‘Not a Lot of Art Seems Accessible to Working-Class People’: Watch Artist Tanya Aguiñiga Explain How Craft Traditions Root Her Work in Community

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Tanya Aguiñiga: Crafting Lineage." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

Tanya Aguiñiga was born and raised in Tijuana, and traveled everyday to San Diego to attend school. Growing up straddling the border and its disparate cultures, the artist was constantly in flux, a binational citizen who literally migrated between two worlds on a daily basis.

Becoming an artist wasn’t something that felt attainable, she says in an exclusive video filmed as part of Art21’s Extended Play series. “There’s not a lot of art that seems accessible to working-class people,” Aguiñiga says. “Why does it have to be such a narrow view of what humanity actually is, and what humanity is actually experiencing?”

With a desire to make art, but also to stay true to her roots and make actual objects of utility, the artist began to study furniture design, a field that is based upon knowledge passed from master to student. “When I studied craft, you knew the lineage of who taught who three, four generations down,” she tells Art21.

That grounding in tradition appealed to Aguiñiga. “A lot of us whose parents migrated don’t have lineages,” she explains. “I know my grandma’s name and that’s it.” The artist ended up studying under Japanese-American artist Wendy Maruyama, who is deaf, and one of the first women to earn a Masters degree in furniture design. 

“Having educators that I could relate to, that I could see part of my struggles with identity mirrored in, helped me flip a switch that led to where I am now,” Aguiñiga says. Now she has become the master: She passes along traditions of craftsmanship and design to a team of artists who she teaches how to use the traditional materials, handing off the knowledge from her own teachers to the next generation.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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