By Mimi Zeiger
Aguiñiga is one of five designers featured in the current PBS series “Craft in America: A Journey to the Artists, Origins, and Techniques of American Craft”
Tanya Aguiñiga, Product Design faculty member, is an acclaimed textile artist, a craft activist, a sculptor, and a self-described “maker.” Her Atwater Village studio overflows with skeins of wool, yards of rope, and fabric remnants—the materials she uses to make her handcrafted accessories and furniture. Aguiñiga’s dyed rope necklaces are museum and design store staples, and the colorful, animal-like chairs and benches recently exhibited at JF Chen’s gallery charmed the crowds. She is not content to simply produce readily consumed objects, however; at the root of her work is a larger goal—the desire to build community and activism around craft. Her hope is to transform the perception of craft from a solo domestic art to a means of public engagement.
To do this, Aguiñiga weaves her own personal narrative into the history of craft. Born in Tijuana, she grew up taking a bus across the border every day to go to school in San Diego. As an undergraduate, she studied furniture design at San Diego State University, and received her MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. In 1997 she became a member of the Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF), a binational collective dedicated to bringing attention to the U.S/Mexico border through arts-based programming.
“My time with BAW/TAF was the foundation for who I am today as an artist,” says Aguiñiga, reflecting on the six years she spent actively involved with the organization. “It taught me how to use tools for the first time, how to work as a collaborative, how to engage with communities, how to create work that is both personal and political, and how to produce installation and performance art. As clichéd as it sounds, BAW/TAF changed my life.”
For Aguiñiga, BAW/TAF’s influence led her to work with marginalized communities and encouraged her to consider craft a radical practice. It taught her to be both an activist and a mentor, values she instills in her students at Otis. “It’s my job to preserve this history through making something personal,” says Aguiñiga.
To illustrate her point, she selects a heavy leather strap from a basket brimming with colors and textures. The piece is a backstrap weaving belt, worn smooth in places from use—the kind of loom used by women artisans in Chiapas, Mexico. The leather belt wraps around the weaver’s waist and is used to create tension in the loom, which is then attached to a fixed object.
Last summer, Aguiñiga used the belt to stage an outdoor weaving performance in Beverly Hills. Dressed in traditional Mexican garments, she attached the belt first to a parking meter and then, when asked by police to move, to a tree in front of the sign reading “Welcome to Beverly Hills.” Aguiñiga’s street performance of weaving brightly colored yarn was educational and political, publicly exposing the often unseen physical labor, artistry, and technique that is required to create textiles in one of the world’s richest zip codes. “Craft has been malnourished,” she says. “The origins of the materials need to be told.”