Handling fear of death: how art can be the best medicine
Loana Ibarra Mexican/Swedish visual artist born in Lausanne, Switzerland. She was raised in Mexico and now lives and works in Malmö.
This interview took place on the 18th of March, 2018.
“I paint mostly — I paint, and do sculptures, and I illustrate, and death is actually a big theme that is with me all the time while I’m working. I don’t think it’s conscious that I try to involve it, it just always comes up in some way in the end. I portrait myself a lot. I’m always there in my art, and then I involve death in it.”
“I was doing this research on open coffins around Latin America, and I realised that many countries have this tradition where you visit the person who has died. They are lying in the coffin, with glass on top so you can see them dead. But, they make them really beautiful, with fabrics around, and you can see the face really well. So, I did myself like that — a painting of my face, surrounded by flowers. And it’s quite dimensional, like an open coffin. I’ve done a lot like that — I’ve made these masks too. In Mexico, there is a big focus on skulls, so I always use those. I also use something that’s very ‘me’ inside it too. So you can see, ‘ah it’s Loana, but in skull form!’”
“It’s not that I’m afraid of dying, but I don’t wanna die. I really appreciate life. I really like living, so I’ve always been really conscious about the fact of death. I remember when I was around five or six years old and asking my mother what was it to die, and I was really wrapped up in the fact that everything was going to die and the world would disappear. And not having religion, not believing in any afterlife — for me, it’s just an ending. And it’s really, really boring. Do you just disappear? Or? I think about things that I’m going to miss. When I tell my friends. ‘I don’t want to die because I’m going to miss a lot of things.’ Like drinking my coffee, and listening to music, and painting, all this stuff I do. And all of my friends say, ‘yeah, but if you’re dead you won’t miss it!’ But, how do you know?”
“For me, I try to work around death because it’s a way of becoming friends with death, and saying ‘its ok.’ And, when I portrait myself dead, it’s like some kind of therapy. It’s like I’m preparing myself for that moment, and at the same time, leaving something here on Earth that represents me. If I take pictures or if I make portraits — I take a lot of polaroid portraits — it’s like trying to make a box of my own existence. Also, my biggest fear is to become crazy. And when people ask me, ‘well, ok, then what is crazy?’ Then I say, ‘I don’t want to lose myself, I don’t want to forget who I am, or what I am, or where I live, or who my parents are, or whatever.’ When I start thinking of that, it’s exactly the same feeling as I get when I think that I’m going to die. At some point, I will no longer discover myself as myself.
My favourite authors and writers and musicians take up death a lot too, and if I do portraits of other people, they are people who are also often dead. It’s like I’m trying to revive them through art. I think it that’s why I make art. And why I like to share it. It’s a way of — it feels — maybe, its a wish of prolonging life. If I put myself out there, then nobody and nothing could actually kill me. Somewhere I will be around.”
“I don’t make scary art, it’s quite colourful and joyful. I don’t know, I try to use color as a some kind of calming agent — to say, ‘it’s alright, it’s still beautiful.’ Because that’s the thing with death, that most of the time it’s portrayed as something really heavy and gross. But, it’s something we also don’t talk about at all, at least here in Sweden. In Mexico, it’s not like that; we talk about it all the time. And in Mexico, it’s also present in many forms: on the streets, in songs, in art, in the traditions and so on. And then, there are people that die all the time in Mexico, so it’s so much a part of life there. Even Mexican history — when you look at how bloody it is, there’s quite a lot of death there — and then people try to laugh about it. That’s why they are creating all these songs about skulls and death; you know, they take funny twists on it. At the same time, I don’t think they deny a fear of death — the difference is that they talk about it, and put it out there, they don’t project it. I was trying to do this research on where you see skulls or symbols of death here in Sweden, and I realised it’s actually only in churches and in old, old paintings. There you can see hell, the devil, etc. In Lund, they have this clock of death and life in the cathedral — there is where you can go and actually be more aware of death.”
“People, when they have been to my exhibitions, they don’t really realise until I tell them what it’s about. For example, with many of my paintings, I look really harmonious. People think, ‘ah this painting is so beautiful,’ and then I tell them what it’s about. ‘Ah yeah, actually, it’s me in an open casket,’ and then they are like ‘wha-what?’ You put them in this mode of questioning — can I like this? Can I like this portrait of you as dead? And I tell them ‘it’s ok.’ Yeah.