When I was afforded the opportunity to sit down and chat with San Francisco-based artist Ana Teresa Fernández, there was one question I knew I had to ask: Why stilettos?
After a thoughtful examination of Fernández’s extensive portfolio, one comes to the realization that stilettos — paired with a little black tango dress — are common motifs throughout her work. As a performance artist especially interested in social sculpture (an art form wherein human actions push for some sort of social or political change), this has become something of a uniform, allowing Fernández a certain kind of authority to move through her performance space. It is also in line with the fierce social commentary that runs through Fernández’s art.
“It’s adding difficulty to something that’s already difficult,” Fernández said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I am doing a difficult task, and on top of it, I’m adding the stigma of femininity that makes it even harder. It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword.”
This same stigma is what kept Fernández from seeing art as a viable career for most of her adolescence. Growing up in both Mexico and the United States, Fernández had no female artists in her family to whom she could look up. Yet she was always creating and spent countless odd hours in her bedroom doing so while growing up. This all changed when recruiters from the San Francisco Art Institute saw the 20-yard-long drawing she had brought to an event in lieu of a formal portfolio. Stunned, the institute pronounced her an “oddity” and — despite the fact that her technical artistic training amounted to a couple of art classes at her community college — offered her a scholarship on the spot.
Without further ado, Fernández was whisked away from San Diego and, at the age of 20, became a transplanted San Franciscan. She now holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, and it was here in the Bay Area that she began assembling the tools and vocabulary that would later help turn her artistry into the career that it is today.
“What school provides is a forum of dialogue and discussions and ways of pushing different ideas,” Fernández said. “So you’re not stuck in an echo chamber of just your own thoughts, but you get responses, and you get encouragement.”
And Fernández has certainly reaped the benefits of a formal arts education. Two years out of grad school, Fernández had successfully created a life in which she was able to live off of creating and teaching art. Since then, it’s been a steady journey of one wave-inducing project after another. She has now called San Francisco home for almost two decades.
One of the most interesting aspects of Fernández’s work is the way she marries performance art and painting — after engaging in a performance, she documents it as one or more paintings. The result is a visually stunning depiction of something that appears to be pure fantasy, such as “Foreign Bodies,” which shows Fernández “erasing” the border wall separating Playas de Tijuana from San Diego County’s Border Field State Park and riding a white stallion into the Yucatán Peninsula.
All done, of course, while wearing stilettos.
The ludicrousness of it all is, naturally, the fact that it isn’t ludicrous — because it actually happened. When I asked her why she translates her performance art into the more “standard” format of painting, Fernández pointed o
ut that painting is a historically male tradition that depicts women in unfair, unrealistic ways.
“I’m a woman depicting a situation that happened in a real time and space,” Fernández said. “I’m trying to push the validity of this medium as a nonfictive medium, and this is not a fictionalized perspective of a woman. This is literally what it looks like.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg containing the multitudes in Fernández’s art — social engagement has also become a major part of her work. From making herself available to other artists of color to coming up with projects that involve members of the community in the space she is working with, Fernández’s intended message of social justice and progress is conveyed with the same fervor time and time again.
And as she has introduced her creative visions to the world, this message has been well received. Fernández noted that even though she has had to “fistfight” her way through artistic spaces as a Latinx woman, she has also been embraced by local community members of color. For her, the most rewarding moments are when spectators of her art come to her with a simple reaction, a show of empathy: “I get it.”
“(After grad school), I couldn’t think of anything more that I would want to do than find a way to illuminate individuals, communities and voices I feel are not heard, seen or valued,” Fernández said. “That became part of my driving force: knowing that I wanted to do that, knowing that I wanted to work with these communities.”