something, trying to show my way of talking to these ladies without me stumbling upon my words or writing them a story,” she explains. “This was just me doing what I know how to do. Learning to use my voice that way.”