RALEIGH — Three years ago, Claudia Dominguez had a difficult start to her time at N.C. State’s College of Design. It wasn’t just that she was missing some design elements; it was the fact that nobody had any idea what to make of her work – including, by her own admission, Dominguez herself.
But things worked out pretty well. After her first year, Dominguez went home to her native Mexico City for the summer and began researching her roots. In figuring out how to define herself, she also figured out an artistic identity combining the aesthetics of Mexican folk art with a feminist take on identity.
Thus we have her master’s thesis, “Transcending Cultural Boundaries: A Memoir by Claudia Dominguez,” an impressive mixed-media collection of pictures. It opens during First Friday tonight at the Wilmoore Cafe, where it will be on display through May 12.
A recent morning found Dominguez seated in a booth beneath one of the pieces, a self-portrait called “The Greatest Battle,” nursing a cup of tea and talking about her thesis defense the night before. Three of her professors had come to critique the work, and she passed with flying colors. But she confessed it was a relief to get that over with.
“Last night was the best sleep of my life,” Dominguez said with a laugh. “I was worried until I saw them up, and I think they look great against the brick wall. One of my favorite comments actually came from the daughter of the cafe owner: ‘I feel like an empowered Mexican woman now!’ ”
Dominguez, now 31, has traveled a long road since coming to America 12 years ago to study at the University of San Diego. She also spent some time in Italy learning stonework as an apprentice before coming to the Triangle because her husband (whom she met in Italy) was in graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dominguez will join him this fall at Coastal Carolina University in Myrtle Beach, where they’ll both teach.
In the meantime, she can bask in the glow of “Transcending Cultural Boundaries,” a series of seven works tracing her evolution through visionary imagery. Materials include marble, cotton, treebark paper, felt, silk, dried beans, corn husks and even burned pages from a Bible.
“She was very specific in choosing materials that convey meaning along with the imagery,” said Susan Brandeis, Dominguez’s academic adviser and committee chair at the College of Design. “She made some really unusual choices, but each is embedded in her meaning. It’s very strong work that tells her own story as well as the story of people with lives in two different cultures, challenging assumptions about the role of women.”
Mexican folk myths figure into several pieces, including Malinche (a derogatory term aimed at those who value foreign ideas too highly), Sor Juana Indes de la Cruz (a 17th-century nun, and the first Mexican feminist) and the belief that human life comes from corn. But it’s all grounded in personal experience, such as “The Last Time I Was Mexican” ’s depiction of her leaving the country as a small figure surrounded by huge, imposing faces.
All seven works are self-portraits in some way, but the most striking of all is “The Greatest Battle.” It shows Dominguez literally split down the middle, one side made of marble and the other dyed cotton. That went back to lessons learned from Catholic school in Mexico (which she had to unlearn later).
“The underlying belief was that you had to be as Western and un-Mexican as possible to succeed,” she said. “Forget everything indigenous and move on. I realized the futility of that premise, and I still loved Mexican traditions. I wanted to be Mexican, but also separate myself from my class and become this ‘other.’ So this shows the two halves of that.”
But it’s not all completely serious. Gazing up at “The Greatest Battle,” Dominguez giggled a bit as she made a confession:
“My husband says I make this face when he does something dumb.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat