MasterMind 2014 Honorable Mention: Alma Leiva

Miami New Times' Mastermind Awards honors the city's most inspiring creatives. This year, we received more than 100 submissions, which our staff narrowed to an elite group of 30. We'll be profiling those honorable mentions, and eventually the finalists, in the weeks to come. This year's three Mastermind Award winners will be announced February 27 at Artopia, our annual soiree celebrating Miami culture. For tickets and more information, visit the website.

Alma Leiva is no stranger to these pages. Last year, her work earned her a place among the MasterMind finalists, and her art has been featured in the New Times before that. It's no surprise when you consider the simultaneous subtlety and gravitas imbued by her work.

Leiva lived in one of Honduras' most violent cities, San Pedro Sula, until she was 13 and moved to Miami with her family. Her work explores the culture of conflict in her homeland and the effect it has on the innocence of those forced to endure the bloody realities of modern-day Honduras. As Leiva explains, "I do interdisciplinary work and I combine photography, video, and installation. It has to do with the coping mechanism among individuals who have to live under extreme violence and it's inspired by the current social situation in my native country and the way that the immigrant has to deal with those issues."

For the most part, her art consists of the constructing and photographing of installations which depict empty rooms belonging to the children whose perspective Leiva attempts to adopt. Recently, she has also been working on a video series entitled "Through The Looking Glass," which is composed of found footage that delves directly into the violence captured on film across Central America. The resulting loops she creates are effective, powerful, and even disturbing, and express her abhorrence for this vicious status quo.

Cultist: How would you characterize this culture of violence that is such a heavy influence on your work?

Alma Leiva: Basically, they don't regulate the content that is on the news in Honduras, so people see that on the news everyday and they learn to live with that. When you go there and you're not used to that -- even though I grew up there, it wasn't that bad when I grew up there -- so when you go back and you see that on an everyday basis you get very paranoid. I think the idea behind the work is a mixture of perceptions on the coping mechanisms that people learn to deal with that, how they learn to live with that, as well as the paranoia that's experienced by the outsider.

Would you say the predominantly unfiltered exposure that you found on the news when you went back was significant to the development of your art?

It was a big factor. It was a clash in a way - it was a completely different society, it was a completely different environment from me growing up in the country and being able to go out, to go around the corner and get bread and have coffee hour. Growing up like that and wanting to do the same thing, and being told I couldn't because I'd have to wait to go out with somebody because it's dangerous because you could get robbed, you could get killed - that's how it is. People no longer have those freedoms, but they learn to live with that. When you aren't used to that because that's not what you left and then you come back, that's when it hit me. I started to think, 'People live like prisoners.'

After that, a family member, an uncle of mine, was murdered. I felt there was something that I needed to do about this, that I had to speak about this. You know there's a lot of contemporary artists that are doing really well, especially here in the United States, but there's not a lot of talk about what's going on with the violence and things like that. I guess it's not commercial work, it doesn't sell, but I felt I just needed to do it for myself and for the people as a good cause.

When you started out with the idea to design and shoot these planned pieces of scenery, were you inspired by any particular photographers?

I found out that there was another photographer doing similar work after I had started working. That was encouraging. In the beginning, I had Anne Hardy, she's an English installation artist, basically an installation-photographer. She does kind of similar things, and it's with magical realism actually, but it's a different idea, completely different content to her work.

Starting out though, I had some problems with it. I was at an MFA program, and I said I was doing this body of work. They said, "Yeah, but this is installation" -- and this was a photography program -- but I just thought that I want to construct that. To me it makes the work more honest and more truthful, because I feel that people make their own world, they create their own world, their own environment -- they have to, in a way, to survive and to be able to cope with what they see on an everyday basis. I tried to think about how I would make this room more like a home, how I would make it more pleasant. Then I'd say, "OK, I'm going to add this, and I'm going to add that, and I'm going to do this for protection." It was kind of the way a kid thinks. I was inspired a lot from the children's perspective and how they would process such a situation.

How did the quality of magical realism, which is prevalent in all of your work, find it's way into your installations and photos?

Gabriel García Márquez was the first writer I was familiar with because One Hundred Years of Solitude was the first real novel I ever read. I was around 12, and I just found it fascinating. He definitely has inspired my work in a big way.

What would you say is your favorite piece of Márquez's work?

There was a book titled Chronicles of a Death Foretold -- oh my god. I started reading that book when I was 12, after I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I couldn't finish the book because I was so scared of what was going to happen to the main character that I was having nightmares. I read almost all of the book, but I didn't finish the last chapter, I just couldn't make myself read it. Then, I read it a couple years ago. Finally, I thought, "I'm going to read it and I'm going to finish it," but it was a very haunting book. For me, I think that's one of the main one's that's touched me and made an impact.

Wanna see more MasterMinds? At Artopia, sponsored by Miracle Mile and Downtown Coral Gables, you can check out work by 2014's ten MasterMind award finalists and watch as the three Mastermind Award winners are announced. And that's just the beginning. Artopia will also include live entertainment by Bottle & Bottega, CircX, and Flamenco Puro; local art by Tesoro Carolina, Trek 6, 8 Bit Lexicon, Hec One Love, Ivan Roque, and Jay Bellicchi; and DJ sets by Main Event Productions, Phaxas, Golden San, Skinny Hendrix, and DJ Supersede. Other sponsors include Rums of Puerto Rico (Official Rum sponsor), Car2Go, El Palacios de los Jugos, Beck's (official beer sponsor), and Vero Water (official water sponsor). Early bird tickets are available through Feb. 2. Visit the official Artopia website.

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