Artist Profile: Rafia Santana

The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.

Gaby Cepeda: RAFiA’S WORLD is one of your recent projects, and it’s essentially a huge archive of both written works and drawings from your childhood and early years.  Can you elaborate more on how it came to be? Why is it important to you to preserve these digitally? And what’s the experience of going through them been like?

Rafia Santana: Rafia’s World in its original form exists on my mother's website. It is a selection of memories written anecdotally that I illustrated at age six for the purpose of living on my mom’s website as an art piece (my first net art!). It remains there unchanged ten years later. The new RAFiA’s WORLD is a collection of illustrations I made for school assignments and leisure that spans the course of eight years, following my developing consciousness and growth as a kid and artist.

My family is made up of creatives, so I was encouraged to make art at a young age. My mom specifically is an archivist and a collector, and she kept a large stack of composition notebooks full of my drawings and school assignments dating back to 1992. Poking around in my dining room one day last year, I rediscovered the notebooks in a closet. I hadn't seen them in over ten years. I flipped through them hungrily snapping photos of the images with my phone and uploading them to Instagram. My mother always told me to sign and date my work so much of the drawings have my name scribbled somewhere on them. It's a trait that remains in my work to this day. Friends that follow me on Instagram were really interested in seeing more of my kid drawings and I wanted to extend their longevity by digitizing the images. So I bought a $15 scanner from a thrift shop and got to work! Luckily, along the way, I received a microgrant to encourage me to finish it. In a way it is both an extension and a remix of the original piece. Although I am not narrating scenes, as I did in the original, I'm imitating the archival nature of preserving years old (in some cases, decades old) content of a child's creations. It is a privilege to still have these books.

Looking at my young art has been fascinating! To see my childhood visions with adult eyes. Seeing that childlike fluidity, seeing how I learned to pair and mix colors. A teacher's note, stuck in one of the notebooks from 1992 stated, "Rafia has an obvious interest in circles." In a 1996 journal entry, I wrote:

I Need a Friend.

All by MySelf

I can play, alone

But. I need for


If nothing else, this project has shown me that I'm making the same art I've made all my life. Now I just have more experience and a steadier hand.

Rafia Santana, RAFiA’s World: I Wish That I Wood Not Mes Up. And That I’m Not Bad. (1995) 

GC: Your work takes on almost every digital medium available: photography, video, animated GIFs, illustration, music. Is there a reason behind this diversification? And is there a thread keeping everything coherent as a whole?

RS: I have to switch up medium every once in awhile because I get sick of one and I can't limit myself. I will have a block on one medium and just need to express myself in another. I am lucky to be able to activate my process in different ways. Staring at Photoshop for days on end gets tiring so I switch to a music program, or I’ll make a video, or I’ll write, or draw. I express myself however I can; the mediums I use change with my moods and my energy level.

All of my work comes from the same place and it tends to be hyperchromatic, even in sound. I love bright saturated colors, especially pink and yellow, and I douse myself and everything around me in them. They stand out and attract. This comes in handy when I want to bring attention to difficult topics like Black American genocide and sexist expectations. I made a pink and yellow animated GIF of a noose swinging back and forth in front of a ticket with the word FREE on it. It looks like an advertisement for a children’s toy, making the message more sinister. I made a chipper electronic track called KiLL in which I sampled audio from a witness video of LAPD officers killing a homeless black man. I love hiding messages and finding new ways to say things. It’s all play, and I love to play.

Rafia Santana, Free (2015). Animated .GIF.

My personal style is also my reclamation of Black Childhood. Black and brown kids are punished more severely than other races and are often seen as conniving and dangerous. As a black Girl, even as small as I am, I am seen as intimidating and inherently more masculine than women of other races, especially when I stand up for myself or don’t submit quietly. I have a deep booming voice and a spirit ten times larger than my body so I take on a hyper-childlike pink image as a disarming camouflage to appear less threatening and to make my navigation through a dangerous anti-black, misogynist world somewhat smoother. The more “fun” and “cute” I look (within and sometimes pushing the limits of Western beauty standards), the more access and opportunities I am afforded and the more people pay attention to what I have to say. Up to a point.

I wear plastic pink daisy barrettes in my hair as tribute to the strength and creativity of little  black girls. As a child there were many times I felt frightened and powerless. As an adult I have reclaimed some of that power and when I put on my barrettes and my pink, I gather my strength for Her, the Little Black Girl who’s hurting. I power through obstacles and obligations to tell her, “Look, I got you, you’re not weak, you’re not alone, you’re valid, you’re good, you’re not too much.” In my pink, I am the image of my own savior, my own future. It’s self care, it’s healing.

GC: You’re a very strong presence on social media, though it seems like you have a love/hate relationship with it. Your output is both very personal and outspokenly political. You regularly post about systemic racism, feminism, police violence, and denounce racist and delusional white feminist attitudes, a lot of times getting you banned by the unfair “blind-eye-towards-racism” Facebook user policies. Do these interactions on social media influence your work process in any way?

RS: My love/hate for social media is more just my fluctuating energy level. Sometimes, my Facebook status messages are like my sketches; I’m writing about my work a lot when I talk about myself. One day I may be hyper and chatty, and another day I’m overwhelmed and moody. The words and images I post are likely to be incorporated into my work as song lyrics or visual inspiration. My online interactions are part of my work process as they are just as real and affecting as offline interactions. So real that I’ve gotten a few “Nigger Wake Up Calls” where people I’ve known or thought were chill turn out to be obstinate racists. The only political thing about me is my unwillingness to stay quiet about what’s happening around me. But a lot of people, especially white people and especially white men, have a problem with being told that their actions cause harm whether they meant it or not, especially if a black woman is the one doing the telling. And since these social media sites are run by white people it’s themselves who they cater to and protect. Black and brown people are regularly blocked from posting, or “Zucked,” simply for hurting white feelings with the truth and speaking out on their racialized experiences, whereas non-black people are often allowed to remain active even after being aggressively racist.

Despite having to to duck under and obscure my message with misspellings and self-censorship (often having to scramble the phrase “white people” to avoid having my account frozen) I’m usually super excited to share when I’ve made something cool. I enjoy studying what people respond to and social media is a fast and simple way to reach others, especially when reaching out seems like a difficult task. I often get so anxious about life plans, black murder, and the knowledge that I’ll be fighting every day until I die for my right to thrive that it’s exhausting to try to participate in my day-to-day activities, so I’ll hole myself up, not talk to anybody, and create work until I’ve compartmentalized that energy.

GC: You’re visibly present in a lot of your work, whether having your actual image in it, or your name or logo-selfie. How do you make this work with your references? Also, recently you announced a transition into picturing yourself less, how are you doing that, and why?

RS: My straying away from including myself in my work is a combination of reclusive habits and experimenting with how I can turn colors and shapes into perceived objects. How can I show myself without showing my body or my face? It's me making my work more recognizable even if I'm not present. I'll never completely exit my work physically. I’ve embedded so much of myself into my aesthetic so I’ll always be present, even if not in recognizable human form. Pinks, patterns, and my name tiled throughout my images represent my personality: I’m bold, I’m bright, and I want you to know that I’m behind my own genius.

Like a good millennial, I do a lot of spontaneous Googling. Sometimes I don’t consider references when creating work but I do keep an “inspiration folder” on my computer that’s full of images I find online. Some pictures I’ve saved are of racist American memorabilia from the Jim Crow era that I’ve referenced in two of my pieces: Hit Me Baby (2016), which uses a reworked sign for a carnival game Hit The Negro, and Worked (2015), a photograph in which I have three legs and I’m wearing an apron with a Mammy image on it and my butt is exposed. Black femmes are expected to be subservient to masculinity, or show ass, cook, coddle, like “tits or gtfo,” like how on 4chan’s /b/ room if you’re a “girl” you have to show your breasts just for your post to get a response.

Rafia Santana, Hit Me Baby (2016). Animated .GIF. 

Rafia Santana, WORKED (2015). Digital image.

GC: You recently curated and edited a video compilation of young women/queer artists, called #POWERVHS. Considering your heavily networked practice, curating seems like a very natural evolution. Can you explain more about the project, how it came to be and what was important to you during the selection process?

RS: #POWERVHS is a 9-artist visual mixtape that was born out of a need to see black and brown women and queer femme/non-binary artists as masters of their own image and overseers of their own practice in a hyper-masculine white world that overvalues itself. It features artists Hattie Ball, Michelle Marie Charles, Angelina Fernández, Reagan Holiday, María José, Nandi Loaf, Elizabeth Mputu, Sondra Perry, and me. The contributors are friends of mine or people that I’ve admired from the other side of the internet. The only requirements were to identify as a Woman (capitalized to title a performative role in society) or queer/nonbinary and make video. For me, the tape had to be predominantly black and brown as we are underrepresented across the board, especially in power positions. There’s one white artist in the compilation whose work is notably otherworldly whereas the surrounding pieces are highkey grounded in reality. It’s an interesting contrast; this is definitely a developing project and it was a thrill to put together. I know so many more people who do ridiculously good work than I was able to fit on this tape, I kept adding people and was like, wait I have to do all this editing myself, lemme stop hahaha.

I thought of who I know that does video work and I chose the first eight people that popped into my head: Angelina, Michelle, and Reagan Holiday are all art school friends. I was introduced to the work and energy of Nandi Loaf, Elizabeth, and Sondra via Facebook and the net art circuit. Hattie Ball did a super neat VR music video for a friend of mine and musical artist Xhosa, and I met María at a party at Spectrum. She was getting her life dancing and I snapped a picture and asked where I could send it. She plugged her Instagram handle into my phone and I’ve been keeping up with her work since. She does beautiful portrait photography, but one day I noticed she posted a wacky video she made and I thought it was the perfect style for the compilation. I sent everyone an intro email asking them to participate in the project in any way that referenced POWER for them and they all said yes! Sondra’s piece relates systemic violence to a malfunctioning computer; Nandi’s is a boasting, surrealist Slipknot cover; and Michelle’s explores a woman’s religious devotion to Steve Harvey. It ranges from hilarious to heart-wrenching to grounded and focused. In Elizabeth Mputu’s 5 Elemental Breaths - Cyber Exercise she encourages Kolored Gurlz to take a break from the internet. It’s all really spectacular.

It exists in the #POWERVHS installation, which opened Friday July 8th at Disclaimer Gallery on 603 Bushwick Ave, Brooklyn. It will be up for a month, I’m so so so excited and proud. It also exists online on Vimeo but it doesn’t contain the bonus footage in the installation and on the DVD.

Age: 26

Location: Brooklyn, NY

How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? Too young to remember. There was always a computer in the house, I remember using ClarisWorks as a kid, and I started using Photoshop when I was nine or ten.

Where did you go to school? What did you study? I went to Purchase College and studied photography.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I freelance create: I currently have work on and this summer I am working as an educating artist at MoMA assisting my brother, Ali Santana, in teaching NYC teens audio/visual improvisation.

Since graduating college in 2013, I have provided Photoshop design/illustration and studio assistance during specific projects for artists Renée Cox, for her Soul Culture series, and Carla Gannis, for The Garden of Emoji Delights. I have done copyright assistance and digital archiving for my mother Marilyn Nance. One summer in college, I worked at the ice cream stand of a local gourmet shop.

What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)