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Not Here to Make Art for You: In Conversation with Dominique Carella

Dominique Carella visual art, 2018. Dominique herself, center. Photoshoot- Shop Dom Carella, right.

I came across Dominique Carella on the Instagram feed of her longtime friend and queen of my Spotify Top Songs playlist, La Doña. The amount of time I spend looking at my favorite artists’ Instagrams is usually unfortunate, but luckily I stumbled upon a photo of La Doña in Dominique Carella’s “I GET DRESSED FOR ME IN THE MORNING” top. I’m a sucker for black crop tops, witty text-based art that challenges the male gaze, and taking a century to dress for myself, so becoming a Carella fan was destined. I share my path down the Instagram black hole that led me to Dom because she intentionally recognizes the communities that surround her. Whether she’s discussing her influences, who range from Barbara Kruger to Doja Cat, or making a platform for fellow Latina artists, her irrepressible empathy and infectious ability to dream big are radiant. 

Dom and I spent almost two hours discussing our personal paths to embracing being half-Latina and her career as an artist, streetwear designer, and hip hop dancer. She may be a performer, but her radical honesty and clear vision let her identify and disrupt the false binaries and labels society imposes upon us. In an effort to celebrate your new favorite designer whose intersectional work you should support this season 👀, I’ll share Dom’s words in her own voice. 

JP/LX: You’ve mentioned that you began sewing when you were eight. What inspired you to start so young? 

DC: I’ve been fortunate to have parents who are extremely supportive of my creativity. My dad was a hip hop producer, and my mom danced while she was pregnant with me, so I basically came out of the womb dancing. Even growing up with a single mom who was constantly budgeting, there was always some money set aside for dance lessons. So, my mom found me a sewing teacher, and that’s how I learned to sew. Today, I don’t really know my life without fashion or art or dance. 

JP/LX: How do you think those arts fuel each other? I feel like a lot of your work relates to how we move through the world with our bodies and how they are viewed.

DC: It’s all intertwined. Growing up, I feel like you’re told to pick one thing. It wasn’t until three years into my art training at UC Santa Cruz that I realized — wait a second, the things you like to do feed off of each other. Now, whenever I’m stuck with art, I go to clothing. When I’m stuck with clothing, I go to art. When I’m energized, I go dance. They inform each other in how I move through my everyday life but also in the message, like what you were saying about bodies. I’m a hip hop dancer, and I’ve been taught hard-hitting movements that are primarily made for men. That training absolutely affects how I move through spaces, how I represent myself, how I bring it. 

JP/LX: In what ways do you think that hip hop dance shapes your movements for men? 

DC: Well I think a lot of the women in hip hop spaces probably experience very similar things. I was taught movements that feel more masculine to me, and I’ve been on a lot of dance teams that are predominantly made up of men. But in what setting do women not have to show up and work a little bit harder to get the same results? It’s no different with dance, it’s no different with art.

JP/LX: In terms of other spaces that have shaped you as a multidisciplinary artist, how have the different styles of the cities you grew up in influenced your work? 

DC: I grew up pretty evenly split between San Francisco and New York City. The two halves of me combined make me who I am. One half is kind of a hippie white girl who was raised in San Francisco going to art schools, and then this whole other half of me is a Brooklyn Boricua hip hop dancer. It’s a delicate balance. Growing up in San Francisco made me feel comfortable discussing issues like race politics, cultural identity, and gender norms. SF is very different today, but I grew up in a city where skipping class to go to a protest and fighting for what you believe in was really normal. New York is also an urban, political environment, but I think more of my aesthetic comes from New York in terms of street art and hip hop. 

JP/LX: Has your heritage within different cities influenced how you identify?

DC: I didn’t have anyone dissecting my race growing up because I grew up in a place where everyone was mixed. I’ve known for my whole life that I’m mixed. I’m half Puerto Rican, but I was mostly raised by my Mom’s white Sicilian family. My Dad is fully Puerto Rican, but he was adopted by a white Sicilian family. We don’t have a connection to our heritage besides what we have explored on our own. Also, in California, I can probably count on one hand the amount of Puerto Ricans I’ve met. Even if there were Puerto Ricans around me, they don’t really know what we look like also because Puerto Ricans are hella mixed. I knew I was different from the white family that was raising me, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult in a hella white college in Santa Cruz where I realized that people think I’m just white. 

JP/LX: It’s crazy how each city affects your perception. My Mom is from Miami, so she confidently identifies as Argentine and Latina. She encouraged me to identify as Latina, but it wasn’t until I found a bigger Latinx community in college than at my preppy high school that I felt comfortable embracing that side of myself. Now I argue with my mom about whiteness and racism in Argentina, but I grew up surrounded by other white Jewish people in New York and would get told, “Don’t you just say you’re Latina to get into a better college?” 

DC: That makes me want to throw up. You internalize the way other people treat you and interact with you, and you start to believe it. People were reading me as white, but I didn’t truly realize it until I got out of San Francisco. For a while I felt kinda silly calling out that I’m mixed, but then I said screw it. It’s just the trifecta of people not knowing anything about me based on looking at me, which is not terrible but does give me the opportunity to put my art in their face and tell them who I am. Of course my art is also very feminist, but maybe that’s different.

JP/LX: I feel like so much of feminist art is about expressing something deeply personal because feminism isn’t uniform. 

DC: I don’t want to say people are embarrassed to talk about these issues, but you’re confronting the way society views you. It is something I should make art about because it’s also relatable. There are plenty of people who are latinx who experience the very same thing where you’re either not Latino enough or you’re not white enough. It’s the society that we live in. Now I put in my bio that I’m Puerto Rican where I’m intentionally vocal. People have said really awful things to me. I’ve had people find out I’m Puerto Rican and tell me I sound white as a compliment. My art has been an outlet for exploring these issues in a way that is loud.

JP/LX: Speaking of your art, I was curious about your sculptures because they are your only pieces without text. 

DC: At UC Santa Cruz, I mainly studied sculpture and public art. I would go to these thrift stores, Bargain Barn where you could go get a bag of very outdated, Goodwill rejects for $5. I liked gathering toys for my installations there because we make toys for children hoping to teach them something, but what we teach girls and gender non-conforming kids from such an early age is horrendous. Obviously everyone knows that Barbie enforces gender norms, but as a collective it starts to be a little overwhelming. I was building installations that touched the ceiling. Just to put this hope out into the universe, if I ever have a store of my own that sells my art or my clothing or whatever it is, I would want to build gigantic installations again.

50 Simple things, UCSC installation, 2014

JP/LX: Another aspect of installation art is scale. You’ve established a brand with text and colors that can be so concise and goes so well together across different mediums. Have you had to parse down certain qualities you normally put into your art? 

DC: I started doing text based works because my friends were asking me to be in their gallery shows in SF. I was used to making work that was 10 feet tall, and all of a sudden I had to fit my work in this little 2 foot by 3 foot wall space.  I had to downscale and identify what I really cared about and how to express it differently. That’s when I started writing, and that’s when I made “I’m Only Boricua When.”

I am Only Boricua When, 2016

It’s more accessible because I can put it on so many different things. I can make a text-based installation. Then I can put it on clothing. Then I can live paint it. Then I can do my pop-up shop, or I can go dance wearing one of my shirts. I’m grateful for those limitations with space because they forced me to evolve into a different artist, which made my clothing line and everything else that came along with it. Although I’m making small work now, I’m thinking big. I want my work on billboards. I think that that’s how it will have an impact.

JP/LX: Something I find impactful about your work is that it’s tongue in cheek. Some bro who wears too much Supreme would look at a t-shirt you’ve made that says “BABY, WHY DON’T YOU SMILE MORE?” and think “Sick!” 

DC: I felt that at ComplexCon. I loved it, but walking around as a woman very interested in streetwear, wearing my cute little outfit, there were 25 men around me at all times staring at me and hitting on me. There is just a huge platform missing of streetwear brands that cater to women or gender nonconforming folks. We don’t have the representation we need in streetwear. If someone’s walking down the street and they see the messages on my streetwear, and that changes their perspective on women or gender identity, then I’ve done my job. When men walk up to my work, and they don’t know how to act, and then they walk away with a different understanding of womanhood, I’ve done my job. 

JP/LX: Do you have an ideal customer for your clothes or your message? 

DC: I’ve learned everything I know about business from my Mom who built herself up from nothing to being a badass CEO, and when you start a brand you need to establish who your clients are going to be. But any time I try to define who I’m marketing towards, I realize that the message changes depending on who is wearing it. My gender non-conforming best friend might engage with my work differently than my great aunt who just went through chemotherapy and lost all of her hair — when she puts on the “NOT HERE TO LOOK GOOD FOR YOU” beanie, it changes. The thing about text-based work is that the issues that I’m addressing are so much bigger than my experience as a mixed woman. You have different kinds of people who are united by a message, and that’s what moves people. That’s what starts movements. 

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Julia Pretsfelder

Julia Pretsfelder is a writer and photographer based in New York. She grew up listening to her Argentine maternal grandparents share their memories of Buenos Aires, which fostered her interest in Latin American Studies and led her to become a member of the first class of Latinx Studies majors at Amherst College. After graduating, she lived in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala where she worked in marketing, translation, and social media strategy for a local Maya women weavers association called Cojolya.

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