Women in the visual arts: A college friendship grows into a successful collaboration

Sam Fresquez and Merryn Alaka. Photo by Josh Loeser.

ASU alums Merryn Alaka and Sam Fresquez both graduated from the Herberger Institute’s School of Art in May of 2019, Alaka with a bachelor’s degree in printmaking and Fresquez with a bachelor’s degree in intermedia. Their collaboration “It’s Mine, I Bought It” addresses, among other things, the assumptions about personal appearance that Black and Latina women contend with in white spaces. “It’s Mine, I Bought It” was installed most recently at Phoenix’s prestigious Lisa Sette Gallery, as part of the group show “Blue.” Below, Alaka and Fresquez briefly discuss their partnership, their work and their time at ASU.

How did the two of you meet?

We met in Betsy Fahlman’s class “Women in the Visual Arts.” We used to study together for hours at a time preparing for her tests. During that time we became really close friends since we were spending so much time memorizing our hundreds of flash cards in the Design Library.

Is the installation “It’s Mine, I Bought It” the first time you’ve worked together? If not, what was?

No, our first collaboration was a jewelry piece titled “La Misma.” The piece was included in the 2018 Arizona Biennial. The piece was text cut from sterling silver, and it was an excerpt of the poem “But” by Audrey Ruiz, which reads, “I can’t speak Spanish, pero sé que lo misma sangre de mis antepasados corre por mis venas.” [In English this translates to “I can’t speak Spanish, but I know that the same blood of my Latino ancestors runs through my veins.”] Since then we have worked on several other projects, including “It’s Mine, I Bought It,” which was first displayed in the Xico shipping containers in April of 2018.

What was the inspiration for “It’s Mine, I Bought It”?

“It’s Mine I Bought It” installation. Photo by Josh Loeser.

We were thinking about several different artists while making this piece, including Tanya Aguiñiga, Lorna Simpson and Sonya Clark. The title references the song “Mine” by Princess Nokia. The tassel is a symbol of power and prestige. As a decorative object it has historically been used to embellish garments, and has been worn by priests, monks, and military officers to differentiate hierarchy while simultaneously warding off evil spirits. As a functional object, tassels are used to prevent unraveling. Similarly, we often view our hair as having the ability to hold us together. As young Black and Latina women we have been made aware that there is an expectation that must be met regarding the presentation of our hair. The extent to which hair is maintained can often be read as a reflection of other aspects of life. This work ties together the chronology, wisdom and adornment that is present in the history of both hair and tassels.

Have you worked on other projects together since this one?

Yes, we have worked on a lithograph together entitled “Make It A Goodyear” that was shown at Practical Arts and the Fine Art Complex. As of recently we worked on a textile piece together titled “In Memory” that was displayed at Futuro for Dia de Muertos. This piece was made using over 300 names of Black lives that were taken by police in the United States. Currently we are working on a hair installation that branches off of “It’s Mine, I Bought It.”

“In Memory.” Photos courtesy of the artists.

What do you hope viewers take from “It’s Mine, I Bought It”?

Because of the scale, and material, we hope that viewers have a physical relationship to the sculptures. We hope that people see themselves in the work; we want feminine bodies to feel represented and seen.

What’s the most helpful or important thing you learned as a student at ASU?

Unfortunately our experiences at ASU were at times difficult and discouraging, which caused emotional setbacks. While some professors worked to pull us up, others did not. Despite struggling with these relationships, we learned to look towards, lean on and collaborate with our peers.

Women in the visual arts: A college friendship grows into a successful collaboration was originally published in ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts