Sponsored Connection: Maya Vivas / Ori Gallery

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Maya Vivas and Leila Haile sitting on a worn stoop, both laughing.
Maya Vivas (left) and Leila Haile (right).

Variable West I wanted to start by asking what Ori Gallery has been up to recently. I know that you’ve been shifting your programming and priorities, what have you been up to in the past year?

Maya Vivas Before COVID, we had exhibitions monthly or every other month, as well as lots of community workshops revolving around community organizing. We also had various art programming like guest artist talks and figure drawing. Now, to be more COVID safe, we’ve switched to an artist in residence model. We’ve convertied the gallery into studio space that our guest artist can use during the residency, and any money we would have used for exhibitions is now being funneled into artist stipends. With the pandemic, a lot of artists have lost their jobs and even their studios, so we wanted to try to use whatever resources we can to help artists to simple things like pay their rent and continue making work. 

VW That’s a really creative and productive way of shifting in the pandemic. I think a lot of arts organizations have been feeling directionless, understandably, but this seems like a really wonderful way to keep your mission going and continue to serve the community. 

MV We try to have an ear to the ground and be aware of what people need. For the people who do still have the capacity to keep working through this massive traumatic event that we’re all going through, we want to be able to provide things for people that allow them to process what’s happening around them through their work.

VW Can you talk about what Ori means and how the gallery got started? The word is significant for both you and your co-founder, Leila Haile. 

MW Yeah. Leila and I practice the tradition of Ori, which is a decorative, meditative, and spiritual practice. The direct translation of the word is “head,” and is a connection to creative and spiritual. It’s the spark of human consciousness embedded into human essence, and therefore is often personified as an Orisha, a kind of Yoruba deity, in its own right. It is believed that human beings are able to heal themselves both spiritually and physically by working with the Orishas to achieve a balanced character, or iwa-pele. When one has a balanced character, one obtains an alignment with one’s Ori or divine self. For the gallery, we wanted the physical place to be the connection between the creative and the spiritual, that also addresses the needs of working queer and trans artists of color. 

VW Another element of Ori is Asé, can you explain what that means?

MV It’s like an affirmation, like: let it be so. It’s an acknowledgement or affirmation to imbue whatever you say with power. 

VW How do Ori and Asé factor into your work with the gallery? I’m also curious how that relates to your personal practice as a ceramicist and performer. 

MV I feel like the concept of Ori and Asé were the seeds, you know? These are the seeds we’ve planted and we’ll go in the direction they grow. 

VW I think that the idea of it being a seed, and having this foundation that you build upon is, is really compelling, especially because it’s a process that requires collaboration from many players and forces. On the topic of collaboration, you’re going to be the altar tender for devynn emory’s performative project can anyone help me hold this body at PICA in May, which sounds like it’s going to be such an extraordinary event. What’s your connection with devynn? How are you preparing for this experience?

MV I’ve never worked with them before. Actually, I didn’t know of them as artists until I was suggested to be an altar tender. We’ve gotten the opportunity to get to know each other as we get closer and closer to the date. 

I did have hesitation at first, and I think it was a reflection on my own navigation of death. I think that there are a lot of things that I still need to mourn. The more I dive into this project, the more I’m realizing that this is an opportunity for me to begin to engage with the moment, and also help other people in that process. I’m excited to be a part of this project and part of this process. Even though there’s physical distance, I feel like their presence is very much in the work. They’re very hands-on and make themselves very open and available.

VW I’d love to have you talk a little bit about your work as a performance artist and some of your goals or intentions with the performances that you’ve done in the past.

MV I think I very much use performance as an opportunity to get closer to my own body as well as others. I think how my trauma manifests is through a disconnection, and I use performance as a way to reconnect. I’ve been integrating clay into my performance practice as well, which is very connected to the human body. Like, the way you talk about clay and the words used are all related to the body. 

In ceramics we speak of types of clay as a clay body. If you’re describing a pot, you can talk about its shoulder or its lip. I see my performance work engaging with clay as a body, and the memory it holds. Clay actually has memory: if you’re throwing a pot on a wheel and you drop it, and then try to repair it when it’s still soft, that bump will show after firing as a kind of memory of that trauma that was inflicted on it. It’s a beautiful metaphor for how we experience trauma in our own bodies. We may become hardened or whole, but there are these little bumps, memories, of what has happened to us. And these memories can still be beautiful! 

VW That is such a beautiful metaphor and way to think about trauma and the things we carry with us. I didn’t know that clay has a material memory. 

What you’ve said about your performance work relating to your interest in working with bodies—with your own bodies and other people—makes me wonder if that idea or that sentiment extends to your work with the gallery. Especially now, with its residency-based model, which feels very nurturing and less commerce-based. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a gallery that also succeeds as a business, but it just feels like you’re giving people the care and nurturing space that they need in this incredibly traumatic time. Do you feel like your performance work has a connection to this new residency program?

MV First I want to say that our model has never been commerce-based. We’ve always operated through donations and grants, so that was never the goal. To answer your question—Leila, my co-director, has always been very active in activism spaces, in direct action, protests and things like that, which isn’t something I’ve been able to engage with on the same level. I used to feel a little guilty because I’m more of an introvert. I’m very soft [laughs] and very anxious. But Leila helped me realize that everyone has a place and can contribute in their own way with their own gifts. I think making and care are ways that I can contribute. Working with artists directly, one on one in a very quiet, safe space, is a kind of interaction I realized I really shine in. Maybe even more than putting on an exhibition if I’m going to be really honest [laughs]. I definitely see quiet care as a part of my practice.

VW That’s, that’s really wonderful. What a gift to have realized that in these chaotic times—unexpectedly realizing that there was this shift that you could make and it would really let you help people in the way that you’re best at.

MV I think it’s important to get to know yourself, your strengths and capacity. I’m still learning. But knowing these things allows me to show up more authentically within my art work and relationships.

Sponsored by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). Each Sponsored Connection is a pairing of two interviews. Read the interview with devynn emory.